Sermon: Deacon Vant Washington III - Cultivating Humble Hearts - July 30, 2017
One thing you can say about Matthew is that he’s neat. He keeps his apples in ne box, his pears in another, and his oranges in another. There’s no mixed fruit, no salads in his gospel. There’s a place for everything and everything is in its place
This week’s scripture visits Matthew’s kingdom box. He’s sharing all the saying of Jesus that had to do with the kingdom. He lists them one after another without any dramatic context. It’s as if he were saying, “You want kingdom. I’ll give you kingdom.”
It’s Matthew’s tendency to work by category that leads so many to think his day job was as an accountant. He is the patron saint of accountants. That makes sense. He likes lists, he likes categories, and he leaves the auditing to us.
But what is all this kingdom stuff about? It’s hard for Americans to relate to kings and kingdoms. Our country was born out of the rejection of both ideas. But as Christians we have to engage the idea of the kingdom because it is so central to Christ’s mission.
I might add that our own tradition, the episcopal tradition, is hard for some Americans to grasp. Bishops are an old world idea, not a new world idea. Churches in which the congregation makes all the decisions are easier for Americans to relate to. It sounds more democratic to have the congregation be in charge. Bishops strike some as un-American, undemocratic, but that is our tradition. We accept the authority of the Bishop because we have faith in the wisdom and integrity of our church leadership.
Wisdom and integrity are things we all strive for. But Jesus suggests in all this talk about kingdoms that neither wisdom nor integrity come from our individual wills. Quite the contrary, like subjects of a kingdom we are expected to put aside our will and accept the will of God as our guide.
By the way, those traditions that do not have bishops, that organized themselves democratically, also accept that God is ultimately in charge. They must discern God’s will as we must discern God’s will, and, as we all know, that isn’t easy.
It is especially difficult in times of transition. Imagine, if you will, what a change of leadership must mean to those congregations who rule by the vote. Imagine the politics, the hidden agendas, the backroom deals. I don’t know how you feel, but politics have grown particularly unsavory lately. How would you like to have the life of the church take on the character of contemporary American politics. No thank you.
For all churches undergoing the kind of transition we are undergoing, it is important not to get into squabbles or begin to campaign for what you believe is what needs to be done. What is important is to begin a deliberate, prayerful process of discernment in which we talk to each other in a spirit of love and compassion.
The kingdom means nothing if God’s subjects can’t speak to each other with love and respect. And as we speak let us focus on some simple questions that are profoundly important.
First, who are we? How do we define ourselves? Does that definition begin with an acknowledgement that God is in charge, that we are all members of his kingdom? Does that definition take into account the experience of those who fill these pews, does it reflect their struggles for justice as well as their fears for the future? Does it acknowledge that we are American Episcopalians, a proud and worthy tradition?
Second, having defined ourselves, how do we describe the way we do our work? Do we speak justly and compassionately to each other as we plan, as we labor, as we evaluate our successes and failures? Do we pause to pray and listen to what God might have to say about the way we are working? Do we bother to consult our Episcopal traditions to ensure that we’re conducting our affairs according the principles and traditions of our Episcopal faith?
If we discover we are working in some way other than what I have described, we have, by our own will, cast ourselves out of the kingdom of God. Why in the world would we do such a thing?
This scripture ends famously with a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Many a hell fire sermon was built on those passages. I will spare you the hell fire, but I will remind you that many congregation experiencing the kind of transition we are experiencing have ended up doing a lot of weeping and a lot of gnashing. Many a rear molar lost a significant portion of its enamel during a church committee meeting in which prayer is forgotten and people seek to impose their wills. I implore you. Save on future dental bills by doing more listening than speaking, by seeking first to understand and second to be understood. Those are critical parts of the kingdom
Finally, let’s spend our time worrying less about the past, what may or may have been lost, what dreams we may or may have to surrender, and more time looking at our purpose in the here and now.
What does the Lord require of us at this moment? As always we are being asked to live faithfully, to live compassionately and walk humbly with our God. What does faithful living look like in 2017 at the corner of 4th Avenue South and 9th Street? What does it look like around that corner, down the street and across the world?
What forms should our compassion take? Should we reserve our compassion for those most like ourselves, those we agree with or extend it to those of other faiths, people who may not like us, even those who would do us wrong. As a Black man I can tell you that finding it in your heart to have compassion for those who would deny your very humanity and deprive you of opportunity is no easy task. It is, however, possible and it is not a step away from justice. It is a leap toward justice. That, at least, was the teaching of Dr. Martin Luther King.
And how are we to ensure that as we seek to serve the world we do so humbly, asking not for honor for ourselves but for glory for God. Of all things we must do at this transitional period in the life of our congregation, cultivating humble hearts is the most important. Only when we give the glory to God and put our pride to the side, can we enter the kingdom and stay there, today, tomorrow and on into eternity.