As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Don’t worry about what others think, but do what God asks, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday 28 August, 2016. The Reading was Luke 14:1, 7-14.
Did you know that there is only 119 days until Christmas? That’s 2856 hours, 171,300 minutes or 10,281,600 seconds. Not that I’m counting of course. Now, Christmas is a wonderful time of year because everyone is excited about the birth of Jesus, right? The whole world stops, and celebrates the birth of Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, because the whole world realises what an important and holy occasion this is, and that’s all that happens, right? No, for the vast majority of the western world, Christmas means one thing: Presents. Lots and lots of presents. The big department stores have already had their big Christmas lay-by sales, there will be more and more sales as we get closer and closer. Come next week we will probably start seeing Christmas decorations being put up into stores as they encourage us to spend more money to buy more presents because if we start buying earlier we can afford to buy more presents and buy bigger and better presents. But gift giving isn’t everything that it’s cracked up to be. Sheldon knows this. If you don’t know who Sheldon is, allow me to introduce you to him. Dr. Sheldon Cooper is one of the main characters from the TV Sitcom, The Big Bang Theory. He is a Caltech theoretical physicist who received his first Ph.D at the age of 16. He is incredibly smart, incredibly nerdy, and incredibly socially awkward. Now, despite coming from a deeply religious family from the Bible Belt of Texas, Sheldon doesn’t celebrate Christmas – or as he puts it, the pagan festival of Saturnalia. And he similarly doesn’t like the tradition of gift giving, as demonstrated here.
Now, we may not put it into words in the same way as Sheldon, but we can all agree with what he’s saying. There is a social obligation around gift giving – if you know that someone is getting you a gift at Christmas, then it follows that the obligation is on you to get them a gift as well. We don’t say it, but it is an accepted social convention of our society these days.
Social Rules and expectations of this world
You might think of some other social rules which exist in our society. Some are good, and provide a sense of order to society. Others perhaps aren’t as helpful – such as the gift giving, which promotes the commercialisation of Christmas, and the buying and producing of more and more stuff. But these rules have existed for a long time, and every society has them – whether for good or for ill. In today’s readings, we hear about two such social norms.
Dinner parties in Jesus’ day were a big social event. They weren’t small affairs, and were not private, but quite public. They would be held within a property, but in such a space that those who weren’t invited would gather around to look at who was invited, and who wasn’t, who was sitting where, and of course, what food was being eaten, and the discussions that were being had. Jesus finds himself at such an occasion. We heard in the first verse of this reading that Jesus is at a pharisee’s house, and that he was being carefully watched. In the part that was skipped over, we read of Jesus healing a man, again on the Sabbath. And we read that he observed the guests jostling for the places of honour at the table. The host would sit at the head of the table, and to be closer to the host would mean a place of higher honour. And this wasn’t just honour amongst the guests seated at the table – because everyone was looking at the party, it was a place where you could manoeuvre yourself into higher social standings, purely due to where you chose to sit. And we can see that it’s a bit of a game – sit yourself too high, and you might be asked to move lower, and be publicly dishonoured. Sit yourself too low, and the public thinks you’re not that important.
The second story touches on this idea of reciprocity that we find in modern gift giving. That is, if you – as a host, held a dinner party, you normally invite those who would be able to invite you back. And again, it’s this game that is played – invite those who are higher than you that you might get invited to fancier dinner parties and improve your social standing, but not too high that you would be the one sitting at the foot of the table when they do invite you back. The idea that you would invite someone to a meal, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to reciprocate the invitation, was something that just wasn’t done.
These games, and a number of our own modern social norms and expectations, are done to put ourselves forward. And – for the vast majority, they are done to improve the lives of the rich, at the expense of the lives of the poor. The poor can’t host a meal, so they don’t get invited, so they don’t have any opportunity to improve their own social standing. The poor don’t have the money to give gifts at Christmas time, so they either face social embarrassment by not buying something, or go into debt, putting themselves in a worse position than they were. Then if they don’t buy a gift, then eventually people will stop buying them things, and the original intent – to celebrate with friends – is lost.
We can do the unexpected, and do what God asks
Jesus, instead, points to a different way. And as happens in so many of Jesus’ teachings, while there is a practical element, there is always another, heavenly element to the teaching. Jesus aims to lift our focus from the ways of the world, and focus instead on the ways of God.
In the first example, Jesus says to sit at the lowest place. The place of least honour. Now, some may read this as an indication to play the game – that is, sit in the lowest spot, so that the host will exalt you and you will look good in front of everyone. Instead, when I read this, I see it as Jesus saying not to play the game. To sit in the lowest place at all times. To humble yourself at all times. And sure, there may be occasions where the host will choose to exalt you – but there may well be times where he does not, and you may end up sitting in the place of least honour. What does it matter? These temporal, earthly designations of honour are only temporary. Jesus looks to the future, saying that in God’s kingdom, these values are reversed – those who humble themselves are exalted, and those who exalt themselves are humbled. The humbling of yourself on earth is not a strategy to be played for recognition on earth – instead, humility is a quality of life open to persons who know that their worth is not measured by peer recognition, but by the certainty that they are accepted by God.
In a similar manner, Jesus says to not invite the people who you know can reciprocate your dinner invitation. Instead, invite those who you know can’t. Those who never get invited. The poor, the crippled, the lame and blind. Those who in Jesus’ day were considered outcasts. They can’t reciprocate your invitation, but you will still be rewarded – not by people on earth, but by the heavenly father, the only one who can bless us, and the only one whose praise matters.
Instead of doing the things that society expects, Jesus calls us to do the unexpected and do what God asks. To look after the excluded. The sick, the poor, the outcasts.
We can show God’s love through our actions
When we do what God asks, as opposed to what society expects, we have an opportunity to show God’s love through our actions. Just like the crowd looking on during the dinner party is taking note of who is sitting where, there are those who look at us and see the things that we do. See that we don’t care about money, power, or fame. See that we care for those that society excludes. And when we do that, we show God’s love to those who are looking on. They may ask us about why we care for those that society excludes. They may ask us why we don’t care for money, power or fame. And that’s when we have an opportunity to share with them about God’s love. But just like Jesus doesn’t instruct diners to take the lowest seat in order that they be exalted, we don’t care for the poor in order that we may be noticed. We care for the poor so that we are faithful to the call of our heavenly father. We don’t do this for the praise of man, but for the praise of God – the only one whose praise matters.
Don’t worry about what others think, but do what God asks.
So don’t worry about what others think. Don’t worry about where you sit or who might invite you to dinner. Don’t worry about your Christmas presents or any other societal expectations. Instead, care about what God is asking you to do – to care for the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, include the excluded. As we spend some time in reflection, we’re going to sing The Servant Song, which speaks of how we can be servants to those around us. How we can show God’s love to those around us by doing the unexpected. As we sing, you might like to come and pray over how you might be able to show God’s love through your actions this week.