On the Need for Humble Leaders (1 Peter 5:1-11)

I appeal to your spiritual leaders. I make this appeal as a spiritual leader who also witnessed Christ’s sufferings and will share in the glory that will be revealed. Be shepherds over the flock God has entrusted to you. Watch over it as God does: Don’t do this because you have to, but because you want to. Don’t do it out of greed, but out of a desire to serve. Don’t be rulers over the people entrusted to you but be examples for the flock to follow. Then, when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

Young people, in a similar way, place yourselves under the authority of spiritual leaders.

Furthermore, all of you must serve each other with humility because God opposes the arrogant but favors the humble. Be humbled by God’s power so that when the right time comes he will honor you.

Turn all your anxiety over to God because he cares for you. Keep your mind clear and be alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion as he looks for someone to devour. Be firm in the faith and resist him, knowing that other believers throughout the world are going through the same kind of suffering. God, who shows you his kindness  and who has called you through Christ Jesus to his eternal glory, will restore you, strengthen you, make you strong, and support you as you suffer for a little while. Power belongs to him forever. Amen. (God’s Word Translation)

“The most powerful weapon to conquer evil is humility. For evil does not know at all how to employ it, nor does it know how to defend itself against it.”

St. Vincent DePaul

The real mettle of a person, especially a leader, is not seen in their very visible public service. Rather, solid spiritual leadership is forged in the invisible places, in the daily mundane tasks which no one ever sees.

It is in our most unguarded times that we really demonstrate who we are. This is the sacred space where humility is learned and developed. Therefore, to know a genuinely humble leader, one must follow that person in the common course of daily life.

Leaders without such a foundation of daily and consistent faithfulness will eventually crack. Ministry gradually becomes more duty than delight. Service to others is eventually measured by church attendance, monetary offerings, and public image. The soul shrinks over a long stretch of time, almost imperceptibly.

In a slow drift, faith fades, and anxiety fills the emptiness; glory grows dim, and greed grows destructively. Safety and security are ensconced as primary values to mitigate the nagging sense of worry. The original adventure of confident faith, conviction of purpose, and compassionate ministry becomes a bygone era.

Thus, it is most necessary to return to the queen of all virtues, the ideal Christian ethic for all followers of Christ: humility.

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6-7). With humility, our eyes are filled with spiritual sight, seeing and honoring the larger realities of the universe. Without humility, there is blindness, an inability to recognize the need for God’s grace.

The sinister approach of sinful pride is revealed in the wrongheaded thought, “I’m fine. I can do it on my own. I don’t need you, thank you very much.” 

So, how’s that been working for you lately? Are you frustrated, worried, despondent? 

“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. Do you plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”

St. Augustine

Humility opens to us the wide vistas of God’s love and mercy. It is neither weakness nor a cenobite self-abnegation into denying my personhood. Instead, a humble spirit:

  • Renews hope. Spiritually and emotionally healthy leaders make for spiritually and emotionally healthy congregations. Humility discerns that all Christian ministry rests with the sufficiency of Christ, not me, thus kindling a future hope in realities bigger than me.
  • Relieves anxiety. Humility knows and rests in the hands of a good and merciful God, rather than a perceived need to “look out for number one.”
  • Resists the devil. A robust faith always has a strong foundation of humility, helping us see that Satan has nothing we want. 
  • Remains steady. Humility is willing and privileged to share in the sufferings of Christ, and so, can persevere through both bad circumstances and boredom.

As individuals, we all need to gain and maintain a humble spirit. Humility really is the virtue to which everyone must aspire. It delivers what we need the most: To rest secure in the merciful arms of God. 

In this old fallen world, every family, neighborhood, organization, institution, corporation, and government is in desperate need of humility. We’ve already made quite enough mess of things with our human pride.

Within the church, and inside of every religious community, it is most necessary to reinforce all leadership appointments and staffing with humility. No amount of human intelligence, skill, and hard work can make up for a lack of humility. 

God is sovereign and in control. So, the sooner we sync our lives with this truth, the better off we will be.

Sovereign God, you cause people and nations to rise and to fall. I place my complete trust and devotion in you. With all the humility I can muster, I bow to you and submit to your gracious work in my life and in the life of the world. 

Shoo all sinful pride far from me, create in me a pure and humble heart, and let me share in your sufferings so that I might share in your glory, through Jesus Christ, your Son, my Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

A Parable On Being Right with God (Luke 18:9-14)

The Tax Collector and the Pharisee by Peter Gallen

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (New International Version)

There’s a lot to observe in Christ’s parable for today. Notice six observations of the story….

1. We Cannot Make Ourselves Right with God

I’m convinced that most Gentile Christians, standing two millennia apart from Christ’s telling of this parable, are much too hard on the Jewish Pharisees: “Well, I’m certainly glad that I am not like the Pharisee in this story!” so many tell themselves. It seems to me the Pharisees get a bad rap because of our own predilection to justify ourselves.

After all, we can only really criticize something we are already familiar with.

A temptation which every individual and community faces is the seduction toward self-justification, instead of being justified by God.

Way back in the day, when I made treadmill belts for a living, I was in charge of quality control. It was my job to make sure that the quality department provided the shipping department with a finished product, free of defects, and could stand the test of continual use. I justified the belt as being a treadmill belt of integrity; the belt did not, nor could not, justify itself, hide or fix its flaws, or make itself right.

To think that a treadmill belt could justify itself is in the same sort of crazy that believes we can make ourselves right. No, it is God alone who justifies the sinner.

The paradox of Christ’s parable is that the real sinners are those who claim to be righteous, while the truly righteous are those who recognize they cannot justify themselves and need God to make them right.

2. We Need to Be Honest about the Right Thing

In order to hear the good news about God’s ability to justify and make right, we must also hear the bad news about why we need justification to begin with. An honest look into the mirror reveals that we have been hiding behind a cosmetic façade of self-justification.

Our illusions and delusions need to be confronted and shattered. Because only then can we receive grace and realize the peace and harmony of God’s justification.

Since God justifies, I don’t have to!

I don’t need to defend myself, make myself look better than I am, nor fool myself into believing that the false façade is the true self.

The parable of Jesus is a contrast between the Pharisee who justifies himself, and the tax collector who looks to God alone for his justification.

3. The Put-Together Guy Wants to Make Himself Right

Jesus uses a Pharisee as a character in the parable because the guy represented someone who everyone else looks up to as the model of a spiritual and religious person. Christ is inviting his hearers to look beyond the façade of what we see with our physical eyes.           

We need to use our spiritual eyes to notice below the surface. Look at the attitude. The smug self-justifying disposition is flat-out sin. What’s more, self-justification is a root of all sorts of sins.

Judging ourselves to be right means that others are wrong. That attitude creates division, separates people into bad and good, fosters disharmony, and is an affront to God. 

To try and obtain what is already provided by grace is plain old-fashioned sin.

4. We’re Obsessed with the Right Lines

Adam and Eve were told by God that they could eat from any tree in the garden but were given strict instructions not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:15-17) So, why avoid that particular tree?

Because it was a tree which spiritually and socially blinds people. Adam and Eve ate from it and their eyes were “opened” to a different reality – which was actually a “closed” view of reality that changed the way humanity deals with one another. From that point forward, people began drawing lines down the middle and placing themselves on the “good” side while vilifying those on the other side, the “bad” side.

“Apple Picking,” the fall of Adam and Eve, by Vittorio Canta

Adam and Eve immediately began justifying their actions, their attitudes, and their behavior. (Genesis 3:8-13) Adam drew a line: “That woman, Eve, gave me the fruit; she’s on the other side; it’s her fault!” Eve drew a line: “The serpent made me do it; that wasn’t really me, I’m basically good….” And ever since, the quest of making ourselves right has never stopped….

Today, we draw all sorts of lines. A popular religious line is this: “We’re good; they’re bad. Our theology is right, everybody else’s is wrong. The Bible says….” (insert a kooky interpretation of Scripture, based in self-justification and separation of people into good and bad groups)

People draw class lines, race lines, gender lines, ethnic lines, economic lines. We want clean lines, vertical lines, horizontal lines, perpendicular lines, thick lines, thin lines, any kind of line; just give me a line! Let’s go line dancing. Maybe take an airline. There are offensive lines and defensive lines. By the way, what’s the line on the Packers? We even judge the lines themselves: Long lines, short lines, front lines, back lines, and DMV lines are clearly evil, right!?

Why are we so obsessed with drawing lines? So that we can take self-justifying sides. Violence, war, and most every other sin of the world comes from the original sin project of trying to make ourselves right: “I’m okay; you’re not.”

The Pharisee (really a representative of us all) drew a very clear line between himself and the despised sinful tax collector. Notice that self-justification always compares itself with others. Those who obsessively draw lines are compulsively concerned about other people; they believe they have a right to know what’s going on with them. They remain vigilant to keep the lines drawn and distinguish themselves from those on the other side.

5. God Is On the Other Side of the Right Line

The Pharisee found that every time he drew a line, God was on the other side with the “sinners.” That makes perfect biblical sense. If God alone justifies sinners and makes them right; and if Jesus identifies with them in his life, death, and resurrection; then God is to be found on the other side of our line-drawing.  

A self-justified person sees no need for God’s justification. Therefore, God is not on their side; God is on the other side, justifying sinners by making them right.

6. The Unraveled Guy Wants To Be Made Right

“O God, Be Merciful To Me, A Sinner,” by Ronald Raab

The tax collector’s only concern was for God to show him mercy because he is a sinner. In contrast to the proud attitude of the Pharisee, the tax collector, a sinner by anyone’s definition, humbled himself and sought justification from God alone.

  • Justification by God makes us right and:
  • Lifts the curse upon humanity and reverts everything back to its original design. (Revelation 22:1-5)
  • Erases the lines. (Romans 4:7-8)
  • Restores our souls are and strengthens our faith. (Acts 16:5; Romans 4:20)
  • Enables us to rest in Christ’s finished work. (John 19:28-30)
  • Does not condemn us. (Romans 8:1-2)
  • Eliminates comparisons because Christ is sufficient for us. (Colossians 2:13-14)
  • Replaces the anxiety and fear about how we look to others with the contentment and satisfaction of God’s love in Christ. (1 John 4:16-18)

Conclusion

Self-justification separates us from people and creates distance and division. But God’s justification connects people in love and crosses the arbitrary lines created by others.

The bad news: Many religious folk, when confronted with their self-justifying attitudes, do not change. Instead, they label the person as bad and place the offending person on the other side of their line so that they can maintain their façade of righteousness.

The good news: Jesus can be found on the other side of the line because justification is a gift. Yet, until we go to him, outside our little camp, we will continue in vain to make ourselves look good and be on the right side of everything while making others look bad.

The good and the right is to humbly – and with much flavor – cry out to God for mercy because only the Lord can save us from our plight.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and grant me your peace.

Just and right God, by your mercy we were created, and by your mercy you redeemed us through your Son, the Lord Jesus. Your mercy is the light by which all people – both sinner and saint – return to you. Your divine justice and your divine mercy exist together so that you refuse to punish us as we deserve.

Lord Jesus, it was not enough for you to take on our humanity; you died for us as well. So, we humbly and gratefully receive your gracious deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Amen.

Listen to the Prophets (Jeremiah 25:1-14)

St. Nicholas Church fresco of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel by Leopold Bruckner, Prešov, Slovakia

This is the Message given to Jeremiah for all the people of Judah. It came in the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah. It was the first year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon.

Jeremiah the prophet delivered the Message to all the people of Judah and citizens of Jerusalem:

From the thirteenth year of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah right up to the present day—twenty-three years it’s been!—God’s Word has come to me, and from early each morning to late every night I’ve passed it on to you. And you haven’t listened to a word of it!

Not only that but God also sent a steady stream of prophets to you who were just as persistent as me, and you never listened. They told you, “Turn back—right now, each one of you!—from your evil way of life and bad behavior and live in the land God gave you and your ancestors, the land he intended to give you forever. Don’t follow the god-fads of the day, taking up and worshiping these no-gods. Don’t make me angry with your god-businesses, making and selling gods—a dangerous business!

“You refused to listen to any of this, and now I am really angry. These god-making businesses of yours are your doom.”

The verdict of God-of-the-Angel-Armies on all this: “Because you have refused to listen to what I’ve said, I’m stepping in. I’m sending for the armies out of the north headed by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, my servant in this, and I’m setting them on this land and people and even the surrounding countries. I’m devoting the whole works to total destruction—a horror to top all the horrors in history. And I’ll banish every sound of joy—singing, laughter, marriage festivities, genial workmen, candlelit suppers. The whole landscape will be one vast wasteland. These countries will be in subjection to the king of Babylon for seventy years.

“Once the seventy years is up, I’ll punish the king of Babylon and the whole nation of Babylon for their sin. Then they’ll be the wasteland. Everything that I said I’d do to that country, I’ll do—everything that’s written in this book, everything Jeremiah preached against all the godless nations. Many nations and great kings will make slaves of the Babylonians, paying them back for everything they’ve done to others. They won’t get by with anything.” God’s Decree. (The Message)

An ancient rabbi once said that we have two ears and one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we talk. 

Listening with curious and focused attention is a forgotten skill and a lost art in Western society. 

Slick marketing, political punditry, and over-the-top speech all scream into the culture because there is such a dearth of listening. It seems many people are more concerned to make their opinions known than do any kind of deep listening to another.

No one seems to want to put in the work of discovering another’s true thoughts, feelings, and needs. Instead, we’d rather rant, play armchair quarterback, and make uninformed comments on things we don’t understand.

It’s really downright sad and tragic that we fail to listen to each other. And it is especially terrible when we do not listen to God. 

The Old Testament prophets exist because of a failure to listen. At the time of Jeremiah, not only did the people not hear; they refused to listen. They put their fingers in their ears and babbled “la-la-la-la-la.” So, it was only fitting that the Lord sent the people to Babylon.

This was not merely the inability to listen because they were overworked, too tired, or “hangry.” The problem was much deeper than that. For years, God kept up a steady stream of words, telling the people exactly what was expected. But they didn’t listen, on purpose. Like a parent speaking to an angsty teenager, it all went in one ear and out the other with nothing getting done.

God passionately desired the people to amend their evil ways. But they didn’t want to hear it. 

So, after years, even centuries of unfaithfulness, unrighteousness, and injustice, God’s patience came to its limit. Tragedy happened. The Babylonian Exile became a terrible and harsh reality.

If there is no deep listening to God and God’s Word to us, there will be deep repercussions. 

Listen, my friends: None of us can do the will of God if we don’t know what God wants. It takes listening. And listening takes focused attention. And focused attention requires a posture of humility. And humility requires being emptied of all pride and hubris. 

Apart from genuine listening with the intent to understand and alter actions accordingly, there will be no peace, no love, no grace. The space of inattention quickly fills with lazy ears, emotional heaviness, spiritual sickness, xenophobic suspicion, anxious fear, dark thoughts, angry rants, and a retreat into selfish caring for oneself. 

The beginning of wisdom and human flourishing starts with listening well. Paying attention through deep listening brings humility of heart, purification of pride, and love of God and neighbor.

Truly hearing the words of God leads to self-awareness, cries for God’s mercy, a knowledge of humanity, the study of Holy Scripture, and a familiarity with the Church’s long tradition of sound teaching.

Therefore, silence is vital for everyone. Prayer needs to be more about sitting still in solitude and silence in order to listen and much less about talking at God.

But if we insist on making more noise than a couple of skeletons dancing on a tin roof, we will eventually be those skeletons – without any substance and only good for the grave.

So, read the prophets. Listen to them. Pay attention to their message. And heed their warnings and exhortations. Your ears will be glad you did.

Holy Father and God of all, your speech goes out into all the earth. Your Word is there for us to hear if we will only but listen. 

Lord Jesus, let your words and your teachings penetrate so deeply into my soul that your loving ways come out of me in all I say and do.

Blessed Holy Spirit, help me to so listen to your inner voice that encouragement and forgiveness pours forth from the wellspring of a heart which is baptized in God’s Word. Amen.

Less Is More (Luke 17:5-10)

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So, you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (New International Version)

You and I do not need control. Authority and power belong to God. And we are not God.

You and I need faith. And, since we belong to God, who is the ultimate authority and controls all things, we already have it.

You already have what you need: Jesus. There is no need to hustle and cajole for something you do not need.

Jesus tells his disciples two parables designed to reorient their thinking and their lives around God, and not around the typical worldly tools of power and authority.

We find self-control something very hard. We’d rather have plain old control.

In the 1990s, The Department of Transportation set aside $200 million dollars for research and testing of an automated Highway System. The plan was that this system would relieve traffic problems by placing all cars that entered the highway on “super cruise control,” allowing them to move in unison as they traveled in heavily congested cities.  

Such travel would be made possible by using special magnets embedded in the asphalt every four feet, which would transfer signals between the vehicles and a main computer system.  

Steering, acceleration and braking would be controlled by sensors, computer navigation systems and cameras along the side of the road. Control would be returned to drivers as they exited the highway.  According to the technology manager of the project, “The only thing we can’t do yet is get people to comfortably trust the system. It’s not a technology issue.”

The grace of God in Jesus Christ is our fail-safe system designed to put us in “super cruise control” when dealing with circumstances and relating to people. There is just one difficulty with the system: Getting people to comfortably trust it.

The real problem is that we prefer to retain control of life’s steering wheel, even though it is this tendency that drives us to discontentment and endless relational conflict. Rather than insisting on doing life our way, we need Jesus to take the wheel.

And the irony to all this is that we already have what we so desperately seek.

Just a little bit of Jesus makes a large impact on the world.

            Our Lord’s entire kingdom movement looked as insignificant as a mustard seed. Christ’s little band of disciples were, at best, a motley crew of very human characters who vacillated between faith and doubt; they spent as much time arguing amongst themselves as they did engaging in ministry. Yet, it was these same people who ended up turning the world upside-down.

            The insignificant and small looking mustard seed eventually becomes a world-sheltering tree. In the same way, a barbaric, bloody, seemingly insignificant cross became the means of changing the world.

            We, even though imperfect and small, can become, with Jesus in us, a healing force for the world. Little is much when God is in it. Although Gideon believed he needed to be in charge of a large army to defeat Israel’s enemies, God whittled his soldiers down to just 300, against a force described as an army with men as many as the sand on the seashore. Victory was no problem. Gideon already had what he needed: God. (Judges 7:1-25)

Never underestimate the potency of our little bit of ministry with Jesus animating it. Our…

Kind words spoken in the name of Jesus…

Hidden prayers uttered silently behind closed doors…

Secret giving in which the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing…

Gentleness in the face of violence…

Humility in the midst of pride…

Mercy given instead of judgment…

Peacemaking wherever frustration exists…

These and so much more, when energized by Jesus, becomes a mighty force for good and change in this old fallen world.

Yet so many Christians think they need all kinds of power, authority, and control – then mountains can be moved, trees uprooted, and things can happen.

With this misguided notion, we too easily succumb to the temptations of winning success, spinning a superior self-image, and pinning down power to get what we want and need.

However, we already have what we need, Jesus, and we do not need what he has – power and authority; we just need him.

The Lord Jesus has shown us the way in this. In Christ’s incarnation, he emptied himself and became like one of us – eschewing the typical power dynamics of the world. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus spends 40 days in the desert fasting – making himself empty.

And at the end of that time, the devil came to Christ and tempted him in the very same ways we are tempted (Matthew 4:1-11):

Satan: “You need to be successful.”

Jesus: “Nope, don’t need that.”

Satan: “Well, you definitely need to be on the right religious track.”

Jesus: “Get out of my face. I don’t need to play that game.”

Satan: “It’s simple. You can do your Father’s will with the tools of power I have.”

Jesus: “I’m not going there. I don’t need your sort of help.”

In submitting to his Father’s plan and will, Jesus showed us the way to live as his followers.

We, too, have to stare the same three temptations in the eye: the belief that I need to be successful, to be right, and to have everything under control.

The truth, however, is just the opposite. In actuality, we need to be poor in spirit, powerless,  and humble – not full of strength and control.

Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul responded, “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV)

In reality, we need to be open and vulnerable – not spinning a self-image which projects strength, authority, and power.

 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8, NIV)

We need to be meek and gentle – just like our Lord – not puffing our chests out with a show of strength and authority.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV)

Less is truly more. Only those who have nothing to prove and nothing to protect can receive Christ. And Jesus himself will lead us on this path of self-emptying.

We already have Jesus. Therefore, we already have everything we need. Even a smidgeon of Christ is more than enough for us. What we may think we need – to win at success, to spin a narrative of rightness, and to pin down control through power and authority – amounts to nothing in the kingdom of God.

Instead, what we really need is to walk in the way of Jesus – to be weak through self-emptying, to leak out our pride and embrace humility and vulnerability, and to be meek by having a gentle spirit.

Being a servant is a good thing. And being a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ – the author and perfecter of our faith – is the only vocation we need. With Jesus, less is more.

Almighty and everlasting God, we are far too often influenced by what others think of us. We pretend to be in control, with it, in charge, and strong. Prevent us from trying to attract attention. Don’t let us gloat over praise on one hand or be discouraged by criticism on the other. Nor let us waste time weaving imaginary situations in which the most heroic, put together, and powerful person present is me. Rather, show us how to be humble of heart, just like your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.