Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Breaking the system

Luke 14: 1, 7-14
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
August 28, 2016

Hospitable God, you invite us to a life filled with good things,
in which the last may be first,
and the humble and the mighty trade places.
Let us share your abundance with no fear of scarcity;
let us greet strangers as angels you have sent!
Send your Spirit now
so that we may find a place at your table
and welcome others with radical hospitality.
In the name of Jesus, Guest at all our tables, we pray.  Amen.

            Homer Hickam was an ordinary high school student in a small coal town in West Virginia. The news about Sputnik making its orbit around the Earth hardly made a dent in his world of school, football, and coal mining. But when he saw the satellite moving overhead in a dark sky of stars, he was hooked. However, the social acceptability of geeking out was still decades away.

            He wasn’t one of the popular kids, but he had some street cred.  His father was the supervisor of the coal mine and his older brother was on the football team.  But Homer didn’t fit in either of those worlds.  He was beginning to wonder where he fit in when he came up with the harebrained idea of building a rocket.  Trouble was he didn’t have the first idea of how to go about building a rocket that would actually launch.  The only person who might know was the class misfit but also the smartest kid in the whole school, and no one ever ate lunch with him.

            If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Homer and Quentin, along with their friends Roy Lee and Odell, eventually did build rockets that launched high into the sky. They entered the school science fair, won first prize for the state of West Virginia and went on to win first place at the National Science Fair. All four of them, the rocket boys, were awarded full scholarships to college. None of which would have happened if Homer hadn’t taken a seat at Quentin’s lunch table.

            Social status and reputation were very much a part of the world that Jesus lived in.  People knew their rank and station in society, accepted it and used it to their advantage if they could.  You could tell if someone worked with their hands for a living given the coarseness of their language and accent and the village they lived in.  People knew Jesus was a carpenter’s son from Nazareth for this very reason. Those who had a lower position due to their profession, level of income, or quality of education, could apply to someone with a higher status to be their patron.  

The direction was always up.  No one ever wanted to go lower, and the lowest stayed put.  If you were a slave, you accepted your lot in life.  If you were a tax collector, you were considered a thief.  If you were an orphan, a widow, or a foreigner, people were supposed to take care of you.  If you had leprosy or a demon or any physical impairment, it was your sins or the sins of your parents that caused it and no one went near you.

            Jesus was always going against the tide, hanging out with the misfits and outcasts, and yet eating at the popular kids’ table as well.  1st century Palestine had its own untouchables and golden children, and Jesus was always trying to get them to sit at the same table.

            It’s a very old idea, this virtue called humility.  Jesus was probably thinking of a couple of verses in Proverbs 25 when he thought of his parable:  “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”  Of course, like many proverbs, the message is not only about human relationships but also about our relationship with God.  It’s all one: how we treat each other, what we think is sacred, where we place ourselves and everyone else in the order and chaos of the universe.  Love God, love neighbor, love self, in that order.

            If the author of Luke was to tell this story now, it might sound something like this:

         On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the populist political party for a fundraising dinner on a Saturday night, everyone kept an eye on him to see what trouble he might stir up.

         When Jesus noticed how the guests chose seats near the power brokers and celebrities, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a dinner party, do not sit in the spotlight, right up front as the guest of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, be willing to trade places with those who always have the lowest place, so that when your host comes, they may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who try to make themselves great set themselves up for a fall and those who show true lowliness will be lifted up.”

Image result for olympics runner lifting up

         He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a power lunch or a dinner, remember God’s table fellowship. Do not invite your friends or your colleagues or your relatives or rich neighbors or people just like you to the table, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite welfare moms and absentee dads, the homeless, addicts and alcoholics, refugees and immigrants and those whose first language is not English, every color under the sun, disabled veterans, people who work with their hands for a living, those who are shunned because they live with a mental illness. Make your home ADA accessible, provide gender-neutral bathrooms, let people bring their service dogs wherever they want. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid when you really come alive in this world.”

            I read a recent opinion essay that stated that the United States is bifurcated into two groups of people:  the elites and everyone else—oversimplified but true nonetheless.  Over the last 40 years or so the divide between these groups has grown ever wider—socially, economically, culturally, and geographically.  To a certain extent, our Civil War became a cold war of its own.  Those who have a costlier higher education and more of it tend to congregate in certain areas of the country, and for the most part, control most of the decision-making, wealth, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. 

In this church’s profile it stated that 37% of the congregation had a bachelor’s degree but 47% had a master’s degree or higher.  We have the places of honor, we have put ourselves there, and we make decisions and choices that keep us there.  The desirable direction is always up.  No one really wants to go lower.  No one really wants to stay there either.  Everyone wants to be lifted up, to be told, “Friend, move up higher”, to the place of honor or at least to the place where we are accepted as we are, receive the same quality education and have access to adequate healthcare, live in a place that is warm, safe and dry, be a part of a community, earn a wage that one can live on, and work safely and freely.

            But it doesn’t happen just from the bottom up.  We know that trickle-down economics doesn’t work but neither does trickle-down education.  And that’s why the American dream is a lie for so many Americans, why many Americans are so angry and frustrated.  People have worked hard, believed every promise, thought they would move higher, but crashed hard in 2008, and for many the bailout didn’t make much of a difference in their lives.  It only reached so far and allowed too many to slip through the cracks.  Rapacious subprime mortgages were devastating.  I lost some retirement savings.  Other than that, it didn’t really didn’t touch me or most of my neighbors and friends.

            Those who are lower want to break this lousy system that never really lets them or others move higher.  Many wanted to do that by voting for Bernie Sanders.  Others are voting for Donald Trump for the same reason, to break the system.  When those who are lower and not valued are not heard by those who have power, the elites, revolution usually follows.  And as has happened repeatedly through history, even when the new system is better than the old, eventually power corrupts something even as good as democracy.

            Jesus knew that if there was to be a revolution, it would be the high places made low: “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  After all it was Jesus who could have claimed greatness for himself but instead became a slave and was servant of all.

            It’s not only the cracks in the glass ceiling that bring the desperately needed change but also the cracks in the glass floor and walls.  The revolution begins with us: the social capital we’re willing or not willing to risk, to find ways to trade places with those who always have the lowest place, to take our chances looking like fools, even failing, in order to do the next right thing.  Take up your cross and follow me.  Suckers for Jesus.  Fools for Christ.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


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