Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sermon by the Rev. Rick O'Brien (Sept. 1, 2013)

Jen and I were the first of our group of friends to get engaged, shortly after we graduated from college.  This meant that we were the first to actually plan a wedding, and had no one else’s experience to use as a guide.  Our friends got to watch and learn from our mistakes, but like Lewis and Clark, we had to blaze our own trail.  Or so I thought.  What I had not counted on were the parents, friends, co-workers, and even total strangers who felt completely justified in offering their advice and opinions, in most cases completely unbidden.  It soon felt to me that we were becoming merely spectators in the planning process.

As a man, I had not really given much thought to the wedding itself.  But I learned very quickly that this is not true of women, who usually begin planning their wedding sometime around age 7.  What I had thought would be a relatively small affair soon turned into something resembling the D-day invasion in terms of planning and logistics.  I learned that there are myriad decisions that need to be made from where you get married, what the date will be, what dress the bride will wear, who will be in the wedding party.  These made sense to me and I happily participated in the decisions. 

It was the rest of the decisions that started to get to me.  Would we have a band or a DJ at the reception?  What china pattern would we select?  What type of gravy boat did we want?  By the time we came to the heated discussion about flowers, I was seriously thinking of faking a stomach problem figuring that 6 hours in the ER had to be better than this conversation.  My future wife by the way saw right through this and made me stay.

But as I was soon to find out, all of these decisions, large, medium and small, soon paled in insignificance against the biggest decision of all.  I refer of course to the seating chart at the reception.  I had never stopped to consider this as an issue, but I was to learn that this is the most important part of the entire event.  My mother, God rest her soul, approached this task as if it were a blood sport; and I found to my dismay that I no longer needed to fake a stomach problem.

I learned that where people sit entails far more than simply filling in names on a page.  There is serious calculus that goes into developing the correct alignment of people.  There are a number of factors to consider.  Are they family, friends, or acquaintances?  If they are family, are they close family?  Do we like them or are we fighting with them at the moment?  Where will they expect to be seated and will they be offended if they are seated somewhere else?  Do we care if they are offended? Do they get along with the people you plan to put at the table?  You can’t put the non-drinkers near the bar, but you also can’t put Cousin Billy too close to the bar or he will never leave.  And of course the most important of all, where did WE get seated at their last family wedding?  If we found ourselves at a table with the priest, the photographer and the DJ, well, retribution time is now at hand!  It is enough to boggle the mind.

Today’s lessons of course brought all of this to mind.  Proverbs tells us “Do not put yourself forward in the king's presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, "Come up here," than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”  In the same vein, Jesus tells us "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.  That is the challenge isn’t it?  For we all want to be exalted.  We all want to be the guest of honor.  We are all egocentric enough to want it to be about US.   Does that ring true to anyone else here, or is it just me?

Now before you beat yourself up too badly about this, take some solace in the fact that you are not alone.  It is hard wired in us to want to be praised; in fact I am sure it is coded somewhere in our DNA.  Even the disciples were not immune. Luke tells us that right after the Transfiguration, where Peter and James and John witnessed the glory of the Lord and realized beyond any doubt that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, they began to argue among themselves about which of them was the greatest.  They now know that they are in the presence of God himself, and still they think first about their own position in the world.  And when Jesus asks what they were talking about, they don’t respond because they are ashamed of themselves.  But he of course already knows and tells them “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Or put another way, all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."  Jesus was nothing if not consistent.

But he is consistent because this message needs to be repeated.  We have a hard time grasping it.  Intellectually we can understand what Jesus is telling us, but practicing it is another matter entirely.  For we all want to be the star of the show.  We want it to be about us.  But Jesus is telling us that that is not the way it will be.  When asked to name the great commandments Jesus tells us to Love God with all your heart and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.  I assure you, he knew exactly what he was saying when he chose those words.  For loving your neighbor is not the hard part.  But loving them as much as you love yourself; well that is MUCH harder to do.  We find it very hard to love others as much as we do ourselves because in our entrenched narcissism, we want it all to be about us.

But that is not God’s way.  God became one of us, lived and loved and cried as one of us; was arrested, tortured and killed as one of us.  In His time as one of us, Jesus showed us what it meant to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, healed the lepers, and ate with the prostitutes and tax collectors.   He cared for the poor, the sick, the prisoners, and served them before himself. 

St. Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.  Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on the world.”  For compassion is the opposite of narcissism.  And by humbling himself to take the lowest place, Jesus taught us that compassion is the ultimate expression of love.  That is how we love our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus did NOT assume the place of honor at table, even though he alone had the right to it.  If Jesus could humble himself and love others as much as himself, who are we to do less?