Matthew 6:1-8; Mark 9:33-37
The Rev. Tom Herbek
March 17, 2019
Several years ago, before I came here, I was running a network of health centers, and we were in the process of hiring three new doctors as we expanded the practice. I would give the candidates a tour of the health centers, and then bring them into the interview, where the interview committee was seated around a rectangular boardroom table. The committee would generally leave the space at the head of the table for me and another space on the side of the table for the candidate to sit. I was amazed at those doctors who would walk in and take the seat at the head of the table, a pretty clear indication of a physician who probably was not much of a team player, and, almost always, my initial impression was correct. Other candidates would either ask where I’d like them to sit, or they would choose the chair on the side of the table. More often than not, those primary care physicians turned out to be really good team players, and compassionate, caring physicians. Interviewing physicians, with some of the egos involved, was not always a fun experience.
Somehow the disciples had missed all of Jesus’ seminars about status and success, and what is most important in life. And the fact that the seating arrangement is really not at the top of the list. Sitting in a different seat, continually trying to move up in the seating chart, only gives us a different seat. It doesn’t give us anything lasting inside, where it really matters. As Richard Rohr once wrote in his book, Falling Upward: “We all seem to suffer from a tragic case of mistaken identity. Life is a matter or becoming fully and consciously who we already are, but it is a self that we largely do not know. It is as though we are all suffering from a giant case of amnesia.”
Jesus said that there is a part of us that needs to be found, and a part of us that needs to be let go of. Quaker activist Parker Palmer says it this way: “The spiritual life is about becoming more at home in your own skin.” Our task in life is to find ways to grow so that we can live more fully in the life that we have been given. Jesus calls this “the treasure hidden in the field.” And Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.”
Richard Rohr says that: “Spirituality tends to be more about unlearning than learning.” In his book, Yes, And…, Rohr comments further:
Once we idealize social climbing, domination of others, status symbols, power, prestige and possessions, we are part of a never-ending game that is almost impossible to escape. It has its own inner logic that is self-maintaining, self-perpetuating, and self-congratulating as well as elitist and exclusionary. It will never create a just or happy world, yet most Christians never call it into question. Jesus came to free us from this lie, which will never make us happy anyway, because it’s never enough, and we never completely win.
Climbing the seating chart doesn’t really give us what we need, in the long run.
I remember being invited to a party soon after I arrived here in 1997, and the hostess said to me that I should come, because “all of the important people in town will be there.” I mentioned to her that I believed that there weren’t any “unimportant” people in town, and that I would not be able to attend. As she walked away, I could hear her muttering to herself something that sounded like, “Thank goodness!”, repeated multiple times.
Someone once asked Albert Schweitzer to name the greatest person alive in the world at that moment. The doctor, whom many would have named as deserving the honor, replied quietly: “The greatest person alive in the world at this moment is some unknown individual in some obscure place who, at this hour, has gone in love to be with another person in need.”
Status and success and prestige aren’t what is most important. Jesus called on the disciples to see the worth in a child, who had little status in their society, and who certainly had not accomplished anything of value. In fact, Jesus actually saw value in the places where we are most vulnerable, and most able to become truly human.
Sometimes our vulnerability becomes our greatest strength. Sometimes we have to bring forth that vulnerable part of who we are in order to become who we are created to be, in order to be healed, in order to become whole. In an extraordinary story, grad student Colin Bates describes some people who have taught him something crucial about life. He entitled his story, “Our Vulnerability Is Our Strength”:
Most of my friends have recently graduated from college. Every so often one will call me up to grumble about their new job, telling me how underappreciated they feel or how they’re not achieving the success they wanted. I enjoy listening to them. I think that’s what friends are for. But it also gives me perspective on my own work.
I work with two developmentally disabled men, my bosses essentially, who each have profound mental retardation. They’re loud without being able to speak. They’re violent without understanding the consequences. They can’t bathe themselves. They can’t cook or work a job. Their behaviors range from catatonic to aggressive.
As a resident service assistant, I go to where these men live and help them in everything they do- bathing, dressing, cooking, feeding, cleaning, going to the bathroom– from the moment they wake until they go to bed. It pays nine bucks an hour.
Underappreciated? Try having your hair ripped out while changing a diaper. Try having the meal you’ve prepared thrown at you. Try being spit on.
The funny thing is, I love my job. I do. I know I’m young and still have a lot to learn, but here it is: I believe in helplessness, which is to say I believe we need other humans.
It isn’t enough to be what our society has dubbed as successful. What we really need are others around us engaging, nurturing, listening, and willing to sacrifice their time and agendas. I don’t care if you’re the CEO of a multi-billiondollar company or a single mother with five kids. Nobody is completely self-sufficient, and so, in that way, we are all helpless. We’re helpless unto each other.
The cool thing about the guys I work for is that they make their needs explicit. Things that take seconds for most of us,like changing socks, can take hours for them, but their vulnerability isn’t a handicap so much as an example. Being with them, encouraging them- “Yes, the socks are on! The socks are off!”- puts things into perspective.
Most of the people I know are embarrassed by what they can’t do. They see it as a sign of weakness and consequently walk around with burdened hearts. For my generation the notion that success equals fulfillment has been pounded into our brains as if it were the truth. My generation is being told that if you can’t do something alone, if you’re not smart enough or capable enough, then you’ve failed.
So far, the turning points in my life have not been the times I succeeded at something, but the times I’ve whispered, “I’m lost,” or “Help me,” or “I need a friend.” In becoming helpless, I’ve allowed myself to be shaped and supported by those who love me- which makes helplessness a gift.
And I have my bosses to thank for it. We’ve discovered the joy of helping and being helped. I believe that sometimes our vulnerability is our strength.
And our vulnerability may be a catalyst for something we never expected.
When we need help, when we are the ones who are vulnerable, we may be surprised at who steps forward to help us. A story was reported in the New York Times about a commuter who suffered a seizure during the New York rush hour. While dozens of commuters streamed by, it was only the homeless, living in the city’s bus terminal, who showed concern and compassion. It was the homeless who put their hats, scarves, and gloves under the woman’s head. It was the homeless who wiped her face. It was the homeless who watched over her while one of them convinced a police officer to radio for help.
In our vulnerability, we may change our understanding of who is the greatest. And our definition of success may change significantly when we look from a longer perspective. Jimmy Carter has done more in his retirement than many people do in their lifetimes. “I never did care very much what my children thought of me,” the former president said. “But I am very eager that my grandchildren approve of me.”
We need to see beyond the evaluations of the people around him; to look at life from a much larger perspective. Being able to see life with a longer perspective helps us in many ways. Longer term perspective helps us to stop getting over-stressed by the “small stuff”, those things in life that really won’t matter for very long, even if they really seem to matter right now. Sometimes we begin to see things right in front of us that we had never noticed before.
Sometimes our eyes have to be opened before we see what has been in front of us all along. Jesus took a child that was unnoticeable to the disciples because the child was insignificant, and he helped them to see that child in a new way. I can guarantee that the commuter in New York City who was cared for by the homeless never saw a homeless person in the same way again.
We must change our perspectives and we must challenge our society, our community, our friends, and our neighbors to look at success in a whole different way. In our jobs, our schools, our neighborhoods, can we turn the idea of success upside down? Then we may realize that God doesn’t love us because we are better than someone else or because we are number one at the moment. God loves us because we are all the same, because we are each God’s child- each one of us- all the same and yet uniquely ourselves, created by God and each called to be continually growing, and learning to become all we have been created to be.
It is ironic that, at one time in this sanctuary, where you sat indicated how important you were in this community. You actually had to rent your pew, and the numbers on the doors made sure you sat in the right pew. You paid more for the front pews (if we were renting them out today, we would certainly want to charge more for the back pews). What a difference 200 years can make!
May we continue to be a church family where there are not status requirements that would interfere with anyone becoming all that God has created them to be here among us.
May the vulnerable of our community be welcomed here always, and may this be a place where- out of our own vulnerability- we grow in compassion, caring and acceptance of each person, including ourselves.
May we truly know that the kingdom of God is within every single person we meet, both here and throughout our world, including each one of us!