The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17C)
28 August 2016
Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Ecclesiasticus 10:(7-11), 12-18
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Last Sunday I talked about how Mary is the harbinger and prophet of change and that in the Magnificat she sings about the triumph of God’s values over the values that have reigned in the world, the ones that keep marginal people like her in their place, and tame them into sweet, harmless caricatures of feminine virtues. Through Mary, the prophet of the oncoming storm, Christ came into history to give the Nations access to the God of Israel and to reveal and enact the reality that Love, God’s very nature, overcomes the power of death. In doing so the balance of worldly power is challenged and we are forced to reexamine our concepts of what matters and who is important. At its very core, Christianity is a subversive, revolutionary project and so it is ironic that the institutional Church has historically aligned itself with those mighty whom Mary declares to have been “thrown from their seat.” The Church has made itself a comfortable place within the halls of power.
Indeed, one of the fundamental contributions of the Oxford Movement, upon whose principles our parish church was founded, was to challenge the basic erastian model which saw the Church of England as a department of State that carries out the policies of government, a model we see continued today in unofficial ways by diverse groups of religious interests even in our nation today. In its place, in his Assize Sermon entitled “National Apostasy,” preached at St. Mary’s Oxford on July 14, 1833, John Keeble suggested instead that it was the place of the Church to hold the nation to account. Indeed, the Church has a duty to demand that civil society in general be responsive to the movement towards justice and love to which God is calling us. And in this election year, this is important for us to remember.
At the heart of this collaboration between entrenched secular power and religious leaders lies the sin of pride. Sins, as I have suggested before, are those actions and impulses that break our relationship with God and with each other, that move us further away from the loveward direction in which we are called. Ecclesiasticus puts it this way, “The beginning of man’s pride is to depart from the Lord.” Pride is putting our own self interest before Love, God’s priority and “therefore the Lord has cast down the throne of rulers, and has seated the lowly I their place.” This is, of course, where Mary got it from. Her prophetic words were in conversation with Hebrew Scripture and part of a long line of prophets, much older than John Keeble, calling the nation to account.
At its heart, pride is believing that we somehow know better and that because of our looks or accomplishments or connections or accumulated possessions we are better than others and entitled to certain benefits. A sense of entitlement pervades the proud and often this comes without even realising it. This is what we mean when we talk about failing to recognise unearned privilege and the benefits some of us receive just for being white, male, straight, American, educated, and so forth. None of these things are inherently evil, rather, pride is the unchecked, unquestioned belief that we deserve what we have and that others somehow are less worthy.
Jesus’ words about hospitality in today’s gospel from Luke speak directly to this issue. As I reminded us a couple of weeks ago, Luke was addressing people like many of us here, privileged, cosmopolitan, educated, multi-lingual citizens of a world empire, just the kind of people who might be invited to a big wedding or host a lovely dinner party. Jesus says,
When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you.
It’s a seemingly simple lesson, we must not assume we are the most important person in the room, don’t assume that we deserve some special honour, or are entitled to special treatment. Jesus puts it this way, “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
But even more dramatically, in Luke’s text, Jesus reminds his privileged readers that it isn’t simply enough to be personally aware and responsible for keeping our pride in check, but that we are to remember that real change means including those in our communities on the margins and placing them at the centre:
When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.
The reversal of priorities remains an important theme for Luke as he speaks to the proud and the powerful. The themes he begins in the Magnificat and articulated by the marginal figure of Mary herself, continue to circle back and we can not escape their meaning. We as followers of Jesus and members of an institutional Church need to constantly beware the sin of pride, beware the sin of thinking we know better, that we know what is good for those little people. Rather we must include those on the margins in the discourse and listen carefully to those perspectives and voices that have been silenced for too long, and make changes to how we do business.
Today’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews sums up our duty, to let Love continue, to welcome the strangers into our midst, to remember the poor and those in prison, and to remember the examples of those who have preached this message before and “consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith.” This means a willingness to put ourselves at risk, the kind of risk that might lose us power, position, and friends. The Christian life is not a life of ease at the centre of the establishment, it isn’t a place to have arrived, as many (and perhaps even I at one point in my life) have seen the Episcopal Church. It is a place where we risk everything for the sake of the victory of Love over death and participate in something much larger than ourselves, cooperating with God in the project to reverse the ascendence of pride that grips our world and that masks the values of what really matters.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Winter Style, 27 August 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume