Downwardly Mobile: A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Image: Saint Lawrence with poor by Jacopo d’Antonio

In the year 257 the Emperor Valerian sanctioned a persecution aimed primarily at the upper class Christians of Rome. Given that there was a pantheon of gods and goddesses in Roman religious and civic life, the problem was not so much that these Christians worshipped the God of Israel, or that they believed Jesus Christ to be God’s son. No, the problem was that these otherwise respectable citizens were not willing to pledge their fidelity to Caesar and offer sacrifice to the Emperor. They were politically suspect because they had placed their faith in God over and above their faith in Caesar.

It may sound a bit odd to us now, but in fact, one of the titles granted unto several Roman emperors was Divi filius, meaning “divine son.” It was meant to be a title of honor, not unlike a glorified Commander-in-Chief, except that it was a bit more sacrilegious to monotheists. Christians could have their own God, but they were also expected to pay tribute to Rome’s divine son, Caesar.

So, you can see how this might have posed quite a problem for those who had pledged their fidelity to Jesus, God’s divine Son. Long before Caesar had ever been crowned King of kings and Lord of lords (a title Christians borrowed and appropriated to Jesus), God had spoken to the people of Israel: thou shalt have no other gods before me. And thus Christians had a decision to make as to where their loyalties lay: Would it be Rome’s divi filius, Caesar, or would it be God’s divine son, Jesus?

Such was the predicament for Christians in Rome in the third century, when a deacon in that church, named Laurence, came under fire. Because Laurence was a member of the diaconate who administered the church’s budget, particularly with regard to the care of the poor, he had been targeted by those who sought to enforce loyalty to Caesar, and was thrown in jail. (It appears the position of treasurer has never been that easy)

A Roman prefect, who knew that Laurence was in charge of the church treasury, secretly promised to set him free if he would just surrender the wealth of the church. Laurence agreed, but said that it would take him several days to gather all the church’s resources together. The prefect released him, and then Laurence proceeded to hide all the funds entrusted to his care into the hands of trustworthy stewards. He then assembled the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind; and presented them to the prefect: “These are the treasures of the Church,” he declared.

Well, needless to say, things didn’t turn out so well for the defiant deacon. Enraged, the prefect ordered him tortured and killed for his insolence. And yet, in his martyrdom, Laurence had reminded the church, and the powers that be, of an invaluable lesson: it is those who are most devalued and disregarded by society who are most valuable in the sight of God. “These are the treasures of the church.”

It sounds as if Laurence must have been familiar with the words of Jesus, which we heard this morning: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” The currencies of God’s kingdom do not always compute in the eyes of the world. To the utilitarian mind, it does not make sense that God would place such value on those who seemingly have nothing to offer. But in the flip flopped, upside down values of the kingdom, God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God’s love is not based on self interest and what he can get out of us, nor are the the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind some divine charity case. It is as simple, and baffling, as this: God loves the lowly because God loves. Love is who God is.

In each of our lessons this morning, we hear sharp words of warning directed towards priests, prophets, and other leaders in the church:

In the Book of Jeremiah, God speaks of how their ancestors “went after worthless things, only to become worthless themselves. The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’ nor did those who handle the law of the Lord know God; the prophets went after things that do not profit.” They had forgotten the true treasures of the church.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews urges his congregation, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Not because these leaders are somehow more virtuous or holy, but because these leaders strive to imitate Jesus.

And finally, in Luke, while dining with a leader of the Pharisees, Jesus reminds us that true discipleship is the way of downward mobility: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

These lessons all speak of the importance of leadership in the church, and how leaders are those who have become accustomed to following Jesus all the way down, even to the grave; baptized into the death of Jesus Christ, so that they might live in the power of his resurrection. In the kingdom of God, to be a leader means to follow Jesus.

The ambitious, the arrogant, and proud will only find themselves at the far end of God’s table, because it is not our achievements and effort that earn us a place by God’s side.

“Humility is a better equipment than ambition,” writes Scottish theologian Peter Forsyth. “Humility is a better equipment than ambition, even the ambition of doing much good.” Now, humility has nothing to do with self-loathing or self-degradation (which is false-humility). True humility is the truth about ourselves before God. And the truth about ourselves before God is that God treasures even the poor, broken, and painful parts of ourselves that we might just prefer to keep hidden.

In just a few moments we will be given the opportunity to renew our baptismal covenant, and be asked “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” And I realize, every human being is a lot of people! It’s hard to respect the dignity of every human being all at once. But we can start with the person beside us. We can start with the person holding up a sign on the side of the road, or the person struggling with chronic illness. We can start by treasuring the image of God in our neighbor each time we take the time to look someone in the eye and offer a kind word. To respect the dignity of every human being is to see them as God’s treasure.

The treasures of the church, as Laurence knew so well, are not the shiny idols paraded around in the marketplace or locked away in the treasury. Our treasures cannot just be historic buildings, pipe organs, and silver chalices (as nice as those things are). Nor can our treasures be our degrees and pedigrees and striving ambition. We must learn that God values us whole. God values us whole – the good, the bad, and the ugly – God loves all of who you are. God treasures in you even that which is broken and hurting. That place where you most need God, is perhaps where God most needs you.

The Rev’d Brad Landry

St. Paul’s – San Antonio

Proper 17c (2016)

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