A Message given by Rev. Scott Summerville
Sunday, September 2, 2007

Jesus gives this advice in the fourteenth chapter of Luke:

When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down in the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host and the host who invited both of you may come and say, “Give this person your place,” and in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you “Friend, move up higher.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.

We’re going to try out a couple of interpretations of this advice today.

Interpretation # 1: What Jesus really means is “Don’t take risks.”

The honored guest at the head of the table can get moved down, and how humiliating and shameful that is, but the guy at the end is of the table is safe. The point is: play it safe. Don’t take risks. Do not set yourself up for disappointment in life. This generally means observing the following guidelines:

Avoid new situations – stick to situations where everything is safe and familiar.
Avoid new ideas: avoid thoughts that you have not thought before.
Avoid conflict. If you disagree with others, keep quiet – expressing your difference of
opinion openly is dangerous.
And do everything possible to avoid embarrassment. Because the worst thing that can ever happen to you is to be embarrassed – yes sir – shame is the worst thing possible, so go along – do whatever you need to do – don’t stand up and make a fool of yourself – don’t challenge the way things are, for the finger of shame may descend upon you.

Just take the low seat where no one will notice you, or challenge you, or embarrass you.

Let’s try another interpretation:

Interpretation # 2 : (closely related to interpretation #1)

Jesus means that good Christians are humble, non-assertive, nice people, who go out of their way to avoid conflict or embarrassment. I repeat: good Christians are humble, non-assertive, nice people, who go out of their way to avoid conflict or embarrassment. They always take the lowest and most inconspicuous seat.

When I was ten or eleven years old I was standing by my neighbor’s car as he got in and closed the door on my finger. I was raised be unassuming and polite at all times. Adults in my family circle did not cry or raise their voices, and those cowboys and soldiers I saw in the movies and TV did not cry out in pain or shed tears.

I said quietly, “Mr. Williams my finger is caught in your car door.” What I really wanted to say was, “Open the damn door before my finger falls off! ”

Generations of good Christian upbringing had molded my natural responses to the point where I could stand with my finger caught in a car door and meekly inform the driver that there was a bit of a problem.

Do any of you have your finger shut right now in a car door? Are you needing to express something that has you in a painful grasp, but for some reason you tell yourself, “I must not speak. I must not raise my voice – good girls don’t cry out! Proper people – nice people – don’t cry out! Boys and strong men don’t cry out!”

Is your finger caught in a door? Are you allowed – are you allowing yourself – to speak up!

Let me say as plainly as I can: Jesus was clearly a champion of the poor, the beaten down. He spoke his mind no matter who was listening. The parable is not about playing it safe, avoiding confrontation, taking the easy low risk approach to life, or about keeping your pain and your opinions to yourself.

When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down in the place of honor….. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place…

I invite you to think for a moment about the lowest place – the lowest place you have been. Maybe you are in a low place right now. At any given time someone among us is in a very low place, and that is true in this sanctuary this morning.

For many years this parable has been for me personally a parable about my low places. I do not like being in low places. I like mountaintops, clear views, bright skies – good times! But that is not where I spend all my time. How about you? A voice within me says: “I hate to be down; I hate it down here. I hate to be depressed, to be scared, to be discouraged, to be sick. This isn’t life; life is somewhere else. How can I get there – how can I get back there? What did I do wrong to get me in this place?”

Through this parable I have heard Jesus say again and again: “Sit down – the low places in our lives have something to give us – something to teach us.”

In my low places I have learned how much I need others.
In my low places I have learned how sacred love and friendship are.
In my low places I have learned to be more compassionate with others.
And in a curious way, in our low places, in the places where we are most depleted
and washed out, I have learned that, if will we open ourselves to it, there is power, a strange energy available to us in the depths.

Through this parable Jesus says to me: honor the low places.

This is a difficult message for men in our culture and for men in many cultures. I mention the poet Robert Bly from time to time. Bly has written a lot about men. He observes that in our culture a male learns that life consists of a series of obstacles which must be overcome. Men are to be successful, cheerful and strong – or appear to be – regardless of the toll it takes on them. When he cannot be all these things, the male says to himself, “I’m not what I’m supposed to be, so let me tune out, go numb, and pretend nobody notices.” Bly observes that young males go into a state of isolation, and they may stay in that state ten years or more. They may turn to alcohol or other drugs or some other thing to make them high, to lift them up, when what they need is not to go up, but to go down.

That is the advice Robert Bly gives to men: “Men,” he says, “You must go down.” “Honor your sadness,” he says, “It is the key to your growth.” “Do you think women won’t like you if you’re not cheerful? They’ll probably like you a whole lot more.” He says to his own wife, “How can I be close to you, if I’m not sad?”

Consider the people in your life you respect the most – people in whom you see depth of experience and character – ask them where they got those qualities you so admire. I would guess that they got it “down there.” They got a whole lot of their depth of character, wisdom, and compassion in their struggles in their own low places.

If you struggle with chronic sadness, self attack, depressed feelings, speak up. Talk to someone. You must speak, if you don’t want to stay forever in the low places.

But I also say: honor the depths – honor the depths.
When you are invited to a banquet, go and sit down at the lowest place.

What an odd thought. Here is an invitation to honor our sadness, our griefs, to honor our disappointments, to honor the crises of our lives, and when those times come, not to run from them, but to live in them and work through them, and learn from them. It is in the low places that we learn wisdom and compassion, and where we may find a new energy for life.