A message given
Sunday, August 29, 2010
by Rev. Scott Summerville
Asbury UMC, Yonkers, NY
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… When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When 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; 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, 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. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke 14:1, 7-11
Have you ever been in a really embarrassing situation? Of course you have! Often I have dreams in which I am in highly embarrassing situations. Do you have dreams like that? Why is it that our dream writers take such pleasure in embarrassing us? The dream writers figure the most embarrassing scenario they can imagine for us, write it into their scripts, and say, “Here, dream this!” Then they laugh all night as they watch us dream our mortifying fantasies – “Ha! Ha! Ha!” I’m sure the psychologists have theories as to why in our dreams we put ourselves in such excruciating circumstances.
I cannot tell you how many times I have dreamt that I was standing in this very place on a Sunday morning having failed to prepare any message for the day, racking my brains unsuccessfully to come up with something intelligible to say. Anyone who is thinking of making a wise crack at this moment to the effect that these were not always dreams should think twice.
The fact is that embarrassment and shame are some of the most painful of human emotions. That is why the gospel reading for today grabs us. The image that the gospel paints is so simple but it goes right to the gut.
Jesus accepted an invitation to dine on the Sabbath at the home of a respected person in his community, a member of the Pharisee party. These were Jews who very devout in their religious practices, very serious keeping the commandments of Torah. The Pharisees sometimes get a bad rap in the Gospels, and Jesus may well have argued often with Pharisees, but this suggests paradoxically that he had much in common with them such that they often found themselves in conversation and debate. The Pharisees as a group were not the adversaries of Jesus, nor did he see them that way. Today, in fact, we are dealing with an occasion where Jesus was invited to a leading Pharisee’s home for a meal, an invitation which he accepted, so clearly neither saw the other as an enemy.
But Jesus was an odd fellow, and the gospel tells us that from the moment he arrived at the Pharisee’s home for this meal, “they were watching him closely.” He had a reputation for being unconventional, and they were wondering what strange things he might do or say at this pleasant gathering. Jesus entered, surveyed the scene; they were watching him closely, but we learn that he was also watching them closely. What he noticed was that there was a social hierarchy. The more prominent citizens made their way to those seats closest to the head of the table, such that the place where each sat down reflected their status, leaving the remaining seats to those of lesser status.
It was this phenomenon that Jesus chose to comment upon:
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.”When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor…”
..because you may get to that place of honor, take your seat, smile with self satisfaction upon your position of prominence and esteem, only to get a tap on the shoulder and to hear the host advising you that someone of greater rank and importance than your self is to be seated in the very spot currently occupied by your posterior! “And then,” said Jesus, “in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.”
“But 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. 14:11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
You can imagine what would happen if everyone in that room that day had heard Jesus’ advice and followed it: “By all means, my friend, go up higher I will take the lower seat.” “No, I insist, you take the higher seat; I will take the lower seat!” “My friends, I acknowledge your humility, but in all truth I truly must take the lowest seat!” Who knows, there might even have been a brawl at the lower end of the table.
The crux of the story – the emotional core of the story – is that moment of shame felt by that person who, in the sight of the entire gathering, must get up from their seat and move from the place of honor to a lesser place. At the core of this story is that emotion of human shame, embarrassment, humiliation. It is such a powerful emotion that it can control people in profound and invisible ways. It is something that plays upon our actions all the time. In intimate relationships, people hold back the truth of who they are because they are afraid of embarrassment. Marriage partners withhold from one another their simple honest feelings and convictions, because they are embarrassed to acknowledge what is in their hearts. Most of us would rather be miserable than to risk embarrassment.
There was a poignant news broadcast from the Louisiana coast last week. The interviewer talked with a guy who has fished for shrimp all his life. The interviewer was probing his thoughts and feelings. The fisherman told the interviewer that the place had been swarming with people trying to help, people offering counseling, but he kept saying, “We don’t do that kind of thing. We just know fishing. We don’t talk about our troubles in that way.” Meanwhile he was describing a situation that was heartbreaking: the loss of his way of life and the devastation of his business; and this man had no handle on how to get back what he has lost or to cope with that loss. Separately they interviewed his wife, who spoke readily about her husband’s inner anguish and the depression that she saw in him and in so many of her family and friends. But it’s hard for proud and independent people to talk with strangers about the things of the heart, even when there are things a person needs to talk about in order to be able to cope with them.
An experience of embarrassment or humiliation can strike us so deeply that a it can live with us for a lifetime.
One of the reasons that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is so excruciatingly difficult to resolve is that it involves issues of honor and shame at the deepest level. Shame and humiliation breed violence. Defeated in war and occupied by Israeli troops and settlements, and – one must say – failed again and again by their own leaders, the Palestinians are in a position of humiliation. It is in the interest of the nation and people of Israel; it is in the interest of the entire world; it is certainly in the interest of the Palestinian people themselves, that Israeli and Palestinian leaders take the long view, make the difficult sacrifices, and make peace before it is too late. Shame is a powerful and dangerous emotion.
A friend of mine who is a married lesbian and who works with me in the gay rights movement in the United Methodist Church asked me a question recently. She said, “I know why I am involved in this movement. I am fighting for my own rights; I’m fighting for my wife and my kid, but I am curious about the straight people in the movement. So, why are you doing this?”
I said to her, “That is a very interesting question, and I do not have a simple answer. I do not have immediate family members who are gay. I know that often that is what prompts straight people to get involved in the movement. No one ever came to me and said, ‘Scott, would you get involved in this cause with us?’ It came about through something very deep within me that I never put into words exactly. But if you ask me to put it into words in this moment I would say something like this:
I am involved in this movement because in my life and in my ministry I have come to the conviction that no person can be at peace until they can come to terms with who they are and be able to live within their own skin. The church at its best enables people to humbly love themselves and know themselves to be loved by God and to accept themselves before God.
The church wounds people when it uses shame and guilt to keep people from accepting themselves and loving themselves humbly before God. The most destructive thing you can do to a person is to convince them that the way they are made is defective, second rate, inferior, even immoral. If you believe that about yourself, then every moment of your life is a moment of embarrassment and shame. Is it any wonder the suicide rate for gay youth is so high?
I guess what it comes down to is that I am involved in gay rights movement in the church, because I cannot be silent while the church is hurting people at the very core of their being, people who have done nothing wrong, people who like all of us are simply trying to be themselves before God.
Jesus tells us to humble ourselves. He does not tell us to shame ourselves or to shame others. That’s a big challenge, because shame can arise in so many ways in each of us. Intentionally or unintentionally, and we can use shame with our children, our spouses, or anyone we wish to influence.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If that is the rule by which we live, then we will not use shame to abuse ourselves or to abuse others. We will not be overly proud, nor will we be seekers of status, but neither will we be ashamed to be who God is made us to be, nor will we ever shame others for who they are.
Grace and peace to you.