The society in which Jesus lived is referred to as having been an “honor and shame” culture — the idea being, people were intensely aware of their status and reputation within the community. Beyond the concerns of simply surviving, the MOST IMPORTANT THING in peoples’ minds was the measure of respect they received from their neighbors. It was this aspect of their society that Jesus was observing when he took notice of all the attention that was given to the seating arrangements at dinner parties. Where a person sat – how far or close he (and in this case it was all men) was to the head table where the host sat – was an expression of his status.
This focus on honor created intense anxiety in such settings. The seating wasn’t all pre-set, so a man would try and take a respectable position at the table. But how high could he reach? He didn’t want to sit where people would look down on him — especially people he felt had no right to look down on him. But the worst possible thing would be to take a seat that would lead to his humiliation – to have the host come and tell him to move to a lower seat. That would be devastating.
Two thousand years later have passed since Jesus made his observations.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Nobody knows this more than teenagers. You or I could walk into a high school and we’d see just a blur of kids, but a kid in that school would see clear distinctions. They’d know the various groups there were to belong to, and the status that belonging to these different groups could bring. They’d be able to tell you the status kids had within these groups, and their overall coolness rating in the school.
There’s the jocks, the smart kids, the band kids, the drama kids. One of the reasons kids turn to drugs is that it provides a place to belong – with the other druggies. You’ve got to have some group to belong to — somebody to sit with at the lunch table.
And then there are the kids who end up not belonging anywhere — the kids at the bottom of the social ladder. It can be really, really tough being one of these kids. It’s lonely, and it can make it near impossible to feel a sense of self-worth. And it’s kids such as these who are most often picked on and humiliated. “Who said you could sit at our table?!”
Why are kids so cruel to these kids at the bottom of the social ladder?
There’s probably a host of reasons. If they have somebody beneath them to humiliate, it can seem to bolster their sense of having a place on the status ladder. Maybe they have their own experience of rejection in the jungle that can be teenage social interaction, and resentments they feel they need to take out on somebody.
Whatever the reason, the capacity for cruelty in us human beings is pretty profound.
There was an article yesterday in the New York Times about something that took place in Greenwich, Connecticut. Greenwich is like Mountain Lakes – a community that would be considered one of the best places in the world to live. There is no poverty, no homelessness — little crime to speak of. Pretty much everybody in Greenwich is well off, economically speaking.
Seven years ago an eight year old boy named Bart Palosz moved from Poland to Greenwich with his family. From the start, Bart didn’t fit in. Boys picked on him, taunting Bart for his accent. According to his older sister, they’d push Bart into bushes, or downstairs – smash his new Droid cellphone — Stuff like that.
The bullying had been going on for a long time. His parents had notified the school numerous times, and certain actions had been taken. Bart told his parents things had gotten better.
In the ninth grade, Bart had his older sister there with him in school. She’d try to look out for him. But this year his sister had gone off to start college.
This past Tuesday at the age of 15 Bart started his sophomore year. After the first day back at school, Bart came home and killed himself.
As you would expect, the school and the town are devastated.
When somebody takes their life, there are always multiple factors that lead him to that point. But one thing is clear: bullying – a function of intense anxiety over honor and shame – was a significant factor in Bart deciding to take his life.
Kids like Bart are the proverbial canary in the coalmine – the extreme cases which call attention to the brutality that can be quietly present in the way students routinely treat one another.
But it’s not just high schools, of course. This sort of brutality can be found pretty much anywhere people interact.
Jesus calls us to be an antidote to all this brutality. He says, in essence, that we should opt out of this whole business of worrying about how high a seat we can get without being humiliated. Take the lowest seat. Sit with the untouchables. Be the servant of others. He washed his own disciples’ feet to give them a concrete example of what this looks like.
There is no status in the kingdom of God there is no status – we are all children of God, together.
When you enter a church community, you should be entering an alternate universe. Status as the world knows has no place in church. The person who has been here for ever doing all kinds of great stuff for the church – although they are valued and appreciated, they hold no more status than the person who just walked in the door. And if the church isn’t living in this alternative universe, it isn’t being the Body of Christ.
Tony Campollo tells the story about a high school where some people recognized that a lot of students get left out of the circle on prom night.
It becomes a night when the kids who have always been put down and hurt are hurt and put down even more. So many kids are left home the night of the prom. They don’t have dates. So much sadness.
Somebody came up with the idea of running a prom for people over the age of 65. They sent out an invitation to all the local old folks’ homes and put it on the radio: “Everybody over the age of 65 is invited to the high school for a dance.” The word went out the churches.
As expected, they got a lot more old ladies than old men. But they were prepared.
The place was packed with old ladies dancing with young kids. They danced, danced and danced until midnight. Then they said to the old ladies, “You have to go home.” When it was all over, the young people agreed: This was the most fun they had ever had – the best dance and party they had ever attended. It was God’s kind of party – a place where people stopped worrying whether they were good enough, and everybody felt like they belonged.
There was another story in the news recently that could have turned out horribly. A man with an AK 47-style rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition walked into an elementary school and fired shots at police officers as they surrounded the building.
The gunman was a 20 year old with a history of mental health issues named Michael Hill.
Antoinette Tuff works at that school as a bookkeeper, and somehow she ended up alone in the school office with Michael.
She has no special training – other than the training that comes from attending Church every Sunday and trying to follow Jesus.
Antoinette got on the phone to the police dispatcher and became the mediator between Michael and the police. Over the course of a remarkable 24 minute conversation recorded on tape between Antoinette and the dispatcher, with Michael in the background, she goes from calmly addressing him as “sir” to tenderly calling him “baby.” Michael tells her that he wants to die. She talks to him the way you might talk to a frightened child.
Antoinette talks to him about the hard times she’s gone through in life, establishing a point of connection with Michael.
14:43 “Well don’t feel bad, baby. My husband just left me after 33 years. But – yes you do! I mean I’m sitting here talking to you about it. (Pause.) I got a son who’s multiple disabled.”
Antoinette saw Michael as a human being, not a monster, and she tried to help him. Gradually, she managed to convince him not to take his own life, to put down his gun and give himself up.
19:37 “It’s going to be all right sweetheart, I just want you to know that I love you though, Okay and I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing you did just giving up. We all go through something in life… No you don’t want that — I thought the same thing. You know I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me. But look at me now. I’m still working and everything is okay.”
I was particularly struck by these words of Antoinette’s: “We all go through something in life.” Somewhere in life, we all of us have been the people who get invited to the kingdom feast: the crippled, the maimed, the poor, and the blind. We’ve all been through something.
We’re all in this together.
When it was over, Antoinette admitted that she had never been so scared in her life. But she stayed. She told Michael she loved him, and that she would be praying for him.
Without her brave and tender compassion, there might well have been another Sandy Hook Elementary School. This not to say that all such tragedies could be averted if people were willing to do what Antoinette did that day. But in this case, her bravery and her compassion won the day.
In a little while we will be sharing Holy Communion. We come in response to the gracious invitation that Jesus extends. We come claiming no special privilege for ourselves, shoulder to shoulder with Antoinette, Michael and Bart, and everyone else whose hope is in the grace of God. We come to the place where everybody belongs.