August 28, 2016

Proper 17 Year C 15th Week after Pentecost

I read an interesting detail about the old west this week that reminded me that human beings haven’t changed much since Jesus’ time and that there are certain habits that need to be challenged by the values Jesus came into the world to embody.

The stagecoach was the main means of transportation in the Old West before trains became more prominent. The coaches back then were relatively small. At most, they carried six passengers. However, there were still classes of passengers that were recognized. Tickets were sold just like today on airlines and trains - first class, second and even third class. The distinction, however, did not have to do with the size of the seat or the kind of food that was served, but rather what was expected of the ticket holder in case the stagecoach got into a difficult situation - like a deep bog of mud or an incline too steep to be able to negotiate.

Those three types of tickets each carried certain privileges and/or responsibilities: first class entitled the ticket owner to remain in the stagecoach no matter what conditions might be faced. When you purchased the most expensive ticket, this meant that you were exempt from having to put forth any kind of effort. A second-class ticket meant that if difficulty arose, you had to get out and walk alongside the stagecoach until the difficulty could be resolved. The cheapest ticket, the third-class one, called on the ticket-holder to take responsibility for whatever difficulty the stage-coach might find itself in.

This meant the third class ticket holder not only had to get out of the coach when there was a problem, but they also had to get down in the mud and do whatever had to be done so that the vehicle could get moving again. As part of being a third-class holder of a ticket, they were required, in addition to what they paid for their ticket, to put in some "sweat equity". Needless to say, this was the least prestigious of all the categories.

When I read about this practice on the stagecoach, I thought how this is reflective of our human nature, namely, to equate the category of first class with privilege and being exempt from having to do the most kinds of physical labor, and the lower the class the more menial the job. At the same time, it dawned on me how radically different Jesus' hierarchy of values were.

Jesus gave a very different interpretation to this metaphor of first class. In the most literal sense, he turned the value system of the world upside down and dared to say that in God's eyes the really first-class reality was not the privilege of having everything done for you, but rather a willingness to do the opposite and assume the role of a servant who is willing to deal with the difficulty and is more concerned to help out than to simply be waited on by others.

When our overwhelming desire is to get ahead of someone else, the last thing we want to do is to have to stoop over and appear to be beneath that other person. The true secret of greatness is not the one who lords himself or herself over another as if they were superior, but the one who is free to do whatever the situation demands because their ego needs have already been met by the grace of God.

Here is the foundation of Jesus' radical counter-revolution when it comes to what is first class, second class, and third class. The willingness to serve is the greatest of all the values in the Christian hierarchy of understanding. The true first-class status, according to Jesus, is not one of exemption or privilege where you pay the most so you'll have to do the least. It is, rather, the eager willingness to do whatever needs to be done, no matter how seemingly disagreeable.

This servant willingness represents the highest of all values. And we are free to live in this way by the realization that our worth as human beings comes from the knowledge that we are loved and accepted by God, created in God’s own image and likeness, and not from our own achievements or status. Our worth is given to us as a gift in Christ, and realizing this, in the depths of our being, is the great freeing reality.

This is the real theme of today's Gospel, the willingness to take a lower seat when invited to a dinner and not to walk in anxiously trying to gain preeminence by errantly taking a front row seat. We do not need these outward props to our ego because the truth is, all of our ego needs have already been met by God's totally abundant grace.

The same is true when we decide to give a party ourselves. Instead of compiling a guest list of people who can up our status and help us with our social standing, Jesus suggests that we should be free to ask those who probably need a meal or party most of all and then to use our entertainment as a way to bless others rather than to impress people with our own prominence.

Nothing I can think of would make life in our world more radically different or genuinely better than following the example and teaching of Jesus in this area. What is really first class in the eyes of God is a person who is freed by grace to be a servant that is always looking to meet the needs of others, rather than serve their own interests. That would make all the difference. Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t meet our own needs and look out for our families and friends, we do. But what it does mean is that we don’t do that to the exclusion of helping others as we encounter them.

And the good news is that this is possible here and now for all of us. You already are totally and completely the beloved of God. Once that gracious truth takes root in the depths of your being, then you too can begin to act out what is truly first class in God's eyes. You, too, can become a servant of the needs of the world.

See yourself as God sees you and be freed by that truth in God’s love.

As we come to the table for this Eucharistic feast, remember it is a tangible sign and sacrament of God’s love for us. You are accepted and loved and free to love because God in Christ has loved you first.