Sermon for 9/1/2013 from Pr. Mark T. Peterson at Christ the King Lutheran Church, Holliston, MA.
Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7–14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and 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. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at 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 the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
12He said also to the one who had invited him, "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. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
Greetings to you in the name of Jesus Christ,
50 years ago, the words, “I have a dream”, were immortalized in our country’s history, and so was the speaker of these words, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Now, half-a-century later, what do we think of, what do we collectively remember about Martin?
Mostly, we think of the speeches, the movement, the message of love that seems so obvious today. And, we have statues and the celebrations, to, above all else, remember a great man.
But when we think about it, would any of us want to be this “great man”? Would any of us want to be this man we so honor today?
Perhaps, as being remembered as “Great” would certainly seem to be a good thing. But there was more to Dr. King that we as a society don’t often remember, really remember. As we remember his greatness, we sort of minimize what it might be like to receive death threats. As we remember we gloss over what it must have been like to be called to a task that would bring danger to your children. And in our nostalgia we smooth out the politics of the situation and the frustration that came not only from the ranks of the opposition, but also from collaborating the agendas of those who were supportive of the Civil Rights Movement, to varying degrees.
In this day and age, as we hear the speech replayed and our brother, Martin, so eloquently declare “I have a dream”, do we remember that this dream was born from the real nightmare that was and is racial hatred, oppression, and even murder?
This week, as we have celebrated the 50th anniversary of such an iconic event as the March on Washington, as we look to our history to remember not just one man, but many courageous people and the movement they fueled; as we look to our history to remember true greatness, it is fitting that we have the readings that we do.
As we hear these texts, dealing with honor and greatness, I would imagine that if Dr. King were to join us today, would be given an honored place in our assembly. We’d make a big deal about him being here. We’d thank him for the work he did and maybe even ask him how we can help continue that work.
But a place of honor, a place as celebrated guest at our table, or any table for that matter, is not what drove Dr. King to be the face, the voice, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. If being admired, even loved by so many of us today, if having monuments erected and vacation days granted were the goal of Dr. King’s calling, I’m guessing we wouldn’t even know who he was.
You see, as we remember Dr. King today, as we remember his work, his life, and participate in the national awakening he helped initiate, we think of greatness. Yet, greatness wasn’t what Martin was after. Greatness, honor, glory, even if they would have been tempting goals, could not have kept Martin going as he sought a way out of his leadership position in the early days of the movement. Visions of grandeur wouldn’t have been much comfort to Martin as he paced about sleepless and scared on a January night in 1958, in a house that would be bombed only days later. That evening, in the throes of doubt and fear, wasn’t greatness that spoke to Martin, it was Jesus.
And as Dr. King writes in his autobiography, he heard Jesus say to him, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world."
It was in that night, in that moment of crisis, that Dr. King resolved to continue on the path of leadership that he had suddenly been thrust into. And it wasn’t fame, or riches, or glory that inspired this resolve, it was the truth of God; the truth that was made manifest in Jesus Christ, and the truth that is given to all of us.
This morning, under less stressful circumstances, Jesus is speaking to us, giving us seemingly practical advice about where to sit at our next dinner party. But this dinner party wisdom isn’t just about dinner. This wisdom is about partaking in the values of God, and not the values of this world. This wisdom is telling us that the things we often spend so much time pursuing, the things of human greatness are in the end, not the things that will give us the strength to endure, the strength to carry out our calling as disciples of Christ, when the pain and stress of this calling become unimaginable.
Today, Jesus is not only speaking to us, but feeding us with his eternal life, and through these things he is saying, just as he said to Dr. King, “stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world”.
And, as we prepare to dine on this life, we are reminded that this when Jesus speaks about dinner party etiquette, his advice isn’t just lip service. Instead, we remember the real story behind these wise words. We remember that Jesus dined with and held up not the elites of his culture, but the sinners, the tax collectors, the sick, the outcasts of society; and we remember that he did this not to prove a point, but to open our eyes to the justice, righteousness, and will of God that is for all people, not just a select few. We remember that Jesus ate with “these people” because they are really just people, and that our human boundaries based on class, race, gender, and self-righteousness are what Jesus came to tear-down, not uphold. We remember that Jesus ate with these people, because he loved them, because God loved them just as God loves each of us.
This message of love, of the equality of all people before God should be simple. But as we reflect on our past, as we reflect on how the people violently responded to Jesus, and again to his great servant Dr. King, we can see how radical this message of love is to a world mired in sin. This is the sinful world we live in, and as confess our own role in it, as we reflect on our own biases and shame, as we deal with our own fears and insecurity, as we come to grips with our own perpetuation not of a dream, but of a nightmare; it is then that we hear the Good News, just as Dr. King did, in his dark night of fear and trembling.
This morning, we again that Good News of Jesus’ presence with us. We hear the Good News that he did not come to this earth to take the head of the table, but to through his death on a cross broke down that sinful table, and in his resurrection remade a new table, for all people, in the image of God. This morning, we hear the Good News that despite our own sin we are invited to the table, to feast upon the life of God, in the presence of such greatness not only with Martin Luther King Jr. but, also those who persecuted him.
May this Good News, this Savior, Jesus Christ, continue to transform us in the truth of his righteousness and justice, so that we may love as he loved, and bring to our family, our neighbors, and our enemies; the dream of a creation united in the abundant life that our Creator has given to us.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,