Pentecost – Proper 20
Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22; Psalm 54; James 3: 13- 4:3, 7 – 8a; Mark 9: 30-37
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
In several weeks Episcopal clergy from all around the Diocese of Texas will gather at our Diocesan camp, Camp Allen, for an annual event called “clergy conference.” I have now been to about ten of these clergy conferences, and one of the things that I have noticed about them is the natural, and very human tendency clergy have in comparing themselves to one another. There is a lot of talk about successful parishes, lot of talk about church growth, growing budgets, new staff members. Those are the stories clergy seem to want to share. But there is not much talk about failure, churches that are struggling, and certainly rare is the occasion when a priest would admit to buckling under the pressures of leading a congregation.
This is sad to me, for many reasons. It is sad that clergy feel the need to compare themselves and the churches they serve to other churches. It is sad that clergy sometimes confuse their relationship with their church with their relationship with God. They are not the same thing!
And finally, it is sad that we, as clergy, struggle to admit our own inadequacies, our own mistakes, our own brokenness, failures, and instead choose talk about safer, more comfortable things, like church attendance, curriculums, or programs. It’s much easier, and safer, to compare yourself to another person on superficial matters, like church size, than it is to confront your own brokenness. And so clergy conference is sometimes the forum where priests argue over who is the greatest, the most successful, the best.
These arguments are not new – the disciples had them long ago as they were walking along the coast of the Sea of Galilee. They were doing just what many at clergy conference do – arguing over who was the best, the greatest. I guess they needed something to pass the time – they were probably bored, and arguing is something people certainly do to avoid boredom, strange as that sounds. Once they get to where they were going Jesus asks them, “what were you all arguing about?” and the disciples were embarrassed that Jesus heard them, and they said nothing. They were ashamed, I imagine, of their selfish ambition.
Ambition alone is fine and good, but selfish ambition, a desire to be greater than others, does nothing but create chaos. Our lesson from James this morning reminds us that “where there is selfish ambition, there will be disorder of every kind.” The reason why James says that putting yourself above others breeds disorder is because if you say that you are better, more important, that your needs matter more, then you are going to live a very lonely life, because in your own imaginary world with your self-inflated importance, no one is allowed to come close.
Theologians have a word for this kind of living where your selfish ambition constantly supersedes the needs of others, where your ongoing desire for recognition and importance is all that feeds you. The word they use to describe this kind of life is simple – hell.
There is a way out, by the way. Jesus shares this way out with his disciples, when he says to them “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In other words, greatness doesn’t come from ambition. It comes from humility.
Mark’s Gospel never says if the disciples understood what Jesus said to them, or if they just kept on bickering amongst each other about who was the greatest. But in the Gospel of our lives, in the story we tell about who we are as God’s people, we get to say how we understand the words of Jesus. We get to say – we understand.
We don’t need to be ashamed of who we are. We don’t need to lie about our story. We are free to be imperfect, as God created us to be. We are released from the prison of comparing ourselves to others, and are empowered by the Holy Spirit to just be, and to be grateful.
When I interviewed with the search committee of this parish, I was asked by one of the members that if I was called here, would I use St. Andrew’s as a stepping stone to get to some flashier, glitzy, high rolling church in a few years. What they were really trying to find out is if I was some selfishly ambitious little twerp. My answer to them was no. I envision a lot of ministry for us to do together for an abundant chapter in the history of St. Andrew’s.
Pray for those clergy going to clergy conference this year, stuffing their insecurities, failures, and shame into their suitcases too small to carry such burdens. I wish I could say it was only clergy that do this, but the truth is – we all do. And all of us have been given a way out, thanks be to God. AMEN.