Sunday, August 28, 2016

15 Pentecost

August 28, 2016

Hebrews 13.1-8; Luke 14:1, 7-14

+ Last Sunday, of course, I was in Southern Minnesota. While there, I ended spraining an ankle. So, for the better part of last week, I was off my feet. Which means that when I wasn’t working from the couch, I was reading. And one of the books I read this past was actually a book I re-read. It was an influential book in my life, called Zen Effects, the Life of Alan Watts.

Now, you might not have heard of Alan Watts. Unless, of course, you were part of the so-called “counter-culture” of the 1960s and early 1970s. He was a pretty major force during that time. Watts, who died 1972, was a Zen Buddhist and Taoist, he advocated such things as drug experimentation, especially LSD, and multiple other psychedelic things.

Now, I know. You’re wondering what about Alan Watts would be so influential for me. Well, what very few people know about Watts was that he was actually an Episcopal priest for about 7 years in 1940s. Not a conventional Episcopal priest, by any sense of the word. But he was one nonetheless.

I loved Watts because of his unconventionality.  He was an inspiration to me , especially when I was applying to graduate schools in my 20s, because we both had very unconvenential, non-traditional educations.  But this past week, as I re-read the introduction to the Watts biography, paragraph really stuck me to my core. Monica Furlong, the author of the biography, writes:

“Among clergy in the Christian churches…some of them,
often less remarkable than Watts, had almost all his characteristics.
Though so splendidly and individually himself, Watts was at the
same time a type, a type that nobody talked about much in the
churches or in other religious communities because representatives
of the type were something of an embarrassment, they were very
often the subject of scandal. Certain sorts of disgrace tended to
follow them, yet of the ones I had known well, there often seemed
to be a special sort of grace as well, as if they were people who
helped to break up rigid social patterns, forcing us to ask questions
about them. We seemed to need them.

I love that description because I think there is a truth to it. Certainly, we all know them—those clergy who are viewed as kind of an embarrassment, behind whom “scandal” follows.

In this sense we are not talking about scandals like we often think. Scandal in the sense Furlong is talking is meaning clergy or other leaders who stepped outside the norm and were somewhat punished for it, at least socially.   Leaders who, no doubt, attempted to live out the spirit of our scripture reading from Hebrews this morning “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Doing good and sharing what we have—not just our riches, but what we have learned, what we have been gifted with—is hard. Shaking the “rigid social patterns” of the church and other organizations is not easy. In fact doing so is dangerous.  People in authority, and those who sort of “belly up” to those in authority—those who cowtail, shall we say—do not like their social patterns shaken.  And for those doing the shaking, they are often snubbed and ostrasized and shunned as scandalous and an embarrassment. And, let me tell you from my own experience, when you stand up for what you feel is right, when you do not neglect to do good and share what you have been given from God, and when others see that as against the norm—counter-cultural, shall we say—yes, it does seem like scandal and embarrassment. And when it is viewed that way, let me just say, few things are more humbling. But again, being humbled, especially for  the sake doing right, for doing right for God, can be a very good thing.  

Today, we get to hear in our Gospel reading this morning about humility.   For those of 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 was.   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—a person whose message was also seen as embarrassment and a scandal to those around him at times—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—a big 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. It is not all about YOU. (It is not all about ME) If we do humble ourselves, we will be exalted. If we are arrogant and full of ourselves, we will be humbled.

Humility and pride are too often huge issues for all of us Christians, whether we are laypeople or clergy.   I have seen it again and again. 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.  And they have, in many ways, destroyed the Church!  They sometimes are on the Vestry, in the pews, in the kitchen, in the Bishop’s chair, 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 relationship to God.   It’s easy sometimes to feel smug and self-assured.  And when we are fully immersed in Church work, when we are patted on the backs for the work we do, when we are told how invaluable our work is to the Church, 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, even knowing that, we do it. I do it more often than I care to admit.   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 friends and colleagues 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 individuals.  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 God 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 God, that is all we would be.  There would be no hope, there would be no future, there would be no us, without God. God gives us our definition.  God gives us our identity.  God gives us our purpose.  And this is what Jesus is getting at today, when he talks about the humbled being exalted.  

Even the writer in our reading from Hebrews gives us some very practical advice on how not to let pride win out:

“Let mutual love continue,” we heard. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

What beautiful poetry! When we are full of pride, we are unable to show hospitality—real hospitality. But when we are humble and we love each other humbly, when we serve each other humbly, without thought of reward, without thought of our own exaltation, then we realize, yes, we are entertaining angels without knowing it.

So, when we find ourselves falling into the pride trap, we need to stop and remind ourselves to put God first. When we find ourselves seeing the world as revolving around the all-mighty ME, we do need to stop and remind ourselves that God is at the center of our lives and, as such, our world revolves around God.  After all, as we 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 long 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 Holy Spirit’s light and that any of our works is accomplished only through that light. When we find ourselves becoming prideful, let us stop and listen to the voice of Jesus as he says to you, “those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

God wants us to be exalted.  God wants to exalt us.   But we will be exalted as God wants us to be exalted, not as we want ourselves to be exalted, as frustrating as that might be.  This can only happen when we come before God as humble servants, as humble disciples of Jesus, as humble friends of one another, serving God in those poor and needy people around us—those angels we are entertaining without knowing it.  This can only happen when we place God at the forefront of our lives

So, let us put God first. Let us humble ourselves before our God.   And let the light of God shine within us and through us in all that we do.   Amen.

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