Sermon audio here.
The basic idea of today’s parable is this: don’t take the best seat for yourself. If you do, you risk being moved down to a lower place when someone else comes to claim it, and then you’ll be embarrassed in front of everyone else.
Once I remember being at an event and accidentally sitting in the wrong seats. Sure enough, the rightful ticketholders showed up and the usher told me I needed to move. It was embarrassing. I don’t even remember where I was or what I was there to see, but I do remember being told to move.
On the other hand, if you sit in the lowest place (or stand in the nosebleed section), you have nothing to lose. You may even be selected to move up into better seats. Instead of embarrassment, you get public honor.
Our Lord is directing us to a particular sinful impulse in today’s parable. It’s the same impulse that carefully analyzes the pizza to see which slice is the biggest before deciding which one to take. And believe me, I’ve got this down to a science. I’ve spent the past 20 years developing an algorithm that’s guaranteed to get you the biggest slice, every time. I’ll even give it to you after the service as long as you promise not to use it when I’m around.
Now whether or not we actually take the biggest slice, we all share the impulse to at least want the biggest and the best for ourselves. The sinful flesh doesn’t care about how this makes the other pizza lovers feel.
The same thing happens in the corporate world. There, we’re taught to push and shove and kick and claw our way to the top. Oh, and it’s not personal—it’s just business.
Apparently business doesn’t care about the Golden Rule. But as Christians, we do. How would you like being pushed and shoved and kicked and clawed at? Treat others the way you want to be treated. If you want the biggest slice of pizza, the Golden Rule says to let someone else have it instead.
Our self-serving ways are destructive to our life together. But in Christ, sin becomes an occasion to live in love, to be gracious and to forgive, to be to your neighbor as Christ is to you. Christian love isn’t based on our feelings or even how other people act. It’s based on the love and example of Christ, who died for you while you were still His enemy.
Like all behavior, selfishness is a deeply spiritual issue. It reflects something wrong, first of all, in our relationship with God. Our rejection of His love has left a void in our lives that we’re always trying to fill with the wrong things.
Selfish ambition is detrimental to our life together in the Body of Christ. Self-centered thinking has caused us to all but forget one of the greatest blessings of the Church, which is Christian fellowship, or life together.
Our inclination is to see the church only in terms of how it benefits me and to ignore the impact of our presence or absence on the rest of the Body. How well do you think a baseball team would do if the shortstop didn’t show up? You skipping church is even worse; it affects the whole body of Christ.
This individualism has led to so-called “online church services,” where you can allegedly “go to church” all by yourself from the comfort of your living room.
And while technology has its place, we abuse it when it becomes a substitute for gathering together as the Body of Christ. Not even the most orthodox Lutheran blog can give you real-life, flesh and blood fellowship with other Christians in Word and Sacrament.
Our Lord has given us no digital Sacraments. The Church is found wherever the flock gathers together to receive the nurture of our Good Shepherd. In some ways, there’s nothing more antisocial than social media. It’s a poor surrogate for real-life Christian fellowship.
But to condemn social media is to simply shift blame and avoid the real problem, which is the self-serving individualism that causes us to despise our life together in the Body of Christ.
Our Lord describes His Church as one body with many members, of which you are a vital part. If the Church is the Body of Christ and you are a member of that body, to depart from the Church is to, quite literally, dismember the Body of Christ.
The body doesn’t work well when parts of it shut down and don’t pull their weight. This shows up not only in the attendance books, but also in the offering plate. Taking a Sunday off doesn’t relieve you of your God-given, Christian duty to support our congregation. The bills never take a week off, even if you do.
In order for our life together to continue in this or any place, Christians have been called to fund the work our Lord does in His Church. The temporal means He uses in His service have temporal expenses. And as far as I know, Christ has never multiplied our offerings like He did with the loaves and the fishes. He leaves that one up to you.
Providing for the Church’s temporal needs is the duty of every Christian. St. Paul praises the churches in Macedonia in this regard and sets them before us as an example. He writes,
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints– and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.[i]
Notice how St. Paul described the Macedonian Christians: they gave according to their means. There are no hard and fast laws about giving. We give back to the Lord in proportion to what He’s given. We, like the Macedonian churches, give according to our means.
But the Bible does give us a goal to aim for, which is the tithe, or 10%. In most cases, 10% would reflect a healthy, Christian relationship to money. Based on the average US salary, that would be $425 a month, or just over $100 per week.
Now that amount will be more or less for you depending on where your income is relative to the rest of the country. I just mention that to give you a point of reference. $5 per week would be a tithe from someone who made $5,000 per year. If you make $40,000, a tithe is about $80 per week. If you make $80,000, a tithe is about $160 per week, and so on.
Tithing should be a goal for every Christian. If you’re not there, give according to your means and take intentional steps to move in that direction. And if you are tithing, is that still in proportion to your means? For some, 10% may really not be a big deal. Despite their extreme poverty, the Macedonians begged St. Paul to let them help provide for the Church. Supporting Christ’s work should have a meaningful claim on the funds He’s given you to manage.
Though God has given us no greater gift than His Church, it’s easy for us who’ve had this gift every day to take it for granted. We easily forget that the Church is a gift, one that can be taken from us any day. We who have had this gift all our lives should thank God for it from the bottom of our hearts. It’s ours only by His grace.[ii]
Of all the Lord’s blessings, there is no greater gift than His Church. Here, He daily and richly forgives your sins and the sins of all believers. Here, He sets you at peace with God and one another. Here, He provides you with shelter against the deadly assaults of the world, the devil, and your own sinful flesh. Here, He fills the void in your life left by selfish ambition with His own ambition for you.
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] 2 Corinthians 8:1–5
[ii] Paraphrase of Bonhoeffer, Life Together (20).