Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The BEST Seat. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 17C, preached by the Rev. Daniel Ulrich on Sunday, August 28, 2016.

       It’s happened to all of us before.  You get to church a few minutes late and your seat is taken.  Someone is sitting in your pew!  So, what do you do?  You get upset, of course, and your “me monster” comes out.  You think to yourself, “How dare they sit in my pew?”.  But not wanting to make a scene, you quietly sit somewhere else, all the while you're fuming inside, distracted the whole service, giving the evil eye to the back of their head. 
          We joke about this, but in reality, this isn’t a joking matter, because what’s behind this frustration, this anger, isn’t a joking matter.  We get mad when someone is in our seat because of our selfish, sinful, ungodly pride, and sin is never funny.  
          Our sinful pride tells us to exalt ourselves over others.  It tells us that we deserve what we want and that we should get what we want, and we want the best of everything, the top of the line, the admiration of others.  We want the best seats, and we’ll do anything to get them. 
This is what Jesus witnessed at a Sabbath dinner.  All of the guest jockeyed for the best seats.  They all wanted to sit in the places of honor, the seats near the head of the table closest to the host and other prominent guests.
Seeing all of this, Jesus spoke a parable: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ 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, move up higher.”  Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:8-11). 
This Sabbath dinner party was a lot like a high school cafeteria.  All cafeterias have a hierarchy of seats.  The best seats in my school were those in front of the big window that overlooked the football field.  These tables offered the most room to stretch out and socialize, and only seniors and other popular kids were allowed to sit there.  These seats were the center of social life and everyone wanted to sit there.  I can remember times when freshmen would try to sit at these tables, thinking they could up their status, only to be gently removed to the back of the cafeteria. 
The guests at this Sabbath dinner were acting like these freshmen.  They sought after the best seats because they wanted the honor that came with them.  They were exalting themselves.  Their sinful pride told them they deserved these seats and all the praise and admiration that came with them.  Their “me monsters” came out seeking to satisfy its wants and desires above everyone else. 
  We are these dinner guests, wanting the best seats, wanting honor and praise.  All of us have exalted ourselves over others.  All of us have thought we’re better than someone else.  All of us have jockeyed for the places of honor.  Maybe it’s at work when you’ve sought after promotions because you wanted to be the boss, to be in charge so that you could order others around.  Maybe it’s at school when you tried out for a team or club because you knew this would impress you classmates.  Or maybe it’s when you sought after some leadership position, not because you wanted to serve but because you wanted title and praise. 
          Our sinful pride tells us to seek out honored positions because we like the praise.  It feels good to have people look up to us.  It feels good to be admired by family and friends.  But our sinful pride can quickly turn into false security, making us feel invincible.  We can start to believe that we’ll always be in exalted positions forever, which in turn increases our sinful pride even more. 
          But isn’t it always the case that something brings us down, knocking us off our pedestals?  In Christ’s parable, this happened when the host of the wedding feast told the self-exalting guest to give up his seat to a more distinguished guest.  This guest was shamed because the host said he didn’t deserve the honored seat.
          At some point, something will knock us off our pedestals.  Maybe it’ll be not getting that promotion, or even worse, being let go.  Maybe it’ll be not making the team or club.  Or maybe it’ll be having to be a follower instead of a leader.  Whatever, it is, the shame we feel from losing honored positions comes from the same place that drove us to seek it out.  We feel this shame because our sinful pride has been hurt.  We see someone else is sitting in our seat.
          Jesus’ parable gives us excellent advice on how to navigate social situations.  It shows that our pride fails before others.  But this parable isn’t just about pride before men.  It’s about our sinful pride before God. 
          When we come before God, our sinful pride gets in the way.  It tells us we deserve to stand before Him.  We exalt ourselves and put ourselves on pedestals built on our good works.  We go to church every Sunday; we tithe and give generous offerings.  We volunteer our free time to help out around church and in service to others in need.  We pray and study our Bibles.  We do everything that good Christians are supposed to do.  And looking at all this, our sinful pride tells us we’re good before God, that we should be honored and praised.  But these acts don’t make us good before God, and we certainly don’t deserve honor and praise because of them, because none of them cover up the shame of our sin. 
          We’re shamed because our sin is exposed.  God’s Word shows us that we don’t deserve to stand before God.  His Law is a mirror that shows us that we’re sinners.  It reflects back to us all of our sin.  And because of our sin, we don’t deserve exaltation and praise; we don’t deserve the honored and best seat.  Instead we rightly deserve the lowest of the low, eternal damnation in hell, everlasting death. 
          But in love that we can’t explain, God rescues us from what we deserve.  He wants to exalt us, He wants us to be in glory and honor forever, and because of this, He calls us to humble ourselves, to come before Him on our knees with repentant and contrite hearts, calling on Him to raise us up through the humbling of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, true God of true God, the only Man to ever walk on this earth who had the right to exalt Himself, humbled Himself, for you and me.  Jesus gave up His rightful place of honor to become an obedient servant, to die for your sins.  St. Paul writes, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking a form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:5-9).
By willingly dying on the cross, Jesus paid for all your sin, including your sinful pride.  By giving up His honored place and dying the death that you and I deserve, He became your servant and saved you from everlasting damnation.  Because of this, God the Father has exalted Christ and given Him the name that is above every name.  Christ’s exalted name has been placed on you.  In your Baptism God put Jesus’ name on you and He promises to exalt you, to give you a place in heaven forever. 
We’ll always have to contend with our sinful pride, to fight our “me monster.”  It’s hard to look in the mirror and see the shameful sinner looking back at us.  But God’s Word has shown us our Savior, Christ Jesus, who humbled Himself for you.  Because of Christ's humiliation, you’re forgiven your sinful pride, your “me monster” is killed.  Because of Christ’s humiliation, God looks at you and says, “Friend, move up higher.”  Because of Christ’s humiliation, God gives you the best seat, a seat at His everlasting feast.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

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