Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sermon For September 1, 2013: Familiar places, new beginnings, and being just you

Luke 14:1, 7-14 (The Message)

One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move.

He went on to tell a story to the guests around the table. Noticing how each had tried to elbow into the place of honor, he said, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left.

“When you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, ‘Friend, come up to the front.’ That will give the dinner guests something to talk about! What I’m saying is, If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

Then he turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”


One of my favorite table graces comes from a play I saw when I was young, called You Can’t Take It With You; movie buffs know it as the Frank Capra classic with Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore.  Barrymore plays Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, and he begins every family meal with:  “Well sir, here we are again.”

And here we are again.  Back at North Trail, with long tables and big gym space and buzzing fluorescent lights.  Back into another school year, with tests and grades and lunch bags and worries and hopes.  And here we are again, back with Jesus at another meal.

Luke writes of Jesus at a lot of meals, with a lot of different people, and something beautiful and transforming and awkward always happens.  Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, the outcasts of society, the social bottom of the ladder -- God walking right into the midst of the least loved.  Jesus eats with a Pharisee named Simon and then lets a sinful woman, scorned by the people around him, touch him -- lets her wash his feet with tears and anoint them with oil.  Jesus eats with Pharisees and experts in religious law, the leaders who were always watching him closely, looking to trap him in what he says or does, and he turns the meal into a lesson and a parable.

He looks around the table, at all these powerful religious figures jostling each other for a better seat, a better view, a better social standing, and he says, “You know, you could try being content to be simply yourself.”


You could try being content to be simply yourself.

What does that even look like?  Who am I when I am simply me?  What happens if I let go of social status and seating arrangements and I’m just … me?  There’s a terrifying kind of honesty to this.  An honesty about our faults and our gifts.  We’re not taught to do this.  We’re taught to build ourselves up, to look better than we feel, to polish up our surface so we’re glittery and new.  Or we’re taught to talk ourselves down, to be humble, to keep our head down, to turn away praise as if we’re not worthy.  Here’s a tough example:  when was the last time I got a compliment and just … received it?  When was the last time I didn’t say “It’s really nothing” or “Anyone could do it”, or thought to myself “Well he surely doesn’t know what he’s talking about” or “She’s just being nice” or “Yeah, I did do a good job, didn’t I?  It’s a good thing they picked me to take care of it.”

When was the last time I just said “...Thanks.  That means a lot.”  For me I can tell you it’s been a while.  We’re taught to either jostle for the best seat, or take the very last and hope someone notices our humility.  We talk ourselves up or shoot ourselves down.

Or we could be content to be simply ourselves.

This is the thing that gets me about God’s love:  it is not abstract at all.  God doesn’t shower love from far away and high up, from a distance, drenching us in grace without knowing us.  God comes close.  The way we know God is in Jesus, God in flesh, who showed up and walked among us and knew us.  Good and bad, pretty and messy, worthy of praise and scary to face.  Jesus walked among us and knew us.  God loves us like that.  That close.  That well known.  Just me.  Just you.  Just us.  Not the shined up or overly guilty version.  Just us.  The real us.

So when Jesus says “If you’re content to be simply yourself” it’s a reminder that “just me” is the person God claimed in baptism.  Just me.  Not at my best and not at my worst.  Me.  Good and bad, dressed up and covered in mud, high heeled or barefoot, sinner and saint, me.  You.  Us.  Nothing gets between us and that love.  That’s what Paul writes in the letter to the Romans:  not death, not life, not angels, not people in charge, not the present, not the future, not cities or countries, not the highest of heights or the lowest of lows -- nothing at all in the whole world can get between us and God's love shown in Jesus.

God’s love shown to us.  Just us.  Just me.  Just you.

And then the promise is that you’ll become more than yourself.

When we think about more -- at least when I do -- I think we think about power.  I am more than you because I have power over you.  You are more than me because you have more power than me.  Older, bigger, smarter, richer, prettier, more popular, higher up the totem pole.  I don’t know why we play this game, as humans.  You’d think maybe we’d have big enough brains to not do the social pecking order that wolves and chickens and ants have.  But we don’t.  We get just as anxious.  We want to protect ourselves.  We want to be in charge of our lives, to control other people so that we don’t get hurt.  I get power -- I get to be more -- because I can do something that someone else can’t.  This is how I can be more than myself -- to have more, to control more, to be in charge more.  To get more praise, to get more attention, to annoy or distract you more.  This kind of power gets all tied up in fear.  I’m afraid because you have more than me -- more money, more strength, more good looks, a shinier appearance of having it all together.  You have more.  And I’m afraid.  So I try to get more.  And the cycle continues.  Well sir, here we are again.

But Jesus says, “You could try being content to be simply yourself.  If you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

Instead of being more, we could try to be … honest.  We could be who God claimed at baptism -- not the nice version, not the powerful, but the sum total of what we are.  Just us.  Just me.  Just you.

We could be vulnerable.  We could take the chance on having joys, and burdens, and hopes.
We could take the chance of admitting that we’ve done wrong, sometimes, and we deserve that seat at the end of the table.  We could be honest about our burdens and our worries.  We could forget shining up our surface -- maybe for just a minute -- and be real about what weighs us down.

And we could take the chance of admitting that we’ve done well, sometimes.  We could have a little bit of joy in our own selves.  We could try -- maybe for just a minute -- to see ourselves as God sees us, as broken but capable, as gifted, as wanted, as beautiful and beloved.

We could take the chance on being known as God knows us.  On being loved.  We could take a chance on knowing each other -- on knowing we get the full picture, not the shiny, not the messy, but the real and whole.  We could take the radical chance that God’s love shows up for us -- that nothing can separate us from it.

Well sir, here we are again.  And here’s a chance at learning how to be just you -- and becoming more than you.

[ I then invited some of our fantastic kids to pass out colored cards, one to each person, of blue and yellow and orange.  On the tables were matching tented cards which read:

What about you gives you joy?
What is a burden for you?  What worries you?
What are you hoping for?  ]

Think about your cards, and write things down.  Then share with someone around you -- it can be a family member or a friend or a friendly looking stranger.  Share at least one, and maybe all three.  Listen to each other, and take your time.  When you feel finished, please mark each other with the sign of the cross and the promise given at baptism:  “You are a beloved child of God.”

When the hymn begins, bring your cards to the altar and drop them into the bags.

Here we are again.  God knows you, and loves you, and offers you a chance to be -- just you.  Take a chance on being known.


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