September 1, 2019 – What kind of Reputation do you want?


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“What kind of reputation do you want?”

By Rev. Victor Kim
Luke 14:1,7-14
(09-01-19)

What’s your reputation?  Do you know?

We all have one, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not.

Some of us have a reputation for being generous, others are known for their cautiousness.

Some people are seen to be kind and easy going,others, somewhat more difficult and prickly.

Some people have a reputation of being competent and visionary,others are known more for their compassion and grace.

Some of us work hard to burnish our reputations,others don’t really care too much, after all what can you do about what others think of you?

But the truth is that all of us have a need to be recognized by someone,we depend on someone other than ourselves to give us our sense of worth.

 

In his book, Raising Abel, the Catholic theologian James Alison explores the concept of reputation and shame and points out that the Greek word doxa, which usually means glory, can also be translated as reputation. Alison translates a part of John’s gospel to make his point.

John 5:41-44 is usually read this way:

I do not accept glory from human beings. 

But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. 

I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me;

if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. 

How can you believe when you accept glory from one another

and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? 

Now if we follow Alison’s point, we would read the passage slightly differently:

I do not accept my reputation from human beings. 

But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. 

I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me;

if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. 

How can you believe when you accept your reputation from one another

and do not seek the reputation that comes from the one who alone is God? 

 

Do you follow?

Alison’s use of reputation in the place of glory,helps us to understand that we seek our reputation by being noticed and noted by others, but the question is, which other do I depend on to be noticed by?

In John 5 Jesus plainly says if you depend on one another for your reputations and not the one who alone is God, it is folly.[1]

The gospel reading for this morning from Luke 14 is all about reputation.

Let’s set the context first.

Jesus is invited by a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath at the Pharisee’s house.

It seems rather odd that a leader of the Pharisees, a group of Jewish religious leaders who were often the target of Jesus’ scorn and anger, would invite Jesus to a meal at his house.

Maybe the Pharisee felt that Jesus was well known enough to warrant an invitation, even if he didn’t personally like Jesus.

Or maybe it was a matter of vanity for the Pharisee, you see, I got Jesus to come to my house, doesn’t that make me important!

But the last part of the first verse of our reading may give us a clue, they were watching him closely. 

The Pharisee had invited Jesus for a meal, but they, the Pharisees, were watching Jesus closely.

Maybe they were watching him because they admired him, but more likely they were watching him to see if they could find a weakness,

something they could blame him for, something that would turn the people against Jesus.

 

Well if they were watching Jesus, Jesus doesn’t disappoint.

Once Jesus arrives at the house, he sees a man who has dropsy, a medical condition which we would call edema or fluid retention.

It’s the sabbath and remember from last week that healing on the sabbath wasn’t allowed, because it was considered to be work.

But this time Jesus asks his hosts first whether or not it’s lawful to cure people on the sabbath.

The Pharisees and the others must have heard what had happened at the synagogue earlier because no one says a word.

So, Jesus healed the man and sent him on his way.

But that’s just the preliminaries, now the real fun starts.

I get the sense that Jesus must have had a great sense of humour and occasion.

There he is, at the home of a leader of the Pharisees, surrounded by the who’s who of the local town.

The meal is about to start and the guests are jockeying for position.

It’s all about reputation.

Those whose reputations were the best, those who were held in the highest esteem,

they would take their seats in the places of honour and the others would then fall into place.

But Jesus tells them a parable.

When you get invited to a banquet, don’t choose a seat in the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished, someone with a better reputation shows up.

Then you’d have to move, and you’d be disgraced, your reputation would be in tatters.

Instead, choose the lowest place

so that your host will see you and invite you to move up higher, then your reputation would be enhanced.

If you want to know what people think of you, look for your name on the seating chart at a wedding reception.

You know what I’m talking about, that big chart with all the tables listed by number and the people seated at those tables.

You scan the chart for your name, looking not only at where the table is located in relation to the head table, but also for who will be seated with you.

It can be a humbling experience to find your name at a table whose view of the head table is blocked by a pillar and whose tablemates are people who you’ve never met and who are delightfully accompanied by their small children!

 

I find it odd that Jesus would spend time telling a parable about how to enhance one’s reputation.

This seems like a simple matter of manners, first century Emily Post.

Why would Jesus spend any time on something like this?

Unless he’s making a point that isn’t so obvious.

This first part of Jesus’ words at the meal would likely have been received reasonably well.

Ah, Jesus, good point, well said.

We should seek to be humble, or at least pretend to be so that others can let everyone know how humble we are.

Reminds me of my elementary school friend who wasn’t really clear on the concept of humility.  I told him one day, you’re so humble.

His reply?  I know!

But the guests would have had no reason to be offended by Jesus’ words of advice about manners.

 

But I think it’s a set up.

Now that he’s got the attention of the guests, now that they think Jesus might be just a wise sage, an interesting party guest, Jesus lowers the boom.

His next words are loaded and fall like rocks in a mirror factory.

Listen, says Jesus to his host, a leader of the Pharisees, when you give a luncheon or dinner,

don’t invite your friends or family or rich neighbours, because they will 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.

They can’t repay you, but you will be blessed.

You can hear the air go out of the room.

All the energy of being in the right place with the right people is rapidly dissipating.

Don’t invite your friends or family or rich neighbours.

Who do you think are there for lunch?

The family and friends and rich neighbours gathered there begin to look at each other

and they start to shuffle their feet uncomfortably.

Jesus knows the game they’re playing.

If I invite you, then you invite me back, quid pro quo, you scratch my back, I scratch yours.

It’s all so neat and tidy.

 

But Jesus says forget all that.

You think that these little parties are for burnishing your reputations.

You think that I am some sort of advice giver, telling you to choose the lower places

so that you get moved up to the higher places.

No, says Jesus.

When you throw a party, invite the homeless, the outcasts, the unclean, the marginalized.  Invite those who can’t help your reputation, who can’t pay you back.

The reputation you think you’re building up by hanging out with the right kinds of people, doing the right kinds of “noble” things in front of everybody,

pretending to be humble so that others can point out what a great guy you are, none of that matters, says Jesus.

There’s only one person who can give you a reputation that matters, and that one person is God.

 

And let’s be really clear here.

The reputation God gives isn’t what you think it is.

God has an awful reputation.

Think about it.

Jesus says that you should invite to your party the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, basically the lowest of the low, those whose circumstances were believed in those days to be a result of their sin or their family’s sin.

It may not be so extreme for us today, but in Jesus’ day and in his culture, your reputation mattered more than just about anything.

This God of Jesus would hang with those with the worst reputations, those who others intentionally shunned and avoided.

Jesus says, if you want to receive your reputation from God, you have to be prepared to lose the reputation which comes

from the mutually reinforcing opinion and high regard of those who are bulwarks of public morality and goodness, and find it among those who are held as nothing, of no worth.[2]

Essentially he’s saying to his host, your guest list is all wrong!

You can picture those gathered for the meal starting to head for the exits.

 

Jesus’ words weren’t easy to hear that day at the Pharisee’s house and they aren’t much easier for us to hear today.

People say that they admire Jesus, but how many truly follow him?

People may say they respect Jesus, but apparently that admiration or respect  isn’t enough to truly put into action what Jesus teaches.

When it comes to reputation, most people, which includes most of us, would still seek the approval and regard of others like us than the reputation that is given to us by God.

But when we listen to Jesus and his words, that if we move beyond the egocentric hypocrisy of fake humility and self-interest, to truly open our hearts and homes and places of worship to those whose circumstances would trouble us or maybe even disgust us, Jesus says we will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

When we listen to Jesus, we understand that the only reputation that matters, the only one that has lasting value, is the one that is given to us by God.

 

Humility is not a game to be played to reach the higher places, to be commended by others, but it’s a way of life that follows the way of the one whose reputation is absolutely terrible by the world’s standards and practice.

Even though people may say they admire Jesus, they don’t follow him, they don’t live like him, they don’t love like him.

People can say they like Jesus all they want, but it doesn’t mean anything because it’s not real to them.

If it is real to us, then we need to be ready to be called out as fools for Christ, but remembering that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.

Would we live like this, would we love like this?

Is this the reputation we want?

 

Author and teacher Tony Campolo tells a true story about a time when he was traveling.

He was in another time zone and couldn’t sleep, so well after midnight he wandered down to a doughnut shop where, it turned out, local prostitutes also came at the end of a night of turning tricks.

There, he overheard a conversation between two of them.

One, named Agnes, said, “You know what?  Tomorrow’s my birthday.  I’m gonna be 39.”

Her friend snapped back, “So what d’ya want from me?  A birthday party, huh?

You want me to get a cake and sing happy birthday to you?”

The first woman replied, “Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean?

Why do you have to put me down?  I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday.

I don’t want anything from you.  I mean, why should I have a birthday party?

I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life.  Why should I have one now?”

 

When they left, Tony got an idea.

He asked the shop owner if Agnes came in every night, and when he replied in the affirmative, Tony invited him into a surprise party conspiracy.

The shop owner’s wife even got involved.

Together they arranged for a cake, candles, and typical party decorations for Agnes, who was, to Tony, a complete stranger.

The next night when she came in, they shouted, “Surprise”

— and Agnes couldn’t believe her eyes.

The doughnut shop patrons sang, and she began to cry so hard she could barely blow out the candles.

When the time came to cut the cake, she asked if they’d mind if she didn’t cut it, if she could bring it home — just to keep it for a while and savor the moment.

So she left, carrying her cake like a treasure.

Tony led the guests in a prayer for Agnes, after which the shop owner told Tony he didn’t realize Tony was a preacher.

He asked what kind of church Tony came from, and Tony replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”

The shop owner couldn’t believe him…

“No, you don’t.  There ain’t no church like that.  If there was, I’d join it.

Yep, I’d join a church like that.”[3]

 

What kind of reputation do you want, what kind of reputation do we want as a church?

If our reputation as a church is that of just another church, just another group of like-minded, reasonable, well-mannered people, I wonder what the attraction would be for such a church to a culture which already doesn’t hold much regard for churches in the first place?

What would be compelling about a church whose reputation is entirely predictable, predictably safe?

But a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning, well now that’s a church worth thinking about!

 

This fall, I want to speak about RPC being a church, a community, that will go deep with God and wide with the world.

That’s our motto by the way, if you didn’t already know, Deep with God and Wide with the World.

Do we really want to be a church whose reputation  will be that of a people who will go wide, very wide, with the world?

If so, we’ll need to be first rooted very deep with God.

The world doesn’t need more churches whose reputation is given by others, even other churches.

What the world needs are churches whose reputations are given by God because we will be a church that isn’t about burnishing our own credentials,

but one that will welcome and serve those who have no credentials of their own.

 

And if it’s going to happen here in this place, it has to happen here, in us, first.

In our context where racism, classism, sexism, tokenism, fear of the other, hatred of those who are different is still so prevalent,

will we open our lives to those who are different, those who can’t help our reputations, will we engage with those who can’t repay us,

because people like that are the ones who will make the greatest impact for the gospel because our foolishness means we will be noticed, that we can’t just blend in with everyone else, and that recognition will come at a price.

 

Our world needs people who will do more than just say we admire Jesus.

Our world needs people who will live in ways that put his words into practice.

Our world needs churches who will welcome those who aren’t welcomed elsewhere, love those who are difficult to love, and whose reputation doesn’t come from seeking the approval of others, but is granted by God alone.

 

As we go deep with God and wide with the world, I pray that we would be the kind of church that isn’t interested in the approval of others as much as we are in following Jesus and the reputation that is bestowed by God alone on those who do. 

Thanks be to God, Amen!

Written by Rev. Victor Kim
Preached on 01 September 2019
at Richmond Presbyterian Church.

[1] James Alison, Raising Abel. p.181

[2] Alison, pp. 180-183

[3] Brian McLaren in The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything  (Thomas Nelson, 2006), pages 145-46.