Take a Seat
I’ve had the privilege of being a part of three different discussion groups over these past few months that connects regularly. Each bring insight and each group has its own personality. We’ve talked about our personal and professional lives as it relates to Covid, unemployment, Black Lives Matter, the upcoming election. Each gathering serves as an education. During one discussion, the topic of shaming others came up.
Some believe that shame is an integral part of progress, whether it’s shaming people for their silence on Instagram when Black Lives Matter began protests, or shaming people for not wearing masks, or shaming people for their political affiliation. Whatever the subject, when some people take a position it’s often loud, it’s feet dug in, and it’s immoveable. And this kind of position isn’t new - we’ve been witnessing this more and more over the the last 5 years as our country counties to fall morally and spiritually. People take a position, shame others, get angry. From all sides.
I’d like to take a firm position, but mostly as I begin to form one, I end up feeling inadequate. Every day there’s more happening that makes me feel inadequate. As a white female pastor I feel inadequate to provide words of wisdom regarding Black Lives. As a relatively wealthy person in the US, I’m all too aware that my neighbors are suffering and any help I give won’t be enough. As a friend of a few people who have been directly affected by the cruelty of this virus, I have no leader to point to as a sign of hope.
And so it seems, with that attitude, I’m stuck, and my only strategy is to keep my mouth shut, my head down, and wait for this all to blow over. And that would work, except for one problem - Jesus. As long as that guy is in my life, I’m simply not allowed to stay stuck and to do so would be a disservice to God.
In this morning’s scripture, Jesus tells his followers which kind of position to take. He begins by pointing out the hypocrisy of the ruling elites, those who teach the law. He says, “Everything they do is done for people to see: they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.”
“But (and here’s where I find my answer when it comes to my own inadequacy) you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, one Father, and one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The position I’m called to take, we’re all called to take, is one of humility. In Luke’s version of this text, he says to take the lowest seat at the table. That’s the seat no one wants.
The seating around the table reveals the larger societal system. Not unlike today, the more you have, the wealthier you’re perceived to be, the more powerful you’re perceived to be - because today as then - we live in a society where money and power too often go hand in hand.
The lowest place at the table (if the table is a metaphor for our society then and today) is the seat that belongs to the oppressed, the widow, the sick, the prisoner, the poor, the refugee, the outcast, or in the context of today, people of color. None of us wants that seat at the table, and yet Jesus calls on us to take that position, whether we are that person or not. As a servant to them, following the example of Christ, who lived and died modeling leadership with humility from beginning to end.
Jesus ends with the verse we all know by heart. “Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”
To be exalted doesn’t mean that someone sees you being humble so they praise you for it. If it did, that would mean we’d find ourselves competing to be the most humble, just so that we can be praised. The exaltation doesn’t come from praise from those around you for the good your doing. Exaltation comes from God, in the form of enlightenment, wisdom, a deepening ability to empathize; an ability to say what I do for that person, I do for me, because at the end of the day there’s no real difference between us, not in the eyes of God.
To find our humility, individually or as a nation, requires letting go of everything you think you already know about yourself, it requires giving up your old seat at the table and taking a new one. A seat that asks God to use you - to be used by God as part of this new creation that God is unfolding before us.
In these unprecedented times, I can convince myself that I’m not part of the problem, I can convince myself that because I’m white I can’t really speak out, I can say well, because I’m old I can’t change my ways and don’t really want to hear about it.
I can see as a child sees, and enter into this time, and every conversation, with curiosity, asking questions, trying to understand what it’s like for the other. Practicing empathy and rejecting self righteousness. God’s righteousness will reveal itself, justice will be served when we learn compassion and empathy and rejecting hatred, dominance and censorship.
A few weeks ago, a close friend and godmother to Charlotte (who sang for us one Sunday at church with Charlotte as a gift for my 50th birthday) posted to her over 12k followers on instagram (she has a high seat at that table) stories of her interactions with police when she was a teenager.
Which reminded me of my own story, all of 15 years old, back when the drinking age was still 18, and a group of us went to the schoolyard to drink beer and smoke cigarettes and listen to music. And eventually the cops showed up, and I decided I would go talk to them to convince them that they should let us stay there. After all we wouldn’t hurt anyone, we were too old to go to the pizza place and play pinball, and too young to go to bars, and surely the police would understand that, agree with me and let us stay.
Instead they stayed quiet, looked straight ahead and asked me my name. I told them, and without moving the officer behind the wheel said, “Nicole, if we see you again, we’ll put you in the car.” And they did see me again and I ran, and one of them caught me by the hood of my sweatshirt and put me in the back of the car and took me home. And I’m grateful my uncle was at my house when they dropped me off at home because he kept my mother from ending my life.
Here’s the point. Imagine that story, in 1980 or today, and imagine a black or brown boy or girl doing the same and getting the same result. What would have happened for the moment they approached the car, to running away? Imagine a world where a black parent could instill the same kind of confidence that I had in thinking I could change the mind of a police officer. People of color teach their children to steer clear of police if they’re able, to use phrases like, "I'm unarmed, and I have nothing that will hurt you.” To keep your hands visible, to never run, and do everything possible so that you make it back safely.
The recognition of my own privilege brings me to a place of humility, allows me to ask God to help me serve in ways that affect change, so that one day a 15-year-old teenager of color can feel as ridiculously empowered as I was 40 years ago. Even though I was wrong.
At the same time, black parents remind their children that not all police officers are bad. There are good ones too. And in the past few weeks, I’ve started waving at police officers when I pass them in the car or on foot, because with humility, I’ve asked myself, what must it be like to be one of the good officers right now? But even the ability to be able to wave at all is another privilege, because as a white woman, I can trust that my motives wont be misconstrued as some form of micro aggression from the officer.
Jesus teaches me to take a position as servant in this wilderness time - one of humility so that I can ask myself questions I never would have asked if I had been busy looking for a position of power, shaming others, and silencing any opposition. I’m called to learn, to walk with Christ, to have my eyes open to new ways of seeing, even and especially if it means letting the old ways of seeing and understanding finally die.
You’re about to watch a video. The words you’ll hear are the words of Thomas Merton.
Merton was an American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist, and scholar of comparative religion.
The words are a kind of poetry and capture what all people on a spiritual path with God hope for - connection. Connection experienced so deeply, it’s often described as an awareness of the oneness of everything. We are hardwired with a desire for connection. Connection is gained through empathy, openess, curiosity, imagination, all of which is possible through god who calls us upon us to serve, with humility.