Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost — August 28, 2022

This week, Teri McDowell Ott writes about Luke 14:1,7-14 and the rise of Christian nationalism.

Teri McDowell Ott's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.

Pentecost 12C
Luke 14: 1, 7-14

At the end of Flannery O’Connor’s story “Revelation,” Mrs. Turpin, a stately, self-righteous Christian woman, has a vision that turns her world, and her prejudiced assumptions, upside down. A fiery streak in the dusk sky transforms into a bridge from earth to heaven. Climbing the bridge, a “vast horde of souls were rumbling to heaven” — souls Mrs. Turpin had earlier judged beneath her. Poor White folks climb to heaven, clean for the first time in their lives. Black laborers dressed in white robes proceed to salvation and behind them a bunch of “freaks” and “lunatics.” At the end of the heavenly procession Mrs. Turpin recognizes herself and her people, marching with dignity behind the others, “accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.” Confused, Mrs. Turpin sees the “shocked and altered faces” of her people as, last in line to heaven, their esteemed virtues burn away in the light of the setting sun.

The kingdom of God has its own social and spiritual order. To presume our place in that order is not only unwise but unfaithful.

At the beginning of Luke 14, Jesus gives a lesson on guest etiquette with broader theological and ethical meaning. In the New Testament, the “banquet” is a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven and the coming reign of God. When we are invited to this banquet, we should not presume a seat of honor. As Paul reminds us in Philippians 2, we are to emulate Jesus, who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).

Humility marks the model guest. Supremacist assumptions, on the other hand, are deceptive and can creep into our attitudes in ways that appeal to our personal virtues and “common sense” while actively distorting our path of faith.

The rise of Christian nationalism in our American discourse is one example of “supremacist” thinking. Christian nationalists not only presume America, as a nation, is marching ahead of all other nations on the bridge to heaven, but they assume a particular kind of Christianity is the head of others too. In their book, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry define Christian nationalism as an ideology that advocates for a fusion of American civic life with a Christianity that is socially and fiscally conservative, White and Protestant. Despite the facts that America is religiously diverse and the First Amendment guarantees our government neither promotes religion nor interferes with its free exercise, Christian nationalists proclaim that America was founded as a “Christian nation” and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. They see themselves as America’s first-class citizens and seek to protect that status.

In an article for Christianity Today, Peter D. Miller writes that Christian nationalists act on the “unstated presumption that Christians are entitled to primacy of place in the public square.” They approve of the football coach praying on the 50-yard line — but not the Rabbi or Imam. They want prayer back in public schools — but only prayers to “Our Father” or “Our Savior, Jesus Christ.” They desire prayers that frequently call for God to bless America as a chosen nation, prayers that assume God is on America’s side. “Fully implemented,” Miller continues, “[Christian nationalism] would not respect the full religious liberty of all Americans.”

Luke 14 bears witness to an ordering of life under God’s reign. At God’s banquet, all are welcome; seats of honor are not defined or doled out by class, race, nationality or group identity. Assuming “people like us” are the guests of honor will only lead to our disgrace. As we seek to follow and emulate Christ, let the flag we wave be one of humility, and the call we follow that of verse 11: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Questions for reflection:

  1. What thoughts, feelings or memories arose as you read this passage?
  2. Where have you witnessed “supremacist” assumptions at play, where some are assumed higher than others?
  3. What models of humility inspire you and your faith?

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