20th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper A26, Lectionary Reflection
October 30, 2011
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Matthew 23:3
Do you sit in the “catbird seat”? If so, at least according to Jesus, you may soon find yourself in for a mighty fall. Jesus offers a stern warning to the community of disciples about how to lead and whom to follow by lifting up the current religious elite as very bad examples.
These leaders, the scribes and Pharisees, are all about orthodoxy and playing by the rules. The problem is that they’ve become so obsessed about being right that appearances and image trump substance. Jesus rebukes their sense of fashion, need for titles and respect, and propensity to trample on those whom they lead. The disconnect between word and walk is clear, and according to Jesus, mighty will be their fall.
How do we interpret these words today both within church and society? What leaders “tie up heavy burdens hard to bear” and “love to be greeted with respect in the marketplace”? What would be the 21st century equivalent of making their “phylacteries long and their fringes long”?
These are good questions to ask. They are also hard questions because they demand honesty and transparency; they call us to strip our carefully constructed veneers and look within. It’s awfully easy to point a finger–the other way.
As a vocational church leader, I need to ask myself these questions on a regular basis. I need to examine whether I am placing a heavy burden on others that I am not willing to shoulder myself. What message do I send to those I serve? How are my actions and image to be interpreted? Am I a good steward both of the gospel and of the resources with which I have been entrusted to manage?
Joan Chittister, in the Illuminated Life, writes “What needs to be changed in us? Anything that deludes us into thinking that we are not simply a work in progress, all of whose degrees, status, achievements, and power are no substitute for the wisdom that a world full of God everywhere, in everyone has to teach us.”
Human nature and cultural norms teach us that it is right, indeed expected, for one to aspire to a place of greater power and honor. Most folks I know would prefer to sit by the window and enjoy a fine view rather than be stuck in the back by the kitchen door. People will gladly wait in line to have their photo snapped with a celebrity but complain vociferously about saying “cheese” for the church directory. You get the picture, right?
A grandmother recently lamented to me that her granddaughter’s fiancÃ© saw no need to be part of a worshipping community because “the church is full of hypocrites.” Whether that is an excuse or a wound, the fact remains that far too many people look at Christians and see long fringe and oversized phylacteries. They see fluff rather than substance because appearances and impressions do count.
Yes, the catbird seat may seem like a fine place to be “sitting pretty,” but disciple beware. Jesus prefers humility and margins. Jesus establishes a clear vision of a community of mutuality, humble service, and inclusion, a place where people are safe to be authentic and “real” with one another and a place where all find welcome and where leaders practice what they teach.
Blessings on your servant leadership, preaching, and teaching!
Without succumbing to partisan political ranting, invite youth to comment on what they see in the Occupy Wall Street protests. What do the protesters see in those in places that is inconsistent? Are they justified? What other examples of a disconnect between what leaders say and do can you think of?
Finally, ask youth as servant leaders how they can be consistent in their talk and walk. Listen carefully and respectfully to all voices.
Play a quick game of “Simon Says” or “Follow the Leader.” Explain that in this game, participants are asked to follow what the leader does while the leader tries to trick them into not being able to do it. The game as fun as long as you’re not the one who is “out.” Tell children we “Follow the Leader” with Jesus by listening to his words and hearing about his actions in the Bible. Unlike Simon, the object of the game is not to get everybody “out” but rather to help everyone learn to live life Jesus’ way. And that is very, very good.
Note: “sitting in the catbird seat” is an idiomatic expression used to describe having the upper hand or being in an enviable position. James Thurber wrote a short story entitled “The Catbird Seat” in 1942; according to the Oxford English Dictionary this is the first written occurrence of the expression.