Sermon for the 17th Sunday after TRINITY, October 8, 2017
“Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
WHERE DO YOU get to sit in Heaven? Are we destined for a gigantic stadium that seats billions of blessed souls in row upon row, section by section of golden chairs where, according to the lives we’ve led, we get an assigned seat from which we will behold God on the field forever? Could Heaven be that static? Might we end up in the cheap seats? Are there any cheap seats there?
I got two free tickets once to the last game of the World Series, between the LA Dodgers and Oakland A’s, at Oakland’s Coliseum. It was 1988 and someone had given these two tickets up for me. I took our son, Jamal. The seats happened to be up under a higher tier, and way back behind a huge column. From where we sat, we could hardly see a thing. But hey! It was the World Series 5th game, and Orel Hirshiser hurled a great game against Storm Davis and won it 5-2. We spent a good deal of the game up at the rail, standing rather than sit in the cheap seats. Did I tell you how much more comfortable even that standing was than any night I ever spent at Candlestick Park? I didn’t even care the Dodgers won.
In the summers of 1968 and 1969, I was a volunteer usher at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood. We found people their seats according to numbers on their tickets, and when the show had run ten minutes or more, we were free to find ourselves empty seats for free. I saw some of the greatest music performances ever: Brazil 66, Tom Jones, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Jose Feliciano.
I had another free seat during my freshman year at Cal when I crawled through an open window at Wurster Hall and entered a concert by the Steve Miller Blues Band in the concrete Lobby. There was no room to sit except directly in front of a giant speaker cabinet while they finished a particularly loud set with wailing guitar solo by Steve. My ears were whining all that night. Might have had permanent hearing loss.
I’ve sat at the top of Yosemite Falls and dangled my legs over a 2,400 foot drop. Holding on for dear life, of course. I’ve stood at the top of the Skycatch tower on Hunter’s Point in San Francisco and learned that sea gulls don’t fly that high. I once sat in a hotel room in Tulsa as a tornado-class storm thrashed by our window. I lost my breakfast on the ferry from San Pedro Harbor to Catalina Island. And I rode the man-lift, a vertical conveyor belt for human beings at the Leslie Salt plant in Newark. It doesn’t stop to let you on or off.
There’s one rule that governs almost all of these. For every seat, just one person please.
Seats separate us. Seats may define us, if we let them. People boast about their 50-yard-line seats or box seats or orchestra pit seats or seats on the Concorde, when it flew. People will be hawking seats for this year’s World Series and others will pay thousands for them.
We read about 24 elders seated in an arc about the Throne of God, casting their golden crowns at His Feet as they leave their seats to worship, face down on the crystal floor. Great seats, exalted seats, prized seats all. So, what’s important to us?
Vying for the best seat in Heaven may not get you there. What was it Jesus taught? He came to a prominent Pharisee’s home to dine and noticed how each guest claimed a seat of honor. So, He told them, “When someone invites you to a wedding, don’t take the place of honor. Maybe someone more important is coming. Your host would say, ‘Get up and give this person your place.’ Blushing with embarrassment, you’d have to take a place of no honor. So take that place of least honor. Sit in the servant’s stool by the door. And, should your host see you there, he can say, ‘Friend, come up higher to a place of honor.’ Those who claim honor to themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be honored.” Lk 14
It’s just wisdom, and even Confucius might have said it. But Jesus said it, and He lived it as well. Coming down from heaven, and deserving every honor and all praise from every human mouth and heart, He was cast into prison, falsely accused, and raised on a cross to die as a criminal, a madman, an evildoer, and a scoundrel. And He, by accepting the role chosen for Him, and humbly laying His life down, He earned the highest seat in all of creation and beyond. He is seated at the right hand of the Father. There is no better seat anywhere but the Father’s seat right next to Him. He was called up higher after taking the lowest seat here. Confucius didn’t do anything like that.
People used to buy their church pews as a way to fund the church and to insure they didn’t have to sit with the hoi polloi. It was standard practice and low walls with little doors surrounded the pew for a household, the squire and his family, landholders, elevated men of high esteem. We may not do that anymore, but people do stake out their pews and, when strangers invade the church, and take our accustomed place over the vent, do we not feel like the unwelcoming committee ought to be doing its job and moving them to the back, or front, or wherever you don’t want to sit? I don’t accuse you of it, but it’s a funny thing about us.
Giti and I had discovered St. Peter’s beautiful church in 1979 and, at that time, a Sunday morning service drew about 150 in attendance. We had gotten to know just about everybody by that Christmas Eve when we came and the place was packed out, about 400 souls or more. Giti and I felt we were a part of something, and being now members, she turned around to greet the family behind us, obviously new to us, and she welcomed them to St. Peter’s. It was generous of her. Instead of taking it kindly, however, they proudly spat out that they’d been coming here for years, as in, how dare she welcome them? Who was she, anyway? She was scalded by the pride of a family of ‘Christmas trees’, as we learned to call the ‘long time members who only come once or twice a year.’ We may have been sitting in their pew, in fact.
St. Paul’s churches didn’t have pews. In fact, pews are a fairly modern invention, never found in churches before the Reformation, when Protestant sermons of two to four hours were the new standard and people just couldn’t stand that long in church. Before the 16th century, a few scattered benches were supplied, and only for the elderly. So, St. Paul wrote to people he knew would be standing to hear his letters read to them. In our Epistle today we hear the Apostle advising them, and us, to “Be humble and gentle in every way. Be patient with each other and lovingly accept each other. Through the peace that ties you together, do your best to maintain the unity that the Spirit gives. There is one body and one Spirit. In the same way you were called to share one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over everything, through everything, and in everything.”
One God. One Spirit. One Body. One Lord. We don’t have exclusive rights in this new world of His Spirit. We are all partakers, all equal in His sight, all part of a whole. There is no Gentile or Jew, no Roman or Greek, no high or low as we may expect. There are, on earth, still those who elbow their way to the front. But in Heaven’s perspective, the ‘front’ is often the back of the bus. With the descendant of slaves and guys with tattoos. I’ve played music and sat with about a hundred ex-cons in Oroville and embraced the love they have for each other, for me, and most of all for Jesus. It’s real. They talk with rough, street hardened voices, but hearts of melted butter for God. We have surprises before us in Heaven. We shall join hands with all sorts of happy souls.
John recorded Jesus’ dictation in the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Revelation. It’s Laodicea’s time on the grill and Jesus is writing them a harsh letter of His disappointment. They have counted themselves rich, aloof, and theologically correct, like Pharisees, without any need for mercy or grace, and have become lukewarm, tepid in their faith and zeal. So He tells them that, like water not heated or chilled, He would spit them out. Then He gives them great hope: “I’m standing at the door and knocking. If anyone hears me and opens the door, I’ll come in and we’ll eat together. I will allow everyone who wins the victory to sit with me on my throne, as I have won the victory and have sat down with my Father on his throne.”
If we only open the door to Jesus, He will come sit at our table, honor us with His presence, and dine with us. Think of the honor that would be! Don’t go far from this place then, for we are actually about to dine with Him, His Body and Blood, and this word will be fulfilled. Then He promises even more. For every victor over the world, the flesh and the devil, by His grace received and valued, Christ will allow you to sit with Him on His throne. Not the cheap seats. Not a distant peanut gallery. His seat, His throne, intimately chosen to be honored. Each of us, all of us. No distance from the living God, but up close and personal. Can you even imagine it? I don’t know spatially how that will work, but that’s His promise. We don’t know about any cheap seats in Heaven. They are all front row, in the action, blessed beyond all hope or dream, acceptable, honored, called up higher.
No matter who you are, today accept the lowest seat and love that seat. It may be on the ground. It might not be seated at all, standing room only, just happy to be included. Make place for others, and welcome the ones who sit where you usually are. How better to show the grace of God than to let another take your place? Humble yourself. It’s a fallen world. We enjoy its rare beauties, not by right, but by God’s grace.
Sitting on granite rock, I’ve watched the night sky at 10,000 feet flash and crackle with lightning and metallic thunder booming across God’s canyons. Soaking wet with rain, I’ve watched His majesty from the cheap seats under fir trees, and been blessed to endure and experience the misery, not knowing if we would get to lay down at all before the dawn or sleep a wink except sitting up and huddling together for warmth. There is where it happens, in crudely fashioned, slapped together accommodations. The grace. The unity of all mankind. The common thread. Our human condition. No king, no president, no potentate or public figure or rich man or athletic star can claim a higher place than you, sitting on your footstool in the corner of God’s Throne room. You were meant to be in His throne. And you shall be.
Let me see your ticket. Ok, right this way now, here you go. Please: After you.