Authentic Leadership, November 5, 2017
Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
when you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
cause I get better looking each day.
To know me is to love me
I must be a hell of a man.
Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
but I’m doing the best that I can.
Today’s gospel reading is about pride and humility, and particularly as it affects folks like me—religious leaders.
Before I go any farther, let me be clear that this reading is not about Jesus condemning the Jews. We have to be very careful about that because passages like this have done a lot of damage over the centuries. People have used it as a basis for anti–Semitism, but it just ain’t so. Jesus was a Jew. In fact, Jesus had much in common with the Pharisees. They were not sworn enemies. They were more like debating partners.
At the very beginning of this reading, Jesus praises the Pharisees as good teachers of the Torah. He urges his followers to “do whatever they teach you and follow it.”
The problem is not with Jews per se. The problem is with religious leaders who teach one thing and do another. If Jesus were alive today, he’d be talking about Anglicans and Presbyterians and Lutherans and Baptists and leaders in the Alliance Church…and so on.
Jesus has four specific problems with certain religious leaders.
First, Jesus condemns leaders who don’t practice what they teach. It’s easy to tell others what to do and not practice it ourselves. But we are all called to love God with all that we are. We are all called to love our neighbours as ourselves. Those who proclaim the gospel are called to live by the same standard of the gospel.
Second, Jesus has no use at all for leaders who turn God’s gospel of love into a burden that no one can bear. This is not what God intended.
For Matthew’s church the essence of faith is found in the Great Commandment: “Love God. Love your neighbour.” That’s it. Jesus later says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Faith is not meant to be a burden. It’s about finding rest for our souls.
Third, Jesus condemns leaders who are more interested in appearance than in performance. You know the ones I mean—the ones who do everything for show. They want to be noticed.
True leaders, says Jesus, seek to serve God and the people God has entrusted to their care. It’s not about wearing the finest religious jewelry or the nicest albs and stoles. Love God. Love your neighbour.
The fourth problem is that these leaders think they’re better than everyone else. They pull rank. They insist on the best seats in the house. They love to swagger through the marketplace where they can be saluted and greeted with the respect they think they deserve.
“But not you,” Jesus says to the church. “Not you. This is not how it is to be in the church. For you, the greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This is the heart of what Jesus is talking about. A real leader will seek to serve. Authentic leaders serve alongside others. Followers of Jesus are not preoccupied with rank, or prestige, or fancy display. In the Christian community, all are called to serve, to love God, to love our neighbours.
For Matthew, the church is marked by a deep equality and solidarity. We are brothers and sisters together, equal in the presence of God.
I remember a mother in my first church asking me what I wanted her young son to call me. I said, “Jimmy can call me Yme.” “But,” she stuttered, “but you’re the minister. Jimmy has to treat you with respect!”
And I said, “Just because he calls me Reverend doesn’t mean he respects me.” I went on to say that the thing that binds Jimmy and me together is the fact that we have both been baptized. We are both God’s beloved children. We are part of the same family. Jimmy and I are brothers, and that’s the deepest relationship we have. Do you call a brother Sir? Reverend? Your Grace? No! You call a brother by his first name.
So let me tell you all … Just because I’m a priest doesn’t entitle me to special privilege. Just because I’m a priest doesn’t mean I get the best seat. Just because I’m a priest doesn’t mean I deserve to be treated with any greater respect than anyone else.
We are brothers and sisters together here. Our deepest bond is found in our baptismal identity. Each of us and all of us are called to serve each other—to serve the world—humbly and with passion. Each of us and all of us are called to use our gifts and talents not for our own aggrandizement, but for the healing of the world.
This is one more way in which the church is different from the world. We’ve read the stories about how people abuse their positions of power. Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump are just the latest examples.
But we’re all tempted by status and prestige. It feels good to be called to the head of the room, to have people defer to you when you’re out and about. I love it when someone stops me at the mall and tells me they loved my column, or when I get invited to some function or other just because I’m a priest.
And there’s nothing wrong with that per se. The problem comes when that becomes our motivation. The problem comes when we hold our position over the heads of other people. My calling to be priest is not so that people will defer to me on Baker St. My calling is to serve you and to serve the parish which has been entrusted to me.
I believe that this is our calling together. We are not here for our own sakes. We are here for the sake of the world.
As our baptismal covenant puts it, we are called to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ”. To “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbours as ourselves.” To “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.”
Not for us the trappings of power and honour. We follow in the way of Jesus who came to serve the world. We follow in the way of the one who became servant to the world, the one who wrapped a towel around his waist and washed the feet of his followers, the one who reached out in love to heal and proclaim God’s love and point to God’s gracious purposes for the world.
That’s the way for us — not to exalt ourselves, but to rest in God’s grace, to rely on God’s strength, to live with God’s compassion.
So no puffing ourselves up here. No more singing about how hard it is to be humble. Let’s make a new commitment to loving God and loving our neighbour, humbly, seeking to serve the world which God loves with an undying passion.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
November 5, 2017 (22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 31)
Matthew 23: 1–12
1 Thessalonians 2: 9–13
Joshua 3: 7–17