Saturday, August 31, 2013

Sinner, Come Up Higher

Sermon on Luke 14:1-14

For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI

September 1, 2013 (Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

The Pharisee didn’t invite Jesus to dinner to honor Him, they invited Him in order to watch Him and find some sort of fault in Him, to use as an excuse to dishonor Him. They wanted to catch Him breaking one of their many little rules and regulations and therefore prove that He wasn’t who He said He was. They only gave Him a high place at the table, in other words, so that they could watch Him closely and find an excuse to send Him down lower. Of course, Jesus knows this. You don’t have to be the all-knowing God (which He is, of course) to be savvy to the political realities here. Anyone with an awareness of who his friends and enemies are would have known that He was walking into a dangerous situation.

And so Jesus decides to face the matter head-on. Instead of waiting for the Pharisees to criticize them, He takes the battle to them. He goes right ahead, asks them whether they thought it was right to heal on the Sabbath or not, heals a man, and criticizes their foolish law against healing on the Sabbath. He chooses the battleground, namely the question of healing. He does this for a good reason. It wasn’t just any overly-detailed little regulation in which they might find fault with him; it was a clear-cut case of the Fifth Commandment itself over against their legalistic interpretation of the Third Commandment. Remember that, like all of the Commandments, the Fifth Commandment has two sides. “You shall not murder. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” In other words, it’s not just killing that this commandment is about. It’s also about helping our neighbor. It’s also about the vocations of doctors and nurses. It’s also about the vocation of anybody who sees someone in immediate physical danger. Murder is not just a matter of actively killing someone. Murder is also the failure to help someone who has a bodily need. Jesus points this out by asking them whether they would help their own son or donkey who had fallen into a well on the Sabbath. If they would help their own, why is it a sin to help someone else, including one whose disease and social status made him distasteful to these Pharisees, these believers in having “your best life now” by following their interpretation of allegedly Biblical principles?

It is Jesus whom they tried to dishonor, but the great Creator of all feasts, the One who is ultimately the giver of all food and all feasting, the One who gives us clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, land, animals and all we have, is the one who ends up sending them down lower by pointing out what ungracious hosts they are. These men wanted to show themselves better than Jesus, and yet they found themselves in the presence of the Son of God, and wound up unwillingly giving place to Him. Not only that, but they found that this God/Man who had shown them all up was willing to be associated with a man whose illness disfigured him and made him anything but the picture of health and wealth that they wanted to portray.

Jesus drives it home by telling them that it is the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind with whom they should be associating, not those who can do them favors in return. These men didn’t want the sick around them, because their image among the people was one of success just by following supposedly Biblical rules and principles. If they had lived today, they would be preaching in the largest stadiums, with the biggest TV audiences, and competing to outdo each other with how “relevant” and “practical” their teachings were for this life. About the life to come, however, they and their modern counterparts are strangely silent.

Nobody who has his heart set on being admired and adored, on having the biggest audiences and the best seats in the house, on being as successful as he can in this life, is prepared to face the life to come. You can’t take it with you, the saying goes. And so the idea that this life is temporary is a disturbing thought. Everyone is the same when it comes to death. Everyone dies penniless, no matter how fancy his coffin or how well-attended his funeral. Everything he has becomes someone else’s property at that point. Surrounding oneself with other rich and successful people is one way of distracting oneself from that harsh reality. It’s also a common tactic for distracting everyone else from the fact that, deep down, you’re no better than they. All are sinners, and all must die at some point, for the wages of sin is death.

And that’s why the Son of God came into the world in the first place. He came down from His place at the head of the table, and became poor, crippled, lame, and blind and, yes, dead for us. He who is richer by definition than any mere mortal could be, since He’s the Word who spoke it all into existence, became poor for our sakes, so that we might become rich. He dishonored Himself, taking the lowest place at the table, so that those who recognize their poverty before Him might be asked to come up higher to feast with Him in the kingdom of God.

And so, when He tells the Pharisees to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, He’s not telling them or us to earn our way into heaven by good works of charity. Charity done for your own salvation isn’t charity. It’s still selfishness. It’s still trying to honor yourself. It’s still trying to make yourself look good in God’s eyes.

Rather, inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind is simply a way of recognizing that it was in becoming poor, crippled, lame, and blind Himself that He made it possible for us to come up higher. It is precisely because He became poor that by His poverty we become rich in Him. But it’s not riches that you can see in this life. The bread of heaven looks like an ordinary meal rather than a great banquet. In our congregation, we can literally see those who fit into the descriptions of the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind right here among us as we participate in this meal. We’re not exactly a picture of health and wealth here at Holy Cross. But that’s who Jesus invites to His feast. We who know we are nothing, and can’t really fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. That’s who He died for. That’s who He invites to come up higher and feast with Him in the heavenly kingdom. That’s who He repays in the resurrection. Those who know themselves to be unworthy of the honor of being invited, come up to the highest place of all, feasting at table with the Holy Trinity, in the kingdom of God which has no end. Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

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