September 4, 2022 ~ Rev. Beckie Sweet
Tomorrow is Labor Day! Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, economic stability, and well-being of our country.
A little over a week ago was Women’s Equality Day, celebrating the 102nd anniversary of the certification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. In 1971 Congress declared August 26th as Women’s Equality Day, but that escapes the notice of most of us, along with the partnering Women’s Equal Pay Act, passed Aug. 26th in 1963. But, both Labor Day and Women’s Equality Day are important to us for several reasons.
Jeanne Carleson tells us that these particular causes for celebration had a great impact on her family. Her mother had been working two jobs as a single parent of five children, and they were all happy for her when she landed a job at the local company that printed city directories, because this meant that she could work just ONE job to support the family. She ran one of two large Xerox machines, and often came home with black printing dust spattered on her clothes. But, it was a good job, and the hours roughly coincided with her children’s school day, so she didn’t have to feel guilty about leaving the children home alone. An added plus was that the print shop was within walking distance from the house, saving the consumption of precious gasoline. One day, her supervisor called her into his office to give her good news — she was getting a raise! She thanked him, then asked how much the guy was getting who ran the other Xerox machine, doing exactly the same work. The supervisor sputtered and stuttered. The other guy had a family to support, after all. “What on earth do you think I’m doing?” Jeanne’s mother asked him.
In the passage of Scripture we shared from Luke’s gospel today, Jesus is speaking about KINGDOM EQUALITY, a kind of HOSPITALITY which must be based on Love and Humility before God and neighbors. Jesus is an invited guest at a rather swanky dinner at a Pharisees’ home, and there has an opportunity to observe the obvious jockeying for positions of power and prestige. Seeing a teachable moment, Jesus begins by telling a parable. Now, you may remember that Jesus’ parables often turn societal expectations upside down, and this is no exception.
Jewish Palestine, where Jesus lived, was part of the Roman Empire, and governed by the Roman class structure. Birth, wealth, position, and citizenship determined the social classes. There were several levels of Upper Class, no middle class, there was the lower class, usually comprised of those who could not repay their debts, and then there were slaves. Social advancement was everyone’s goal, and putting yourself forward by associating with those who were one rung above you on the social ladder, required constant maneuvering.
But Jesus had a different idea for the way things ought to work. So, Jesus addressed the banquet guests first, reminding them of the Proverbial advice: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” While this was practical social advice for his listeners, it carried with it a reminder that the people present belonged to God, not Rome. Jesus was reinforcing each one’s identity as a child of God, an identity which had eroded as secular culture encroached upon the sacredness of living in the community of God’s design. The Roman practice of self-promotion did not fit well with the teachings of the prophets who encouraged people to “walk humbly with God.”
So Jesus was telling the guests at the feast, “Instead of seeking glory for yourself, spend your time and energy giving glory to God.” While the guests chewed on that food for thought, Jesus turned to his host, the leader of the Pharisees. This Pharisee must have respected Jesus, in order to invite him to this social function. Whether that respect was afforded due to Jesus’ teachings, healings, or large numbers of followers, we do not know. But since he was present, Jesus had an opportunity to influence the practices of this religious leader!
“You’re inviting the wrong people,” Jesus told him. “By inviting only friends, family, and those who can advance your status, you are not better than these guests who are fighting over the best seat in the house. You’re trying to make yourself look good by surrounding yourself with ‘important’ people, while you ignore the ones who should be enjoying your hospitality.”
Jesus always knows how to ‘cut to the chase.’ He recognized both the guests and their host as social climbers, and he wanted to urge them toward true generosity and real hospitality that expected nothing in return. It was time to throw out the old social order of self-promotion and realize that we are all in equal need of grace and mercy in the eyes of God. And, if we believe that is true, how can we continue to participate in a system that places more value on some people and less value on others?
Jesus came to level the playing field between the haves and the have nots, between the wealthy and the poor, between the healthy and the sick. We are all in need of grace, healing, a new perspective on God’s design and desire for our relationships and interactions. Jesus wants us to understand that our all-too-human drive to seek the best seat in the house does not show genuine participation in God’s mercy or love. Only true humility can give us the right perspective.
Jesus reminds us that we don’t need to try to impress anyone with our status, prestige, or level of righteousness. The only one whose opinion of us matters is God. And God knows our hearts, our foibles, our motivations. And God loves us anyway!!
In the summer of 2010 I was appointed to serve as interim pastor of the Adirondack Community Church in Lake Placid. There were two worship services each Sunday, a traditional service at 9:30 and Contemporary Service at 11:00. Between the two services was a Coffee Hour in the back of the sanctuary so that folks leaving one service could also converse with those coming to the next. And they set out quite a spread each week: two tables full of fruit, crackers & cheese, cupcakes, cookies, muffins ~ you name it, they offered it. And there was a third table full of hot and cold beverages of every kind.
Each week, three siblings would ride their bikes over a mile to get to church, hot, sweaty, and not very clean. Upon arrival, the eldest brother would throw his backpack under the last pew, and the three kids would find the largest plates and pile them high with food and treats!
Like many other churches, this church had a complainer. This was a woman who could always find something to complain about. After I had been there about a month and a half, she approached me one Sunday to complain about these kids taking so much food, and modeling greed, rather than making sure there was enough food for everyone. She said, “It’s just not fair.” My response: “You’re right! It’s just not fair.” I told her that I had just recently met the kids’ grandmother, who was raising them. And she told me that since the school doesn’t serve meals in the summer, what the kids eat at church is one of just a couple of breakfasts they will get all week. “It’s just not fair!” After that, the complainer woman didn’t say another word about these kids. In fact, she was often seen slipping boxes of granola bars into the backpack under the pew.
So, during this week of celebrating Labor Day and in case you missed Women’s Equality Day, our focus should be on thanking God for the ability to labor for our own family and on behalf of others, designing an environment of Hospitality in All Places. We should remember the shifting of societal trends and norms each time folks have rallied together to uplift those who have not been treated fairly. If we are those in positions of power and influence, that may mean modeling humbling ourselves so that others, and all, may be elevated and freed from societal constraints that diminish one’s ability to reach their created potential.
In a moment, as we accept Christ’s invitation to come to the table of grace, may we recognize the joy of knowing that ALL are invited, as we all need grace, and that we have yet another opportunity to say to a reluctant neighbor, “What are you doing down there? Come on up and sit by me.” Amen.