On Watching Closely

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Luke 14:1, 7-14

One line stuck with me in this Gospel lesson about pride:

“They were watching him closely.”

We might think that it was just the Pharisees in the first century, trying to find a way to trip Jesus up. And we’d be right, but not entirely. Because we do it too. We watch each other.

We do watch each other closely. We’re all so concerned with one another, and we think that people are super concerned with us, and my theory is that we’re trying to figure out by watching each other how we should think about ourselves. We compare ourselves nonstop — to peers, coworkers, people at the mall…

Man, they seem really organized. I wish I had the energy to volunteer as much as he does. She really has her life together. Boy, they seem like really awesome parents. 

“They were watching him closely.”

It’s a way to start a passage about pride, that’s for sure. With close watching.

And as for us here in modern times, well, it’s been quite a week. Because technology has enabled us to watch more people even more closely, giving us more people to compare ourselves to, positively and… negatively.

The CEO of the company necessary for producing EpiPen, a medication necessary for thousands upon thousands of people, was revealed to have given herself a raise after the cost of this important medication was jacked up over tenfold. On top of that, we’ve got a US swimmer who thought he could get away with lying about a crime to his mom (of all people!) and then everyone else, and of course, we’re in the middle of a United States presidential campaign and all of the self-promotion and close scrutiny that that entails from each candidate who throws their name in.

We’re all watching — each other and people we haven’t even met. And we’re quick to judge.

“They were watching him closely.”

And here, Jesus says, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I mean, I don’t know about you, but when I hear that, I get kind of excited.

As in, yes, can we skip to that part now? Just turn on the news, and you can find plenty of people in severe need of humbling. And I’m sure we can think of a few people in our own lives that we could stand to see humbled. Because after all, we keep watching. We’ve noticed.

And then, just as I was feeling pretty self-righteous about it — ironic, I know, to feel self-righteous about humility — my friend from my home church, Imran, a Southeastern Synod council member and ring leader of the St. John’s young adults, pops up on Facebook chat with a link to a Pew Research article stating that when deciding on a new church home, the vast majority of people focus on two things: good sermons and warm welcome from the pastor.

I could practically feel Imran’s chuckle across the miles and through the Internet as he added, “No pressure, right?”

Talk about being watched closely. We’re all watched, sometimes when we’d rather not be. (You know, like when it seems like things depend on you.)

Clergy culture has always been a weird thing. In this age of the Internet, in an age where people rely on good sermons and good clergy personalities to make their churchgoing decisions, clergy culture has gotten even weirder. And so those who don’t feel good about shameless self-promotion and creating a cult of personality are stuck between the rock of public opinion — that good preaching and good personality in clergy is important, like medical skills and bedside manner in a doctor — and the hard place of the simple fact that narcissism in a clergy collar is perhaps the least cute thing ever.

“They were watching him closely.”

And it’s not just clergy. We all feel the weight of public opinion. We all struggle with how to think of ourselves. We all watch each other and feel others watching us. We judge ourselves, we judge each other.

So what are we supposed to do, then, with this Gospel lesson?

Jesus has been invited to a Sabbath dinner at the house of a Pharisee. How nice of them to offer hospitality — until Luke tells us that they’re all watching him closely. Waiting for him to mess up, to get something wrong, to prove that he’s not the teacher everyone thinks he is.

But what they don’t realize is that he’s watching them, too. It is a dinner party after all.

They’re all taking the places of high honor, and no doubt, some are being knocked down to lower places because there’s just not that much room at the head of the table.

And then, Luke tells us, he tells them a parable. Except that it’s not actually a parable. There is no story that tells a lesson. There’s only Jesus giving instruction. C’mon Luke, you’re a doctor. Get your genres right.

One of my colleagues at our clergy study group this week remarked that this passage is not only not a parable, but it reads something like a Dear Abby column: “Practical advice with Uncle Jesus.”

The gist of it is simple: don’t think of yourself more highly than you should. Don’t get cocky, or you’ll get knocked down, probably sooner rather than later. It’s pretty common advice, actually, not all that unique to Jesus.

But.

But that’s not all. Because we all know people we’re waiting to get knocked on down to the lowest place who haven’t been. People who constantly get away with taking, metaphorically speaking, the best places at the table, while the best and most talented sit at the lowest places, and no one asks them to move up, and the poor and the disadvantaged get trampled on. “Oh, sit at the low places.” Sure, Uncle Jesus, Son of God, Mr. Right Hand of the Father — easy for you to say.

But that’s not the end of Jesus’s advice column.

Because see, this is where “practical advice with Uncle Jesus” becomes highly impractical advice from Crazy Uncle Jesus.

He continues, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

Whoa whoa whoa whoa, Jesus.

When I have a party, you don’t want me to invite anyone I know, unless I know a ton of poor and otherwise disadvantaged people? The people that we, yes, watch closely, just to compare ourselves and help ourselves feel better, like, “See, it could be worse?”

If a culture of humility tramples on the vulnerable, this is Crazy Uncle Jesus’ antidote. Invite the vulnerable in first. Look for the littlest, most vulnerable person, because when you find them, you’ll have found your guest of honor. And in order to find them, you have to pay attention.

To watch closely — out of love and invitation.

Jesus isn’t giving us all personal advice. He’s suggesting an entire shift in how we think of things. He’s out, as usual, to turn the whole world upside down. Well, and he’s being snarky and punchy to some really religious people. Also as usual.

No matter how important or how ordinary or how generally bad at life you think you are, you are one of God’s children. That bumps some people down, and raises up others to the highest seat.

Welcome to the kingdom.

We do watch each other closely, we all compare ourselves to others, and we all struggle with how to think of ourselves. I struggle with being put on a pedestal as clergy, with a clergy culture that tells me that success is in self-promotion, that if you’re good at your job you should tell everyone so that people will want to come to your church. But the truth is that I don’t deserve that pedestal because I am a goober, just an ordinary person who likes NPR and drag queens and Mexican food (not usually all together, but who knows) who is, like everyone, just trying to be good at what I’ve chosen to do with my life and to let that be enough.

I am a child of God. And so are you. And so are the most vulnerable among us.

So let’s think, as a people, as a congregation, of how to follow Crazy Uncle Jesus’s advice. Most evangelism campaigns focus on bringing in new people who are very much like the people already in the pews, but what if the people God brings in are nothing like us? How will they feel among us? Will they feel like we’re watching them closely, judging them? Or will they feel like we’re watching closely so that we can really see them, attend to their needs, and make them feel welcome?

How do you feel in this space?

It is my prayer that we are and continue to become a church where everyone is welcome — really — and where everyone can be exactly who God created them to be in our space. I pray that we continue to invite whomever God brings into our space and into our individual lives, that we welcome them with open arms, that at this table, we do watch each other closely — but with love and concern, not judgement. So that we know who is celebrating. Who is happy. Who is hurting. Who is lonely. You know, like a pastor would.

Priesthood of all believers, y’all.

Because each of us is a child of God, and you are free from your need to compare yourself to others. You can now watch only out of love. So watch, now, to see whom Jesus will bring in — or whom Jesus is calling you to invite.

Because in the Kingdom, we stand at the table on level ground: the tax collector and the swindler and the gay kid, the teacher and prostitute and the doctor and the crook, the pastor and the pilot and the judge and the drag queen, the brave soldier and the greedy CEO and the cowardly politician. We like to watch each other, we like to judge who is worthy, and Jesus just keeps reminding us that that’s none of our business. We like to get our value and our identity through watching judging others, but Jesus suggests maybe drawing it through loving others instead. And if you’re going to love others, you better realize that you’re loved first.

Lutheran pastoral celebrity Nadia Bolz Weber issues her call to the table in a sermon like this: “So come and join me at his table, at this holy of holies, not because you have made it past the velvet ropes, but because the ground at the foot of the cross is level and there is room for all of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.”

One thought on “On Watching Closely

  1. Good message here about inclusion for all who seek the Lord. I like the image of level ground. Let’s all continue to recognize the ways we make it not so and let’s face those prejudices and our discomforts with God’s help.

    Like

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