A Homily for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who beckons the lowly to places of greater honor. Amen.
Let’s suppose you were to describe Lutheran culture. What is it that sets us apart? Just off the top of my head, I can think of organ music and congregational singing, certainly a big part of our contribution to the wider Church. And there are also foods brought over from the old country, whether it’s lutefisk from our Scandinavian siblings or plantains from our Afro-Caribbean kindred. And food is important, because of course Lutherans love potluck dinners. (If you have a choice at the potluck, go with the plantains, not the lutefisk.) Then there’s that ubiquitous Lutheran trait: sitting in the back of the church.
Oh, I’m sorry, did I say Lutheran? I meant Back-Row Baptist. Or Methodist. Yeah, sitting in the back is about as ecumenical as the Apostles’ Creed, and yet all of these traditions seem to claim it as their own. I’ve worshiped in congregations across the denominational spectrum, and they are all hesitant to sit further up, and yet they all think that it’s unique to them.
My best guess is that this tradition is rooted in today’s Gospel text – or possibly because pastors always have coffee breath. But it’s got to be one of those two, I’m sure of it.
But what’s really going on in this text if not seating instructions? Or, more to the point, what does it mean to humble ourselves?
You may sometimes hear humility described in terms of modesty, especially here in the South. Think of how any proper Southern cook responds when you compliment his pound cake or her tomatoes. There’s a sort of deflection, right? “Well it’s nothing like what Mama used to make,” or “It doesn’t hold a candle to Trey’s fried chicken.” But humility isn’t about denying the gifts God has given us. Rather, it’s about putting others first in very real and concrete ways. As our reading from Proverbs says, it is “not [putting] yourself forward in the king’s presence or [standing] in the place of the great….” Humility is about using your gifts in service of others rather than yourself.
This type of humility is radically counter-cultural. In place of true humility, our society has perfected the art of the “humble-brag,” the sort of casual complaint that manages to reference how #blessed a person is. “I must have gained ten pounds on that trip to Paris. I just can’t control myself around all those French pastries.” “It’s going to cost an arm and a leg to send our son to med school. (Did I mention he got into Emory?) We may even have to sell the lake house.” Or, and this is my go-to, “My legs are killing me after that eight-mile trail run. The hills and the heat were awful, and added an entire fifteen seconds to my average mile.”
True humility, the type that Christ exemplifies, is more difficult. It’s the type of humility rooted in sacrificial love that leads Pope Francis to eschew the palatial papal residence in favor of simpler dwellings or that leads Jimmy Carter to move back to his small town in rural Georgia and commit himself to global humanitarian work after leaving the White House. Such humility is not mere false modesty nor is it boastful. Rather, it is a fruit of the Spirit at work in us, making us more Christ-like and sending us out in loving service to God and neighbor.
It’s also something that is cultivated and practiced. Humility begins with faithful obedience in small ways – serving in worship or washing dishes. But it does not end there. Rather, as we move closer to Christ, as we live more fully into the identity that God has given us, we may find that we’re eventually willing even to take up the cross and lay down our lives.
And that’s where this suddenly raises questions. Because yeah, living a generous life seems like it could be objectively good, but what about those more extreme forms of godly humility? Next week, we’ll hear that discipleship means giving away all of our possessions; where’s the Good News in voluntary poverty? How do we find salvation in laying down our lives?
Indeed, if we give up everything and find that this is the end, then there is no Good News; we will be dead or destitute. But if the Lord remains faithful, if the Law and Prophets are truly fulfilled by the life, death, and glorious Resurrection of Christ, then we will have lost nothing and gained everything.
What hope is there? Only this: that our Lord will flip everything on its head.
We had a choice this Sunday of two texts: our reading from Proverbs or from a book called Sirach. Lutherans have tended to ignore Sirach, and our denomination doesn’t consider it to be part of the canon of scripture, but many Catholic and Orthodox Christians (and even a few Protestants!) still read it today. His words are instructive for us:
The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers, and enthrones the lowly in their place.
The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations, and plants the humble in their place.
These words resonate with the Magnificat, that hymn of praise from the Blessed Virgin Mary:
[The Lord] 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.
And this is the promise of today’s Gospel: that a time is coming when everything will be overturned, a great reversal where those in positions of pride will be sent away and those who have been pushed to the margins will be ushered to the front. Injustice will be corrected, the oppressed will be set free, the broken will be made whole, and the hungry and poor will eat their fill. All things will be set to right.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to witness this coming Kingdom breaking into our world. Here, in this blessed meal, God is forming us to be more like Christ as we receive the gracious strength to practice true humility. Draw close to it; the Lord is beckoning you to seats of honor. Here, at this Altar, the marriage feast of the Lamb is made present for us. Here at this Table, the Heavenly Banquet is already underway. Here, the humble and lowly receive a foretaste of God’s glory, and here the Lord’s divine majesty humbles the haughty.