Pentecost 23 11-5-23
Our son Jeff was competing for the Ignatian Leadership scholarship at Gonzaga, which is a Jesuit school. Just out of high school, he was to go spend a weekend in Spokane along with about 40 other kids off campus to be tested and observed. (It was kind of like the Hunger Games) I thought my shy boy was SO brave to take on this task. I had never heard of Ignatian Leadership – maybe you haven’t either, so here’s the definition: Ignatian leadership is marked by humility, hope, authenticity, a profound sense of purpose and discernment. It is, in essence, servant leadership. Jeff did well that weekend, after being prodded to speak up more. And he got a good scholarship.
The reason I’m telling you this is because when he got in the car for the ride home, he commented, “It’s like our church.” Jeff had spent his whole life here at St. Mark’s observing servant leadership, humility, hope, discernment, and authenticity. I also made him attend church school, where Lorraine and I modeled servant leadership, for far longer than he wanted!
The church model we follow is Ministry of the Baptized, or Total Common Ministry. I don’t even know the current name of this model. To me, it’s the most democratic organization I’ve ever known, where no one is above or below anyone else. The priest is not more important than any parishioner. We are equal and we are all called through our baptism to share the good news.
I often think that the way we do church is so like the very early church, where people met in houses, where women like Lydia, had an equal voice, where, among the few attendees, the Holy Spirit’s presence was felt.
In our gospel today, Jesus is quite harsh in putting down the Pharisees. He paints them as self-important, and petty leaders who say one thing and do another. They want to be seated in the place of honor and their prayer is ostentatious and public.
Please note, this gospel is written by Matthew soon after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the occupying Roman force. The Pharisees were the main Jewish leaders who remained active after the loss of the Temple. The fledgling Christian church is embattled. It is a time of chaos. Matthew is trying to keep his flock together, helping them to justify standing with Jesus. Matthew points out and perhaps exaggerates the failings of the Pharisees as leaders. This passage has been used for centuries to further anti-Semitism. We must caution against that.
BUT look around you now, at the so-called religious folks among us, who are so self-important, who call out their every good deed, and who laud their prayerful lives. We see that on Facebook, on TV, and oh so much in today’s political culture. Recently, we’ve all heard our new Speaker of the House eagerly boasting about just how much he prays and reads the Bible. Maybe his Bible is missing this gospel?
“The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Humility can be a difficult virtue. It was for the Pharisees, and it is for us today.
The Rev. Dr. Kris Lewis writes: “If human nature made it hard for the scribes and Pharisees to keep their motives pure, to practice what they preached, we in the 21st century church are perhaps even more disadvantaged. We still have the same human nature, but we're embedded in a culture that values appearances, status, wealth, position, individualism, materialism, and consumerism.”
It's interesting being open about one’s faith in Montesano. Most people know each other’s church affiliation and talk openly about what’s happening at different churches. It’s both good and bad to openly present oneself as Christian… I sometimes post my sermons on Facebook, not because I think I’m the best preacher ever born but because we are all called to preach the good news and because I want to show that St. Marks allows preaching a pretty liberal interpretation of the Bible. But I worry that I fall so short of actually being a good Christian that I should be wary of publicly presenting myself as such.
We get mixed messages in the Bible about humility. Jesus is clearly attacking religious leaders here for their lack of humility. But in Matthew chapter 5, Jesus says “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven.”
Maybe the key to being a good follower of Christ is just trying. We try to be humble. We try to be good. We pray to God and don’t need to tell anyone about it. We perform good deeds and don’t need to point them out. As Saint Francis said, “Preach the Gospel always. And if you have to, use words.”
That is such good advice and can be hard to live up to. Maybe sometimes, we blow it, like this pastor who was voted the most humble pastor in America. So, his congregation gave him a medal that said, “To the most humble pastor in America." Then, on Sunday, they took it away from him because he wore the medal!