Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
A few days ago, an email landed in my inbox with the subject line: “Celebrity Pastors.” I knew it was clickbait, but I gobbled it up.
The email begins:
“We’ve all seen them, right ― the guys with the expensive jeans and designer sneakers? It seems like every week there’s another viral video of one of these celebrity pastors making headlines. The reasons, of course, aren’t always as flashy as their wardrobe.
Abuse. Broken relationships. Manipulation. Hurt families. Control. Divided congregations.”
Well, I am a sucker for seeing the mighty cast down from their thrones, so I was hooked.
The email went on to say that “the need for liberating leaders has never been greater.” I could tell it was wanting me to think, “well maybe *I* could be one of those liberating leaders.”
Sure enough, this email had the solution for a leader just like me! All I had to do was “Click the button below to download their free e-book,”
so that I could become, in their words:
“a leader worth following.”
Ever since social media opened the door for anyone to become a “self-made success” – eschewing traditional models of fame and influence curated by agents and industry representatives – there has been a furious proliferation of “influencers” and people in every industry promoting themselves. Performers, fitness instructors, wellness coaches, financial advisors, business experts, you name it. Instead of waiting to be discovered by an agent or some other industry gatekeeper, people can their fame into their own hands. Want to be a leader worth following? Just tell everyone that you are. Get enough people to notice you. Keep pushing to claim your place at the front of the line, the head of the table, as it were. Simply…exalt yourself.
It’s an orientation that’s rather at odds with the Christian life, especially as defined in our readings today. Pastors who are faithful to the teachings of Scripture promise people that they will find success and meaning in life devoid of pride, full of good works and sharing what we have, driven by empathy and compassion for the suffering, and grounded in humility… but those pastors are usually NOT the celebrity ones. It’s not exactly exciting or popular to be governed by the things that please God: things like solidarity with the suffering, or extending hospitality to strangers, or canceling the debts of those who will never be able to pay you back. Humbling yourself and taking your place behind other people.
People don’t flock to hear pastors with that message. No one wants to follow you to the back of the line, or the end of the table.
And this is not a new phenomenon. Our scripture lessons today are 2,000 years old. The reminder to be humble has long been needed for God’s people.
Jesus takes it a step further, even. Sitting down to eat with Pharisees, he tells a parable not only about humility, but grace. Don’t just be the person who chooses the place with less honor so you can be invited upward; be the person who extends honor to those who can’t ever repay you. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
You will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.
One of the headlines this week was President Biden’s student loan forgiveness. I’m not here to argue the merits or flaws in this plan – I’m not an economist, and I certainly am not in a position to suggest whether it was a good plan or not. But as I heard people argue the morals and economics of the issue, I couldn’t help but hear this parable of Jesus ringing in the background. What stands out to me as a Christian is how clear Jesus is that freeing people from debt is baked into the recipe of faith. It’s even in the prayer he taught his disciples, the prayer we know so well. Episcopalians internally might argue about whether we are forgiving “trespasses” or “sins” when we pray the Lord’s prayer, depending on which translation you use, but the truth is, the most accurate translation of the Lord’s prayer is: “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” The original meaning was meant to evoke the idea of owing a financial or moral obligation to another person – a sin from overstepping prescribed boundaries. Debts that holiness of life asks us to forgive.
Give to others without thought of repayment? Release people from what they owe you? Yeah, I don’t see people following that leader anytime soon.
This celebrity pastor thing is looking less and less likely by the minute.
So what are we to do with this very countercultural message? How ought we move through each day knowing that what pleases God is probably not going to get us anywhere great?
How eager are you, really, to step to the back of the line or the end of the table in the hopes that someone will invite you forward? How ready are you to advocate for the poor, the marginalized, when it means aligning yourself with their place in the world? How prepared are you to do good and share what you have and extend hospitality to strangers?
But really, those are secondary questions. The underlying question is: what vision for the world do you value? The exhortations toward humility and hospitality, away from pride and vanity, tell us that leaders – and congregations – worth following aren’t known for their flashy preaching, or interesting classes, or the number of followers they have. The leaders and church communities worth following are known by their deep love, radical hospitality, solidarity with those on the margins of society, sharing possessions, practicing contentment, and emulating the exemplary behavior of those who have gone before them.* I don’t know how you make that Instagram-worthy, but I do know it’s kingdom-worthy.
The free e-book on being a liberating leader worth following did make a helpful distinction between two different types of leaders. There are leaders you have to follow, and leaders who are worth following. One might say this is the difference between the Pharisees and Jesus – the difference between people with religious power, and the One with divine authority. Only one is worth following.
Christianity in American has long enjoyed the Pharisaic model – an institution people had to follow. But truth is, we aren’t worth following just because we have the word “church” – or even the word “Episcopal” – on our sign. We are worth following only when we live Jesus out loud – in our humility, our hospitality, and our love.
There is a prayer in our prayer book for Those who Influence Public Opinion. Our tradition has long known that “influencers” need good guidance.
So let us pray:
Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.