August 28, 2016
Luke 14:1, 7-14, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
“The Beauty of Following Jesus”
Our text study conversation often finds us looking for the thread that connects our texts on any given Sunday. Sometimes the thread is neon and impossible to miss. Other times we grasp at straws and cannot make the connection. Two threads show up in the texts today. These threads are basic tenets of the Christian life: hospitality and humility. I am happy to talk about hospitality. It’s a good thing to welcome all people and we welcome the unexpected people who show up, because the scripture reminds us we may very well be entertaining angels. (13:2) We spent a long time talking about the line in Hebrews “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.” (13:3) Here we begin the passage into the second tenet: humility. If we were making a list of top ten sermon topics, humility would not make the cut.
“Welcome to the First Church of Humility. Come on in and be lowered to the bottom rung of power and prestige.” This would a quick way to empty a sanctuary. But here we are with Jesus calling us to humility in this strange text telling us not to sit at the important seats. What do humility and hospitality have to teach us about following Jesus?
If you have heard me preach the last few years, you’ve heard sermons talking about love, but very little about humility. One of the things I learned this week is that love is not possible without humility. That came as news to me and caught my attention.
Roberta Bondi says that, “Love is the goal of the Christian life: love of God and neighbor. Most of human life as the early monastics experienced it, however, left little place for love. Their culture, as ours, was characterized by a continual jostling for power and a need to dominate others. Short-term gratification took the place of concern for the long-term well-being of others. In the place of love they saw the ever-present need to be right all the time, and the struggle to feed those appetites that only seem to grow greater as they are satisfied—appetites for money, possessions, prestige, food. They saw that all of these, in some way or another, came out of the hides of their neighbors, especially the poor.” (To Love As God Loves, 41)
Bondi describes a deep Christian attitude of heart that could make love possible. She calls this attitude humility based on her study of the early church monastics. Humility, as she defines it, is the “living-out of the conviction that all human beings, every man, woman, and child, are beloved creatures of God.” (42) “We are all vulnerable, all limited, and we each have a different struggle only God is in a position to judge.” (43) “To be humble is to identify with the sinner, and rather than take secret pleasure in another person’s downfall,” to recognize it can easily be you. (53)
We live in a culture that doesn’t value humility – it is seen as a sign of weakness. It is helpful to remember that, “Humility has nothing to do with passivity, nor anything to do with deliberately cultivating a poor self-image. Being a doormat is not being humble.” (Roberta Bondi, To Love As God Loves, p. 54)
Frederick Buechner says, “True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else.” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 40)
At first, that doesn’t sound too difficult, but everywhere we go from an early age, we are grouped into categories that define us. We are chosen first, last, or somewhere in the middle for the dodgeball team on the playground. We are called gifted or special needs in the classroom. We draw really well or our stick figures are indecipherable. We sing beautifully or we can’t carry a tune. We quickly learn that being best or first is preferable to being least or last. We strive for the positions of honor or find ourselves wishing that we held them. What Jesus tells his followers is counter to everything culture tells us. Jesus suggests that being best or first is not what matters.
Or as my friend Bill Lamar says, “Jesus breaks in with an alternative: humility. Take the lowest place. Assume that you do not know everything. Assume that you are not the greatest…This is a profoundly un-American impulse. This nation is not humble. Americans assume that American political, economic, and foreign policy prescriptions will fix a world much older and often much wiser…Humility funds the realm of God. God exalts those who are humble. And because God’s realm intersects with our own in the person of Christ and the people of God, the same thing can happen in our realm. Humility can rearrange our relationships and make our world more just and more beautiful.” (William Lamar IV, Christian Century August 17, 2016, p. 20)
I love the connection between humility and beauty. How much beauty can be found in the smallest things? The tiny flower that peeks out of the crack in the sidewalk, the smile from a child across the street, the unexpected thank you, this phenomenon at drive thru windows where someone pays for the meal or drink of the person in line behind them…these small expressions of beauty infiltrate our days. Noticing them requires some humility.
Hospitality is not something I learned about growing up. As an adult, I stayed with a friend one evening before flying out early the next morning. My friend put out a basket of toiletries and snacks just for me. I was really touched by her thoughtfulness. When I thanked her, she responded, “It’s no big deal.” But for me it was a small thing with a large meaning. It said, “I see you. I want you to feel cared for in my home.” That small gesture was the beginning of my awakening to the importance of hospitality.
Some of our best examples of hospitality come from the monastic community. A
nun with Alzheimers insists on being placed in her wheelchair at the entrance to the monastery’s nursing home wing every day so that she can greet everyone who comes. She is no longer certain what she is welcoming people to, but hospitality is so deeply ingrained in her that it has become her whole life. As Kathleen Norris says, “Better an old fool welcoming people at the door with her whole heart and soul, than a distracted, cold, or officious monk or nun with faculties intact.” (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, p. 265)
The thread begins to make sense to me now. Hospitality requires seeing others as God’s beloved. Rather than determining where we fit in the hierarchy, we can humbly acknowledge each person. There is great beauty in people and following Jesus means acknowledging that beauty by simply paying attention to the one in front of us.
Jimmy Carter told of a conversation with a Cuban pastor, Eloy Cruz, who had surprising rapport with very poor immigrants from Puerto Rico. Jimmy asked him for the secret of his success. He was modest and embarrassed, but he finally said, “Senor Jimmy, we only need to have two loves in our lives: for God, and for the person who happens to be in front of us at any time.” (Jimmy Carter, Sources of Strength, introduction)
Showing love to one another requires humility on our part. It is in our humility that we recognize that we are all part of the whole human family. The small acts or gestures that honor one another are called hospitality. Hospitality doesn’t have to be preparing a big dinner for a large group of people; it can be taking the time to humbly see the goodness in someone else. This thread that connects the texts, connects us to one another and connects us to Jesus who calls us to see one another through God’s eyes. When we see the world and one another through the lens that God uses, beauty is everywhere. Drink it in. Savor it. Spread it everywhere you go. Then you know you are walking in Jesus’ footsteps.