"Jostling for Position with God"
There are many things to love about living and working in Washington D.C. where, until recently, I served the cathedral. It is a beautiful city, full of interesting people, with great museums, good restaurants all around, and the natural world close at hand. Every day that Kathy and I woke up in Washington I counted myself happy and lucky to be there.
There is, however, one great drawback. As the seat of governmental power, Washington is what we might call a court culture, somewhat like living in a perpetual “Game of Thrones”. It is literally true that when a powerful person walks into a room or opens their mouth, everything else stops. So living in Washington is also like being in an endless E.F. Hutton commercial: when a person with real or perceived power speaks, people listen. Everyone there seems to be jostling for position with the powerful: organizing a big state occasion ceremony at the cathedral was like wrangling egos on a movie set. In the planning sessions for those services the battles over who would get to be on the platform—and who could be closest to the person of the moment--could be intense. And I’m sorry to tell you the church folks were often worse than the politicos. During these precedence and protocol food fights I would often wonder, “Is this really what Jesus had in mind?”
Well, if you listen to today’s gospel (Luke 14:1, 7-14), apparently not. In the passage we just heard from Luke, Jesus tells us to avoid sitting in the place of honor at a banquet lest we be told to go back down to the cheap seats. Instead, Jesus advises that we sit in the lowest place and then be invited to move higher up. Good advice, but I doubt Jesus would have had much of a career in Washington protocol.
This passage is an odd one because in it Jesus gives what sounds like just plain talk, but Luke tells us that it is a parable. Now parable is a loaded word. In the New Testament, a parable is a story that demonstrates or enacts something about the nature of God. So Jesus is not really talking like Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, or Miss Manners here. In this little story about where to sit at a dinner party, Jesus is telling us something about God.
As if to emphasize what it is Jesus wants to show us about God, he finishes the story with another piece of advice:
"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
So at the conclusion of this gospel passage, here is what we have: an opening parable about position and precedence with some advice about sitting at the lowest place, and a concluding saying about whom you should invite to your own banquet. Don’t, like a Washington hostess, invite the rich and powerful. Be instead like God: invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. This is theology masquerading as etiquette. If you want to jostle for position with God, do what God does. Care about, get to know, and serve, the poor. If you want to curry favor with God, start by currying favor with the poor.
The poor. I remember them. We used to talk about them a lot. How long has it been since we have heard anyone in American public life mention the poor? In this election season we have heard about a lot of other things—about emails and walls and syringes and hand sizes, but we have yet to hear one serious word from either of the major candidates for president about the poor. Hillary Clinton says, “I believe America thrives when the middle class thrives.” Speaking to that same middle class, Donald Trump says, “I am your voice.” But who speaks for the poor?
Here is what Matthew Desmond, a professor of Sociology at Harvard and author of the recent book Evicted says,
We don’t have a full-voiced condemnation of the level or extent of poverty in America today. We aren’t having in our presidential debate right now a serious conversation about the fact that we are the richest democracy in the world, with the most poverty. It should be at the very top of the agenda. [New York Times 8/11/16]
As if to emphasize this point, this week brought a particularly depressing anniversary. On Monday, August 22, it was exactly 20 years since President Bill Clinton signed the so-called Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—the law we have come to call the Welfare Reform bill. In those 20 years the government has cut benefits to the poor dramatically, yet the rate of what we call “deep poverty”—the share of the population “living on a household income less than half of the official poverty level” has increased. The current U.S. Government poverty level is $16,000 a year for a family of two. So we are talking about people living on $8,000 a year. And extreme poverty—people living on $2 a day or less—has doubled since the signing of that law in 1996. To the extent they can, most poor people cobble together an income made up of low-wage work, food stamps, and disability benefits. And no one in this election cycle is talking about them.
Worse than that, hardly anybody in the church is talking about the poor this year. A couple of weeks ago someone shared a cartoon on Facebook which accurately depicts the problem. Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount. He lifts his hand and says, “Blessed are the poor.” Someone in the crowd shouts back, “Blessed are all lives, Jesus.” We seem to have relegated the poor to being yet another interest group iin whom we have lost interest. But in the gospel they are much more than that.
Those of us who follow Jesus seem to have forgotten what Jesus himself said about his own priorities. For good and understandable reasons we have expanded the circle of our concern to include almost everybody, and it is right that we do so. But in expanding that circle we seem to have forgotten that the poor stand at that circle’s very center and demand a preferential place in our attentions. It is hypocritical to blame either of our major party candidates for their obliviousness about poverty in America when we have become oblivious ourselves. In focusing on giving more benefits to those of us who are already comfortable, they are merely reading back to us our own priorities.
Listen again to Jesus:
When you are invited to a . . . banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host. [And] when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
Taken together, these stories tell us something about God and ourselves. You and I are like guests at an exclusive cocktail party who spend our time sucking up to the host, and it turns out that the host wants us to turn our attention to the people who couldn’t get into the party in the first place. We tend to think that we can curry favor with God by listing our accomplishments. We are a bit like people on the cathedral platform jostling for the position closest to the most famous and powerful person. Jesus knows we can’t help ourselves in this regard, that we will continually fall for the bright shiny objects of fame and power and seek to have them for ourselves. And here is his point: if you want to get in good with God, turn your attention away from those trinkets and turn toward the concrete reality of people who are up against it. If you want to jostle for position with God, do so by knowing and loving and serving the people everyone else has forgotten. Most of the things we value are worthless. And the people we often call worthless mean the most to God.
“I believe America thrives when the middle class thrives.” “I am your voice.” Our political leaders will only speak for the poor when we who follow Jesus speak for them. Churches all over America are looking for new and innovative programs to make themselves relevant to a post-Christian age. How about we start with the big idea that Jesus gives us. Jesus’s persistent calls for us to love and serve the poor tell us something deep and true and important not only about the poor but about what it is to be human in the first place. Living in the affluent part of America and trying constantly to prove our worth to ourselves and others is exhausting. As Lily Tomlin said, “Even if you’re winning the rat race, you’re still a rat.” The poor have nothing and yet they are blessed. They are us, denuded of all the worthless stuff with which we encase ourselves. All human beings—especially the poor--are blessed in and of themselves. We do not need all the effluvia we tack on to ourselves to be important. We matter, as the poor matter, because we bear the basic dignity of what it means to be human. We honor that dignity when we honor those who have nothing, who most purely reflect human dignity back to us. And that dignity, borne and redeemed by God in Jesus, is all that finally counts about us and about those we serve.
Our political leaders will only wake up to the importance of poverty in America when we wake up to it ourselves. And we will only begin to take it in as we come to see ourselves in those who are up against it. We reject the poor because we deny the possibility of being poor ourselves. But given the world’s economic, environmental, and social fragility, each of us could be wiped out in a moment. Accepting one’s vulnerability is a hard but vital spiritual task. And it’s the basic first step of what it means to follow Jesus. So let’s take that step and see where that journey takes us. Let’s make poverty in America both a social and a spiritual priority. Maybe then our politicians will listen. Maybe then we’ll all have jostled ourselves into a little bit better position with God. Amen.