Sunday, September 1, 2013

15 Pentecost

Luke 14:1, 7-14

+ This past week I preached at a funeral at GethsemaneCathedral in Fargo. The funeral was for a dear friend of mine, Janet Jordheim, the mother of Deacon Mary Gokey, who occasionally attends St. Stephen’s. After the service, I was talking with the new Dean of Gethsemane Cathedral, Father John Witnah, who celebrated the Eucharist for Janet.

 As we talked, he asked me, as clergy are apt to do on occasion, “So, are you preaching on the reading from Hebrews this Sunday?” (You can tell how compelling priest-talk is.)
 I said, “No, as much as I love that reading, I’m actually preaching on the Gospel. I am going to preach about humility.”
 He paused—now remember, he just met me—and gave me kind of strange look that seemed to say, “You are going to preach about humility?”
 Maybe I was reading too much into his reaction.  (The Dean is really a very nice guy).
But, yes, today, we get to hear this morning about humility.  We’re all excited about this. And we’re all excited to be hearing about it from me, of all people.  For those us who were listening closely to this morning’s Gospel—and I hope you were—we might find ourselves struggling a bit with Jesus’ words.  I know I certainly do.  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.

Jesus is making clear to us that, if we neglect the least among us, if we consistently put ourselves first—if we let our egos win out—we are truly 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. And 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 as 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 know this might come as a completely surprise to those of you who know me, there have been times when I have been a bit arrogant.  There have been times when I have been a bit full of myself.  And I can tell you that each time I have, I have been very quickly put in my place.  I have been humbled in those instances.  As I rightly should have been. 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 an ugly thing.  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.  I’ve done it. We all have.  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.”

Pride is an easy trap to fall into as Christians.  We know we are loved by God.  We know we, as followers of Jesus, 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 as individuals.

Earlier this summer I preached about lone wolf ministry. Lone wolf ministry doesn’t work. And Jesus certainly never intended his followers to be lone wolves. Discipleship means community.  Still, we do it. I do it more often than I care to admit.  We’ve all heard it, “If I didn’t do it, who would?”

“If I didn’t do it, it’s just not going to get done.”

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.
 As often as I fall into the pride trap in my life, I am lucky because I have a very clearly defined 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.  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 to be 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.  It’s easy to fall into that ugly trap of believing everything is about us as individual. 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.

But our job as followers and disciples of Jesus 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 everything.  We are born, we live, we die.  And then we are gone.  And, without Christ, that is all we would be.  There would be no hope, there would be no future, there would be 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 humbled 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.
When dealing with my own pride, I have found a very helpful exercise based on a saying by one of my patron saints, the priest and poet, Blessed George Herbert.  Yes, I know. There goes Father Jamie quoting George Herbert again!  But, I’ve been reading an incredible book about George Herbert lately that I highly recommend: The Music at Midnight.  I love George Herbert he knew humility. You’ve heard me use this image many, many times—and I will use again many, many times, no doubt—but George Herbert would pray, each time he preached, that he would be the window pane through which the Light of God would shine.  Or, as he himself put in the opening stanza to his poem “The Windows”

Lord, how can man preach thy eternall word?
He is a brittle crazie glasse:
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.

I love that image. And we can do so much with it.  The idea of being a window through which the light of God 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, God’s light can always shine through us.  We don’t have to be the clear, clean window panes.  We only need to be enough of a “brittle crazie glass” that God’s light will get through in some way. And by letting Christ’s light shine through us, we are truly putting Christ first.

So, when we find ourselves falling into the pride trap, we need to stop and remind ourselves to put Christ first.  When we find ourselves seeing the world as revolving around the all-mighty ME, we do need to stop and remind ourselves that Christ is at the center of our lives and, as such, our world revolves around Christ.  After all, as he hear in that beautiful reading from Hebrews, God says to us, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
As long as God is with us—as God’s light is shining through us—we can simply be who we are without trying to be something we are not.
When we find ourselves shining with the glow of self-pride and self-contentment, let us remember that the light shining through us is not my light or your light, but the light of Christ and that any reflection others have of our works is accomplished only through that light.
When we find ourselves becoming prideful, let us stop and listen to the voice of Christ as he says to you, “those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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, serving Christ in those poor and needy people around us. This can only happen when we place Christ at the forefront of our lives

So, let us put Christ first. Let us humble ourselves before Christ.  And let the light of Christ shine through us—brittle, crazie glass that we are—in all that we do. Amen.

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