The Modern Malaise

21 Pentecost B 2015                                       

October 18, 2015

 In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 Let’s start this sermon a little differently.  Let’s start by calling out the characteristics of a good leader.  What makes some one a good leader?

 (the people call out characteristics)

 OK there’s one huge one that we probably left out.  And we left it out because it’s so very counter-cultural.  It’s Jesus’ #1 qualification for good leadership:  that someone be humble.  That someone be a SERVANT to the people that he or she manages.  The shorthand churchy term for this is “servant leadership.”

 Jesus says in today’s gospel that “whoever wishes to become great must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”  According to Jesus, good leaders don’t so much have power OVER people, as power UNDER people [Synthesis for October 18, 2015, p. 3]

 And, of course, this is exactly opposite of the way human society usually works.  But Jesus’ point is so very well taken.  Let me read a little something about leadership-from-a-place- of-humility / that I found this week—see what you think:

 “—Until you can be managed well, you can’t manage well, and being managed definitely requires humility.

--You’re not leading well until you put the needs of others before your own, which requires humility.

--You won’t invest time in others until you realize you’re not the center of the universe.

--You won’t be a learner without humility, so you’ll stagnate and die on the vine.

--You can’t be a listener without humility, and when you don’t listen, you’ll miss important feedback.

--Receiving and making the most of constructive criticism definitely demands humility…

 [Brandon Cox, “Humility is VITAL to Great Leadership:  10 Reasons Why,”, quoted in Synthesis, ibid.]

 Long story short:  “if you want to rise to greatness, you need to stoop.”  [Cox, op. cit.]

 Now, our gospel relates the story where James and John, two of Jesus’ closest followers, ask him for favors in the Kingdom to come.  We studied this passage in Monday’s Vestry meeting and some of the comments we shared about their request were that it was “nervy” and “brazen.”  What a great word—brazen.  It means “bold and without shame.” 

 James’ and John’s request, and the other disciples’ anger about their question / are great reminders for us of our own call to remember, in common parlance, that “it’s not all about us!”

 But as I continued to meditate on our gospel this week, I began to think that maybe James’ and John’s question came from some place other than a brazen lack of humility.

 Actually, there are a few verses from Mark’s gospel that we don’t hear today.

 And what we’re NOT reading is the account of the third time that Jesus predicted his suffering, death, and resurrection.  And we have no idea of what the disciples thought of this third prediction—but we can surmise they still didn’t understand it fully—and that they may not have wanted to ask Jesus more about it, perhaps because it was to dismaying, too painful.

 So is it possible, then, that James’ and John’s request of Jesus is coming from their own anxiety about having everything come to a screeching halt with Jesus’ death?  Could they have been so overwhelmed after this third prediction that they gave voice to their growing anxiety, wanting to line up a place in the Kingdom, because they felt how helpless they were to change things?

 Anxiety.  Maybe they were acting out of anxiety, not particularly out of lack of humility.  Hmm.  It’s possible. 

 Anxiety does stuff to us, doesn’t it?  And nobody here is without anxiety—it’s part and parcel of our being human and reacting with fear to events or to the implications of events. 

 Who here doesn’t carry anxiety about the future of the planet, the way the Middle East is falling apart, and the way our climate is changing?  Who here doesn’t feel anxiety when we read in the news about how the churches are having more trouble filling their pews?  Who here doesn’t feel anxiety about sending their kids into schools and social situations with the news stories of bullying and, at the other end of the spectrum, the awful stories of mass shootings on campuses?

 So the point I’m trying to make is that anxiety is a reaction that’s very understandable.  It’s rooted in the fear of what could happen, and it’s rooted in the fact that we cannot know the future. 

 So how do we manage it?  Obviously if anxiety is huge and overwhelming the practice of engaging in psychotherapy can be a real life-saver.  I have often said that if everyone in the world had 5 years of psychotherapy, the planet would be in a very different / and much better place.

 But for the anxiety that simmers at a lower temperature, it’s good to remember that practicing prayer—going before God and sharing fears and asking for God’s humble managerial help—is a good practice to integrate into our daily lives.  The practice of prayer also helps us to grow in the virtue of humility.  We go before God in humility, in openness, with a teachable heart.  And over time God forms us and molds us into better servants with deeper compassion.  God helps us channel our brazen boldness and our constant anxiety.   We are formed, and we grow healthier and closer to the divine one.

 So consider making sure you make time for sitting in prayer each day.  And the very best news of all is the character of that One before whom we come.  Let me end with a wonderful description of God’s character, and I hope it will be an encouragement to each of us to continue to work on our “stuff” and to know that God is there for us, no matter how un-evolved or un-spiritual we may feel.

 This is written by Brother Thomas Keating, a Benedictine monk who’s one of the people who has spearheaded a revival of the practice of sitting in silence before God in our own day and age.  Brother Thomas writes,

“This Presence is so immense, yet so humble; awe-inspiring yet so gentle; limitless, yet so intimate, tender and personal.  I know that I am known. 

 “Everything in my life is transparent in this Presence.  It knows everything about me—all my weaknesses, brokenness, sinfulness—and still loves me infinitely. 

 “This Presence is healing, strengthening, refreshing—just by its Presence.  It is nonjudgmental, self-giving, seeking no reward, boundless in compassion. 

 “It is like coming home to a place I should never have left, to an awareness that was somehow always there, but which I did not recognize.”  [Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart, from Centering Prayer app]

 Being steeped in the holy Presence of God gives us humility and helps us understand and deal with our anxiety.  So make time to pray and to sit in the Presence.