Proper 17c, September 1, 2013

September 3, 2013

Spiritual Immigration
Luke 14:1, 7-14

1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
I think a California congressman was trying to be clever when he told a group of young advocates for the DREAM Act that he understood their situation because he was born in Arkansas. The DREAM Act applies to children of undocumented immigrants who have been raised in the U.S. but who live in legal limbo and who constantly face the specter of deportation to an unfamiliar country. Rep. Gary Miller’s comments weren’t as endearing as he had hoped they would be. While Arkansas may be as foreign to him as Mexico is to many of the young people he was addressing, no one can force Rep. Miller to relocate to the wilds of Arkansas. I think there are people in Arkansas who take comfort in that as well.

Moving in to a foreign land is often a difficult undertaking. And because of the stressful nature of entering new territory I’m guessing that most immigration is fueled by the emergence of harsh circumstances. It’s not easy to immigrate, so most people don’t unless they have to. Sometimes immigration is forced – sometimes it’s chosen, but I doubt if people ever choose to radically relocate without some kind of pressure.

When things are really bad, I’m sure there’s some relief that comes with immigration, but I’m thinking it’s always pretty difficult to move in to a new culture. It’s not easy to learn new ways of navigating the world. I had trouble understanding what people were saying when I moved from Arkansas to North Carolina. I can’t imagine what it would be like to move to another country where they utter unfamiliar syllables at twice the pace that we do here in Arkansas.

While I consider myself to have decent survival skills, I have come to discover that there are some impediments to my capacity to adapt. I haven’t moved in to a new country, but a new environment has moved in on me, and I’m not particularly happy about it. I learned a new phrase the other day that describes people like me – I’m a digital immigrant. This phrase came up the other day when we were having a meeting of our digital marketing team, and in the course of our conversation the young son of one of our team members overheard what we were talking about and he made some kind of suggestion of how we could improve our social media presence, and someone referred to him as a digital native.

Today’s children are growing up in a digitally saturated environment and they know how to navigate this world better than I do. Just like immigrants of all new worlds, some people adjust better than others, and most of the people who are on our social media marketing team are digital immigrants, but they have learned the new language better than I have. Now I have become as dependent upon a computer and a smart phone as much as anyone, but these are not the kind of tools that I am most adapted to using.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that one of the attractions I had to professional ministry was that I didn’t think I would have to use a computer. I just didn’t see this new world coming, and I’ve had a hard time adjusting. I don’t get digits. I don’t really get waves either, but I can better imagine waves moving through the air than I can digits.

I’m trying to adjust. And I have come to believe that there is some great opportunity for our church to become more digitally savvy. I’m even starting to think I should learn what it means to start a phrase with a hashtag, but you’re hearing this from a guy that went through seminary with a manual typewriter. I might well have been the last person to have done such a thing. It wasn’t easy to retype a page when you discovered you left a sentence out of the middle, but I understood how it worked.

Adjusting to a new environment is a difficult thing. It’s a confusing thing, and you might say that the essence of the challenge boils down to understanding how to send the right signals and how to interpret the signals that are coming to you.

I’m thinking this is the nature of the work that Jesus embarked upon. Jesus lived and died in the effort to help other people navigate the challenge of spiritual immigration. Jesus might have been raised as a native Israelite, but he immigrated to the Kingdom of God. He came to live like a native of God’s kingdom, and he wanted the rest of us to make that transformation as well.

In this morning’s scripture Jesus has some advice that’s counter to the signals that we get from our native environments. Regardless of what country or culture you grow up within, you become conditioned to pay attention to who has the most power and influence and those are the people you want to be near and to impress. Now what it takes to be powerful and influential will change from playground to playground and culture to culture, but we all learn early on that it’s best to be connected to the people who can help you become influential in this world.

I’m thinking that there is this uniform pattern of behavior within any given society – that wherever you come from, the objective is to generate good relationships with the people who have the most resources. We don’t all learn how to do that so well, but I think this is a lesson we all learn early on. We are all natives of that territory, and what Jesus talked about was how to move in to a very foreign land. The way they do things in the Kingdom of God is far different from the way they behave back home.

The advice Jesus gave makes no sense if you want to be close to the center of power in this world, but we need to hear what he’s saying if we want to get close to the Kingdom of God. We’ve all got to undergo some reprogramming if we want to send the right signals to the One who presides over this truly exotic location we call the Kingdom of God.

And it’s not easy to undergo this transformation of the way we operate. Even within the church it’s hard to follow Jesus’ advice. We’ve got this problem in our church right now of needing money. I had a pretty frank conversation last week with our District Superintendent about how things are going in this church. One unfortunate thing that is notable about our church is how little we’ve paid toward our Annual Conference Apportionments. And while the amount the Arkansas Conference expects from us seems to be pretty extreme the truth is that every other United Methodist Church in Arkansas feels the same way – but most of them pay their apportionments.

They’ve been cutting us some slack for the past few years, and I think they’ve been doing that because we are such a good looking church. We’ve got some of the best demographics in the state. We’ve got great age diversity, we’ve got better than average racial diversity, we’ve got good socio-economic diversity, we’ve got unbeatable sexual orientation diversity, and believe it or not the people at headquarters value these kinds of things. We are also the home of some incredible feeding ministries. I dare say more people get fed here than any other United Methodist Church in the state of Arkansas. In some significant ways we are looking good – and we all know that to some extent you can get by on your looks, but you might say we’ve got an ugly credit report, and that has landed us on the list of churches that aren’t quite cutting it.

We haven’t met our financial obligations, and that makes us look bad. While we could all take issue with some details of our conference budget, but the truth is that it’s put together by people who are doing their best to provide support for essential ministries. Money doesn’t equal ministry, but it’s hard to serve people without it.

It seems to me that we are in a very awkward position. Jesus is telling us to go in search of people who don’t have worldly riches, and I’m hearing from headquarters that they need us to make some significant payments. This has provided me with plenty to think and pray about lately, and I would like for you to join me in contemplating this significant challenge.

I believe this is a truly exceptional church. I’ve spent a lot of time around church people, and this is a remarkable assembly. We’ve got a good number of actual Christians in this church. But we need some more. I hate to sound greedy, but we need more – more people, more money, more love, more imagination, more effort, and more people praying to God to help us understand who we are and how we can be a more vital witness for the One who has called us together.

Perhaps the best thing for us to remember is that we have all been invited to the table of the Lord, and none of us are here because of what we bring to the table. We aren’t here because of who we are but because of who Jesus is. God doesn’t need us, we need God, and the good news is that God welcomes us all in to this really different community where people aren’t judged according to the standards of every other organization on earth.

The really good news is that our true judge does not abide in an office at the conference headquarters. I hope we will continue to be valued at that table as well, but if we will be diligent in our effort to serve the Lord of life we will be rewarded in the best possible way. Our challenge isn’t easy, but it is pretty simple. We are to be faithful to the instruction of Jesus who wants us to see each other as we are seen by God. And if by the grace of God we will learn to do this we will find our way in to that new community that isn’t defined by boundaries or abilities or positions but by the everlasting love of God.

Thanks be to God for this remarkable invitation! Amen


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