Oct. 23, 2022
I’ve been listening to a podcast recommended by a friend of mine called, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” Mars Hill was a mega church in Seattle, which began as a small in-home bible study that quickly exploded into a massive church with multiple campuses, over six thousand members, and twice as many worshipers on a Sunday morning.
The podcast begins at the end, meaning it starts with “the fall” of Mars Hill and the day on which its head pastor resigned. The statement shared with the congregation noted “patterns of persistent sin” as the explanation. I assumed that that sin would be sexual in nature, because sexual abuse within the church has occupied its share of the news, but honestly also because “sexual sin” within some Christian circles seems to be viewed as a worse sin that the others. But, the statement went on to say that these patterns of sin were “in the areas of arrogance, a quick temper, and domineering leadership.” Again, I was surprised that these qualities would be named as causes for termination – not that they shouldn’t be – but I assumed the decision must have had something to do with a Christian culture that has always felt foreign, uncomfortable, and in ways a bit arrogant to me.
All I can say is that I was wrong twice. As I listened to the story there was no doubt that church leadership was right to lift up these “sins” as just cause. Despite the massive and exponential growth of the church the pastor had left a trail of victims whom he had either thrown off the leadership bus or run over for expressing perspectives on ministry and church direction that he perceived to be disloyal. The way he spoke about it was perhaps most alarming. He was proud of it, justified in his brutality, and completely contemptuous of anyone who might call into question his approach or his thinking. These victims were, as he saw it, necessary and justified sacrifices for the gospel.
But, the more I heard from him and about him the more I had this sense that I’ve seen him elsewhere. He’s the same quick thinking, charismatic, off the cuff, irreverent, ultra-confident, humorous (to some), pius, bible-believing preacher who knows without a doubt that he’s preserving real Christian faith against a culture that’s gone Godless and a church that’s gone soft… he’s the same guy who runs a mega church not too far from us. Of course, he’s not the same person, but he’s a similar persona and a similar voice in an embodiment of church that builds off of a cult of personality and that is not all that rare.
In fact, what makes the podcast compelling to me is that it asks us listeners why we keep elevating to prominence and authority people who have great charisma but not great character, people who have great confidence but not so great compassion, people who project power but are mostly poisoned by it themselves. In other words, the story of Mars Hill isn’t simply about one man’s fall, or one church’s fall, or even about one kind of church. It’s about a God who can be hard to discern and a humanity who doesn’t necessarily know what to look for.
Nonetheless, as I listened to the podcast I found myself thinking thoughts like, “Thank God I’m not like those pastors.” “Thank God I’m not plagued by such arrogance.”
Of course, these thoughts should remind us of the gospel lesson we just heard. They sound quite a bit like the Pharisee, and to acknowledge that is honestly somewhat disorienting, because on the one hand I think it is fair to identify problematic patterns in the manifestations of church life and leadership that we see, but on the other hand our judgements are so often the source of our own blindness. And our blindness so often serves to stymie our growth and preserve some false sense of sufficiency that keeps us from the intimacy we hope to have with God.
“God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” The Pharisee seems to believe that it is his righteousness that saves him. It is his exemplary following of the law that puts him in right relationship with God, which of course is flawed thinking. We don’t earn our way into God’s heart. On the other hand, there’s this tax collector who stands far off, beats his chest, and cannot even bear to look in God’s direction as he prays for mercy. We’re told that he goes home justified. But, why?! What is “good” about beating your chest and feeling unworthy to cast your gaze toward heaven? Churches for a long time leaned pretty deep into the “utter depravity” thing – the whole message that humanity is totally corrupt and completely sinful. Plenty of us got the message that what God really wants is for all of us to feel pretty bad about ourselves before God would be willing to send any salvific hope our way.
I sometimes wonder if the outside world looks at Christianity and sees two versions of it, neither of which are very appealing. They see the arrogant church that judges the world and they see the humbled church that judges itself. I wonder if the world looks at that and says, “you know, either way that’s a lot of judging, and I’m already pretty exhausted from the judging that I’m regularly doing. So, no thank you.”
…All that said, being humbled is not the same thing as humility, and I do think that humility is offered up to us this morning for our benefit as a virtue.
I was reminded this week that Martin Luther suggested that we are all “beggars before God.” I don’t love the quote, unless it is understood a certain way. This shouldn’t be considered a starting point for the Christian spiritual life. It’s not, “admit you are a plebe and then we’ll move forward.” Rather, our awareness of being a beggar before God dawns on us when the reality of being before God dawns on us. Standing before, sitting with, and being loved by a holy, infinite, transcendent, eternal, mysterious, and gracious God – when the truth of that unimaginable divinity becomes in some way – even a small way – our reality we discover ourselves to be quite small in comparison. (I’m reminded of one of the interviewees in William James collection of religious experiences. What stands out is the man’s comment that upon this encounter with God he could no longer doubt that God was real. In fact, of the two of them God was decidedly more real than he was.)
Humility is a virtue; in fact, it is an essential practice of Christian faith for a couple of reasons. The first is that it allows God to be God for us. The Pharisee can’t experience “right relationship” with God in our story because God is not the primary actor in his faith. He is. The tax collector is justified, not because of his impressive chest beating, but because he’s left room for God to extend mercy.
Humility, from a Christian perspective, means first and foremost a willingness to let God be God, to let God be perfect, and to position ourselves in such a way as to as to rely on God. It therefore also means a willingness to accept our own humanity and imperfection. It means we look at ourselves as contingent, dependent, and whole – not on our own, but – because of a divine love and life that calls us into being and sustains us. To me, there is something remarkably liberating in this message. We are free to be God’s; there is no striving to be done, nothing to be earned, nothing we have to prove.
My friend says, “Humility is not about thinking less of yourself. It is about thinking of yourself less often.” I like that because it brings us to another important aspect of humility. Did you notice the “other people” that the Pharisee notes in his prayer? There are thieves, rogues, adulterers, and a tax collector. These obviously aren’t the names of people; rather, they are labels. They are singular words meant to define the other, and they are indications of the limitations of the Pharisees’ ability to see the people of his world. Humility, because it enables us to see ourselves as needful imperfect humans, allows us to see our neighbors the same way. When we are humble, people become persons, not labels. They become fellow human beings with whom we share a common condition, and because they are worthy of God’s love, and compassion, and patience, and mercy, and help, they are worthy of ours.
One final point: humility isn’t so much taught as it is practiced. It is practiced as we are reminded of a good and loving and powerful God and as we offer ourselves – all that we have and all that we are – into God’s hands. I consider it a blessing, my friends, that we get to practice that here, together, each week as we offer our worship. Thanks be to God.