Colt of Humility
COLT OF HUMILITY
It was one of the most moving worship experiences of my entire life. I and my friends from RVA Rapid Transit had been asked to present on our mass transit plan at one of the major African American Mega Churches in the Richmond Region. RVA Rapid Transit was the initiative I worked on during my time at Richmond Hill to help bring Bus Rapid Transit to the Richmond Region. The Richmond, VA Metro area is about the size of Indianapolis, but because it is broken up into several separate counties and jurisdictions, only about 27% of the jobs in the region are accessible via public transportation. The Bible is clear that people should work for their livelihood, and I believe the way modern welfare is structured doesn’t provide the best incentives to help people get and keep jobs, but many people in Richmond couldn’t even get to where most of the jobs were if they wanted to. I can’t tell you how many times as my work as a deacon in the inner city that I met folks who wanted to work, who wanted to improve their lives, but didn’t have a car and thus couldn’t get to work. Our plan was to advocate for a regional bus system with dedicated lanes for the buses. Thus you would get speeds of close to a train for a fraction of the cost. We had been seeking support in our public campaign and had been invited to speak at this African American mega church in a county where there was no access to public transportation.
I am not sure if you have ever been in an African American praise service. If you have not, I recommend that you go sometime. The testimony of the black community, is much like the testimony of Israel, it is a story of God’s faithfulness during slavery and oppression, oppression that has not left our society. To sing an African American spiritual is to affirm that no matter how bad things get God is Jehovah Jira, the Lord our provider. We don’t just say that we will fly away by and by, but that God is among us, he is our Loving Father who will not give us scorpions if we ask for bread, but will provide for our every need. Pouring my heart out to the Lord with thousands of other brothers and sisters in Christ I felt connected to a tradition that I myself was a stranger to, but had graciously welcomed into.
After Ben Campbell, our director spoke about RVA Rapid Transit the pastor got up and started to give his sermon. I don’t remember what the sermon was about exactly because the pastor got a little off track and made a big announcement.
The congregation was buying him a private jet to aid him in his ministry travels. Our at least that was the justification.
I couldn’t much get past the words;
“Private Jet.” Especially when we had just been talking about a public transportation system for folks who couldn’t even afford a car. Jets have been in the news recently. Tele-evangelist Creflo Dollar has been in the news for asking his 30,000, multi-site, church in Atlanta to buy him a $60 million private jet. Dollar, some debate if that is his real name, also has multi-million dollar home, and is rumored to have a toilet worth $30,000. The pastor in Richmond I mentioned hasn’t reached the level of “success” that Dollar has yet. And having met “the bishop” as they call him I genuinely think he saw what our transit proposal could do for the city and members of his congregation and was genuinely interested in helping us. But as I had breakfast with him in a fine dinning room decorated in purple clothe, I worried for this Bishop. In the African American community the prosperity gospel is more a message of economic empowerment than it is of getting what’s yours. The congregation sees their minister’s success as their success. They see it as a badge of pride that their minister has what many of the older members were denied through systemic and systematic discrimination. I saw the good intentions at this man’s core but at my core I knew that especially for a leader of the church, a shepherd of God’s people, that Satan delights in entrapping us in pride. Though this pastor thought he had it under control, I knew it wasn’t that far to fall. It never is.
All these stories about pastors buying jets, abusing their church’s tax exempt status, having affairs, abusing power, spouting hateful and in insensitive remarks, and just being straight out hypocrites, are favorite stories for the media. They don’t cover the thousands of faithful shepherds who serve out of the spotlight, who are willing to lay down their life for their sheep, some of whom in the other parts of the world actually do lay down their lives for Christ. The media doesn’t report on these stories because we live in a post-modern age. Modernism can be defined as the age of science and reason, the age of the enlightenment. In this view science and technology could solve all our problems. This was a popular view at the beginning of the twentieth century. Before two world wars, a Holocaust, and the threat of nuclear apocalypse, put a big hole in the myth of scientific progress. Many philosophers now think we are in the post-modern age. It is hard to define what this way of thinking looks like but it can be summarized by statements like, “truth is in the eye of the beholder.” There is a level of cynicism that is common to our age and our media that bleeds through every aspect of our society, from our schools, to our news, to our comedy. The news loves stories like Dollar’s because it allows the world to say, “You say you follow Jesus, who you say is God, who you say was perfect. But if he is so perfect why can’t he change the way you live? If he is so powerful where is the evidence in your life? Why aren’t you more like him?”
It is so easy to get caught up in a cult of personality. Even if we are disgusted by examples like Dollar, we use our disgust to justify our own personality, our own lifestyle. I may think well I am a responsible minister, I live a humble lifestyle, I don’t even have cable. I tithe, I give to missions, I hang out with my little at Pierceton Elementary and talk about minecraft. We remember the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18. The Pharisee comes to the temple to make his offering and declares, “ God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulters, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ The story goes on to say, “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” We hear this story and may think, “Thank God that I am not like that Pharisee, I recognize that I am a sinner.” But in doing so we fall into the same trap of the Pharisee, the trap that stories like Dollar’s lead us into. We feel better about ourselves because we point out the speck in our neighbor’s eye before we see the log in our own. This isn’t to say that folks like Dollar are not distorting the Gospel, it is to say that we use extravagant stories of excess to take the attention away from ourselves.
It is hard to escape from the cult of personality, may it be a tele-evangelist, our favorite sports star, our favorite actor, or our own needs and concerns that can blind us to the needs of those around us. But against the cult of personality Jesus presents to us today a colt of humility. Today of course, is Palm Sunday. The day in the liturgical year we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In our story today the people cry out, “Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest,” which can roughly translated as “Save us”, “Save us.” They have heard of the miracles Jesus has been doing, the demons he has been casting out, the people he has been raising from the dead, the thousands of people he has been feeding, and they are pulling out all the stops. They lay down their coats before him, they tear palm branches off of trees to make a path for him. They say, “blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” People would often call Jesus Son of David. David was one of the mightiest military leaders of Israel. So from their chants one can surmise that the people of Jerusalem thought that Jesus was coming to overthrow the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. That he would enter the Temple, the center of the Jewish world, rally the troops, and lead his own version of the Boston Tea Party, the French Revolution, the Arab Spring. The crowd will admit that perhaps they expected Jesus to arrive in a hijacked Roman chariot with a mighty steed decked out in battle armor, and not a young donkey. Perhaps they are thinking, “ the revolution is just getting started just wait till Jesus get’s to the Temple, then the real fireworks are going to start. John the Baptist, Jesus’ ,who lost his head to King Herod, will be avenged. Jesus is going to call down a pillar of fire Elijah style and its going to be on. But the scripture is clear what happened;
“ And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. “ I can just imagine Jesus saying;
“Thanks for the party guys, but it is late, and I am going to bed. Peace!”
I am sure some people are thinking, “Worse revolution ever!”
“I let Jesus step on my coat for this?”
“I want my palm branch back.”
“When is the next gladiator match? It would be better than this!”
But Jesus doesn’t care. He knows who he is, why he is there, and the true meaning of humility. He is the only man in all of history to wield power, let alone God’s power, and not be corrupted by it. He is the Humble King. And he has a lot to teach us about the true meaning of humility through this colt he has chosen to ride.
To quote Richard Foster, author of Prayer Finding the Heart’s True Home, humility gets a bad rap in our culture. In the words of Foster humility, “does not mean groveling or finding the worst possible things to say about ourselves. Humility is, in fact, filled with power to bring forth life. The word itself comes from the Latin humus, which means fertile ground. “Humility”, writes Anthony Bloom, “Is the situation of the earth.” In one sense humility is nothing more than staying close to the earth. The earth, Bloom reminds us, is always with us, always taken for granted, always walked on by everyone. It is the place where we dump our garbage. “It’s there,” continues Bloom, “silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed.” (pg 256). Foster defines humility as living as close to the truth as possible. “The truth about others, the truth about the world in which we live.” (pg256).
If Jesus were not the Son of God, let’s admit it, you would think him a little full of himself in this passage. Perhaps the disciples already did. Perhaps they are thinking, “Okay Jesus you have brought us this far. So we are going to go into town and look for this donkey. And we will say the “Lord needs it.” But while you are our master and we would do anything for you what makes you think you are everyone’s master? What makes you think we can just take a guys donkey and tell him, “the Lord needs it.” Sure that’s going to work. Doesn’t sound very humble Jesus.” Well it wouldn’t be humble if it wasn’t truly who he was. But Jesus isn’t trying to impress anyone, he is just speaking the truth about who he is. He allows the crowd to worship him but he doesn’t entertain their ideas of military revolt. Jesus leads with humility. And he is calling the church to humble leadership.
So what is humble leadership? As N. Graham Standish puts it in is aptly titled book, “Humble Leadership.” “Simply put, humble leadership is the willingness to lead others to follow Christ by being radically open to God’s guidance and grace. It is willingness to put aside fear, willfulness, pride, cynicism, a need for false clarity and certainty, as well as selfish desires and a need to wield our own power. Humble leaders put them aside by becoming aware of these self-focused, closed off attributes. They are aware that these “closed to God” attributes arise out of the animal created nature, a nature that even the most humble of us grapple with our whole lives. Humble leaders recognize that they overcome these attributes by becoming open to God’s Spirit. Similarly, because they are rooted in openness, these leaders become more other and God-focused. Finally, they become willing to lead others to the Spirit so that together in openness to God’s Spirit the whole congregation can be led to seek and do God’s will in everything. Fundamental to being aware of self, becoming other and God focused, and following the Spirit is the formation of a strong sense of faith, willingness, prayerfulness, and hopefulness, as well as the embrace of ambiguity, uncertainty, and mystery. To be a humble leader means to say to God, “I’m yours no matter where you call me to go, what you call me to do, and how you call me to be. I will seek your will and way as I lead others to do the same.” And I humbly admit, I couldn’t have said it better myself.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.