HOW SHOULD WE GO FORWARD? WITH HUMILITY!
- Humility with respect to self
- Humility with respect to others
Text: Luke 14:1,7-14
When Pastor Waterstradt was about to retire from the ministry a couple of years ago, he came to me with a request about the worship plans for his final Sunday. He asked that we not make any major changes to the service plans or the Bible readings for the day; he would simply preach on one of the three readings for the day and make it fit as a final farewell sermon. As the plans turned out, Pastor Waterstradt’s final Sunday occurred eight weeks after Easter on “Trinity Sunday.” All three readings mentioned the Trinity, but one of the readings that day came from the end of one of the apostle Paul’s letters, in which he was saying “farewell” to his readers. Needless to say, that reading was a perfect match for that occasion!
I took the same approach on my final Sunday in my previous parish five years ago, and I planned to do the same this morning for my final Sunday among you here at St. Mark’s. And then I looked at the appointed readings for today and thought, “This is going to be a challenge!” Today’s three lessons have one common theme: humility. What a message to preach on a pastor’s final Sunday: “You all should be humbler!” This could be an awkward sermon to preach!
But the more I thought about these readings, the more I realized that today is a good day for us to hear a message of humility—that each person thinks humbly of himself and others, that we do not elevate anyone to be a “second Savior” in our minds, and that we maintain a spirit of warmth and humility as you carry out your congregation’s ministry in the future under different circumstances. Since I announced my acceptance of a new call, I haven’t been a part of discussions about St. Mark’s future plans, but on my final Sunday with you, it is appropriate for us to turn to God’s Word and find encouragement for the spirit and attitude with which you ought to move forward. How should you move forward as a Christian congregation? Jesus answers that question in today’s Gospel by saying, “With humility!” Jesus’ words in Luke 14 encourage us to keep a humble attitude with respect to oneself, and also to keep a humble attitude with respect to others.
Children like to be first. Little children like to be the first in line. Children at recess want to be the first one picked by the team captain. Students who are good at academics even like to be the first one who hands in their completed quiz or test. With the start of the new school year, teachers around the country are about to deal with another round of children wanting to be first!
That’s not just an issue with children. Zoom back in time to Jesus’ day and the Gospel for today and you will see highly respected, uber-religious grown-ups basically doing the same thing! The opening verse of the chapter tells us that Jesus was being “carefully watched” by others at this social gathering, but Jesus was also watching the behavior of those who thought that Jesus needed to be watched. And Jesus turned the tables on those who were watching him.
It was apparent that the gathered guests were vying for the seats closest to the host at the dinner table, because those seats implied importance. Like little preschoolers trying to get the spot at the front of the line, these highly respected religious men were trying to be first. But Jesus points out a simple fact that seemed to have eluded them all. When you think you’re first, and when you try to be first, you may be thinking too highly of yourself, and you may very well end up “last.” “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.”
Can you imagine what those respected religious men must have thought when they were being schooled by the man they were trying to trap? But there was no arguing Jesus’ point, and there was no arguing Jesus’ pithy conclusion: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus’ statement is true in practical, everyday matters (like table manners), but it is also true when it came to spiritual matters.
The owner of the moving company we are working with said to us that moving is one of the most stressful things that happens in life. I agree! But when a pastor moves, the church he leaves also enters into what is probably a very stressful time for a congregation: a vacancy. When you’re under stress, sometimes you don’t handle matters in a sanctified way. And in a congregation, the stress of a vacancy or of change in general can lead us to handle matters in ways that aren’t always the best. Now I’m not referring to taking the best spots at the table; I’m referring to assuming the best status for myself. “If only my plan would be followed for the future, then we would succeed.” “If only I were in charge, then we would go in a positive direction.” And the problem of an improperly elevated status can also apply to the way we look at our pastors. “How will we go forward without Pastor Carr? …Pastor Tackmier? …Pastor Waterstradt? …Pastor Strey?”
That’s when we need Jesus’ admonishment from today’s Gospel. Remember: Membership in a Christian congregation is a public acknowledgement that you need a Savior from sin. Membership is a statement of humility, not a statement of status. And remember: The man who stands before you fills an office. Just as a judge or a police officer or a military service man wears a uniform, so the pastor wears vestments that signify his office, because it is the office of the ministry and not the man under the vestments that matters. But when we elevate self—be it your own self or the individual man called to serve us in the ministry—what we are really engaging in is sin. By all means, cherish the gifts and wisdom God gives you personally and that he has given you through his called ministers, but don’t elevate the individual.
Jesus reminds us to move forward with humility with respect to self. In fact, he does more than just encourage healthy humility. He embodied humility. He did more than tell us to be humble. He humbled himself to the point of death—even death on a cross. And Jesus’ humility is not merely a model to emulate. His humility is our salvation to celebrate!
Scripture calls on us to imitate Jesus’ humility, but Jesus did not come to this world primarily to give us a “how to” course in humility. He came to carry out and win your salvation from sin. By humbling himself to be born of the Virgin Mary, by permitting himself to be nailed to the cross, and by submitting to death, Jesus provided the perfect humility that our lives lack but that God the Father now credits to us, he provided the full and complete payment for all of our sins, and he provided a future victory over your grave by his past resurrection.
When Jesus encourages us to live humbly with respect to self, he isn’t giving us a guilt trip. Rather, he is inspiring us by the humility he lived for us and on behalf of us. When Jesus urges us not to elevate oneself or another person, his words are not a chastisement, but a chance to see him more clearly humbled and exalted for our sake. So we gladly move forward into the future with humility in respect to self.
I recently came across a humorous social media picture: a drawing of a family leaving church with the caption, “That was a great sermon on sin. I felt like the pastor was speaking directly to the man two pews in front of us.” If the host of this banquet heard Jesus admonish his guests, I suppose he could have thought, “Yeah, that’s right Jesus, some of these people here are a little too full of themselves. You tell ‘em!” To be clear, we have no idea what the host was thinking, but if had been thinking that, Jesus had a different perspective for him to consider. “Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”
There was certainly nothing wrong for this man to invite his friends over for a dinner. But when you invite someone over for a dinner, the odds are strong that you will later be “repaid” with an invitation to you. Jesus suggested to his host that he consider inviting the poor and disabled—people who wouldn’t have the means to return the favor. Jesus said the “repayment” in that case would come from God. Jesus isn’t using “merit” language here, as if God is counting this nice act as the reason to accept someone into heaven. Rather, Jesus is pointing out that a humble heart, which seeks no “repayment” for an action, will be blessed by God. God sees those actions as the reflections of a heart of faith in Jesus’ righteousness, and he will bless those souls that have been declared righteous for Jesus’ sake with a “repayment” far above what anyone deserves when he brings us home to heaven.
We realize that Jesus isn’t telling us today that we can’t invite our friends over for a barbeque or that we can’t invite our family over for Thanksgiving dinner, but we also sense that Jesus’ words most naturally apply to ourselves: Don’t be kind just to receive kindness back. Don’t be kind to control others into doing something you want from them. Rather, be kind and loving because that’s what Christians do when they realize how kind and gracious and loving their Lord and Savior has been to them! But on this particular day, we would do well to apply these words to the way you will move forward as a Christian congregation.
In a sense, our weekly gatherings in God’s house are a spiritual banquet. And a banquet has guests. So whom will you invite? As you think about the people in our community that you want to reach, it can become all too easy to look at others in terms of the “benefit” they have to offer to St. Mark’s—their offerings, the past experience they bring to the table, the connections they can help to make, etc. If Christians and churches were immune from that way of thinking, then James wouldn’t have written what he said in the Second Lesson for today (James 2:1-13).
Those who can contribute their gifts and talents to a congregation are truly blessings from God. But they are not greater members of the body of Christ, or they are not greater potential members of the body of Christ, than the man on the unemployment line or the single mom who needs help or the elderly couple on a fixed income. Every soul Christ brings to us is here for the same reason. In humility, we confess our sinfulness. In humility, we confess Jesus as the One who has redeemed us from sin. In humility, we rejoice that God has adopted us, cleansed us, and keeps us in his family. So we move forward with humility with respect to others.
St. Mark’s has good reason to consider if you want to focus your ministry and your energy on reaching out to young families looking for a school, or to ethnicities with strong representation in our community, or to another demographic group that appears to be a group you are well poised to reach. That’s common sense planning, and that’s good. But as humble children of God, we see every soul the same, whether or not they fall into a desirable demographic target group. Every soul needs the gospel. Every soul is one for whom Christ died. Every soul can be extended the invitation to Christ’s banquet that takes place here in this church and that will eventually take place for all eternity in heaven.
When Pastor Matthew Harrison was first elected president of our former sister church body, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, in 2010, he came up to address the delegates who had elected him after what had been a very contentious time in their denomination. And the first thing he said to them was, “You have continued your perfect track record of electing sinners to the office of president in the Missouri Synod.”
As we close our chapter together as pastor and congregation, I urge you to exemplify that kind of humility. View yourselves and one another in humility. The man who wears these vestments is not nearly as relevant as the Redeemer he preaches. And you who occupy these pews are also not here to make a name for yourself, but to raise up the name of Jesus, at which every knee will bow on the Last Day. You have many decisions and directions to determine in the days ahead, but what a great blessing it will be for you, and what a great statement it will be to this community, when you undertake all that lies ahead with love and humility and charity. Dear members of St. Mark’s, God bless you as you move forward with humility. Amen.