In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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I wonder how many here, besides me, have gone to a wedding reception or a dinner or some other event, and taken a seat that was reserved for somebody else. I’ve done it at least twice, though what the occasions were I can’t remember now. The reason I remember that it happened (twice!) is because of the embarrassment. I imagine I get off a little easier than most since I’m in uniform and whoever is in charge says, “Oh no, Father, you sit over there.”
Archbishop Michael Peers told me the story of having just arrived in Vancouver as a young college freshman, and going to church his first Sunday there. He found an empty pew and sat down. Then there was a tap on his shoulder. A father, with his family trailing behind him and a not very happy look on his face, told Michael that he was sitting in their pew. Profoundly humiliated, he walked out and didn’t go back to church for years. Many years later, as a brand new bishop, he showed up early for his first official visit to a small parish, and decided to sit down in a pew to pray and soak up the atmosphere. It was a cold Saskatchewan day, so he was wearing a heavy coat and scarf, which covered up his purple shirt and clerical collar. Pretty soon he felt a tap on his shoulder. Two old ladies stood glaring at him and told him he was in their pew. He apologized and gave way. A short while later, as the service began and everybody was turning around to get a first look at their new bishop bringing up the rear of the procession in his cope and mitre and carrying his staff, the two old ladies recognized him as the man they’d just booted out of their pew. The mortified look on their faces, he said, was priceless.
We Anglicans have a heritage that we’re proud of. But like every religious tradition, there are also some things in our heritage that we shouldn’t be proud of, and that have taken a long time to eradicate. One of those was the practice of pew rents. If you’ve ever been inside a very old Episcopal church on the east coast, you might have noticed that the pews were numbered. That was not so that you could find your way back to your seat after Communion. It’s because when that church was built, the seats were rented out to families who paid a specific amount of money to sit in that pew. The more you paid, the closer you got to sit to the pulpit. If you couldn’t pay anything, you had to sit in the balcony where you wouldn’t be seen by the respectable folks below. And if you were black, whether you had money or not, you sat in the very back of the balcony. In some places like Savannah and Charleston, the wealthier Episcopalians raised enough money to build separate chapels for blacks and poor whites. This is how it was in Anglican North America for close to two hundred years.
But there were some people who stood up and said that this was wrong on every level. You can’t charge people to hear the Gospel, they argued, and you can’t discriminate for any reason, especially since Jesus himself gave special honor to the poor and the marginalized. So you might also have noticed a sign outside some other old Episcopal churches on the east coast, though not as old as the ones with numbered pews, and also some Methodist churches and others, that say, “All seats free.” That’s the rightfully proud heritage of those churches. The first bishop of my former diocese, John Medley, was one of those people. Soon after he was enthroned as Bishop of Fredericton, he wiped out pew rents throughout the diocese with the stroke of a pen. But the heritage of pew rents still shows up now and then, whenever someone says, “You’re sitting in my pew.”
The parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel was originally targeted at Pharisees and lawyers– the religious leaders. It was a warning to them not to be so arrogant as to think that there should always be a special place reserved for them everywhere they went, but to think instead how much better it would be for them as dignitaries to take the lowest seat or to stand at the back of the room, to make sure everybody else had a place to sit, and then wait to be called up higher. That way they would be specially honored by their host. The message is the same for religious leaders today. Don’t go nosing around trying to score points with the bishop so that he’ll make you a canon so that you’ll have a special seat in the cathedral, or give you some other fancy title. And don’t go asking to be nominated, and then campaign and gladhand in the hope of getting yourself elected bishop somewhere. That’s behavior unbecoming of a priest who is called to model the humility of Jesus. But it happens. That’s the lesson in humility that Jesus directed at a particular group of people at a particular moment. But there’s a more general lesson here for all of us that has to do with pride.
We have to be careful not to confuse the sin of pride with the sentiment of pride. Being proud of your child or your country or your team is not necessarily a sinful thing. But the kind of pride that comes with an attitude of superiority over others is a soul killer. Looking down on somebody because you think you’re somehow better is sinful pride. Refusing to admit you’re wrong, and to go humbly to the person you’ve wronged in order to make amends–including humbling yourself before God and confessing your sins– that is the sin of pride. That is one of the seven deadly sins. Every sin you can think of can be categorized under the heading of one of the seven deadlies. I won’t list them here, but feel free to Google them right now if you like.
In fact, pride is the very first sin, and the very worst one. It’s what led Lucifer to scorn his place in the created order, even though he was one of the chief archangels, and to rebel against God. His name means the Light Bearer. So what an exalted job he had, to carry the Light of God– because who is the Light of God? It’s none other than the Son of God. Lucifer, light bearer, is like the word crucifer, the cross bearer, the one who carries the cross. The crucifer leads the way, and the people of God follow, which is symbolic of how always looking to the cross and following it will lead us to God. We also have that lucifer image in the Church. At the Easter Vigil, the deacon who carries the paschal candle, the Light of Christ, into the dark church is the lucifer, the light-bearer, leading the people who have all lit their little candles from the big one, the Light of Christ. And as they enter the church behind the light bearer, the Light of Christ grows brighter and brighter, and fills the church.
It was Lucifer’s job to fill the whole creation with the light of God, the Light of Christ. But he wanted to be greater than he was; he wanted to be equal to God, to be the light, not just to carry it. So he started a war in heaven, which resulted in his being cast out by his brother Michael, and he was renamed Satan. Then he started his covert operation of encouraging that same arrogant pride in God’s human creatures. “You can be equal to God,” he’s been telling us from the very beginning, “and you should be. So go for it. Grab whatever you can.” It’s quite the opposite of what St Paul teaches about Jesus, who is God, and how we ought to be like him instead:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)
In taking the form of his creatures, Jesus set aside his almighty power and humbled himself. Theologians call that the mystery of divine condescension. And in a familiar hymn we sing, “How great the condescension, how marvellous the love, which for our sakes, O Savior, have drawn thee from above” (We hail thee now, O Jesus).
Humility is the remedy for pride; and death is the remedy for sin. But not your death or mine. The death of Jesus is the only remedy for sin, for our own and for the whole world’s. Because he died and rose again, our death will not be the end of us. It will just be the end of this stage of life. The best is yet to come. But it’s only available to the humble, to the ones who are able to cast off the pride that we believed would set us above others. It’s only available to people who look on every other person the way Jesus looks on us all– with the unconditional love of God, the love that sees the value and dignity of every creature, and that looks for the goodness that God pronounced over his whole creation at the outset– “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). But with a lot of help from the angel formerly known as Lucifer, we became proud. And that always messes things up.
“The Lord has cast down the thrones of rulers, and has seated the lowly in their place,” Sirach says in today’s first lesson, “The Lord has plucked up the roots of the nations, and has planted the humble in their place.” From beginning to end, Scripture makes it pretty clear that God hates the kind of pride that leads people to exalt themselves above others. I’m not so sure that he reckons it as being worse than the other six deadly sins. But it’s well known that pride will feed and encourage those other sins and vice versa. God despises pride because he created us in order to love us, and so that we would love one another unreservedly. Pride won’t let us love like that. It assesses the value of each person differently. And it apportions love based on that assessed value.
Of course, I’m talking about the kind of love that God has for all of us, the kind that would lead us to make personal sacrifices for the good of others. The kind the Son of God demonstrated himself by going to the cross for our sin. That’s the highest form of love, called agapē. We love different people in our lives– spouses, children and friends– with different kinds of love, depending on the relationships, and that’s as it should be. But above that, we are called by God, and gifted by God with the ability, to love everybody with his agapē, his kind of unconditional, self-sacrificing love. The kind that sees equal dignity in every person, and that will move us to do whatever we can to equalize and honor the dignity of every person.
When you put on a dinner, Jesus says, don’t bother with the people who are able to do the same for you, or whom you’re trying to impress. When you give a feast, invite the people who really need to be fed. Now bear in mind that he’s not just talking about feeding the hungry in the most expedient way possible. Inviting someone to dinner is a much bigger deal than simply giving them a handout and leaving them where they are, or taking them to McDonald’s. In that culture it was a high honor to be invited to dinner in someone’s home. So Jesus is using that image to teach his disciples how we should reach out to people in every situation, not just dinner.
Humble yourselves, he’s saying, put yourselves in their shoes. Don’t just drop checks in the mail and donate to the food pantry if you’re at all able to do more than that. Stand alongside them the way Jesus did when he came “to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us” to God (BCP 362). And don’t worry that they won’t be able to repay you. You’ll be rewarded at the resurrection of the righteous. And what God will give you then will be far greater than anything any of us is able to give in this lifetime. Even so, you don’t do it for the heavenly reward any more than for an earthly one. You do it because you want to love your neighbor the way God loves both your neighbor and you, because as St John says, “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1Jn 4:11). In the Name of…
Ian C. Wetmore+