Preached at Holy Sepulcher Parish on August 27, 2016 at 6:00PM and August 28, 2016 at 8:00am and 10:30am Masses
NOTE: The story of my trip to Staples was modified for the Sunday Masses as a complaint was received about its content. Here I include the original version as those who attended both Saturday and Sunday thought the Saturday version was better and they did not think that it was disrespectful.
Obviously wedding receptions were much better in biblical times than they are today. Based on what Jesus says in today’s gospel there was no seating chart. You sat wherever you wanted. Wouldn’t that be nice? Today we have those place cards that let us know where and with whom we will be spending the next half dozen hours of our lives. We don’t have a choice.
But we want to sit at Table 1, don’t we? It’s the best seat. It is always served right after the bridal party and it is perfectly situated between the band, the dance floor, and the bar. Of course Table 1 is the place of honor reserved for the parents of the bride and groom and special friends or relatives that should probably be a part of the bridal party, but didn’t make it for whatever reason. So we can’t sit there. So we end up somewhere between the older relatives at Table 2 and the people nobody thought would say yes to an invitation at Table 50, which is usually found behind a large pole next to the coat check. Table 50 is usually served its first course about the time Table 1 is receiving dessert. We would probably arrive three hours early to the reception if we could reserve Table 1 for us and our friends.
But in today’s gospel the wedding guests have a choice and Jesus tells us that we should take the lowest place, at Table 50 behind the large pole by the coat check. If we take the place of honor at Table 1 as we would like, the host, or in our case the wedding coordinator, may approach us and tell us to give our place to a more important guest, like a dearly loved grandfather, and then we would move with embarrassment to the lowest place. Of course Jesus’ example is not about seating charts, wedding etiquette, or even weddings. It’s about humility.
I think this is an important gospel for us today, especially because we live in such a self-centered society. This is the Age of Self. We look to build our self-control, self-confidence, and self-discipline. We take classes in self-defense. We read books on self-help. Yesterday I got gas at the self-service station, and of course the ever present “selfie.” While each of these “self” things are not bad in and of themselves, they all have good qualities, but they become a problem when we become so focused on them and ourselves that we begin to think we are the distinguished guests in everyone else’s lives, that we should have the highest place because we are somehow better or more important than other people. But Jesus says, “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” In today’s gospel the path to the highest place begins at the lowest place.
Sometimes we mistakenly believe that humility is meekness, modesty, having a low opinion of ourselves or of our abilities, or thinking that others are better than us. But these dictionary definitions are wrong. True humility you might be surprised to know is actually recognizing that we are great, but that our greatness comes not from who we are or anything that we have accomplished, but from the God who made it all possible. True humility also recognizes that everyone is a child of God and is just as great and as important as we are. At the Olympics in Rio last week we saw athletes with no humility and athletes with true humility. No humility was Usain Bolt who was crowned the World’s Fastest Man for the third Olympics in a row who said, like Muhammad Ali, “I am the greatest,” and Hope Solo the goalie from the U.S. Women’s soccer team who called the Swedish team “cowards” after the U.S. surprisingly lost to them. True humility was Helen Maroulis who became the first U.S. woman to win a gold medal in wrestling. After winning she quoted Psalm 115, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory.” She defeated the woman who won the gold medal at the previous three Olympics. When asked about her opponent Helen said, “I don’t hate my opponent. It’s about respecting her so much that I give it my all.”
That’s true humility and that is what Jesus is looking for in each one of us. It is the path to true greatness.
First, we have to be humble by honestly looking at ourselves. Finding out who we are as a person, figuring out our gifts, talents, and strengths, but especially closely examining our imperfections, flaws, faults, where we need to improve, and where we might never improve. We don’t like to do this because we like to focus on the positives. We tend to ignore or gloss over any personal negatives we might have. But Olympians regularly assess themselves to become champions. We need to see that we have not yet achieved the highest place in order to reach it.
Next, we humble ourselves before God. We begin by recognizing that God has provided us with our special gifts and talents, and we thank Him for providing them. Then we recognize that we cannot fix our imperfections, flaws, faults, sinfulness, struggles, addictions, and all our other negatives on our own. We can’t do it ourselves. We don’t like to even think about them, how can we fix them? So we involve God in the process of fixing. That’s what people in twelve step programs do to overcome their addictions. They turn them over to God. The Lord guides us from the lowest place to the highest place.
Finally, we humble ourselves before others, putting them ahead of ourselves, helping them to the highest place while we ourselves take the lowest place. This can be so difficult in a self-centered world, even for a deacon. I was at Staples this past week and because it was the first week of school, the store was a mess. The aisles were crowded and the checkout lines were long. After I got my item and made my way to pay, I heard them make a call for another cashier to go to the front, so I quickly made my way to the empty register. I did have a homily to write after all. An older woman with a walker loaded full of items for her grandchildren saw me and where I was headed and suddenly lifted up her walker and just about sprinted so that she could check out ahead of me. I would have let her go ahead of me anyway, but what about the others in the store? They were all probably in a hurry as well. Would I have only let the older woman ahead of me or everyone? God made sure I had plenty of time to think about this. The older woman questioned the price of each item. She used coupons, some of them expired. She debated with the cashier about applying for a credit card, but decided instead to join the rewards club. She looked all through her very large purse for the exact change, that she eventually figured out that she did not have. God gave me plenty of time to reflect on the fact that everyone is a child of God and is just is great and important as we are. Each one of us is called to make sure that everyone is seated at the highest place, while we ourselves are to be content with the lowest place.
Today’s first reading from the Book of Sirach says, “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.” The path to greatness comes through humility, by becoming the greatest and most important person we can be by recognizing it only comes with the help of God, and then turning around and treating everyone else as greater than we ourselves are, not just Olympians, athletes, or other famous people. Everyone. We don’t get to choose who they are. The older woman at Staples, the person trying to merge onto Route 28, the person who drives 30 miles an hour in the single lane part of Route 228, the person at school or work, the person at the wedding we don’t want to sit with, everyone in our lives, but especially those who most need to feel greatness, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” as Jesus says in today’s gospel.
For Jesus greatness is determined not by how great we become ourselves, but how great we help others to become, leading people from the lowest place to the highest place. If we live in this way in true humility Jesus says, “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous,” when our Lord will come to us at our seat at the lowest place and lead us as the distinguished guest to our new seat at the highest place, at the table of the wedding feast of the Lamb in heaven.
Rejoice and be glad!