The Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest
Sunday, August 28, 2016
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost + Proper 17C
First Lesson: Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Second Lesson: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14
✠ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, if you’re like me, you probably spent at least some of your free time this month watching the excitement unfold in Brazil during the Summer Olympics.
I, for one, am thankful for the Olympics this year for providing us with something to talk about other than politics or news of the most recent terrorist attack – an event that not only celebrates diversity but one that also reminds us that, despite our differences, we are all connected at the deepest level through our common humanity.
Now that the Olympics have come to an end, I’ve had some time to reflect on their significance, and after reading the Gospel lesson for today, it seems especially appropriate. To me, there is something so inspiring about the idea that every four years, athletes from every corner of the Earth come together to share their accomplishments and to serve as ambassadors of their home countries. It doesn’t matter where they’re from or what language they speak. It doesn’t matter the color of their skin or how much money they have or how many endorsements they’ve been given. For seventeen days, the world becomes just a bit smaller, and we become perhaps a bit more tolerant of those who look or sound different than we do.
Even the most iconic symbol of the Olympic games, the five interlocking rings, conveys a sense of unity. The rings represent five of the world’s continents- Asia, America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. When the symbol was created in 1912, the five colored rings together with a white background represented the colors of every participating nation’s flag at the time, and today, even though there are many more countries represented at the Olympics than there were in 1912, the symbol of the rings still conveys that same sense of unity. Athletes from every nation are invited to participate. Drawing from the parable of the wedding banquet in today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke, you might say everyone has a place at the dinner table, but as we all know, places of honor at the Olympics are reserved not for the privileged but for those who exhibit the most skill. The gold, the silver, and the bronze are awarded to those who have earned it – a time-honored tradition that is understood and respected within the Olympic community.
As I watched the events this year, I was impressed not only with the level of athleticism and determination exhibited by the athletes but also by their character – people like Gabby Douglas, a member of the US women’s gymnastics team who won a gold medal in the all-around team competition. Soon after winning her event, Gabby was asked in an interview, “Is it everything you thought it would be?” She responded, “It is everything I thought it would be; being the Olympic champion, it definitely is an amazing feeling. And I give all the glory to God. It’s kind of a win-win situation. The glory goes up to Him, and the blessings fall down on me.”
Gabby Douglas exhibits the kind of humility found in people who understand that simply being invited to participate in something as special as the Olympics is a precious gift, the kind of humility found in people who don’t expect to be given special priority or recognition simply because of their status or the circumstances of their lives. It’s what C.S. Lewis refers to as “true humility” – “not thinking less of yourself” but “thinking of yourself less.”
As Christians, we are invited to participate in something special as well, and this is the point that I think Jesus is trying to make in his parable of the wedding banquet. To be invited to participate in the building up of God’s Kingdom is already a great privilege, and it isn’t for us to decide whether or not we are worthy to sit in places of honor. That is for God alone to decide. Jesus says, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” It won’t be the privileged or those who think that they’re more important than other people who inherit the Kingdom. It will be those who exhibit “true humility” and those who work to fulfill God’s dream for heaven on earth.
It’s part of this idea of the “divine reversal,” a common theme found throughout the Gospel of Luke – one that reveals to us that what we know to be true about the world will not be true about the Kingdom of God.
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we read about the story of the Angel Gabriel who comes to deliver an important message to an unsuspecting teenage girl. When the angel tells Mary that she will conceive and bear the Son of God, she replies, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Soon after her encounter with the angel, Mary visits Elizabeth and praises God, saying,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
The Holy Mother is another example of humility and modesty, and the words of her Magnificat reinforce this idea of the “divine reversal.”
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
This is a concept that the earliest followers of Jesus struggled to comprehend. Even those who were with him during his earthly ministry couldn’t quite wrap their heads around the idea that the least among them would be first in the Kingdom of God.
What about now? After two thousand years of history, are we still unsure of what it is that God is calling us to do as followers of Christ? Do we still need to argue over who is the greatest? I don’t think so. Perhaps, what we really need every now and then is a reminder – a reminder that it is the humble and meek among us, not the privileged and entitled, who will inherit God’s Kingdom. No one needs to be reminded of this more than those of us who have been given the responsibility to lead and entrusted with power and authority. It is people who are willing to follow in the footsteps of our Lord, to lower themselves and serve others, that will be seated in places of honor at the wedding banquet.
In the words of the collect for today, may Almighty God “graft in our hearts” the love of his name. May God “increase in us true religion,” “nourish us with all goodness,” and bring forth in us the fruit of good works,” that we might accomplish all that he has set before us with a spirit of grace and humility. Amen.
Click here to hear an audio recording of the sermon.