A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 28, 2022 (Proper 17, Year C)
A few years ago, a book came out titled The Big Sort. The premise, backed up by lots of data, was that while America was more diverse than ever, the places we live had become increasingly crowded with people who look, think, and vote like we do. There are exceptions of course, but the trends continue to point to the ways in which we have self-sorted ourselves into tribal groups. The whole idea is that we have built a country that lives in a way-of-life segregation, where we choose the neighborhood, church, and news show that are most in line with our lifestyle and beliefs.
The danger in this is that we lose perspective. We don’t just fail to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, we don’t even ever take our shoes off. Our world view narrows and suddenly those with whom we disagree become disembodied “others.” We so dehumanize the other side that they end up becoming mere caricatures. There is no room for dialogue, which stifles our own growth, and leads us into digging ever-deepening trenches with those in our tribes.
I bring this up because in this story from Luke’s gospel, there’s another big sort taking place. Another way to dehumanize those who are different. The outward manifestation of this is the seating chart at a wedding banquet. The natural inclination is to sit in the honored places, to lord it over those of lower status. Whether it’s based on socioeconomic class or race or religious beliefs, we want to sort ourselves to the top of the pecking order. And let those with lesser status sit where they deserve. Which is certainly nowhere near us.
Now, here’s a spoiler alert: Jesus is not a fan of the big sort. When it comes to people, he’s not one for categories and sorting. Jesus wants us to expand our horizons not narrow them. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, not a limiting of it.
And not only does Jesus push back against the whole concept of sorting by status, he overturns the whole system by telling us to invite the least of these among us and giving them the seats of honor. When it comes to how we view our fellow human beings, Jesus has no patience for keeping up with the Joneses or climbing the corporate ladder. It’s not about sorting people by status, but viewing one another as children of God. That’s the great leveler. We are all equal in God’s sight, even if we aren’t all equal through the lens of our own eyes.
It’s a pretty powerful thing to lay aside the sorting, to stop comparing ourselves to others and to simply revel in the fact that you are a beloved child of God. You have been wonderfully and wondrously made by God. And that is enough. With God, there are no caveats or qualifications. There are no if-onlys or certain conditions that apply. God loves you for who you are. Full stop. God doesn’t sort us into categories, God simply loves us.
I always think about this teaching whenever I get on an airplane. Talk about your big sort, the boarding process is all about status and rank. It used to just be first class and then everyone else was lumped into coach. But now there are so many categories it’s hard to keep up with them all. There’s elite and premier and premier elite customers who all get to board first. And then the sorting continues with the various boarding zones. Zones one and two aren’t bad. But it starts to get a bit dicey after that. And woe to those who get stuck in zone five, for they must gate check their bags and suffer the ignominy of sitting in the back row near the lavatory. That is a far cry from the smug first class travelers sipping champagne while you haul your carry-on to the back of the plane.
If you were to take this parable of the wedding banquet and enact it at the airport, you’d get some odd looks, for sure. Because you’d trade your elite status for zone five. You’d give up your cocktail and extra wide seat and trade it for no legroom and lavatory fumes. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Now, I know you’re not going to do that. Though let me know if you do and I’d be happy to turn you into a full-blown sermon illustration. But merely seeing the temptation of the great sort in our lives is an important step to learning to walk more faithfully in the way of Jesus. And seeking to see the world through God’s eyes puts us on the right path.
We may not give up our first class ticket, but what are some ways we might give away power and status to those who find themselves in the zone five of life? How might we humble ourselves in order to lift up those who are continually trampled upon? We can work for justice in the world by amplifying the voices of those whose voices traditionally go unheard. We can share our resources with those who carry substantial economic burdens or debt. We can welcome into this community all who are lonely or sick or fearful. We can be aware of the great sort and actively seek opportunities for dialogue with those beyond our tribe.
In the letter to the Hebrews, we heard that wonderful statement about hospitality, exhorting us “not to neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unaware.” That’s an incredible concept, the possibility of literally entertaining angels. But in the end it’s a reminder to seek and serve Christ in all persons, as we promise to do in our baptismal covenant. Which, of course, we can only fully do “with God’s help.”
My hope is that the church can be a place where, rather than sorting, we find commonality amid difference. That we celebrate our diversity rather than running to our particular corners. God doesn’t bring us together to always agree with one another, God brings us together to make a difference in the world. And we do that by tearing down the walls that divide us, erasing the human categories we create for ourselves, and seeing the world through God’s eyes, where we are all beloved children of God.