Sermon: Luke 14:1, 7-14
Pastor Philip Bigelow
Could you imagine how much training it takes to get to the Olympics? To be the best of the best runners in the world? That takes some serious training. That takes some serious dedication. There is the 6:00 a.m. workout to get the training in when most people can only muster the strength to hold a coffee cup at that hour. There is the training runs in the rain as the water sprays off your shoes with every step to thoroughly soak your back. There is the training when you don’t want to do the training. When you are tired, worn out, and feel like you just don’t want to do it you still need to do it. You still must put in the work and the effort because your competitors aren’t taking the day off. They aren’t sitting on the coach eating potato chips because they didn’t feel like training that day, so if you want to be the best of the best then you can’t either. That’s what it takes to be the best of the best in the world and to reach the Olympics.
You don’t have to tell Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin that. They know what it takes to reach the Olympics. They put in the training. They put in the hours. They have the sweat to show for it. All of that training led these two competitors to the pinnacle of competition: The Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro 2016. Abbey D’Agostino was representing the U.S.A. and Nikki Hamblin was representing New Zealand in the women’s 5,000-meter race, about 3 miles. The race started well and everything was moving along as you would expect. All of the runners were bunched up in a large pack and the plan is they would stay that way until the end when everyone gives every ounce of energy left for that last burst across the finish line and into Olympic fame. Halfway through the race something small happened that had a major impact. A runner slowed in the pack, which caused Abbey and Nikki to bump and sent them both flailing to the unforgiving ground. Pause. So, what do you do? The pack of runners is running away from you and along with it all of your Olympic dreams and hopes, everything you worked and trained so hard for is fading away in front of you because of an unfortunate accident in the race. At that moment if the track spikes are laced tightly on your feet and you are the one finding yourself on the ground as all of your hopes and dreams are running away from you what is the first thought that crosses your mind in the heat of the competition? Get on your feet? Run as fast as you can to catch the pack? After all of the work you put in to get to that point and be in the biggest race of your life are you going to do everything in your power to not let your Olympic dreams slip away? What are you going to do?
You are sitting in a pew in Oconomowoc, WI and more than likely haven’t raced in the Olympics with the entire world watching your every stride and maybe thinking to yourself, “I have no idea what I would do because I’ve never been in that situation and the way my knees and back ached when I got out of bed this morning told me I’m not going to be running in a 5,000-meter race anytime soon either.” Ok, fair enough, but you’ve been in that situation, perhaps not that exact situation, but others like it every day. Jesus takes an everyday situation that you and I have been in hundreds of times and uses it as an opportunity to teach law and gospel. So, pull up a pew and be ready for Jesus to turn your life upside down.
Right away we might be a bit surprised. Jesus is having supper at the house of an important Pharisee. This was a Pharisee of Pharisees. This was one that all of the others looked up to. And it’s shocking that Jesus would put himself in such a compromising situation. Aren’t the Pharisees the ones that hate Jesus? Aren’t they the ones trying to swat Jesus out of their lives like a pesky fly? Weren’t they trying to trap Jesus and scrutinized every word he said waiting for him to slip up with some teaching, something from the Old Testament, some ill-timed healing on the Sabbath that they could classify as work? They looked for anything as an excuse to get rid of him because they hated Jesus for challenging their authority and teaching. So, why would they invite Jesus among them for a meal? It wasn’t to learn more from Jesus. It wasn’t to soak up his teaching. It was so they could put Jesus under the microscope, dissect everything he said and did, and destroy him. Right before our lesson Jesus healed a crippled woman on the Sabbath day in the synagogue, the place of worship for the Israelites, and according to the Pharisees that was a big no-no. But Jesus got the best of them by exposing their lack of love. Now they are at it again. This time at a meal, at a Pharisee’s house, with a man suffering from a dreadful disease right in front of Jesus. On the Sabbath. They wanted to trap Jesus in doing something he shouldn’t. The Pharisees sit back and watch like a hunter stalking the big buck at the bait pile as they dared Jesus to show his love and compassion once more on the Sabbath.
Maybe the first thing that’s a bit upside down for us today is, “Why would Jesus put himself in that situation? Why would he choose to be among the enemy where he knows he’s being watched and they are trying to trap and discredit everything he says and does?” We look at that and say, “I’d never want to do that.” Jesus RSVPs to the invitation to dinner from his worst enemies and says, “Yep. I’ll be there.” The first thing we see upside down today is Jesus intentionally places himself among sinners. Jesus doesn’t spend his time in a museum of saints, but he took on flesh and blood to the dirty elbows of sinners, even those that are his enemies. Jesus places himself among sinners to save sinners.
The Pharisees and guests begin doing something so mundane, so ordinary, something we have done so many times. They start sitting down at the banquet. But there was more than meets the eye going on. It wasn’t good enough just to have a spot at the table. It mattered where you were sitting and next to whom. There was an order and they weren’t going to stand back and watch someone else get the spot they wanted and deserved because they were more honorable than the next person. You could just see the people slyly sneaking their way around to the best seats. A gentle nudge here, a slight push there, a quick in front of someone to get in the right position to get the seats of honor. It’s quite ironic the Pharisees that were watching Jesus hoping he would say or do something wrong end up being the ones watched because they couldn’t help but reveal their selfish-sickened hearts with something so easy and simple as the places to sit at a meal. The actions reveal the attitude of the heart.
The Pharisees couldn’t help but show their sin sickened hearts in something so simple as choosing where to sit at a meal. Before we get a cramp waving our finger at those selfish Pharisees let take a moment or two to examine our hearts. It feels good to be exalted, doesn’t it? For people to notice you and what you are doing? And it’s even more than that, it’s making sure we get what we want. It’s exalting me above everything else. But, last time I checked there isn’t an “exalt me first” tree planted in the back yard to give me what I want, so I have to plant it in my heart. No one is going to do it for me. I need to make sure I get the throne of honor in my life. So, husband and wife yell back and forth because neither is going to give one sixteenth of an inch. So, co-workers get torn down because I think it will further the aspirations of my career. So, someone’s feelings get trampled, but that’s just the sour lemons that life handed them because I’m busy making sweet lemonade for myself.
Here’s what Jesus has to say about that, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). Powerful law and gospel. It turns our life upside down. Naturally, I want to exalt myself. I want to look out for #1. And to that Jesus say, look out, you will be humbled. If you are looking to exalt your selfish pride and heart you will be humbled for eternity because of your sin. But those that are humble will be exalted. Again, life flipped upside down. It’s not what we expect. The world says, “No way. The humble get trampled and taken advantage of. The exalted, the powerful, look to exploit the humble. The exalted use the humble for their gain. That’s how the world sees it. When Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin tumbled during the Olympics Nikki struggled to get to her feet. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder and then arms reaching down to help her up. It was Abbey who turned to her and said, “We have to finish the race.” Both runners could have scrambled to their feet and ran as fast as they could to catch the pack and no one would have blinked an eye. That’s probably what most would have expected. Instead, they helped one another up to struggle to finish the race.
Jesus gives a final example to drive home the point today. When you do something don’t do it looking for something in return. Don’t do something because you are expecting to get back. That’s just a sly way of seeking to exalt yourself. Do it out of humble service. We see this ultimate humility not in ourselves, but in Jesus. The ultimate source of one that humbled himself for those that could not repay him and did not repay him. Jesus didn’t load your guilt and mine on his back and take it to the cross where it was paid for in full because he was counting on you to do him a solid later on. Why did he do it? He did it to serve. He did it to save. He did it to give you the reward in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus purposefully places himself among sinner to save sinners. You probably thought I was talking about the Pharisees in our lesson. No, he places himself among sinners like you and me and what did he get out of it? He was whipped and beaten, he was mocked and ridiculed, he was nailed to the cross, and suffered the torment of hell. Why? So that we would be exalted. So that we would be welcomed as the guest of honor at the banquet, and I’m not talking about the next Thanksgiving dinner. I’m talking about the banquet of heaven. Jesus really does turn our lives upside down, doesn’t he! Be thankful that he does. Amen.
 Nytimes.com August 16, 2016 “Runners Help Each Other after Fall”