Proper 22, Year C
There's a one-liner that I think of when I read this Sunday's gospel:
"That person lives for others. You can tell who 'the others' are by the hunted look on their faces."
Have you ever met someone like that -- someone who is always doing "favors" for people and "helping" them, with a hefty price tag attached in each case? Sometimes it's that the person "helped" must then display gratitude -- lots of it, delivered early and often and expressed in exactly the right way. Sometimes it's the "mobster" model, in which every "favor" granted must be repaid with a like "favor" at some future point. Sometimes it's what I call the "ticker-tape" model, in which every act of "generosity" must result in a showering of honor and adulation upon the giver.
The one-liner about the person who "lives for others" is funny because it says something that is too often true about warped versions of generosity on social as well as interpersonal levels: we deliver what Valerie Batts calls "dysfunctional rescuing," or "help that doesn't help," and then we blame the person whom we just didn't really help for not being suitably grateful. It's a pattern of behavior that indicates that we weren't wanting to help the other person so much as we wanted to use the other person to prop up our egos.
When have you seen this happen?
I think about the parish that offered a Spanish-language service because they assumed that Spanish speakers in the area keenly felt a hole in their spiritual lives that could be filled only by the theology of rich white liberals. The parish clergy therefore assumed Spanish-speakers would walk past several other congregations with native Spanish speakers on staff to flock to a church where the priest stumbles haltingly through the liturgy and can't offer any kind of pastoral counseling or support in Spanish, and all of the parish's formation and incorporation programs are conducted in English. The Spanish-language service went ahead nonetheless, though, and if the population so "served" doesn't respond with wild adulation or profound gratitude to the congregation for finally giving them this superior theology, the congregation will be able to say, "Oh, we tried that and it didn't work" to every future proposal to change with the neighborhood.
I think also about how the U.S. too often treats immigrants. We have laws that don't make it particularly easy for people who aren't rich to come here, and when they come, with or without documentation, however they've been treated, and whether or not we've heard their stories, we expect them to gratefully take jobs we wouldn't take or allow our children to take AND we want to see them joyfully and tearfully waving the U.S. flag and singing the national anthem (in ENGLISH ONLY, of course).
I think about the experiences my partner and I have had at various points trying to find a parish home after we'd moved. One congregation in particular seemed incensed that we could be so ungrateful as to leave for another parish when they were trying SO hard not to let us see how disgusted many of them were by us. We were yelled at a bit in the parking lot, but at least not from the pulpit, for example. We were allowed to receive the Eucharist, and we were even allowed to contribute volunteer labor to church ministries! How dare we move on, and doesn't this just go to show that our sort isn't satisfied just being regular folks in the congregation, but insist on taking it over?
I think these are attitudes for which this Sunday's gospel can provide something of a remedy.
I admit it's hard, especially in our cultural context, to hear the message when its terms are about a slave knowing his or her place. It's rhetoric that strikes my ear as dehumanizing. It lessens the sting a bit to know that the word the NRSV translates as "worthless" (the Greek is achreios) might better be translated as "unprofitable" or "unfit (for the purpose needed)." It lessens the sting a bit more to note that Greco-Roman slavery was different in many ways from the chattel slavery practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries, that becoming the slave of a high-status person in the ancient world placed you in an exalted household and therefore could raise the social status of a freeborn person -- indeed, that if you read St. Paul's letters carefully, you'll notice that he reserves the title "slave of God" very carefully as a particular badge of honor. But it still stings to hear Jesus talk this way.
And yet there's something liberating about serving without expectation of applause or thanks. When we serve the poor and marginalized, if we do it out of some expectation of gratitude or ticker-tape parade, we'll always be looking breathlessly over our shoulder for what we expect, and always be occupied with calculating whether others are behaving as we think appropriate. With all of that looking over our shoulders and all of that mental, emotional, and spiritual effort occupied in the calculus of deserving, we're all too likely to look in the eye of the real human being, made in the image of God, before us. We're all too likely to miss the opportunity to see God in that moment.
There's something liberating about humility. Hubris requires a great deal of energy to maintain, after all; if we are desperate to be seen as more important than we are, we'll constantly have to project a particular image and monitor those around us to assess our effectiveness at maintaining it and to punish those whom we see as failing to respond appropriately to our false projected self. The sad thing is that whether we succeed or fail in the process of getting others to buy into our hubris, we'll be miserable either way -- at least as miserable, if not more so, than we make anyone else by prideful conduct.
Think of what kind of energy we'd have, not only for genuine service meeting people's genuine needs, but also for laughter and love and the enjoyment of a quiet moment, if we were to stop spending all of the energy it takes to calculate what everyone around us does and doesn't deserve relative to what we are trying to make ourselves believe we deserve. That's what true humility is -- it's not about trying to make yourself or others believe that you are less than you are any more than it is about trying to make all believe that you're more. It's about letting go of that whole process of assessing and projecting and punishing or rewarding and then assessing again. It's about freeing ourselves to look at another and really see her or him. It's about freeing ourselves up for what's really important.
The word 'faith' (pistis, in the Greek) is often spoken about as if it meant trying to talk ourselves into intellectual assent to something, with "increasing our faith" meaning that we are successfully persuading ourselves that we have adopted an idea we think is ridiculous. That's not faith; it's self-deception, and usually a pretty unsuccessful kind of self-deception that results in our feeling a little guilty and hypocritical, as we know that we don't actually believe what we say.
But faith is not about intellectual projection and assessment; it is not an intellectual analogue to that process we go through to build and maintain hubris. Faith is relationship -- a relationship of trust, of allegiance. When Jesus talks about "faith," he's not talking about what you do in your head; he's talking about what you do with your hands and your feet, your wallet and your privilege, your power and your time. Faith in Jesus is not shown by saying or thinking things about him, but by following him.
Matthew says that if we have faith in Jesus -- allegiance to Jesus, trust in Jesus such that we're willing to step outside of our comfort zones to follow him -- the size of a mustard seed, we could tell mountains to plunge themselves in the sea, and we'd see it happen. Luke uses an image that initially seems more modest; he says "mulberry bush" where Matthew says "mountain."
Use whichever image works for you; they're both about doing what conventional wisdom says is impossible. It's a moving target, in my experience, as every time I take an additional step to follow Jesus in ways that stretch my capacity to love, to receive, to trust, to serve, look those whom I serve in the eye and listen to them with my heart, I discover a little more about what truly is possible in the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus sent. When I reflect on the wonders of Creation, the liberation of God's people from slavery in Egypt and by every force that oppresses, and most of all when I think of the power I've witnessed in Jesus' ministry, the Millennium Development Goals start sounding overly modest, if anything. What on earth can hold back the power of God's Spirit? What gates could prevail against the Spirit-filled Body of Christ?
So yes, I've seen some amazing things God has done. I've been privileged to participate in some of them. But that's par for the course, isn't it, when we're participating in God's powerful work. And I don't want to spend so much time saying, "wow, that wave was really amazing -- did you see how I rode it?" that I miss the next set. There is more joy, more love, more wonder ahead, and I want to be fully present for it.
Thanks be to God!
This blog has been a balm to my weary soul. You do not often mention your partnered relationship, hear that as an observation, and tonight I needed to be shored up in that area as I face parish distress in this regard. You have been used as a messenger of God. Thank you for being faithful to your work. I am grateful.
May I embrace this understanding of humility and preach the Gospel full on tomorrow worrying only about faithfully doing my work with passion and zeal.
Posted by: P. | Oct 6, 2007 9:37:15 PM
You'll be in my prayers!
Posted by: Weiwen | Nov 3, 2007 9:07:07 AM