A sermon delivered by David Hughes, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on August 29, 2010.

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Many years ago I received a letter inviting me to accept a credit card that shall remain unnamed.  The letter said:  Dear Dr. Hughes:  You are being considered for a remarkable card membership.  It is one of the most useful and prized card memberships of our day.  It is based on a symbol –one that is recognized in virtually every major city in the world, where it is regarded as a sign of indisputable achievement.  Of course, I’m speaking of the XYZ card.

And with this letter I hope to inform you about the privileges and opportunities that you may share as one of the select group of men and women who comprise our membership.  Before we go any further, and so that you will understand the significance of this letter, I should mention that this invitation to apply is not extended to most people.  But that is one of the satisfactions of the XYZ card membership. 

Because it is not encountered as often…it makes an eloquent impression.  The Card says you are someone special:  someone who is successful, self-assured, and who appreciates—indeed, has come to expect—an extra measure of courtesy and personal attention.  The XYZ card says more about you than almost anything you can buy with it.  But one fact above all: it says you’ve earned the card.

As it happened, the same week I received this credit card solicitation I also received in the mail a brochure for a conference entitled, See You at the Top. This particular seminar promised to show me how to get to the top and stay at the top of my peers.  I was feeling so proud of myself for receiving these invitations that I almost ordered the See You at the Top video with my new XYZ credit card!

Now what this letter and brochure were really saying is this —Dr. Hughes, you are a winner (yes, flattery will get you everywhere)!  Doesn’t it feel good to be on top of the heap! And if you want to stay there, all you’ve got to do is buy our product.   Don’t worry about the expense — you can afford it, because you’re a winner.  And if you’ll just work with us, your upward mobility will be guaranteed — we’ll be seeing you at the top — forever!

Let me be honest and say this sales pitch is pretty effective. I like the thought of me presenting my XYZ Card to a cashier, and the cashier thinking, “Wow, this is an XYZ Card. Dr. David M. Hughes must be quite a guy!”

Madison Avenue is awfully good at hooking me, you and everybody else when it comes to come-ons like these because they’re aware of 2 things.    They are aware of America’s love affair with success and status. They’re also aware of the innate desire you and I have to not only keep up with the Joneses, but stay slightly ahead.

Once three executives were arguing over what constitutes “real status”.  One executive said, “Real status is being invited to the White House for a conversation with the President.” Another said, “No, you know you’ve really arrived when you are invited to the White House for a conversation with the President, the hot line rings, and he ignores it so he can keep talking to you.”  The third executive said, “You’re both wrong.  Real status is when you are invited to the White House for a conversation with the President, the hot line rings, he answers it and says, “Here, it’s for you!” 

The human longing for higher status is a predictable part of our fallen frame, and the human game of one-upsmanship is one of our favorite pastimes. But it’s nothing new.  Indeed, Jesus, the greatest of all psychologists, identified this human dynamic 2000 years ago.  

As the 14th chapter of Luke unfolds, Jesus has been asked to Sabbath lunch with the religious VIPs of the day, otherwise known as the Pharisees.  Jesus knows the Pharisees are watching him closely, and he intends to make the most of the moment.  Before they’re even seated at the table Jesus almost ruins their appetites by healing a sick man, which of course was forbidden on the Sabbath. Once the Pharisees regain their senses, they scramble like a bunch of preschoolers for the available chairs (or reclining couches) around the table.   

Jesus watches this mad scramble with amusement, and then sits down with the Pharisees. With a smile on his face, he proceeds to tell them a story. At first glance, the story seems to deal with table etiquette and manners.  But at second glance, we hear Jesus articulating some Madison Avenue-type slogans that we need to hear before we fall for Madison Avenue’s “See You at the Top”.

A man had a great marriage feast and invited many guests. At wedding feasts it was customary for guests to be seated according to social rank and  importance. The closer you sat to the host, the more important you were. In comes a guest to the feast who reeks of arrogance.  Without hesitation or invitation, he swaggers over to the most honored seat in the house — directly next to the host. Then another guest walks in and very unobtrusively takes the seat at the far end of the table.  Finally, the host takes his place at the head of the table.

The host looks around the table to see who is there. Then, to the astonishment of the guests, he instructs the fellow seated next to him at the head of the table to exchange places with the fellow at the end of the table. The very same man who only moments ago sashayed into the room with such an air of importance now slinks to the bottom of the table like a whipped pup with his tail between his legs.

How could we package this story into a Madison Avenue slogan? How about, “See you at the bottom!”  Jesus had watched the shameful jockeying for power of the Pharisees, not only around the dinner table, but in the Temple, and many other places. Theirs was the ancient version of “See You at the Top” — they were the biblical “ruppies”, the religious upwardly mobile professionals who were scrambling up the ecclesiastical ladders of success as fast as they could go.

Two thousand years later, you may think we are far too mature to play such games, especially in church.  But did you know that the word, pew, comes from the French word, puie, which means “raised place”?  And did you know that in the early years of the United States, prominent church families were allowed to sit in roped-off sections, separate from the riff-raff?  The seats of the snobs were called “pews”.

When the church finally admitted that this tradition was non biblical, it disposed of the seats of honor.  In time, all benches became known as pews.  Still, in the 18th century, prominent families were allowed to buy pew boxes.  Often, these families would decorate their pew boxes, installing arm chairs and even fire places.  Today, we don’t have pew boxes.  But we still have lots of people who think they own certain pews, and they let visitors know it who are unlucky enough to sit in the wrong place!

 “You’ve got it all wrong,” Jesus is saying to the Pharisees and us. “You should be saying not “See you at the top,” but “See you at the bottom, for those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t knocking healthy self-esteem. It was he who said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Of course, Jesus wasn’t knocking excelling in your business or career. It was Jesus who affirmed those who used their talents well, and chided those who didn’t.

What Jesus was knocking was a prideful obsession with status and success that made anything and anyone, including God, expendable in one’s climb to the top. Jesus knew the devastating results of pride. He knew, in Rosalyn Carter’s words, that “When you’re all wrapped up in yourself, you’re a very small package.” He knew, in the words of Proverbs, that pride goes before the fall.

So in one of the great paradoxes of all time, Jesus said that we actually get to the top when we’re not really aiming for it, that we become somebody not by pushing ourselves up but by humbling ourselves down, or to quote the prophet Micah, we succeed when we “walk humbly with our God.”  In other words, “See You at the Bottom!”

But there’s more.  Now that Jesus has everybody’s attention, he turns to his host and tells him he’s invited the wrong crowd to dinner.  He’s mistakenly invited the upper crust of religious society when he should have invited the lower crust — what we describe in the South as poor, white trash. Translated into a Madison Avenue slogan, Jesus is saying, “See You With The Poor!”

This one really knocks the socks off the Pharisees.   For social and religious reasons, the Pharisees believed in mixing with socially, religiously respectable people of their own kind. You would never make contact with the scum of society — their scumminess might rub off on you. 

Besides, these people can do nothing to repay you. Everyone knows that inviting influential friends for a gourmet dinner can be a not-so-subtle way of eliciting a payback engagement and thereby securing your place in polite society. But the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind will never be able to pay back.  In fact, if you have them for dinner, you’ll probably have to pick them up, help them to the table, and take them home as well as feed them!

Once Mother Teresa was visiting one of the poor souls the world had forgotten. The mom’s room was tiny and filthy. Mother Teresa wanted to clean it up but the man   said   that   he was all right and refused.  Even so, this modern saint persisted until he gave in.  As she cleaned a lamp that was obviously unused for many years, she asked him why he had not lit it.  The Sisters of Charity encouraged him to do so. One day, after the Sisters were permitted to visit him regularly, he said, “Tell my friend (Mother Teresa) the light she has lit in my life is still burning.”

Jesus is saying, “If you want to be somebody in this world, you don’t have to have an XYZ Card, or rub shoulders with all the right people.    Try rubbing shoulders with the wrong people, and lighting a few lamps.” In other words, “See you with the poor!”

But there’s one more twist to this dinner conversation. Jesus says, unabashedly, unashamedly, “Do what I am saying and you’ll be handsomely rewarded — at the resurrection of the righteous.” Once again, Madison Avenue might say, “See you with your reward!”

This is a bit surprising, to say the least. Jesus has just gotten us ready to take no thought of ourselves, and to be completely committed to others, when he interjects the notion of reward.  What’s going on?

Well, nothing that mysterious, really. The fact is, living humbly and helping the down and out has its own reward. There is a certain satisfaction that comes from healthy humility and servanthood that can never come from using the XYZ Card or owning a luxury car or climbing to the top of your company.  I know, for example, that I can’t think of anything I’ve done more satisfying recently than working with disadvantaged pastors in Belize many of whom are working two and three jobs just so they can serve churches who cannot afford to pay them a penny.   Which raises some interesting paradoxes – namely, the greatest rewards in this world are those that are not deliberately sought, but just naturally come.  And the greatest rewards of all don’t come in this world—they come in the next. 

The Apostle Paul knew all about downward mobility, Jesus style.  Before he met Jesus Paul was the rising star of the Jewish Sanhedrin, on the fast track toward being the head man.  After he met Jesus, Paul dropped like a rock to become a Christian missionary who was stoned, imprisoned, and finally executed.  Near the end of his ministry Paul knew the end was at hand.  But Paul also knew about his reward.   Here is what he wrote just before the ax fell:  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord…will award to me on that day, …(2 Timothy 4:7-8).

You can listen to the hype of Madison Avenue. Or you can listen to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  But know this – at the end of the day, what will count most is not that you are seen at the top, but at the bottom — with Jesus.

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