He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up 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!' I tell you, this man went to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ, and stewards of God's mysteries. Moreover, it is required of God's stewards that they be found trustworthy.
1 Corinthians 4:1-2
I was a Conference dean for three years
and during those three years I made it my ministry
to preach gospel sermons to the clergy every month.
I think they didn't care much for that,
because they were hoping for a leg up on next Sunday's sermon
and wanted something they could use with their members.
However, what I saw was a profound need among the pastors
to have their own spiritual needs nurtured.
So, this is for you,
not for your parishioners.
This church strives to be a community of faith
in the midst of an adult middle class culture
that expects continuous economic expansion
and a life of material plenty.
In contrast to this expansionist view,
the church is running out of clergy,
and income is decreasing.
Faithful members are giving and doing more,
but there are less of them to do and to give.
The "Boomers" and " Generation X" have abandoned the church,
and even the few churchgoing among them
have not spoken of their faith to their children or grandchildren.
This humble state of the church can be humiliating
to a success-oriented professional,
but be of good cheer,
humility is a key attribute
of a good and faithful minister of the gospel.
But conscious humility is tricky.
Every teenager learning to refute adult values,
soon discovers that wanting to be humble
is merely a hidden form of greed and self-interest.
If being humble is the way to be exalted,
then wanting to be humble is really
the desire to be granted eminence.
Ever since Jesus told the parable
about people jostling for advantageous seats at the table
it has been impossible for God's people
to sit in the lowest seat without the expectation
that something better should be offered them.
Therefore, humility is not something we can give ourselves;
it can only be bestowed on us by God as a gift of grace.
St. Francis notwithstanding,
most of us do not embrace the offer.
Being humbled doesn't usually feel like a gift;
it feels like a reprimand!
Therefore, true humility must be something else--
-and it is.
True humility is the recognition that
nothing we bring to God has any value:
neither the secular achievements nor the religious.
It does not matter whether these things have value elsewhere,
they do not have any value in the realm of God
where everything we need is contained in God's presence alone.
When I moved from Edmonton to Vancouver in the 80's,
I brought my prairie fishing tackle with me.
I soon learned that it was completely useless
for fishing the salt chuck.
There was nothing wrong with the tackle in and of itself-
it was merely irrelevant in the setting.
But true humility goes further
than being merely a matter of our self-emptying.
It also calls for the recognition that
what God has to give the world is also not wanted.
We are being asked to live in solidarity with our God,
who is also being humiliated by the world.
He was in the world and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
Jesus was sent to the Roman Empire:
a secular, materialist, global, pluralist superpower.
Many had high hopes for him.
Instead, Jesus spent a long time learning the words of the prophets.
They reminded him that the world's so-called progress
resulted in a continual series of emptyings and devastations
of the people of God.
To the prophets these were not exceptions,
but signs of the ongoing struggle in which God engaged
in order to bring about the salvation of the world.
The people could write and recite psalms of lamentation,
but they could not presume to avoid suffering
merely because they lived righteous lives.
I find the mind of Christ enlightening.
Like Israel of the 6th century BC,
and the church of the 2nd century,
we have been a people in exile,
the church having been decimated by the long march
into the world of secular materialism.
Our Jerusalem has become weedy and untended.
Our God goes about the world as a beggar.
The One who is the Mother of All Societies
is made to wait for her children to include her at her own table.
Come Lord Jesus, be our guest:
we pray as if the bounty is of our creation
and we offer our ownership of it to Christ,
when it is Christ who gives us the food of his own life
and invites the hungry-unto-death to come to the feast.
It is like the five-year-old
who wants to bake pies with her mom.
Her mom does most of the work,
guiding her little hands,
re-rolling the lumpy crust and cutting the fruit into smaller pieces.
But when the pie comes steamy and scented out of the oven,
the little one proudly calls together her siblings
to show off the pie she tells them she made.
But what if we want to bake pies
and mother can't afford to buy the ingredients?
Humility is not merely a matter of our self-esteem.
It is a condition of our association
with a God who is herself rejected
and whose pleas for mercy and justice
fall on the deaf ears of those who love the way of the world.
Nevertheless, the humiliation of God
does not mean that God has abandoned the mission.
God simply avoids going mano a mano with the predominant world.
The crusades and jihads do not serve God,
they serve the desperate unbelief of those
who have no unconditional trust in the Holy One,
and have, therefore replaced the Holy One
with authoritarian or civil religion.
Thus denied by the mighty,
God goes among the irrelevant ones instead,
and makes a home among the unlikely.
And that brings me to the current generation of Canadian youth.
These irrelevant and unlikely
do not know the language of religion,
nor its protocols and niceties.
Nor has our training as clergy prepared us for this.
We are comfortable among the religious
who know how to respect us and interpret our speech.
That was working fine
until history took two generations of ours into exile.
The "Boomers" and "Generation X"
have learned the manners and commerce of Babylon.
They have made peace with a
commercial, global, secular, pluralist world
in which the worship of Jesus Christ
is seen as little more than a product in the marketplace.
But now it seems the grandchildren of the exiled generations
are curious about the realm of mystery and transcendence.
The good life of material comfort
has not delivered the promise of peace and security
and has not given them peace of soul.
They know that there was once a land named Zion,
but they do not know where it is
or even whether it is more than fable and myth.
And we, who have stayed behind in the empty land of Zion,
serving these two generations as tillers and vinedressers
in the abandoned vineyards of Israel,
are called upon to resettle these strange returnees.
Demographers are calling them the "Millennium Generation."
They are curious about the life of spirit and mystery,
but they do not distinguish between
a Buddhist monastery and a Catholic retreat house.
They do not distinguish between Taoist philosophy
and Lutheran systematics.
They do not know the difference
between the Incarnate One of Israel,
and an avatar of Hinduism.
Most do not know the difference
between our proclamation of resurrection,
and the Eastern understanding of reincarnation.
Yet, that is where God may find open minds and hearts,
leading us back to a very different Zion.
If so, even more humiliation will come to us
in the form of rejection
by a church that values its ordered structure
more than it honours the call of the gospel.
It will be a long time before the returnees
will ante up the money and labour
for rebuilding the walls of the fallen city.
At the same time,
like Ezra reading the Torah to the gathering of returned exiles,
we must teach Jesus Christ
who was himself called by the gospels of the exile prophets
to preach good news to a bad news world.
I have used the metaphor of the Babylonian Exile
because it is the Biblical paradigm I find most promising.
History gives and history takes away.
We live in a little boat upon the ocean of history.
We do not control the waves,
we sail where the wind takes us
and we settle where we are blown ashore.
But are not colonials like the conquistadores,
we are refugees whose God accompanies us
in every strange place and unfamiliar camp.
Our God is the Holy Imagination
which embraces every new experience like an artist
and uses it to paint a never-seen-before portrait
of the reborn people of God.
Secular society may have stolen our familiar crayons,
but there are other paint pots and carving tools
waiting for someone with imagination
to perceive God at work on a new opus.
I am about to do a new thing; can you not see it taking shape?
This is the meaning of humility
as I see it within the context of the gospel.
We bring nothing in our hands except our trust,
and we wait upon a God who is present to us
at the very moment that we hear only silence
and see only darkness.
We are not being asked to do what we cannot.
We are being asked to do what is given us to do.
When the only tool you bring with you is a hammer,
all you look for is nails.
However, when what is offered is a knock at the door,
you look for ways to open it
and let the Divine Visitor teach you a new vocation.
That is where humility and stewardship come together
to be for us the gospel of the Lord!
This sermon was prepared by Ray Schultz, National Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada for the Eastern Synod Pastors Conference at Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre, Niagara Falls Ontario: October 16 2001.
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