August 28: Proper 17:
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
This all seems really sensible, doesn’t it?
Don’t presume to walk in and sit in the place of honor…you might be embarrassed. Sit in the lowest place and you’ll be honored if and when they ask you to move up higher.
It’s just common sense, so completely non-controversial that it hardly seems like it could be from Jesus…wasn’t it just a couple of weeks ago that he was talking about bringing divisions, and fire to the earth?
This sounds more like Miss Manners—just good sound advice on etiquette, and humility.
Etiquette is one thing, humility is much trickier.
I bet this passage has led a lot of people into going to great lengths to prove how humble they are.
“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
So better get really good at humbling yourself.
Are you familiar with the term “humblebrag?” Humblebragging is what happens sometimes often on twitter and Facebook, but IRL (in real life) too, when someone says something that sounds self deprecating but also reveals how totally awesome their life is. So, for example; “I’m exhausted from [this past] weekend; it’s soooo hard to get out of Nantucket.”
Oh, we’ve all said stuff like that.
It’s a false humility that allows us to boast without shame or guilt.
Of course, the humblebrag didn’t start with social media…it’s been around for centuries—Jane Austen, that sharp observer of human foibles, has Mr. Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice, say: “Nothing is more deceitful, than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.”
We’ve all done it—it’s just that when we say it out loud it soon dissipates; when we post it online it lives forever.
False humility is relatively easy. True humility—the kind Jesus is talking about—is more difficult, because true humility begins with accepting the fact that God is God and we are not.
The first step in humility, says St. Benedict, is keeping “the reverence of God always before our eyes,’ and never forget[ing] it.”
But we always forget it.
This is what Jeremiah is so enraged about in today’s reading.
Your ancestors did not say, “Where is the Lord?” instead they went after things that do not profit.
Wealth, security, easy exploitation of resources—false gods all of them.
And Jesus is trying to remind us that it is God who makes the final seating arrangements.
It might also be helpful to remember that this a very pointed instruction directed at a very specific audience…the guests of a leader of the Pharisees. These are the privileged, the powerful, the wealthy, the ones with all the socio-economic advantages that society affords. In other words, the people who look like—me.
If I am to be truly humble, and at all faithful in remembering that God is God and I am not, then I have to be aware that all of these attributes (my skin color, my gender, my sexual orientation, the social class I was born into) are gifts that I have been given, and that they are merely one set of gifts among many, and all from God.
Part of learning true humility is learning how to hold those gifts lightly, and learning how to hear and see what the world looks like through the eyes of those who don’t bear the same marks of privilege as I do.
What does the world look like, seem like, feel like, to a woman, a person of color, a migrant worker, someone unemployed, a child, a Muslim, a GLBTQ person, a thousand others…
What do the gifts of privilege look like through their eyes? That is the work of true humility.
In the passage from Hebrews we are told to “remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured as though you yourselves were being tortured.” In other words, see the world through their eyes.
When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place…what does the world look like from there.
If you’re born in the center; learn to see the world from the margins.
Or at least be willing to really listen to the experience of someone from the margins.
And that, I admit, is a scary thing to do.
And Jesus points right at this fear, with his instructions to the host.
Unlike the instructions to the guests, which at first glance seemed so sensible, the instructions to the host seem so outrageous that I doubt few of us would ever take them seriously.
How many of us would go out and invite every person with some disability and every poor person we could find to our next luncheon? Maybe a few…
Those at the periphery always engender fear in those at the center.
Jesus reminds us, that loving God and loving our neighbor requires us to embrace those whom we fear—to embrace our fears and in embracing transform them.
That’s the work of humility.
I’m sure you know the famous story of St. Francis seeing a leper and jumping off his horse to embrace him. G. K. Chesterton wrote a short biography of Francis that paints this encounter as one, not just of an iconically saintly act, but one where Francis faces his deepest fear.
Chesterton writes: “[Francis] was riding listlessly in some wayside place, apparently in the open country, when he saw a figure coming along the road towards him and halted; for he saw it was a leper.
“And he knew instantly that his courage was challenged, not as the world challenges, but as one would challenge who knew the secrets of the heart of a man.
“What he saw advancing was not the banner and spears of Perugia, from which it never occurred to him to shrink; nor the armies that fought for the crown of Sicily, of which he had always thought as a courageous man thinks of mere vulgar danger.
“Francis Bernadone saw his fear coming up the road towards him; the fear that comes from within and not without; though it stood white and horrible in the sunlight.
“For once in the long rush of his life his soul must have stood still.”
Francis felt his fear transformed into mutual love and ran to the leper and embraced the him, but “It is said that when he looked back, he could see no figure on the road.”
Francis had seen and embraced his fear. His real fear.
What would the embodiment of all the irrational fear inside you look like?
I say irrational fear, because fear is primarily designed to keep us safe.
You do not have to embrace someone who is abusing you.
Pray for them, certainly, but be safe.
But much of the fear mongering that goes on today—in our homes, in the media, and over the internet—taps into our irrational fears.
Fear of “the other.”
Fear of those who are different.
Fear of those who appear impure in some way.
If you were to meet your irrational fear coming toward you on the road what form would it take?
Would they have a different skin color?
Would they be wearing certain things…a hoodie…a headscarf…a three piece suit?
How might we embrace them…if not literally, then at least how can we begin to understand…to see the world—to see…our own position, whether privileged or not—through their eyes.
Fear fractures us. Isolates us… segregates us…and edges us toward idolatry…tempts us to dig cracked cisterns instead of relying on living water.
But God can transform our fears, if we strive for true humility, if we put aside the humblebrags, and remember that God is God and we are not.
Then it is possible, like Francis, to embrace our fears…and to say with confidence, along with the author to the letter to the Hebrews, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”