A sermon for August 28, 2016
Christ confronts us with our privilege in today’s Gospel.
Christ confronts that privilege of expectation of being treated in a certain manner, a manner that only we know, a manner that only we expect. Christ confronts that privilege of anger, anger of the shame of being slighted (as we perceive it), anger of not being treated exactly the way we want to be treated because of who we are and what that means (according to us). It is our sense of privilege that convinces us that we deserve to be at the head of table. It is our sense of privilege that incapacitates our ability to be humble. And yet here comes Christ assuring us that it is only through a truthful expression of being humble that we can be exalted. That’s not to say that we can sit at the foot of the table and expect the host to move us up. When we expect something of another person, we are flexing our privilege. We are making our privilege the focus of the moment, we are making our privilege the measure of our self worth. But truly being humble is sitting at the foot of the table, and being perfectly content and happy if the host never moves you up. Truly being humble is accepting yourself as you are and being joyful in your own uniqueness and beauty in creation. Truly being humble enables you to enjoy the dinner, the party, no matter who is around you, no matter your place at the table.
The Gospel this week reminded me of an episode of the Netflix hit Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (side note, definitely recommend, a bit quirky and weird but a lot of fun). An episode in the second season centers around a formerly rich housewife (a character whom the titular Kimmy worked for in season one), attempting to throw a fundraiser gala for all of the uber-wealthy friends of her now ex-husband. As she presents the cause of Native American peoples that she so passionately is advocating for, the rich white men with “WASPy names” are unimpressed. One of them responds to her plea with “We didn’t get rich by throwing money away, we give it to causes that actually affect us: prostate cancer, schools for our dumb kids to get into; what do these native people have to do with us?”
And I think this question sums up our approach to a lot of things today in our society. What do these [insert cause/people/place] have to do with us? Better put, what kind of personal gain can I get from supporting this cause or people or place? This is how we end up with big fundraisers, silent auctions, big fancy dinners, and black tie affairs, raising money and awareness for the poor and disenfranchised, without recognizing the complete disconnect that is occurring therein. This is the return economy that Jesus warns against today at work: a return economy built on the premise that if you support my cause, I will support yours, and we can both look good for doing so. This is the return economy that invites the same people time and time again to spend hundreds if not thousands on the event itself, just to impress each other, to impress with their checkbooks, to impress with their projection of self worth that they expect to be recognized and respected.
But, what if we didn’t feed into this culture of a return economy? What if, instead, we didn’t expect any return when we put an event together to raise awareness or to raise money? What if, instead, we expected our return to be an increase in our awareness, what if we expected to learn from those who are most affected, what if we expected our return to come from a greater understanding, empathy, appreciation, that can only come when learning directly from those with whom we are sharing our time, our energy, our resources.
And, what would this look like for the church, and for this church in particular, a place with great resources both physical and financial, to live into that reality of giving. A reality that asks us to step up as individuals and as a Church community to make a difference in this world by exposing our entire selves to those whom we serve.
In terms of outreach ministry at St. John’s, I want you to ask yourself a simple question: What are we doing?
If you answer: we are giving out tens of thousands of dollars to support various ministries all across the city of Spokane, you are not wrong. A lot of money is flowing out of this place into our community and supporting many great programs that are doing a lot of very good and very important work in our city. And, there are a great number of people in this place that are actively working in ministry at many organizations across this town, living out the call that Christ leaves for us today. This is Good News.
But, what are we doing as a Church?
Where is the active ministry in this place? Where are the people getting their hands dirty for the ministries that are under the banner of St. John’s Cathedral, where are the people of this place stepping up and making this community a better place to live in?
Now I’m not saying that those amongst us who are actively doing ministry at West Central or with Family Promise are missing the boat, and I’m also not saying that giving money is bad, in fact, giving money is vitally important both for this place and the ministries that we support to continue to be active in this community. But, giving money is not enough. Putting our energy into programs that are once a month or once a quarter is not enough. Only giving money, or only volunteering when it is most convenient for us, equates to us exalting ourselves and blissfully not acknowledging the fact that we will soon be humbled.
For it is a fact that when we humble ourselves and get dirty in doing the hard work of ministry, this is where we will be exalted by God. In the Gospel of Matthew it is written: “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
It is our call to do for the least in our society. It is our call to do and in doing come to learn and understand from those we serve. It is our call to not stop at supporting the work of this place, the work of organizations across this city, by simply writing a check and moving on. We are called to do, and in doing, we will be both humbled and exalted before God, for we are removing ourselves from the equation, removing the blinders of privilege that (falsely) protects us so well, and in its place we are awakening to the reality of this world as experienced by those we serve, by those whom we know we serve because we are seeing them, we are touching them, we are physically present with them, letting them know that we are them, we are all God’s creation, and in this truth, we can’t help but be present, to try and feed them, not because they can repay us, but because they can’t.
Ministry, in particular outreach ministry, is not about us, and it is definitely not about our own sense of service, our own sense of worth for having done something. Ministry is about those whom we serve. Ministry is about learning about this world from those who know the world in a different way. These are people who we otherwise would never encounter. These are people who we otherwise would never listen to. And yet, these are the people who can teach us more about ourselves, about our community, about our call to serve Christ, then we ever imagined possible.
So, I ask you to follow your money in doing good. Continue to support those ministries and projects that you hold dear, and challenge this community of St. John’s to be active in doing as much as we are in supporting. Write a check to an organization, to this church, and also volunteer your time to see how your financial support makes a real difference in this world. Advocate within this community and challenge your friends in these pews to join you in serving those in our community who need it most. Get involved in the ministries that are already present here, ministries that are waiting for more people, new ideas, fresh energy, opportunities that ask you to volunteer an evening, a Saturday morning, to make this place and our community a little bit better. And, challenge us to start more active ministry programs here at St. John’s. If you have an idea, if you have a passion, share it with me. Share how you see this place making a difference in this community. Don’t worry about how it won’t work, or what may get in the way, if you have a passion, together we can make it happen. Together we will make it happen. Go and do. Amen.