Dear Working Preacher,
When is the last time you preached a sermon with your youth as the primary audience you had in mind? Or even as a primary audience? That is, when did you take up themes you know they are thinking about, or use illustrations that draw from the music, movies, or media to which they connect?
If you’re like me, it’s probably been a long time. We don’t do this on purpose, of course. We just typically aim our sermons (usually unconsciously) at those who are within our own generation. And that’s a problem. I mean, if our young people rarely if ever hear sermons geared to them, hear illustrations drawn from their world, essentially see and hear themselves in the sermon, should we really be surprised that once they have the chance they don’t come back. We’ve made it pretty clear that very little that happens on Sunday morning is actually for them.
Okay, so I didn’t imagine starting this week’s column with a brief plea to preach for and to our youth. But then I read this week’s passage. And the image that kept popping into my head was school — the lunchroom, the locker room, the school bus, and more.
You see, in today’s gospel reading Jesus takes on the social code of his day. He lives in an honor-and-shame culture where status is pretty much everything, and one of the key places where status was displayed is mealtime. Guests of honor were seated close to the host, while those of lesser importance sat further away. And those who weren’t invited at all correspondingly mattered not at all. Status was important … and it could be fragile. To be invited to a better position at the table of an important host wasn’t simply an honor, it could also have tangible benefits to your business pursuits as well. Similarly, to be invited to a lower position could affect all dimensions of your life.
Jesus, therefore, is touching on matters of great importance as he makes two sets of interesting and inter-related comments. In the first he gives what seems to be good advice — don’t think too highly of yourself. Be modest. Better to start from a lower position and be invited higher than place yourself ahead of others and asked to move higher. It’s the kind of advice I might — okay, I actually did — give my children this weekend as they are about to start a new school.
The second commentary Jesus offers, however, is not addressed to those attending a banquet but to those giving it, and it moves beyond good advice to something that might have sounded to his audience as fairly ridiculous: don’t invite those in a position to do something for you, but rather invite those who cannot give you anything in return.
In an honor-and-shame culture, you see, counting is everything. Status, favors, debts, honor — it’s all about counting and reckoning and standing and the rest. Inviting persons to a banquet — whether family, friends, or business associates — put them in your debt and made a claim on them to return this favor to you. It’s an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of world and meals are a great way to scratch someone’s back. Which is why Jesus’ “advice” probably sounded so ludicrous. Why on earth waste an opportunity for social commerce by inviting those who have nothing to give you, who can do nothing for you, and who typically mean nothing to you? It’s crazy.
True enough. But it’s also the kingdom of God.
There is no other defense for such counsel, really, except that this is the way God wants us to treat each other. Indeed, it’s the way God treats us — creating us, giving us what we need to flourish, caring for us, forgiving us, redeeming us — even though we can do nothing meaningful for God in return. In fact, about the only thing we can do in return, when you think about it, is to share what we’ve been given with others. This is the kingdom life, and it stands in stark contrast to the honor-and-shame world in which we live.
Wait a second! The honor-and-shame world in which we live? I thought we were talking about the first century? Yeah, we are … and I’d contend it’s not that different from the world we occupy as well.
And this is where school comes in. Do you remember how obvious the pecking order was at school? How important it was to sit with the right folks at lunch? How much it meant to you to have someone invite you to a party or even just save you a seat at lunch? The clear social demarcations of the various groups from band, sports teams, techies, or whatever? The seats of honor and, well, if not shame at least uncool, on the bus? (I’d offer more examples but most of us are probably already re-living some of our worst moments!) Our schools very much operate on a status system where everything counts and everything is counted.
Truth be told, I don’t think it ends at school. It happens in the work place and at book clubs, it’s present in the volunteering we do and even at church. It happens just about everywhere; it’s just a little more obvious at school. And given that most of our kids will be returning to school this coming week or already just have, this would be a great time to ask whether our Christian faith means anything.
That’s right: I don’t want to hear a sermon this week that simply moralizes on the importance of welcoming others, I want a sermon that reminds me that God has given me all good things for no good reason and invites me to do the same for others.
I want a sermon, that is, that challenges me to take my faith seriously enough to act and live differently. Why? Because our faith only matters to us, quite frankly, to the degree that it helps navigate the daily decisions and situations that attend each of our lives. Quite frankly, this generation of youth won’t keep coming to church unless it makes a difference in their lives, and this passage invites us to think very seriously about what the “kingdom life” might look like at school.
And so I’d invite you to ask your youth some fairly pointed questions. (And, trust me, everyone else will be listening closely, too!)
- What would it be like to invite a kid who seems always to be alone to sit with your group?
- What would it be like to reach out to someone who is very different from you?
- What would it be like to give up your seat on the bus to someone who got on late?
- What would it be like to stop someone from bullying someone else?
- What would it be like to post on Facebook something kind about someone who rarely gets noticed?
- What would it be like to invite someone that doesn’t often get invited to a party or outing?
- What would it be like to tweet a quotation — maybe even verse 13 from this week’s reading — about looking out for others?
- And what would it be like, if someone asks you why you’re doing this, to say it’s because it’s what you think God wants?
Jesus in this passage invites not just his first-century hearers but also his twenty-first century followers to live differently, to break the rules of “what have you done for me lately?”, and to value others not because of what they can do for you but because they are — we each are! — children of God.
This past week we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This is one of the finest examples in history of just what can happen when you dare to defy social convention and place concerns about status and security on the shelf in order to treat all people as God’s beloved children. Given that many of our youth and their elders will have King’s call reverberating in their consciousness, this may prove a good time to inspire them by paring the words of this passage with the actions of yesterday and today’s Civil Rights leaders and call them – call all of us – to a higher purpose.
But it won’t be easy. Defying social convention – whether two thousand years ago or today – still can seem pretty ridiculous and takes equal measure of faith and courage. So maybe we need to go further still and invite families and households to check in with each other these first few weeks of school about how their Christian “walk” is going. What was it like to invite or be invited? What’s hard, what feels good? How we can encourage each other to do not what is easy but what is right?
And then go still further, and commit to praying regularly for our youth — and all of us — that we might remember Jesus’ invitation and command, that we might remember how much God has given us, that we might live differently as children of the light and begin in our homes and schools and church to fashion and nurture a different kind of community, a community founded not upon status but grace and not upon what we can do for each other but on what God has already done for us.
Things won’t change in an instant, of course. But then again Christians were first called “people of the way” because living into God’s grace and embracing and living the kingdom life takes time. It’s a journey. Indeed, it’s a journey that might start this Sunday. Thanks for your proclamation and commitment to make it so.
Yours in Christ,