Outrageous Humility

October 30, 2011

Glynn Cardy

All Saints' Sunday     Matthew 23:1-12

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In 1873, a Greek priest was thumbing through a book in a Jerusalem monastery library when he found, tucked in among other early Christian works, a short writing about the life of the first century communities, which had been lost for hundreds of years.


It is now known as the “Didache” [the teaching]. It contains, amongst other things, a lengthy discussion on the Eucharist. There is a Eucharistic prayer that has no reference to the Last Supper, and there are no words of institution over the bread and wine. Instead, it describes a meal that brings together people of all sections of society. It prefers phrases like “sharing a loaf” or drinking from “a common cup” rather than “eating bread” and “drinking wine”. 


It is the act of sharing, the Didache posits, not the nature of what is eaten, that creates the Church. It is the simplicity and challenge of rich and poor, free and slave, old and young, men and women all sharing together that creates the sacrament known as the Eucharist. 


The early church was very aware of both the spiritual and political power of sharing. From the Jerusalem community of Acts 4 to the sermons of John Chrysostom in the 4th century, the Church has been at its most attractive when it has stood with the poor in their need against the rich in their greed.


It is the experience of many today that wealthy elites have been holding the clippers and shearing the wool off the backs of the poor. Those elites have built up a financial system to support their fleecing. Most of us have colluded with it, believing their logic, and remaining docile.


We want to believe that their wealth has been earned, and we or our children, can do likewise. We want to believe that their astronomical gains are at nobody’s expense. We want to believe that through the miracle of some lottery we can join their ranks. We want to believe that the journey from rags to riches can happen.


Yet at the same time, while although we can imagine a chief executive earning $300,000, ten times the minimum wage, when it becomes a hundred times the minimum wage, there is something we feel that is intrinsically wrong. The foul odour of unfettered greed hangs in the air.


There are also in the air the cries of those in need. The statistics, as well as mapping the increasing gulf between the top and bottom incomes, tell us of increasing suffering, not just in some far away place but in our own communities and neighbourhoods. 


The conservative politicians, the rich, and their believers excuse the inequity with the chant: “there’s no other way”. ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’ they seem to say, ‘we rich know what we are doing, just trust and obey’.


As a Church we know the mantra of ‘trust and obey’. It’s a mantra that hides a plethora of ecclesiastical crimes: like creating dependency in order to keep status and power, like keeping parishioners ignorant of the scholarship that strikes at the foundations of hierarchy, like sexual harassment and sexual abuse of women and children. Such a mantra, and the systems it supports, needs the cleansing winds of transparency, accountability, and mutuality.


The scripture reading from Matthew [23:1-12] can be read as an anti-Semitic diatribe. Yet, if the accusations are truthful, they reveal the potential failings of any religious elite, Jewish or Christian. Matthew asks some pertinent questions:


Is Scripture a body of commands to follow to the letter or wise counsel from the past to be interpreted by love? Are titles, garments, and other badges of office for the purpose of shoring up the egos and power of a few at the expense of the many, or for the purpose of empowering the whole community? In a community that recognizes the rights, dignity, needs, and contributions of everyone, how should leadership be exercised and what does humility mean?


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks [i] writes about humility: “True humility does not mean undervaluing yourself. It means valuing other people. It signals a certain openness to life’s grandeur and the willingness to be surprised, uplifted, by goodness wherever one finds it…”


I’ve been meditating on these wise words as I’ve followed the events unfolding around St Paul’s Cathedral in London and how, if these events had unfolded around St Matthew’s, we might have the humility and commitment to respond differently.


On October 21st the Occupy Wall Street movement crossed the Atlantic and hit the streets of London, like it has the streets of Auckland. The movement is a reaction, a protest, against the greed and destruction wrought by a few upon the many. It is primarily about wealth and poverty, the systems that maintain them, and the destructiveness of poverty on people and the environment.


For anyone who has ever the read the Bible these issues are familiar. The passion to address them – the passion for justice – is God’s passion. You cannot read the Bible and believe that God is happy with our status quo.


In London the protestors, probably trying to avoid being moved out by the police, came on to the steps and precinct of St Paul’s. There Canon Giles Fraser, offered a form of sanctuary and shooed the police away. St Paul’s welcomes everyone, protesters included. Canon Fraser’s action was reported round the world, and the Church’s credibility soared.


But action, grounded in the liberal theology of inclusivity, is sadly not enough. When the storms come this theology’s foundations can waiver. To endure it has to be grounded in a theology of outrageous humility.


For a week campers, Cathedral, and chapter tried to live together. You can imagine the issues. For the campers there would be sanitation and hygiene, cooking, and venues for open discussions.


For the Cathedral there would be the potential disruption to its many activities. The Cathedral has two hundred paid staff. It collects 16,000 pounds per day from tourists. It has multiple services and events. All of this would have been compromised. While a number in the Cathedral would have wanted to keep supporting the justice principles behind the movement, there would have been others wanting to evict the protesters, and others concerned about the fabric and finances.


Eventually, according to Cathedral statements, they were left with ‘no alternative’. The clergy received strong legal advice that they could not negotiate with the protesters, since that might imply consent to them staying. The Chapter obeyed that advice. Health and Safety Officers had stated the protestors must go or the Cathedral must close. The Chapter chose the latter. The protest movement was blamed for the closure.


The latest news is that the Cathedral has re-opened and senior clergy, including the Bishop of London, are supporting the legal action of the City Council to have the protesters removed. Canon Fraser, one of the foremost liberals in the English Church, has resigned. It is a very sad to see the Cathedral aligning itself with the interests of wealth and power, and prepared to use police to remove protesters who are preaching Jesus’ message of justice and acting nonviolently.


If a similar scenario had played out in Auckland we at St Matthew’s might well have been faced with similar choices – choices that would have been costly. 


I hope we would have chosen the path of total commitment. This is the choice of compromising income, events, and services. This is the choice of not being available to everyone, for a while. This is the choice of incurring the displeasure of the wealthy and those who are afraid of conflict. This is the choice of spending money to assist with cooking, sleeping, and sanitation. This is the choice, if necessary, of defying Health and Safety Officers, bishops, and City Councils. This is the choice, therefore, of actually joining the protest, putting the Church on the street, shoulder to shoulder, shouting too in outrage, with the understanding that God, at this time and place, is in that outrage, not inside the building trying inclusively to cater for everyone, trying not to offend.


Here I return to that understanding of humility. For humility suggests that our understandings of God, and grace, and what’s right and wrong, are always limited. We don’t know the fullness of God. We must remain open to being surprised. We must be ready, when the winds of outrage blow not to batten down with extra anchors out, but after discernment to hoist our sail, albeit reefed, and gingerly, with faith, head out from our safe harbour. 


The early Church, as reflected in the Didache, understood Holy Communion principally as an act of sharing. Christ shared, we too must share. All can receive, all can share. Spiritually and politically it was holding up a vision of justice, a vision of how God wants us to be – in the Church and world.


Right now, right here in this city, right across the planet, there is a movement holding up that Eucharistic vision, a Mass for the world. May we always have the wit and the wisdom to recognize the work of God, and join it.


[i] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/83807/jewish/On-Humility.htm

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