Monday, August 30, 2010

Sunday Sermon

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

I had a dream in which I died and waited at the Pearly Gates for admission into heaven. Another
man waited with me. Suddenly St. Peter appeared and said, “We’ve got room for only one
more. Which one of you is more humble?”

The rules of etiquette are everywhere. As an example, that's why Jay Leno, ever the model of
decorum, has offered some tips of his own for those who plan, or attend, weddings:

Politely waiting in the receiving line for 10 minutes to kiss the bride ... Good Etiquette. Kissing
the bride for 10 minutes ... Bad Etiquette. The guests place their gifts by the sign reading "Gift
Table" ... Good Etiquette. The groom places the gifts by the sign reading "Yard Sale" ... Bad
Etiquette. The bride and the groom thank Uncle Harold for his check ... Good Etiquette. They
ask Uncle Harold for two forms of ID before accepting the check ...Bad Etiquette. The bride
comes down the aisle to the organist playing "Here Comes the Bride" ... Good Etiquette. The
bride comes down the aisle to the organist playing "Lola" by the Kinks ... Bad Etiquette.

But wedding etiquette isn't the half of it. Codes of conduct exist for funerals, dinners,
receptions, cell phone use, online behavior, driving and golf ... to name just a few. Lots of
etiquette answers just make sense. For instance, who exits an elevator first? Usually the person
closest to the doors. At a funeral, you don't lean your back up against the casket, or loudly
say, "Gee, he looks better than he has in weeks."

This focus on etiquette comes to mind because in the text, at first glance, it appears that Jesus
has good manners on his mind. It would seem that Jesus is “Mr. Manners”, a masculine version
of Dear Abbey and Martha Stewart. We see him here giving seating instructions at a dinner
party. His advice helps the guests not only to avoid humiliation, but to practice humility, and in
the process, snatch some honor for themselves.

First, sit at the lowest place (farthest from the host table), he recommends, so that you
might be exalted and honored - rather than seeking the highest place and risk being moved
for someone more important. This might be read as "Don't honor yourself more than others
do" or "Let the host shower you with public admiration by leading you to a better seat."

Jesus summarizes his etiquette advice in this way, "All who exalt themselves will be humbled,
and those who humble themselves will be exalted". It's the overstuffed ego, the too-big-for-
the-britches self-image, the "I am better, I deserve it," the this-is-mine-and-I-am-going-to-take-
it attitude that rubs “Mr. Manners” the wrong way.

Remember where he is, and who he's with, when he comments. Jesus is in a crowd of

Pharisees, of good, upstanding, religious men, of saintly holy folks who jostle and elbow their
way, figuratively maybe, to the highest place possible, so that they might look good in the eyes
of men, and in their own eyes too. They do more than aspire to a seat of honor; they seize it
- because it is a place of respect, a place of power, a spot from where one makes judgments
of others, and of one's self. But if one can't correctly judge one's own place in the order of the
world, how can one be expected to properly judge others?

From Jesus' point of view, what we think about others matters less than what God thinks of us.
Further, how we think of ourselves influences how God sees us, but often in reverse. If we see
ourselves as high and mighty, God sees us as shadowy, lowly. If we see ourselves as humble
persons, chances are God's impression of us is still much the same. Humility is an elusive virtue;
it cannot be manufactured or faked. Rather, it emerges from the crucible of character. Humility
is naively unaware; the moment the robe of humility becomes self-conscious, the sash loosens,
revealing nothing but naked pride.

Jesus' advice is actually more practical: You want to be honored? This is how to do it. There
are certain behaviors, he notes, that can at the very least, give the appearance of humility.
Unfortunately, the person who seeks the obscure seat in the hope of being elevated to a
prominent one is just as proud as those who seek the best seat to begin with. Humility, then,
doesn't have anything to do with one's actual position in the world. A humble CEO is just as
holy as a humble farmer. And an egocentric, power-grabbing, selfish farmer is just as rotten as
an egotistical CEO.

There is an ancient story from the back country of Egypt in the 3rd century about a certain holy
Christian, known by all to live a saintly life. One day he was seen walking, carrying a large sack
over his shoulder. The sack had a tear in the bottom corner through which spilt grains of sand.
When asked why he allowed the sand to spill, this humble holy man replied, "Those are my sins
which trail out behind me in life." The story is meant to teach that the humble and holy are
those who are aware, not of their good deeds, but of their glaring weaknesses.

Jesus once said not to pay so much attention to the outside of the cup - pay more attention to
the inside. It's the insides that matter to God. How we really are on the inside always comes
out, it spills out behind us.

So Jesus wasn't only observing and commenting on proper dinner-party seating arrangements
and guest behavior while dining with the Pharisees. This wasn't mere etiquette - although his
point in this regard is well taken, too. More significantly, Jesus made spiritual observations
about us. About you and me. If we, as Christians, honestly put others before ourselves, we will
be honored - not just by each other, but by God. A little humility goes a long way in heaven, and
on earth.

Humility isn't a trait that has much appeal in our postmodern world. We like to see ourselves as
a "can-do" culture -- bursting at the seams with good ideas, good intentions and good results.
Humility, on the other hand, suggests to us an aroma of helplessness. It is the quality that
admits there are things we cannot do, problems we cannot solve, forces we cannot control.
This "can-not" admission clashes terribly with our "can-do" arrogance.

Do we now have a glimmer of understanding, that when we are weak, we are made strong?
Only when we keep our true frailty directly in front of our eyes can we keep a clear vision
of ourselves and our mission. God loathes nothing more than spiritual pride and arrogance.
The inability to see over a lumping mountain of such arrogance is one of the reasons Jesus'
hometown couldn't accept his teachings or authority.

In the words of theologian Jack Deere, "Religious pride is the worst form of arrogance." When
one really studies the Gospels we discover that the sternest rebukes Jesus ever delivered were
not to the sexually impure but to the spiritually proud. Of all the sins that are most acceptable
in the church today, religious pride tops the list. Society as a whole rewards proud leaders,
laughs at arrogant humor, and looks down on those outside their religious circle. Proud people
don't really need God's supernatural revelation. Perhaps that's why there is so little of it in
some parts of the church today. Miracles and supernatural revelation are not happening as
often as they did in Old Testament times simply because, sometimes we are too proud to ask or
look for it.
"Both the Lord and the apostles repeatedly emphasized the theme that God exalts the humble
but opposes the proud. If we are ever going to hear his voice, we must embrace humility. Jesus
was humble in heart, and so are all of his intimate friends.

Humility, the sense of self-smallness, is a kind of scrubber for our souls. It takes our greatest
weaknesses, our smelliest selves, and binds them to the power of Christ. True humility scrubs
our souls and transforms our spirits into a breath of fresh air. There is no false perfume or faked
sweetness in the air surrounding a humble Christian. In a humble believer, only an atmosphere
of purity and, if we are lucky enough to detect it, the slightest whiff of the sweetness of Christ's
own Spirit are breathed out on the world.

Let me leave you with an illustration.

Violin virtuoso Joshua Bell is that rare prodigy who has matured into a world class musician
and an acclaimed interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. The 29-year old Bell
has always been driven, even while growing up in Bloomington, Ind. Whether it was chess,
computers, video games or the violin, Bell had a need to master the environment. In some
quarters he has already arrived at his pinnacle. Some years ago, back home in Bloomington, a

12-year old boy approached him and announced, “You’re Joshua Bell. You’re famous.”

“Well, ummm, not really,” Bell replied.

“Yes, really,” the boy insisted. “Your name is on every video game in the arcade as the highest

Greatness is measured in different ways by different people. The kingdom of heaven, too, has
its own standard of greatness; most notably, humility and servant hood.

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.