Rev. Todd Weir
September 1, 2019
Luke 14:1, 7-13
If you want to understand life as it really is, do you start at the top or the bottom? Our cultural world view is to look upward. Emulate those at the top, who are successful. Strive and you too may make it to the top. In the Gospels, Jesus’s reveals that if you want to be his disciple, you start at the bottom. You sit in the low place. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn. To follow Jesus is to be turned upside down and identify downward rather than upward. As we explore our Gospel reading (Luke 14) we will see it is more than a lesson in social etiquette, or how to behave at important social functions. This is a way of life, a way of seeing, that starts bottom up, not top down.
Where you start matters. Starting at the top can be deceiving. Icebergs are a great example, just ask the captain of the Titanic. What you see at the surface is just a small portion of the ice mountain. If you look at the stock market, it is near all-time highs, employment is at record highs. Things must be great. If you look at the number of consumer bankruptcies, especially due to medical debt, or farm foreclosures, you get a different picture. Or look at workers real income adjusted for inflation, which has declined steadily over the last three decades. Where you stand matters.
If you want to understand how an organization works, should you start with the Executive Director or someone who is in an entry level position? Franklin Roosevelt learned to be effective at pushing the levers of government to get things done while he was the Secretary of the Navy. He realized that when he talked to the people who reported directly to him, he only got the opinions they wanted him to hear, the things that made them look good. Roosevelt talked with people at all levels of the Navy to get the real story. He understood that it mattered to sit in the low place. When we look top down, we seldom get to the view at the bottom, because there is so much pressure to not go there. So important people remain isolated and out of sight.
The value of the low place can be seen in the world of science. A few years ago, I had a health scare. After the Hot Chocolate Run, my feet were numb. No big deal, I’m getting older. But it didn’t go away, it got worse. One morning I got out of bed, my head started to spin, and I went to the floor and threw up. Did I have plantar fasciitis in my feet, plus maybe a brain tumor, or an auto-immune disease? My doctor ran some tests- a brain scan, balance tests. It turns out that my intestine does not absorb vitamin B-12. It was the simple blood test that revealed the problem, and regular shots of B-12 have stopped both symptoms. If you want to understand the health of the body, you have to get down to its elemental chemistry. Blood is full of things-hormones, cholesterol, white and red blood cells, trace elements. Oxygen and nutrients the cells need for health to flow in and the metabolic waste to flow out. If you want to understand and keep the body healthy, you need to pay attention to the smallest, lowest, cellular, micro-level. You have to go to the low place.
It is also true in growing food. At the community gardens I see wonderous gardens with raised beds, special tomato cages, architectural wonders for beans to climb. You can spend hours working for your crop, but at the end of the day, it is your soil that matters. The simplest, cost-effective, least labor-intensive thing you can do is take care of your soil. Mulch it, feed it, care for it and stuff will grow if you don’t really know anything else. You have to go the smallest part; you have to go to the low place.
If you want to understand our politics in the future, there is one simple number you need to track. It’s not opinion polls, voter turnout or the national debt. Just track the Carbon Dioxide levels in the atmosphere as we rise over 400 parts per million of CO2 gas in our air. As the level rises, trapping more heat in the atmosphere, more polar ice melts, more violent weather occurs. Our food supply is effected. Millions of people are on the move, migrating to simply survive. Indonesia is moving its national capital from Jakarta because the city is sinking into the ocean. This is affecting budgets, intensifying race issues, fears of changing society. All amplified by an invisible gas released by burning fuels. Like my B-12 problem, you don’t understand the problem until you look in the smallest places. If you look at the profits of a coal or oil company, you won’t notice it. If you live in prosperity at the top, it simply doesn’t have much effect. You can move to higher ground and buy what you need. You have to take the low seat. Then you see what is happening.
So, let’s get back to this party Jesus is attending. Jesus is invited to the house of a prominent Pharisee on the Sabbath. What made this Pharisee prominent? I bet it was his humility and kindness. Or was it his social status? Why was Jesus invited to his house? Didn’t he argue with Pharisees? In verse one, it says, Jesus was being carefully watched. Have you ever been to a party, feeling like everyone is watching you and judging how you fit? They watched Jesus, for what? Could this carpenter from Nazareth handle himself in the more educated and erudite circles of important people? Or was he just a charismatic charlatan preacher from the sticks, soon be revealed to be out of his league? Just sit back and wait for it. Any minute now he will say something inaccurate, or blasphemous, or rebellious. Soon he will be revealed as a laughingstock, and things can go back to normal. They were watching from the high seat, thinking Jesus was on trial.
But who was watching whom? Jesus was noticing things too. He watched people eyeballing which seat to take, as a measure of their status in the group. They walked into the room and began looking at each other’s clothes, jewelry, hair, teeth, height, weight, posture, skin tone, accent; instantly running it through the social status calculator in their brain and sorting out who got the highest seat. As Jesus points out, God forbid you get it wrong and think you are higher status than reality. How embarrassing to be demoted in front of everyone. Jesus challenges the game of how to win friends and influence people, and just grab the humble place first. Take the low seat and relax. This is not advice on how to advance more quickly by playing the “I’m so humble” game. It is opting out of the game.
This is why I have been a terrible networker. I don’t like the game. It’s too stressful, too disingenuous, and besides I’m an introvert. It’s exhausting. But a year ago, I listened to a podcast that changed the game. Instead of trying to make a good impression and impress people, passing out business cards like candy at a parade, try this. Go stand in the middle of the room and see who looks like they need to be welcomed. Go say hello and put them at ease. Forget yourself and go serve others. I tried it out and it was transformative. I had the best conversations and learned more from people than I ever had before.
Let me push this point deeper. The low seat is the life perspective Jesus embodied. He entered the scene not to impress but to serve. He states this is cosmic terms, “the lofty will be humbled, and the humble will be exalted.” This is what God is doing, so you might as well make the shift now.
How can we take the low seat? What is the equivalent of looking at life from the micro-level? Taking the low seat is also paying attention to who isn’t in the room. Who isn’t heard, or noticed? How do our decisions effect the people who are most vulnerable or least able to adapt?
Start wherever you see anxiety. Jesus addressed the anxiety he saw in the room. Do I belong, what is my status, am I accepted? Underneath anxiety is where the real fears dwell. How do you know where the anxiety is? Look around the room. Who is talking the loudest? Who is not talking at all? Who is angry? Who is full of negativity? Who is blaming others? (That is the deepest sign of anxiety.) Engaging people from the low seat means approaching them without judgement, without putting your own anxiety in the middle, and simply saying, “Tell me more about this…. What do you really want? Why is most challenging about this for you?”
Jesus shows us a God who starts from the small, the atom, molecule, the blood cell, the soil, the lowly, people at the margins, where there is pain and suffering, or injustice. Here’s our challenge. We work too hard so we will never be the low person on the totem pole, but what if the low seat is the place where we can see life more clearly, with more compassion? Take the challenge with me this week. Where will you start? Grace to you as you take this journey.