Monday, August 30, 2010

On Humility

The following sermon was written by the Reverend Scott Walters of Christ Episcopal Church and is published here with his permission.

Dan Georgia and I were walking across campus one cold January day. Dan had spent Christmas break with his family in Pakistan, and he’d returned from the trip with stories of hiking excursions and days of lolling about on the beaches of the Arabian Sea. He had a conspicuously dark midwinter tan to prove it.

Dan was telling me about the vacation when someone passed us on the sidewalk and said, “Looks like you spent a little time in the tanning bed over break, Dan.” To which he replied, “Yeah. I sure did.” And that was it. We kept walking.

In that moment, I so wanted to be like Dan Georgia.

It’s not that he led this exotic life that included vacations in far off lands, though that would have been nice too. I just wanted to be someone who could go to Pakistan, have a little adventure, come back to school, and then just let someone believe I’d spent the past two weeks making regular visits to a tanning salon.

You see, a trip to a Middle Eastern country is something easily put to use in the service of one’s coolness. And even though the tanning industry was a new and exciting development in Siloam Springs in the late 1980’s, not too many people made public announcements when they were about to go bake for a half hour in an ultraviolet coffin. The hope was that everyone would just assume that your skin was bronzed so perfectly from something like a trip to the beach in Pakistan.

But Dan didn’t care. And I so wanted to be someone who didn’t care. To be someone who wasn’t always calculating how some experience or opinion or anything at all might best be spent for the upbuilding of my hipness, meager as it was. What would it be like to move through this life without the need to be admired?

The need to be admired isn’t a recent development in human history. It at least seems to have been alive and well in first century Palestine as Jesus watched a group of dinner guests jockey for the most important seats at the table. I’m sure the story didn’t involve tanning beds only because the characters are all olive skinned Middle Easterners. But it kind of makes you wonder, “What would Dan Georgia do?”

Jesus seems to think that there’s something wrong with this little race to the top. So he sort of eases into a teaching. He seems to start by accepting that everyone wants to be exalted in this life, and he appeals to the flipside of this desire: no one likes to be taken down a notch. So it’s a simply statistical truth that if we leave more chairs above us rather than below us, the odds go up that we’ll be exalted. And won’t that feel great!

But there’s a catch in this story similar to one in those verses in Proverbs and Romans that insist we should give food and drink to our enemies. By doing so, we’re told, we will be heaping burning coals on their heads. Fantastic! Since our goal has always been to set the heads of our enemies on fire.

But we’re not getting to the heart of the matter in passages like these if our souls don’t have to be altered, are we? It’s not that we just need better strategies to torment our enemies or to get ourselves exalted. Something’s wrong with the whole enterprise, Jesus says. Something’s wrong with the way we humans interact, pushing ourselves to the front and leaving the less desirable seats for the slower, or dumber, or the meeker ones. And maybe what Jesus really wants to see change is our need to be admired?

But how do we change what we need from other people? How do we change what we want?

Well, after Jesus gets the people at the table thinking a little about how they arrange themselves, he turns to his host and says something very odd. He says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”

What Jesus says is odd because he doesn’t recommend inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to your dinner party because they could use a good meal. There are plenty of places in the Bible where we’re told that our care for the poor and the vulnerable is simply commanded by God. But there’s a twist in this story. Jesus says to invite these people to a party for a very particular reason. Invite them because they can’t repay you.

Jesus is recommending a practice. A practice that’s meant to change our desires over time. He simply asks his host to step out of the world of cost benefit analysis. To step out of the world in which I don’t do anything unless it benefits me more than it costs me. Have a dinner that you know won’t be worth your while, he says. And see what happens not to the poor, the lame, and the blind. See what happens to you. See if you keep needing the admiration and exultation of other people in the same way after removing yourself, even just for an evening, from the mad scramble after honor.

In 1985 a Dutch Catholic priest named Henri Nouwen went to live in a L’Arche community in France for developmentally disabled adults. This sounds like a good, noble, Christian thing to do. But here’s how Nouwen describes the experience:

“The first thing that struck me when I came to live in a house with mentally handicapped people was that their liking or disliking me had absolutely nothing to do with any of the many useful things I had done until then. Since nobody could read my books, they could not impress anyone, and since most of them never went to school, my twenty years at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard did not provide a significant introduction. My considerable ecumenical experience proved even less valuable. When I offered some meat to one of the assistants during dinner, one of the handicapped men said to me, ‘Don’t give him meat, he doesn’t eat meat, he’s a Presbyterian.’”

Henri Nouwen’s story is about getting up from a dinner table with a very familiar set of norms about who sits where and how people are valued, and sitting down at another one.

“These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people,” he wrote, “forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.”

To put his story in the realm of our gospel reading today, Henri Nouwen had the best seat at the table that was his world—his books were bestsellers, his teaching positions were plum ones at Ivy League schools, his classrooms were packed with adoring students. And it all just didn’t add up to happiness. Life jockeying for the best seat at the table can be empty even for the guy who gets the best seat at the table.

So Henri Nouwen changed tables, and watched his needs and desires begin to change as a result of a different practice. We might even say that Henri Nouwen changed tables to become a little more like Dan Georgia.

Because the need to be admired, affirmed, and exalted is an old human burden, isn’t it? And I’m becoming more and more convinced that when Jesus ends a teaching with something like, “…for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” his first intention is to simply push our hope for repayment right out of this life and into the mystery of the next. He’s saying, “Just take getting what you’re due—whether in wealth, or status, or admiration—just take getting repaid or admired by other people in this life right off the table. And see what it’s like to live this way. See if your desires and needs begin to change. See if a burden is lifted.

Because as natural as it seems to live clambering for the best seat or for the praise of important people, that’s not the life God intends for us. That’s the life Jesus wants us free of.

And what he’s still asking us today is, “What might the table look like at which our needs and desires begin to change?” It might be a party thrown for the poor. It might be moving into a L’Arche community. But it might begin with something as simple and strange as letting oneself be misunderstood in a meaningless conversation on the sidewalk.

Jesus is telling us that we can be changed. Not today, perhaps, or tomorrow. But the small choices and practices of our lives can turn us gradually in a godly direction. They can turn us away even from the need to be admired by this world and turn us in the direction of peace. Amen.

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.