Post Author: Elsa Anders (Peters) Cook
Young Clergy Women International was founded in 2007 as The Young Clergy Women Project. YCWI is now an organization of over 1500 clergy women under 40. We gather in online community, host annual conferences, and for ten years have faithfully published on Fidelia twice a week, amplifying the voices of young clergy women. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of YCWI, we at Fidelia are bringing you a series of articles from our archives. We’re showcasing some of our favorites – pieces that went that went viral, and underappreciated gems; essays that harken to earlier times (A lot has changed in ten years!) and ones that feel perennially fresh. We give thanks for the young clergy women who have shared their voices and stories, hopes and fears, leadership and wisdom over the last ten years. We hope you’ll join us as we amplify the voices and stories that brought us this far.
Today we are pleased to republish the very first article that ever appeared in Fidelia, which was then known as Fidelia’s Sisters. This sermon by one of our founding board members, Elsa Cook nee Peters, was workshopped at the first conference of TYCWP, and preached the following Labor Day weekend in 2007.
A sermon on Luke 4:1, 7-14, by Elsa A. Peters
I can’t remember which member of the search committee said it. But I definitely remember their words: “Now that you are moving to Portland, no more Starbucks.” And it’s true. There are so many locally owned coffee shops in Portland… But I have to confess. I still love Starbucks. Starbucks was my first job. They were the first ones to offer me health insurance. And their coffee is just so good. I can’t help it. I love Starbucks.
Of course, there are problems with this love. There are things that I really don’t like about them. I don’t like that Starbucks destroys local businesses. I don’t like that each and every store looks exactly the same. I don’t like that they don’t even attempt to provide a living wage to the coffee pickers.
It’s these things that urge me to pause after each sinful sip of my Starbuck’s coffee to say, “Friend, move up higher”(Luke 14:10, NRSV). With each sip, I want to look in the eyes of the coffee pickers and say what Jesus said on the occasion of this meal at Pharisee leader’s home. “Friend, move up higher,” Jesus told the guests.
Because if a guest sat in the lowest place, then their host could come and tell him, “Friend, move up higher.” And then, the guest would be “honored in the presence of all who [sat] at the table with [him].”(Luke 14:10, NRSV)
It’s hard to understand what is happening in this parable because this is not how we share our meals 2000 years later. Two thousand years later, our meals are not focused on behavior. Table manners, sure, but not behavior. Not like the careful positioning of each dinner guest like at this Sabbath meal. This is far more complicated than knowing which fork is for the salad or knowing not to reach across the table for the meatloaf. Instead, it matters who is invited (14:12-14) and where you sit (14:7-11). It mattered where you sat. Because “eating together implied sharing a common set of ideas and values, and frequently a social position as well.”(Malina and Rohrbaugh 381)
It mattered where you sat. That might not be true for us now. We might still have our meals with those that share a common set of ideas and values. Certainly, it’s what happens when we break bread and share the cup. We don’t always agree on everything. We have some different opinions. But, when we share the broken bread and cup, we all remember Jesus. But, do we all share the same social position? Are we each “honored in the presence of all who [sit] at the table with [us]”?(Luke 14:10, NRSV) I know you want to jump ahead because Jesus explains it all right there in verse 11: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
But wait. Don’t rush ahead yet. Imagine this group of Pharisees jockeying for seats like children in a game of musical chairs. Imagine the chaos. Imagine the strategic maneuvering. Then the music stops.
All of these Pharisees scramble for a seat. And then, there is one. One without a place of honor. One without anyone saying, “Friend, move up higher.” But, instead of looking at him, they are watching Jesus closely. And then Jesus tells them a parable – a parable that does not “turn out to be a parable in the usual sense.” (Fitzmyer 1044 Sounding more like something a parent trying to direct a fair game of musical chairs, this parable lacks any kind of story. And if a parable is, as Frederick Buechner says, “a little story with a big point,” it’s hard to know where to begin.
But, there they are. All of these Pharisees sitting in their places of honor watching Jesus closely. Without blinking. Without averting their gaze to enjoy the smells of the meatloaf. Staring intently. Watching Jesus closely. Not higher or lower than their own gaze. But, looking at Jesus eye to eye. As if he was in the seat next to you. Watching you closely.
Because God looks at each of us this way, right? Watching us closely. Without blinking. Without looking away. Staring intently because God cares about each of us. And though it wasn’t a game of musical chairs at that Sabbath meal with the Pharisees, I can’t escape the metaphor. As I imagine Jesus closely watching each person around that table and the Pharisees staring back knowing that they each deserve a place of honor, I wonder about that person that doesn’t have a seat.
Maybe that’s where the story is found in this parable. Maybe the big point is in this person without a place of honor. Maybe we are too concerned about being watched closely. Maybe our focus is too concentrated on our unblinking gaze with God. Maybe we have forgotten to look around to see if everyone at our table is truly honored in the presence of all.
You may have heard this same reminder at the conclusion of Michael Moore’s new movie Sicko. We have gotten too concerned about ourselves, Moore claims. We are too focused upon our own needs, wants and desires, Moore says. His point was simply that we need to look out for each other. Perhaps this means caring for each other’s health. Or listening attentively to each other’s stories. Or maybe it means just looking around to see who has been left without a place of honor.
Friend, move up higher. I want to say not just to the coffee picker but to those without healthcare and those that struggle with poverty and especially for the workers. Because Labor Day is different. Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor explains that
All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day…is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation. (Gompers)
And because of this, Labor Day is different. And it will always be different for me after I spent a summer pounding the pavement in New York City to support the rights of union workers. I had started that summer with the solid conviction that no one should be denied a living wage. I was an idealist and I didn’t care how complicated this might be. That summer, I studied the history of the labor movement and listened carefully to the stories of the cafeteria workers of Local 100. And then, I held their hands as I introduced these workers to members of the clergy who listened to these painful, unjust stories. There was no conflict or battle of man’s prowess over man. There were tears from workers that felt mistreated. There was pain from workers that could not provide for their families. And it broke my heart. Again and again.
And after the story had been told, the listening clergy always took the hand of the worker and said, “Friend, move up higher.” Because what Jesus said is true. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. I saw it in the worker’s eyes who had finally been heard. He had been heard and his eyes lowered in humility.
And then Jesus said, those that humble themselves shall be exalted.
Just as Jesus did. “Friend, move up higher,” he told the guests. Make a space at the table. Pull up a chair because God our Host has already invited the “poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” (Luke 14:13 NRSV)
Not everyone at our table may be truly honored in the presence of all. Not yet. But, if we listen and hold their hand, maybe we would all find honor. Because Labor Day is different.
Labor Day is a day to give honor to our workers. Perhaps this year, we need to be more careful about listening to each other’s pains. It could happen at Coffee By Design when you order your morning coffee, rather than going to Starbucks. Or you could ask the cashier at Shaw’s how happy she is at work. You could tip your waitress extra. Watch closely to see where God moves you. Witness the game of musical chairs. Listen for things that you might not have heard.
Find that sacred moment to humble yourself by speaking Jesus’ words, Friend, move up higher and take this place of honor. Because I have watched you closely. And I have seen you need a place to sit. Friend, move up higher and take your place of honor.
Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, (New York: Anchor Bible, 1982).
Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003).
Now: Elsa Anders Cook is a minister in the United Church of Christ with a passion for interim ministry and the written word. She is currently a student in the art of spiritual direction at San Francisco Theological Seminary.
Then: Originally from New York, the Rev. Elsa A. Peters moved to the snowy North to serve as the Associate Pastor at the First Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in South Portland, Maine. This sermon is a result of attending the Preaching as Testimony Conference, led by Anna Carter Florence in August 2007 at the Cathedral College of Preachers in Washington, D.C. After writing what she calls “a horrible draft” during the conference, she delivered this sermon at First Congregational Church on September 2, 2007, Labor Day Sunday.
Image by: smcgee
Used with permission