Sunday, August 28, 2016

Pentecost 15C

Luke 14:1, 7–14

 

PLACES OF HONOR IN THE EARTH COMMUNITY

 

Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.

 

Jesus did not act like a model guest at the dinner party described in our gospel reading.[1] He was at the house of a leader of the Pharisees. The first thing he did was violate Pharisaic teaching about not healing on the Sabbath. Jesus healed a man with dropsy, an affliction involving excess accumulation of fluids in the body. Prior to healing him, Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees in the room, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” After healing him, Jesus added a second question, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?”

 

Next, Jesus offered unsolicited advice to his fellow guests on seating etiquette.[2] He rebuked them for choosing places of honor. He exhorted them to sit in the lowest places and wait for the host to come and say, “Friend, move up higher.”

 

Finally, Jesus critiqued the host for his exclusive guest list. The social norm for a distinguished host was to invite friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. Such guests were likely to return the favor and invite the host to future dinner parties. But Jesus urged the host, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” The poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind were considered outcasts. According to Leviticus 21:17–23, such outcasts were not to serve as priests. They tended to be excluded from the established religious community. Yet Jesus told the host, an upstanding leader in the religious community, to defy the religious norm and invite them. In the Parable of the Great Banquet, which follows today’s gospel reading, Jesus stressed once again the importance of inviting the outcasts.

 

In Luke 14 Jesus may challenge the prevailing norms of Sabbath behavior and dinner etiquette, but his primary concern was to instill humility in the community of God’s people. As he states in Luke 14:11, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Humility was seldom considered virtuous in the culture of that time. Jesus was convinced that humility was essential to the well-being of his followers— both as individuals and as a community of God. He challenged the notion that places of honor in the community of God were reserved for a select group of established or elite persons.

 

Our gospel reading from Luke seems to have little or nothing to do with Earth care. There is no talk of the consequences of ecological degradation such as “food and water shortages, rising coastal waters, melting glaciers and ice sheets, loss of biodiversity, soil fatigue, resource depletion, and various forms of pollution.”[3] Neither Jesus nor the society in which he lived were facing imminent threat of ecological catastrophe. Nonetheless, Jesus’ teaching on humility sheds light on the ecological fix we are in.

 

At the risk of oversimplifying the ecological crisis, one could argue: the root of the problem is that human beings seized places of honor in the Earth community of all God’s creatures and now the whole Earth community is paying the price. In a classic 1967 essay entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Lynn White Jr. leveled a blistering critique of the Christian tradition’s attitude toward nature. According to the creation story in Genesis 1:28, “God blessed human beings, and God said to them, `Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Through the centuries many in the Christian tradition have interpreted this blessing as a license to dominate the rest of the Earth community. We have learned to exploit nature for what we perceive to be our human benefit. There have certainly been benefits of the way of life we adopted, but it is becoming more and more clear that our exploitive way of life is ecologically unsustainable. God gave us a special responsibility to care for the Earth community, but unfortunately we have misused that responsibility.

 

How does God feel about the role of human beings in bringing the Earth to the brink of ecological disaster? The story of Noah gives us a clue. Growing up in the church, I loved to sing the story of Noah and the Ark. I remember singing often:

 

 The Lord said to Noah: there's gonna be a floody, floody. The Lord said to Noah: there's gonna be a floody, floody Get those children out of the muddy, muddy, children of the Lord.

 

So, rise and shine, and give God the glory, glory. Rise and shine, \ and give God the glory, glory. Rise and shine, and give God the glory, glory. Children of the Lord.

 

We had so much fun with this song, that we did not pay much attention to the deep sadness of God at the beginning of the Noah story. In Genesis 6:5–6 we read: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” God’s grief is so intense that it cuts God to the heart. The Hebrew term translated as “grieve” is also used in Genesis to refer to the pain of childbirth. So sorrowful is God by what has transpired that God resolves to blot out human beings and all that God has created.

 

The story concludes on a more hopeful note. Noah and his family and all the creatures on the ark survive; God establishes a new covenant with Noah and every living thing; and God promises never again to send a flood to destroy the earth.

 

God may have made such a promise, but now the way we human beings are living threatens to produce catastrophic flooding. Some argue the catastrophe has already begun.

 

The current edition of Time magazine includes an article entitled “A `thousand-year storm’ hits Louisiana.” Waters have swamped levees “built to protect against more modest flooding than what resulted from this so-called thousand-year storm.” As Jack Dickey writes, “epic floods have hit the South with alarming frequency in recent months.” These floods have “reminded some Louisianans of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, prompting a new round of worries about natural disasters and man-made climate change.”[4]

 

2016 is on track to be the hottest year in recorded history. The melting of ice sheets and glaciers appears to be accelerating. That will, of course, only compound the threat of catastrophic flooding around the global. Surely God’s heart must be breaking to witness what we are doing to our God-given Earth home.

 

What will it take to address the urgent ecological crisis we face? Bill McKibben among others has asserted that it will take a massive global effort dwarfing the massive national effort Americans engaged in to win World War II.[5] We in the church do not have any privileged expertise on addressing global warming and its consequences. But we do know something about transforming hearts. This massive global effort will require a major change of heart in many privileged human beings. That change of heart will begin by sharing in God’s grief over what we have wrought. It will not be easy to give up a way of life so many of us hold dear. But literally the well-being of the whole Earth community depends on it.

 

The hope is that shared grief with God will move our hearts to give up the places of honor we have seized. To put it bluntly, elite and privileged human beings need a huge dose of humility. The least of these among us— both human and nonhuman— need to be invited to occupy places of honor in the Earth community— places that in God’s eyes they already occupy. The truth is: God created the Earth in such a way that we will only thrive inasmuch as all members of the Earth community are honored and inasmuch as we live together within our God-given limits. Other creatures have a much better track record than privileged human beings of living within their limits. As people of faith, as we ponder with God what is happening to our Earth home, may we be grieved to the heart so that we may indeed be moved to fulfill the covenant God has made with the whole Earth community.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

 

 



[1] Alan Culpepper. The Gospel of Luke, New Interpreter’s Bible, volume IX, page 286.

 

[2] Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Church Year C, 161.

[3] Mark Brocker, Coming Home to Earth (Forthcoming), 17.

[4] Time, August 29, 2016, page 17.

[5] “Let’s Win the War on Warming,” New Republic, September 2016.