Quit Playing Games (of status)

The Secret: God wants to transform your desire

Today’s lessons have within them really what is the secret of the life of faith, the secret of “true religion.” I know we don’t tend to talk much about secrets in this church. We believe in transparency. We put the minutes of our vestry meetings and the results of our annual audits up online for all to see. But I would contend, we still treat the truth in today’s readings like a secret in the church writ large. We keep the secret covered up. So, let’s spill. The secret is this: God wants to transform your desire.

God wants to transform your desire. Now, we often associate the word desire with churches that worry a great deal more about sex. We also associate desire with the Buddhist teaching that our desire is the root of our suffering. Frankly, I think Jesus’ story gets us pretty close to this Buddhist teaching. Todays story is about God’s hope to transform our desire for status.

Luke tells us that Jesus went to a dinner party, and he noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table. What you need to know to understand Jesus’s story is just how practical he is being. According to what we know about the customs around Palestinian wedding feasts, Jesus is a bit of a first century Emily Post here, this is good advice. You want to be asked to move on up, not to step down.

But isn’t Jesus also pointing to something deeper? Does this work in our soul beyond the pragmatic? Jesus says, seek out a place not up near those high status folks, but down with the riff-raff. Take your place among those the society counts out. There is a spiritual benefit here.

Now, lest we dismiss this Gospel an artifact of an ancient way of being, remember, this is about desire. The banquet here is a parable, a metaphor. Jesus is asking his disciples to think about the places of honor they seek. Transform your seeking.

The power of “status” : Communicating a pattern of desire

We may not all be experts in the social politics of a first century wedding banquet, but we still know something about seats of honor. How built in are certain seats to our perception of career advancement, wealth, prestige, and power? We talk about a corner office, the “c suite.” In academia we talk, literally, about “chairs,” some of them endowed. The church definitely isn’t immune. Up there in the shadows of the chancel you’ll see two intricately carved historic chairs, one for the rector and one for the bishop of Missouri. I don’t sit in mine very often, because when I do the cross tends to fall off the top. I’m not sure what that says, but I know that those chairs were designed to say something about status, to communicate a system of desire.

Status is still a going concern. Frankly I think status matters to most of us more than wealth. Deep down do we think status will help us know we belong. Money is useful because it buys comfort, security, and it can buy those things that communicate status. Some poor people will get into debt to buy luxury goods. Money buys memberships, certain clothes, specific brands of cars. For many folks the pursuit of wealth is really about a desire for status. We want to look a certain way. We want to be first in line to get on the airplane. In today’s social media environment, we want to reach a certain number of followers, to post photos from a coveted vacation spot. We live and work in a society which is built to shape our desire for status. We are told, “you’ll feel like you belong if you just get so many more points.” Even if we modulate, even if we adjust down, we are, most of us, playing with this status game.

I love that quote from Thomas Merton, “we can spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to discover it was leaning against the wrong wall.” Jesus, in today’s Gospel is telling us, “Don’t invest yourself in games of status, of honor, of wealth, of power. That way doesn’t lead to happiness. You won’t find the belonging you seek.” Seek ye first the kingdom of God. Seek the beloved community.

And, this is the part we treat like a secret, Jesus tells us where to find the kingdom already among us. Jesus tells us where we belong. It’s not far. Just head down to the other end of the table. Just go spend your time with the people the game keeps on the bench, the people the status game counts out. At the party, ignore the pretty people. Go befriend the folks who are looking uncomfortable. You’ll find the kingdom. That’s the secret, as best you can let go of your desire for status.

The most disarming gathering I’ve been to in months

This last week, I went with the Rev. Julie Graham to a meeting held in the basement of the L’Arche St. Louis offices. L’Arche houses people who are disabled. The L’Arche movement is a spiritual community. They believe that the way our society treats people with disabilities is harmful, both for disable people and those of us who are temporarily able-bodied. I recently learned that self-identifier, “temporarily able bodied.” Those words convey the inconvenient truth that all of us, if we live long enough, are going to be disabled. L’Arche believes life is better for everyone when the disabled are given pride of place at the table. The group we attended Tuesday is called “Faith and Light,” a small gathering of folks with disabilities, their family and friends, in mutual community.

Faith and Light grew up because so many people with intellectual disabilities do not feel they have a place at church. The theologian John Swinton explains it this way:

Within church communities it is often unclear as to precisely what position people living with this form of disability are deemed to hold within the body of Christ. These are people who have no access to the gospel, if access is assumed to require a certain level of intellectual awareness and knowledge.

John Swinton- Becoming Friends with Time

Faith and Light gathers because they fundamentally believe that every person matters to God. People should not just be welcome, and included. To really be part of a Christian Community means that you aren’t just tolerated. You are loved. You only really belong in community if you know that your presence would be missed if you didn’t show up.

Faith and Light say they believe the words of St. Paul:

“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

1 Cor 1:27

I’ve got to tell you, the last thing you would ever find at a Faith and Light gathering is shame. There were folks with significant intellectual disability and difference. They gathered to tell a story of Jesus. This night, they told the story of the man born blind, who Jesus healed. Interruptions were common. Activities had to be adapted for each participant. The meeting was not efficient. Robert’s Rules weren’t followed. But, gathered in that circle, I felt the most disarmed I’ve felt in months, the most welcomed I’ve felt in a church space perhaps ever. The young woman who helped me find my name tag was so enthusiastic, so emotionally excited to see everyone, to help everyone find their place. Me included.

I was welcomed not because of my collar or my position, but simply because I am a person. There was no right way to be, no right way to act in that space. People were watching out to make sure I was comfortable, I had what I needed. No one was watching to make sure I behaved. No one needed me to have the right answer either. They just wanted me to know how glad they were I was there. And for two hours, we simply shared in the gift of time.

The Secret: Christ’s Banquet undoes our status games

Friends, this is the secret Jesus wants to give us. This is the secret the writer of Hebrews is trying to communicate when he tells the early Christians to entertain angels unaware, to remember prisoners and people mistreated…to go outside the camp. This is the secret God wants the people to receive in the psalm, though the people would not hear. You will find God when you stop running the rat race. When you slow down and find community with people who are left out of the game of status, a secret breaks open. You can find God’s beloved community, God’s reign among us, when you love someone who isn’t able to climb the ladder of success.

Look, I know all of us, at times are locked into systems status, at work, among family and friends. The game is afoot. Jesus also encourages us to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. God knows we will have to play, but Jesus also wants you to know the prizes aren’t what they seem. Don’t attach your sense of worth to position. No status, no wealth, no recognized accomplishment is going to make you whole. Nothing society teaches you to pursue, no brand of clothes, no automobile or zip code is going to redeem you. That is all just a game, and so many of us are caught in the game. Don’t trust the game to help you know you belong. The goalposts in that game just keep moving. Instead Jesus invites us: Go spend your time with the people outside the game. Go enjoy the gift time with the folks who aren’t playing. That is the wall your ladder should be leaning on, the glory-less wall of unmerited love.

My favorite images in Jesus’ story are the images of the banquet. So much of Christianity is caught up in ideas of heaven, mansions in the sky, harps, cherubs. So much of Christianity is lived as a status game. So many churches are busy policing insiders and outsiders But Jesus talked about a banquet, a great feast. At Jesus’ table, all the wrong people were invited. All the people the world counted out, they were at the center. That’s why we gather here, around this table where all are welcome. Each we try and anticipate God’s great love feast. Jesus’ banquet is the greatest party you’ve ever known, because no one will have to be anxious about where they are supposed to sit. No one will have to worry about how they should behave. Everyone will be in on the secret: You can just let go. Let the beloved community love you. Celebrate the feast. You don’t have to play society’s game. Every seat is a seat of honor at Christ’s banquet, there is room to spare.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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