Humility and the Hubris of Contempt
Our gospel reading this morning presents us with a pretty straightforward message: do not think that you have everything worked out better or more fully than someone else, with respect to what God is doing in a community and in other’s lives. That self-righteousness often comes from two places: idealism and, sometimes related to this, personal insecurity. Idealism is about projecting onto the world and other people, your own personal vision about how things should be, and so who should be doing what, when, and how. And the insecurity of not achieving your ideal (where your ideal gives you peace, purpose, place and value) causes you to become judgmental of others because displacing your feelings allows the guilt, fear, helplessness, and frustration you feel about how things are going to be transferred to someone else so you don’t have to bear the feelings and deal with them.
Listen to Jesus’s parable: to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'
In seminary we often had guest preachers come from all over the world to preach at our Wednesday community Eucharist service. I rarely remember services or sermons, however, this one struck me and has stuck with me to this day.
The preacher had been a highly successful investment banker in NYC and after doing that, went on to manage a large international corporation. He was called to ministry later in life and so at 50, he began a third career as a priest. And within five years, as a bishop in the Episcopal Church.
He talked about his exuberance for having found God at that point in life and he thought: perfect, I’ll use all my skills from the business world to turn the Church around and get it heading in the right direction. I know my theology inside out and backward, and I’ve got business acumen that should transfer perfectly into parish life. Two years into his first real parish experience, though, he ran into a brick wall of opposition. He said he was completely confused as to why he couldn’t motivate his parishioners and turn things around. He had established a much better financial situation for the parish, he’d set up several programs, which people seemed at first to attend, but then stopped, he was offering all sorts of different committees and ministries for people to get involved with, yet no one was really getting themselves stuck into things and in fact, he seemed to have alienated people.
Yet each Sunday he executed an excellent liturgy, filled with smells and bells. He preached a fine sermon. He taught all sorts of classes. He led prayer groups and men’s ministries. “I didn’t get it,” he said to us. “I was doing everything that I had learned, everything I knew was right.”
“And then one day,” he said, “one quiet woman from the congregation took him aside and asked him if she could talk to him.” “Sure,” he replied. She asked him point blank: “do you love us? Do you even like us? Or are we a tool for you to exercise your need to be needed?”
He said, “I was speechless.” He proceeded to ask her what she meant. She replied that he came in with a vision of what he wanted, where he was going, how he was going to get there, and then she told him a hard truth: that his parishioners felt as if they were simply supposed to jump on board and ride his coattails to wherever he was going without once considering if this was where God was with them, or where God was moving them.
“Do you love us,” this bishop repeated, with lament at this early stage of his ministry, “or do you love having your needs fulfilled and your self righteousness affirmed?” I would go a step further and ask: do you love God, and placing his will first, work with your people just where they’re at?
This individual, who would become a bishop, dropped to his knees before the woman and said, “please forgive me for foisting my insecurities onto you.” That was the first step, he said, in coming to terms with his own brokenness. The abuse he’d suffered as a child that made him feel worthless unless he performed. The affirmation he received when he was successful in very worldly ways made him feel valuable, meaningful and desirable. But eventually, pursuing things by pursuing success drove him to driving others, to forcing, pushing, pressing, and actually hurting others, judging and condemning, firing, accusing, and bullying others, so that he could be successful, so that he could retain his sense of value and purpose. He carried that right with him into the Church. And there he encountered in others the response of God: repent for your pursuit of self affirmation out of fear has led you to sin against God, against others, and against yourself.
That man became a bishop in the Episcopal Church not because his Church grew. It didn’t in fact, it closed; but it closed, shepherded to closure with compassion, love, care, joy and a deep abiding sharing of God’s love. The man became a bishop in the Episcopal Church because he learned to see God, to seek God, and to lead others not by his own ways, but by God’s ways. All of us struggle with the need for affirmation, to feel valued, to have a reason to get up in the morning, a place to exercise our gifts, a thing to do in this life. But as Christians, we are called to take care that we do not substitute our fear about not achieving these things onto others, imagining that we are doing ‘God’s work.’ Pursuing God’s work isn’t about looking inside ourselves only. It is about looking at how our thoughts, ideas, ways, words, our timing, how we handle things, fits into God’s ways, words and actions. Let us seek this God who stills our fears and longings, allows us to let them go so that we can live his life out in this world. AMEN