The Lowest Place
St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Trinity
October 13, 2019
“When thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest place; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.”
WHEN JESUS spoke about the lowest place in human situations, He knew His subject well. Our own descent from honor to dishonor in any scenario cannot compare to the distance He descended in order to find us and save us. How much honor will you give up, what position will you leave, what high and lofty goal will you sacrifice in order to share with Christ the lowest place?
Most of us can name the lowest place on earth – low according to elevation and sea level. The Dead Sea south of Israel has that honor and is one of several lakes in the world where water only pours in and not out, making it salty from the incoming deposits of the upper Jordan River, concentrating salt so much that you can’t drown in its briny deeps. You just pop up like a cork. The Dead Sea is 1,360 feet below sea level. Other places on earth that are lower than the ocean include, at #8: Death Valley, California, 282’ below sea level, and the Salton Sea, #10 at a minus 227’. The Caspian Sea that lies between the steppes of Russia and northern Iran is 92 feet lower than the sea.
Jesus wasn’t talking about the Dead Sea, however, when He advised us to take the lowest place. The lowest place in His society would be that of a slave, possibly the slave who tended the dirty shoes men took off when entering your house, and who washed the feet of these guests before they walked on your carpets. That was the job Jesus took the night of His arrest, stooping and washing the feet of the Apostles. Peter objected, but that wouldn’t do. Jesus was making Himself the example for all of us.
The worst paying job in Israel was foot washing. In our world, the lowest paying jobs are food prep at McDonald’s, washing dishes, or being cashier, hostess, carnival attendant, usher, farmhand, or home care aide. These jobs are so ill-paid that no one needs to study much or attend classes to qualify. OJT is all you get, or need, and you hope to earn tips, or serve yourself the slop you’re feeding the pigs, like our hero in the Prodigal Son story.
But people study and train for long years at becoming what we call professionals, licensed and certified for their less-well-paying occupations. When you aren’t salaried like a CEO, but spent years in school anyway, we say it’s a calling, The most obvious calling for a relatively low paid profession is that of a minister of the Gospel. More than half of ministers, like me, have flocks of under 100 souls, and will never get rich by tending people’s spiritual side. Priests, poets and philosophers, I’ve heard, are the classically worst paid pros on the block. Please know that I’m not wining. I am quite well enough paid here. But I could have stayed in contracting, or some other profession. My retirement benefits, however, are unequalled.
Next to ministers, low paid pros are journalist, social worker, counselor and teacher. These are the helping professions and they are all callings. If you go to college seeking a degree in some professional arena, however, you might also take a hint from me and stay away from architecture. While a successful architect may earn a good salary, most work two jobs or, like me, changed profession after they gained a degree. Among the other poorly recompensed degrees are drama (my father was an actor), fine arts (how many rich musicians do you know?), hospitality and tourism, education, horticulture, or a degree in Spanish are added to theology and social work. But who does it for the money?
Jesus spoke of a festive dinner where a guest might seat him or herself at the table reserved for specially honored guests. That would be like just some schlemm coming to a wedding and sitting down in the place of the best man. Someone would see you there, take you by the arm and lead you to the place by the door. Discovering your error, you’d want to sink into the carpet.
Honor and disgrace may attend certain occupations as well. I remember a friend whose 13-year-old son told him he planned to become ‘a garbage man,’ meaning the sanitation engineer that drives and operates the trash hauling trucks through our neighborhoods. When asked why he was shooting for such a little regarded profession, the boy answered that “they only have to work one day a week!” I know that one. Some people think of ministers and conclude the same thing, only seeing them on the job on Sundays.
They may not earn tons of money, but we still hold in honor certain professions. Deacon Faith, as a secondary school teacher, earns that honor in 10th place in society. Going up the ladder we find management consultants, city managers, accountants, nurses, police officers, head teachers, engineers, lawyers (lawyers?), and at the top, doctors. So, the doctor gets a better table than the city manager, who never saved anyone’s life and didn’t have to do an extra ten years of college.
So, we may gravitate to positions that pay well, honor us well, or answer a sense of calling. All of these professions have held some very fine people who serve well and deserve honor, while other people have stained the professions they occupy, causing many of us either to trust those who hold such professions or not. Tell the honored police officer you know a priest, and he might immediately think of the sex scandals that seem to typify our religious orders. One bad apple…
Of the professions we in America say we trust, or don’t trust, nurses enjoy the highest place, at 82%; next military officers at 71%, then teachers, doctors, pharmacists, police, and judges. Clergy have only 42% that trust us – but we don’t trust the other 58%. A big drop and then bankers, newspaper reporters (who publish fake news), local politicians, television reporters at 23%, lawyers, CEOs, and least of all, lobbyists. So, you might become a lobbyist in order to take the lowest place in men’s eyes. Forbes Statista
But we don’t take our occupations simply for status, most of us anyway. We see ourselves in certain occupations, and hopefully doing what we love best. I took my calling as a priest against my own will and better judgment, but then I do believe in a divine call. I was up against God, when I finally heard my call clearly, and didn’t dare to say No to such a Person. He’d work out the difficulties, and He still is working those out in me. I receive honor, for certain, and I’ve also received some – not much – dishonor for being a priest. The dishonor feels almost as good as the honor, for I know some of what Jesus suffered.
He was born of a woman suspected of sleeping around, getting pregnant months before her wedding. He came from Nazareth, of which one disciple scoffed, saying “Can any good ever come from Nazareth?” He wasn’t trained as a priest. The lineage of His descent from David was that of a true king, but ran unsullied only through His mother’s line. He lived near Samaria, and his reputation was stained by that region. He was dirt poor and had no land, money or valuable property, like his cousin John. He associated with known criminals, tax collectors, and men that smelled of fish. He said things that made powerful and honorable people regard this country prophet with disdain. His popularity among the common people was yet another reason to reject Him, for the common people always choose their heroes badly.
St. Paul, by contrast, was raised to be highly honored, a rabbi, a classically trained Greek scholar, Jewish to the backbone, a Roman citizen by birth, and a defender of the faith of his people. Yet he called all of that trash when Paul was found and called by Christ, as worthy to bring the good news to the Gentiles. Jesus turned Paul upside down, and Paul then turned the world upside down. He wrote the church at Philippi:
“Let his mindset become your motivation. Christ already existed in the form of God, yet he gave no thought to seizing equality with God as his supreme prize. Instead he emptied himself of his outward glory by reducing himself to the form of a lowly servant. He became human! He humbled himself and became vulnerable, choosing to be revealed as a man and was obedient. He was a perfect example, even in his death—a criminal’s death by crucifixion! Because of that obedience, God exalted him and multiplied his greatness! He has now been given the greatest of all names! The authority of the name of Jesus causes every knee to bow in reverence! Everything and everyone will one day submit to this name—in the heavenly realm, in the earthly realm, and in the demonic realm.” Phil 2:5-10
Notice that it was by obedience that Jesus took a lowly occupation as a man. You don’t get credit in heaven simply by appointing yourself the cleaner of toilets, expecting that earns a place of honor. But when it comes to you that no one is cleaning the toilets, and you feel God’s hand gently on your back, with a feeling like, “I guess it’s up to me,” then you have God’s appreciation, even if no one else ever sees or knows you did it.
The descent that the Son of God made to come be one of us is unimaginable. My wife Giti has often taught a metaphor of this in a human who notices the ants on the floor that are all walking the wrong way, heading for a place they all die. He can’t get their attention as a human, so he somehow is able to become an ant, and as an ant, can communicate with them the urgency of his message and divert some of them. But now he’s an ant. He can’t shed his ant-ness and return solely to human status again. The man-ant remains. It is infinitely a greater sacrifice than this that the creator became the creature, but it helps us understand the passage in Hebrews:
“Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.” Heb 5:8-9
Jesus had done His Father’s bidding in the creation of all things. Every galaxy, star and planet, every life, every color, the angels, sunsets, oceans and we were His handiwork. He made it all by the Father’s design and in obedience to Him. Then something went wrong with us, and the Son was called up again to do something, but the thing He was asked would injure Him, diminish Him, lay shame and sin and degradation on Him, ending in death. “Will you do this for me, out of love for them?” “I will, Father. I go to do thy will.” He learned obedience when it mattered most and cost Him all.
The Pharisees were the holy joes of Israel, earning honor and fear by laying their version of the law and spirituality on others. But they despised people. A man with dropsy, which we call edema and congestive heart failure, came to Jesus for healing and, because it was Saturday, the Pharisees hated Jesus for healing the man. It violated their distorted idea of holiness. Their pride was beyond bearing.
So, He gave them occupational therapy. ‘Go home and say to your ox or donkey, “So sorry, but I can’t save your life today. It’s the Sabbath.” Would you? Of course not. Is this man less than your beasts? And when you go to a feast, stop honoring yourselves, taking a place by the host, seeking to be seen and rated highly by whom you know. Take a lowly place, and if others think that’s too low for you, let them seek you out and insist that you come up higher. Everyone that exalts him or herself shall be brought down and shamed. Whoever humbles him or herself will be seen by the God that sees all, and will be elevated and receive great honor and praise.’
Go and do thou likewise. Find a low place – by which I don’t mean the back pew in church – but sit where the people are who others don’t sit with, and it gets you no notch on your belt. It’s better in God’s eye that you honor others, rather than find ways to honor yourself. He was willing to go to hell in order to save some. Where are you willing to go?