Who is More Distinguished?

Proper 17 Year C
Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16, Luke 14:1,7-14
Fr. Robert P. Travis
Sermon Text:
How many of you know the name Karl Barth?
You may have heard of him, or you may not have,
as he is one of the most famous theologians of the 20th
He was a pastor, preacher and teacher from
Switzerland, who also taught at
the most highly regarded German Universities.
He lectured in this country at Princeton,
and the University of Chicago.

The majority of Barth’s life
was spent teaching and writing,
with some public lecturing and preaching.
His major writings include the commentary on Romans,
[and] Church Dogmatics (a multi–volume systematic theology of nearly seventy–five hundred pages...”
(Douglas, J. D., Comfort, P. W., & Mitchell, D. (1997, c1992). Who's who in Christian history. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House.)

But in the last decade before he retired,
he also spent time preaching in his local prison.
I guess you could say he wanted a captive audience.

I'm going to tell you a story about Barth,
that was created for a blog post by Ben Myers.
But first I want to point out why
today's scriptures made me think of this story.

The parable Jesus tells at the dinner party
he attends, is not like the other parables.
It strikes me that he is levying a pretty direct criticism,
of his hosts.
The practice he describes was very common in his time.
People had assigned seats at social functions.
We have vestiges of this today, with the head table
at banquets and such,
but in those days, every seat was supposed to be occupied
in proper order.
Those who were more distinguished,
of greater wealth, more power, or prominence
in the community
sat in the more important seats
while those less distinguished, sat down
at the lower places.
People would regularly come into a place,
and sit as high up as they could,
so they would be more highly regarded by others.
But it was the responsibility of the host,
to order his guests appropriately before the occasion could begin, so if someone more important came in late,
then someone would be asked to move.
This was common practice,
and so Jesus' advice seems to be good etiquette advice,
for social behavior.
But of course, Jesus is talking about more than just
party politics.
And Luke highlights that, by putting this saying together with one about who to invite to the party.
For me, the focus is on the word
“more distinguished,”
I discovered that while doing Lectio Divina
on this passage at our Thursday afternoon
Centering Prayer Group.
Others were drawn to the words,
“those who humble themselves,”
and “Invite the poor.”
Those also helped me to see what the Spirit,
was pointing out to us in this Gospel.

For God, those who are more distinguished
are not like the ones we would think of
as more distinguished.
We know this to be the case from all the other sayings,
where Jesus highlights the great reversal
of the Kingdom of Heaven,
where the last shall be first and the first last.
Some say that is even the scandal of the gospel.
That we will be shocked when we get to heaven,
and those we thought the least of have a higher place.
But as usual, I think Jesus is talking about the
'distinguishedness' of certain people right now.
(I know that's not a word, but it fit here.)

So here's the story about Karl Barth:
“Beneath the blue skies of Switzerland,
in the cheerful bustling town of Basel,
there once lived a great theologian.
Each week he taught a seminar at the university,
ruminating and chewing his pipe happily,
while students crowded the floor,
pressed hard against those ancient walls,
laughing at his jokes
and responding to his questions with nervous sincerity.
He spent his evenings drinking wine and going to concerts and entertaining visitors from faraway places
who asked him questions shyly in halting German.
On weekends he tossed bread to the ducks at the river
or rode horses or went to see the animals at the zoo.
On Sunday mornings he went to prison
and preached in the dimly lit whitewashed chapel;
he spoke like a young man (though he was old,
with a heart full of old men’s stories)
and after the service
he exchanged cigars and jokes with the inmates,
assuring them that God was, after all, a very jolly God.

But more than anything,
the theologian loved to return each day to his study
and to sit writing at his desk. . .”

“Volume upon volume tumbled brick-like from his pen, solemn great tomes
as big and hard and sturdy
as workmen’s boots.

And so, while he sat thus writing...,
the fame of those books spread far and wide.
Throughout Europe and in remote exotic places—
South Africa, Scotland, America—
people mentioned his books at dinner parties,
taught them in seminaries,
wrote books and then entire libraries about them.
The Holy Father sought an audience with him.
Martin Luther King asked him questions
and leaned close to listen.
The Japanese formed a school around his name.
The Catholics held a council and invited him.
The Americans splashed his frowning face
across the cover of Time magazine. . .
His followers proclaimed his heavy tomes
to be the dawning of a new era. . .”

“The theologian was bemused by these attentions,
but he enjoyed all this in his own self-deprecating way.
And though he travelled and shook hands
and talked solemnly and accepted honorary degrees,
always he returned before long
to that stark little desk with its pipe and pen
and tantalisingly clean sheets of paper—
empty slates shimmering with promise,
like that formless materia prima in the beginning
beneath those vast and brooding wings.

Then one December night,
while the snow slept on the ground
and all the city’s children lay dreaming of Christmas,
the theologian died.

Quite suddenly he awoke
and found himself standing at the gates of heaven.
An angel took him by the elbow and led him in,
explaining in hushed tones that everyone was waiting.
Inside the gate, the city was bustling with sound and colour, like Basel’s Market Square in the summertime.
The theologian looked around.
He tried to take it all in.
Then somewhere in the crowd a voice announced his name, and there followed a tumultuous cheer.
Women and men pressed in close,
clasping his hands and shoulders
and pounding his back warmly.
Children laughed and clapped their hands.
Angels blushed and fluttered their wings in the sunlight.

The theologian felt quite overwhelmed by the crush of bodies, the vigorous handshakes,
the beaming faces.
He tried to smile and nod politely,
as he had always done when receiving a foreign dignitary
or an honorary doctorate.
He was relieved when again the angel took him by the elbow and steered him through the crowd,
out to a side-street off the busy square.

They walked on a little way,
and the theologian,
still trying to regain his composure,
confessed that he hadn’t expected quite so warm a reception. The angel seemed surprised,
and assured him that indeed everyone in the city
knew his name.
They had all been expecting him.

“For are you not Karl Barth?” the angel declaimed
with a theatrical flourish.
“Of course we have heard of the great Karl Barth!”
The theologian nodded modestly,
and the angel continued:
“Aren’t you the one
who visited the prisoners on Sunday mornings?
Didn’t you eat and drink with them?
Didn’t you tell them jokes to make their hearts glad?
Didn’t you put fat cigars in their mouths,
and strike a match for them?
Didn’t you go to see them
when even their own families had forgotten them?
Why my dear fellow,
there is not a person in this city
who doesn’t know your name!”

The theologian had stopped in the street.
He looked at the angel.
“The prison?
Well yes, I suppose...
But I thought perhaps…
my theology.
My books…”

“Ah!” the smiling angel said,
and touched his arm reassuringly.
“There’s no need to worry about all that!
That’s all forgiven now.”


“But of course!
All those books are forgiven—every last word of it!”
The angel took his hand fondly.
“No need to dwell on all that now—
everything is forgiven here.
Come now, my dear,
there are still so many people waiting to meet you.
And the prisoners you visited—
they live down there by the river, in the best part of town—they’ve prepared a feast to welcome you.
Come, come along now…”

And so, hand in hand beneath a summer sky,
the angel and the theologian
made their way together down the city street.”
Posted by Ben Myers at 8:00 PM

What are we to do with this story?
What do we do with the understanding that Jesus gives us,
that those more distinguished than we are,
are not those people we would expect?

You see, those we think of in this world
as more distinguished, are those who have
earned, or otherwise deserve more honor than we do.
In spite of thousands of years of following Christ,
those same people are still more distinguished
than the ones Jesus thought deserved greater attention.
Those who are more distinguished
in the Kingdom of God,
are the poor, the sick, the suffering,
the meek, the imprisoned.
It doesn't have to do with whether they were good or bad,
but how much they suffered in this life.
That suffering distinguishes them from the rest of us,
and as I mentioned previously,
makes them opportunities for us to participate
in God's love for them,
by reaching out and loving them as ourselves.

The reading from Hebrews gives us some pretty
clear guidance on that question.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for by doing it some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison,
as though you were in prison with them;
those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves
were being tortured.”

We have many opportunities to show hospitality to strangers here, especially strangers
who are distinguished in the Kingdom,
such as when we welcome homeless families,
into our church with Family Promise.
We even have opportunities to minister to prisoners,
through a ministry that Bob Wadley can tell you more about.
These prisoners are probably in different situations,
than those mentioned in Hebrews,
because they are not being persecuted for their faith.
But they are distinguished in the way
that love and faith can transform their lives
in a much more dramatic way than for others.
You can mentor formerly homeless men and women,
through the Circles of Support Program
Ascension takes part in.
Or regularly feed the hungry through Fish.

You could teach Sunday School to children,
or minister to the youth.
You know, one of the people who received
the highest distinction in our world,
still teaches Sunday School at his home church,
in Plains GA.
President Carter, who was in the news this week,
for going to North Korea to help free an American
imprisoned there, may have done a lot of great
deeds in his life, but imagine when he meets
those children in Heaven, who he has taught
the Gospel too all these years.

There are myriad ways you can do these things,
but first you have to make time for them,
in the midst of demands that seem so much more worthy.
You will probably be paid for those worthy endeavors,
or at least receive esteem for them.
But Jesus challenges us to work for those who cannot pay us
back, because those efforts will be rewarded for eternity.

There are all kinds of ways
that you can “be blessed, by those who cannot repay you.”
Remember as Jesus says,
“you will be repaid, at the resurrection of the righteous.”


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