Sunday, September 2, 2007

14 Pentecost

September 2, 2007
All Saints Episcopal Church
Valley City, ND

Luke 14:1, 7-14

For those us who were listening closely to this morning’s Gospel, we might find ourselves struggling a bit with Jesus’ words. And if we aren’t struggling—if those words don’t make us uncomfortable—then maybe we should be. They are uncomfortable words, after all. He is making clear to us that, if we neglect the least among us, if we put ourselves first, we are putting ourselves in jeopardy. What we do here on earth—in this life—does make a difference. It makes a difference here, and it makes a difference in the next world. It makes a difference with those we neglect. And it makes a difference with God.

So, we should take heed. We shouldn’t neglect those who are least among us. But probably the most difficult aspect of our Gospel today is when Jesus summarized everything in that all-too-familiar maxim:

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus is not pulling any punches here. He is clear as day. Humble yourselves. If you do so, you will be exalted. If you are arrogant and full of yourself, you will be humbled.

I think, humility and pride are too often huge issues for all of us Christians, whether we are laypeople or clergy. For those of us who have spent a good part of lives in church, we have known too many arrogant, self-centered, conceited Christians in our lives. They sometimes are on the Vestry, in the pews, in the kitchen, or in the pulpit.

Pride is ugly. It doesn’t do anyone any good, especially the prideful one. But to be fair, it’s easy enough to do. It’s easy enough to fall in that ugly trap of pride. When we encounter those prideful Christians, we need to be careful how we deal with them. Because we need to remind ourselves: “there but for the grace of God, go we.” Sometimes, the most prideful Christian we encounter, isn’t in the Vestry, or the pews, or the kitchen or the pulpit. Sometimes, the most prideful Christian we know is the one we find staring back at us from the mirror.

Pride is an easy trap to fall into as Christians. We know we are loved by God. We also know we, as Christians, through our Baptisms, have a special place in relation to God. It’s easy sometimes to feel smug and self-assured. And when we are fully immersed in Church work, it’s easy for us to think that the success or failure of the ministry of the Church depends on us. We’ve all heard it, “If I didn’t do it, who would?” We’ve all said it. “If I didn’t do it, everything will fall apart.” And sometimes, this might be true.

But, it is a dangerous road to take when we start thinking everything revolves around us. And for clergy, they are in an even more vulnerable place. I will admit, I find myself falling into the pride trap on occasion. But I am, at the same time, lucky in some ways. I have a circle of family and friends who put me in my place very quickly whenever I find my head getting a little too big for its own good. Whether it be my parents, my friends and colleagues, or any number of other people, I can always depend on them to either subtle or not so subtly remind me when I am getting a bit too big for myself.

As clergy, we occasionally find ourselves being praised and treated with a sometimes undeserved respect. And although I have found my vocation to the priesthood a very humbling experience, there are times when we might find ourselves feeling very smug over a job well done. That’s true with all of us, as Christians.

A few weeks ago, I was feeling not so much prideful or smug, but simply good about my duties as a priest. I was at the Cathedral, doing two Masses that day. At the second Mass, I baptized the beautiful baby daughter of a couple I married over a year before. I also preached a sermon on baptism (one of my favorite topics) that received many wonderful, glowing comments from people. It was one of those perfect Sunday mornings and as I left the Cathedral that morning, I admit I felt like I had done a good job. And I felt the creeping edges of pride coming up inside me. To be honest, it felt good.

It was about that time when, as I approached my car, I saw it had been vandalized once again. As I shared with you before, my car had been vandalized in May on three different occasions by a disgruntled bi-polar cross dresser who has been hanging around the Cathedral. Having done almost $3,000 worth of damage then, I had my car repainted and was putting the incident behind me when here it happened again. Here, in front of me, was my car with the same pattern of scratches, the same amount of damage. And with it, the same sinking sense of frustration.

I came away from that perfect morning feeling as though I had been punched in the stomach. To call this a humbling experience was an understatement.

But this is what it means to be a Christian sometimes. It means experiencing those highs, knowing full well that we must also experience the lows as well and knowing that Christ is with us in highs as well as the lows.

It’s easy to fall into that ugly trap of believing everything is about us. It’s easy to convince ourselves that the world revolves around us and only us. Life, after all, is a matter of perspective. And from our perspective, everything else does in fact revolve around us.

Our job as Christians is to change that perspective. Our job as Christians is to, always and everywhere, put Christ first. It is not all about us. We are just a breath. We are just a blink of the eye in the larger scheme of things. We are born, we live, we die. And then we are gone. And, without Christ, that is all we are. There is no hope, there is no future, there is no us, without Christ. Christ gives us our definition. Christ gives us our identity. Christ gives us our purpose. This is what it means to be a Christian.

And this is what Jesus is getting at today, when he talks about the humble being exalted. Who knows better than Jesus about humility? He, who humbled himself by becoming one of us, who humbled himself to the point of actually being betrayed, humiliated and murdered, knew a few things about humility. But, we don’t have to let pride win out in the end.

I have found a very helpful exercise based on a saying by one of my personal heroes, the priest and poet, Blessed George Herbert. George Herbert would pray, each time he preached, that he would be the window pane through which the Light of Christ might shine. I love that image. And we can do so much with it. The idea of being a window through which the light of Christ shines is wonderful for us. Because we realize that no matter how dirty the pane is, no matter how cracked or warped the glass might be, Christ’s light can always shine through. We don’t have to be the clear, clean window pane. We only need to be enough of a pane that Christ’s light will get through in some way. And by letting Christ’s light shine through us, we are truly putting Christ first. That is really our job as Christians.

So, when you find yourself falling into the pride trap, stop and remind yourself to put Christ first. When you find yourself seeing the world as revolving around you, stop and remind yourself that Christ is at the center of your life and, as such, your world in fact revolves around Christ. When you find yourself shining with the glow of self-pride and self-contentment, remember that the light shining through you is not your light, but the light of Christ and that any reflection others have of your works are accomplished only through that light. When you find yourself becoming prideful, stop and listen to the voice of Christ as he says to you, “those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Because, Christ wants you to be exalted. Christ wants to exalt you. But this can only happen when you come before Christ as his humble servant, as his humble disciple, as his humble friend. This can only happen when you place Christ at the forefront of your life.

So, put Christ first. Humble yourself before Christ. And let the light of Christ shine through you in all that you do.

Amen.

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