+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Those of us who become clergy do so for a variety of reasons. We are human. We are sinners. Because of that, not unexpectedly, some of us seek a career in the church for the very human motivations of wealth, fame and power. We follow human instinct when we avoid taking up the cross of Jesus and drinking His cup of suffering. It is those kinds of clergy to which today’s Gospel reading is addressed.
We can easily see that some are in Church work for the money. They want to get rich. They want to live in nice houses and drive nice cars. But Jesus had other ideas about ministerial compensation. You will recall Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Yes, clergy need the ability to support themselves from their work. Not all of us can afford to serve as a volunteer as I do here. However, the fault for excessive clergy compensation lies with the laity of the Church. They are in a unique position to drive change on this issue because they pay the bills. We must remember that highly compensated clergy become wealthy from religion only because others give them money. It is up to lay people to draw a line in the sand, and say yes to reasonable compensation, and “no” to luxury.
Others in church work want to be famous celebrity pastors. They want everyone to know who they are and to like them for the books they write, for eloquence in preaching, or ability to provide pastoral care. They want to be in the public eye and to be consulted on important questions. Reputation is everything for these people. The day of the celebrity pastor has given us the likes of Fulton Sheen, Billy Graham, Joel Osteen, and Rick Warren. But celebrity pastors do not simply build themselves. They are built with the help of their lay fans. It’s not wrong or idolatrous to get a photo with a person you admire. Nor is it dangerous to love the preaching or teaching of a particular leader. But at some point, admiration turns into allegiance, and allegiance gives birth to adoration, and adoration, when it is full grown, produces idolatry. Again, the laity are the ones really in control here and in the best position to change this phenomenon. They must not forget that famous people are no different than they are. Famous pastors are ordinary human persons with the same needs, instincts, and bodily functions common to all of us, nothing more, nothing less, and should be treated accordingly.
Today’s gospel reading targets clergy who seek power. They are very much more troublesome than those who seek money or fame from ministry, because they thrive on power and influence over other people, and to get there, they commit acts of oppression. These ecclesiastical power mongers want to control other people. They use their position in the church to actualize their psychological need to tell other people what to do. They take pleasure from controlling others. These kinds of clergy exhibit the same drive to climb the organizational ladder to get up as high on the food chain as the possibly can just like people in secular organizations. They want to enjoy a higher place in the pecking order than other persons to get power and control. The big problem is what they are willing to do to get there. Many of them accomplish their goals by hurting and stepping on other people, both inside and outside their respective denominations, to get to their little perch and to stay there. And they love to throw their weight around, and if they can get others to validate their behavior, that makes them really happy. Why? Their whole existence as dominators depends on obtaining and maintaining political support from those they dominate or seek to dominate. To do that, they import into the church some of the worst forms of pathological behavior from the secular world. I’m talking about stuff like bullying, triangulation, quashing dissent, making threats, retaliation, punishment, exalting politics over justice, interpreting rules selectively to their advantage, forming cliques and in-groups, excluding non-conformists, and besting others in competitive endeavors like elections and other popularity contests. Unfortunately, those who look to these kinds of people as leaders see that bad behavior as positive traits, because it mirrors what’s rewarded in the world surrounding them. While these kinds of folks are found in the large numbers in the Roman Church and in Protestantism, they are, quite unfortunately, starting to germinate in, and permeate, the larger independent catholic jurisdictions. At least one has a bishopwho censors discussion on the group’s Facebook page and who kicks out of the group those who stridently oppose majority views or aggressively criticize its leadership. Isn’t this the same kind of oppressive behavior that’s usually associated with the Roman Catholic Church, which is famous for squelching dissent? Remember the phrase, “God’s Rottweiler? That was a description the news media applied to Joseph Ratzinger, who, before he became Pope Benedict the sixteenth, used his position as head of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith to silence Roman Catholic theologians who opposed that Church’s views on the ordination of women, priestly celibacy, and same sex marriage. Look at what Rome did to Hans Kung, Ray Burgeoise, James Callan, Thomas Curran, Elizabeth Johnson, and Jeannine Grannick.
Censoring dissent and exclusion from a church Facebook group illustrates why Jesus wants those who lead in His name to be suffering servants and not Lord their authority over those they lead. Jesus wants to avoid what happened in the book “Animal Farm”. That book is a story about how those who are oppressed overthrow their oppressor but then become oppressors of others. In that story, the animals kick out the oppressive farmer and take over the farm. It starts with the idea that all animals are equal, but then the pigs become the new rulers of the farm and start inculcating the other animals with the idea that the pigs are better than the other animals and should therefore be in charge and live better than the other animals. The most famous phrase from the book which captures the situation quite well is, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Jesus wants leaders who practice what they preach. Jesus doesn’t want hypocritical leaders, particularly when it comes to oppression. He does not want to see the oppressed become oppressors. Those who would oppress others in God’s name miss what Jesus reallyrequires from those who would lead in His name. That is, Jesus wants servants willing to suffer for His sake.
Today’s first reading is from the Fourth Servant Song in Isaiah. The servant songs are poems about servants who suffer, and are found in Isaiah chapters 42, 49, 50, 52 and 53. Whether or not those songs are a prophecy about Jesus, or are more generally about the sufferings of the Jewish people, is something for scholars to debate, but what is clear from this Gospel reading, is that Jesus is looking for leaders willing to be suffering servants, not those who want to throw their authoritarian weight around. Jesus wants leaders who are willing to suffer, like Jesus did.
In the text before today’s Gospel reading, Jesus had just issued His third and last “passion prediction.” Jesus had just told the disciples that he was on His way to Jerusalem where He would be handed over to the chief priests and scribes who would mock Him, flog Him, kill Him, and condemn Him to death, but after three days, He would rise again. As we will hear during Holy Week, as predicted in today’s Gospel, that’s exactly what would happen to Jesus.
In today’s reading, while Jesus and his Disciples were traveling to Jerusalem, James and John get into an argument about who would sit in places of honor at the right and left hands of Jesus in glory. Jesus responds not only by telling that wasn’t something for Him to decide, but also by asking them if they are willing to drink His cup, to suffer what He was going to suffer as the price of glory. The disciples, however, were more interested in the glory than the suffering, so His response angered them. Jesus issued a very precise diagnosis of their problem, which was the desire of the disciples to have power over other people and for others to look up at them in a place of honor. However, Jesus told them that wanting to control and dominate others was not the kind of leader He wanted. Jesus doesn’t want ecclesiastical tyrants like that bishop who relies on the values of the secular world to kick unpopular people off his denomination’s discussion group on Facebook. Jesus wants servants who are willing to suffer for His sake, who are willing to go to the cross, not those who want political support to maintain a position of denominational prominence.
Jesus himself thought of Himself, first and foremost, as a servant. He did the will of his Father. He never sought to please Himself, but always to please His Father. After He had finished the work the Father sent Him to do, he sought to glorify His Father by accepting the cup His Father gave Him to drink, the cup of suffering and dying.
Today’s gospel reading makes clear that Jesus sees leaders as servants, not dominators. Jesus wants leaders more concerned about making the Kingdom of God a reality, not just an aspiration. Jesus wants leaders who care more about the people they serve, than feeding their own needs for wealth, money and power. Since Jesus was fully human, He said what He said to His disciples because He knew that human instinct is to become a leader by doing what you have to do to make other people like you, and to use whatever power you have to neutralize those who oppose you. Jesus, however, takes the opposite view: To make God’s Kingdom, those who lead in His name must accept suffering, must risk being unpopular, and be willing to put up with garbage from other people. Only leaders who are willing to do those things will triumph successfully over the forces of evil that oppose the Kingdom of God. Because Jesus was willing to be a suffering servant rather than a tyrant who ruled by force over others, He was able to triumph over His oppressors, who could not even keep Him down by killing Him.
The verse of Psalm 118 we hear over and over at Eastertide, “the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” is a bald proclamation that those who suffer will ultimately triumph over those who inflict suffering. Most leaders, particularly those in church, however, are not willing to be rejected stones. They want to skip the suffering and rejection and be the chief cornerstone right away, and thus they are only willing to be servants to those who serve their own ends. They are not willing, like Jesus, to give their lives to be a sacrifice for others. They are more like James and John in today’s Gospel reading. They want resurrection and ascension to heaven without suffering death on the cross as Jesus did. The pastor who responds to the desires of a congregation to scapegoat an unpopular person in response to the complaints about that person from prominent people in the church is not the kind of pastor Jesus wants. Jesus wants pastors less concerned personal survival, and more concerned with caring for people the way a shepherd would care for sheep. That means caring for the one lost sheep just as much as the ninety-nine who never stray. Jesus wants pastors willing to suffer for the sake of what Jesus taught. Jesus made that quite clear in the first Passion Prediction we heard several weeks ago, when Jesus rebuked Peter for saying that Jesus shouldn’t undergo the suffering that was destined for Jesus. In doing that, Jesus asks those of us who lead on His behalf to look beyond life from a human perspective, and instead see life as God would see it.
If the independent catholic movement is to succeed as an alternative to Roman Catholicism, it must cannot, and must not, commit the same sins as Rome. Offering freedom from Roman jurisdiction is not enough. It must be free from Rome’s methods as well. AMEN.
I never call anyone out by name from the pulpit. It was done to me once, and I did not like it, so I won’t do it to others. But this person knows who he is, and would be wise to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest”.