A Spirit of Humility
by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“But the other individual, the tax collector, stood far off, kept at a distance and would not even look to heaven. With real humility, all the tax collector said was: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” — Luke 18:13.
I have mentioned this here before: my Father was a teacher at a Parochial High School in New York City. It was Regis High School, named for Saint John Francis Regis, a Jesuit of the 17th Century, and the school is run by the Jesuits.
Because my Father taught at a Jesuit school, I sometimes say ‘when I was growing up Jesuits were my friends.’ Yes, they were my Father’s friends, but I became friendly with them too. And because of that, I do know a lot about them.
Here’s one item about Jesuits many people may not know: members of the order probably have as much education as any other group on the face of the planet. After acquiring a Bachelor’s degree, a Jesuit normally gets anywhere from 8 to 14 additional years of schooling and/or training before ordination.
That’s the equivalent of at least one PhD and some Jesuits have the equivalent of two before ordination. And when I say the equivalent, most of them actually have the class work and the sheepskin in hand to back it up. It doesn’t just say “S.J.” after the name. It says “PhD.” The point being, it is not just additional training within the order. They go through fully accredited academic work. 1
Now, as you may be aware, the current and newly elected Pope is a Jesuit. And, as you may also be aware, it appears the Leader of the Roman Church has been shaking things up as of late. And who better than a cleric with that kind of extensive background and education to shake up things?
The Pontiff has already offended some and encouraged others by saying atheists can get through the pearly gates. When asked about people who are gay, Francis said, “Who am I to judge?”
Well, the Bishop of Rome was at it again last week. Francis warned against behaving as though (quote:) “the key to the Dominion of God is in their pocket and the door closed.”
Perhaps a pivotal question concerning what the Pope said is, “How did he get there? How did he come to a place where, in a sermon, he said (quote:) “…a Christian who becomes a disciple of ideology has lost the faith.” Quite a quote. (Slight pause.)
Well, let’s review what he said in context. He started the homily in which this was stated by reiterating a basic concept: without prayer, one abandons faith. By definition one, then, shifts into ideology. And ideological stands produce judgments which are, at best, moralistic but have little to do with faith and are merely judgments.
The fact of the matter is, Francis really tore into any and all ideologues in this sermon. What the Pope said was extensive, so what I am about to offer is a paraphrase. But it is certainly reflective of what was said. (Slight pause.)
In ideologies you do not find Jesus: the tenderness of Jesus, the love of Jesus, the meekness of Jesus, the strength of Jesus. Ideologies are rigid.
Ideologies do not beckon people. Ideologies do not address love. When a Christian becomes a disciple of ideology, that Christian is no longer a disciple of Jesus but is a disciple of attitude, not a disciple of Jesus but a disciple of a strain of thought. 2 Some powerful thoughts from the Pontiff. (Slight pause.)
And these words are from the work known as Luke/Acts in the section commonly called Luke: “But the other individual, the tax collector, stood far off, kept at a distance and would not even look to heaven. With real humility, all the tax collector said was: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Slight pause.)
In our church tradition, in our denomination, when a pastor retires or leaves to go to another church, historically and traditionally, that church forms a Search Committee and thereby looks for another settled pastor. In the course of the process the church also fills out a profile, a document which runs between twenty and thirty pages and describes the attributes of the church.
In that profile everything about the church gets listed— everything from finances to demographics to a description of the community in which the church located. The profile then gets sent to pastors who are looking for a church.
The denomination and the Conference, in one sense, act like match makers and try to match churches and pastors. After all, a church does not just want a body in the pulpit. A church wants someone who might fit in, someone who can be a pastor at that particular time and place in the history of a community of faith.
One of the questions in that profile that a church fills out reads this way. “Choose the statement that most accurately describes the theological/faith stance of your church. You may check more than one.”
“We tend to be theologically conservative. We tend to be theologically moderate to conservative. We tend to be theologically moderate. We tend to be theologically moderate to liberal. We tend to be theologically liberal. We tend to be quite diverse in theology. Other.” The question also allows for additional comments.
I don’t mean to criticize the denomination, but that is the craziest question ever asked of any church. Good theology, sound theology has no ideological basis and no ideological bias. Sound theology cannot be defined as liberal or conservative or any variation in between.
The members of a church may be somewhere between sociologically conservative and/or sociologically liberal in their secular stands. And those secular stands may, in fact, drift over into many aspects of church life.
But, by definition, if a church claims to be theologically conservative or theologically liberal (and many do), it is not a church. It is a mutual benefit society of some kind. But it is not a church. (Slight pause.)
Clearly both the Publican and the Pharisee are engaged in prayer. And prayer is the place the Pope started when those remarks were made about ideologies. And prayer is clearly not a place for ideologies. And, if anything, the prayers we hear from these two characters— these prayers— are a contrast between a non-ideological stand and an ideological stand.
Further, this parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is not a lesson in how to pray. Nor is it a lesson about things for which we might pray.
It is, perhaps, a lesson in what our relationship to God is. It is, perhaps, a lesson about who we are and who God is. It is, perhaps, a lesson about our humanity. It is, perhaps, a lesson about an attitude of humility.
But what is humility? And is the promise of God really to pour out the Spirit? And if the promise of God is to pour out the Spirit, what does it mean to be humble in the context of the presence, the reality of the Spirit?
Could it possibly mean that being self-centered is inappropriate? If being self-centered is inappropriate, what does that mean in terms of community— the whole community? And why is humility necessary? (Slight pause.)
Jesus tells us, the Bible tells us to care for the poor and the outsider. Why? It is because we all need to stand in that position, stand in the shoes of the other, the outcast in society, for our own conversion to make sense to us. Perhaps we, each of us needs to stand in the mercy of God, the forgiveness of God, the grace of God.
And this needs to happen so we can start to strive to understand the very nature of reality of God. When we are too smug or too content, then it’s unlikely grace and mercy have no meaning. When we are too smug or too content then it’s unlikely the reality of God will have real meaning. 3 (Slight pause.)
So, how does that tie into ideology? (Slight pause.) Ideology is an offspring of tribalism— nothing more, nothing less. Ideology says one group of people is, by definition, outcast and unworthy.
Ideology, as it relates to faith, says one lacks the humility to stand before God. Ideology, as it relates to faith, says one lacks the humility to admit to imperfection. (Slight pause.)
I have said this here before. I will probably say it again. We are all part of one tribe: God’s tribe. Why would the Pope say, “…a Christian who becomes a disciple of ideology has lost the faith”? Because when it comes to faith, ideology has no place. By definition, ideology breaks us out into tribes. And we need to be humble enough to understand that.
I also need to note that when we humbly pray or even when we pray humbly something interesting can happen. Our self-created boundaries fall away from us. Suddenly it feels like we have nothing left to support us and it feels like we are free falling, falling in mid-air as if in a dream.
But, if truth be told, we are not in a free fall at all. You see, if we are truly humble, then we fall into the arms of God— God who is our solid basis of security.
Indeed, if I am to believe the Bible, there is one thing which sums up God’s very surprising agenda. God loves each of us and all of us so much that we are not members of any ideological group. Rather, we are all members of God’s tribe.4 Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “From the perspective of the Hebrew Scriptures, this is a theological given: the Hebrews did not ‘have’ a theology. The Hebrews ‘did’ theology. The same is actually true in the Christian Scriptures. Indeed, a quote attributed to Saint Francis Assisi says this: ‘Preach the Gospel. Use words only if you have to.’ There is no ideology in that. Just faith combined with action.”
BENEDICTION: God stands by us to grant us support and strength. All who trust in God are strengthened and blessed. So, let us go on our way, proclaiming the Good News: when we question and when we are open, when we struggle to know God’s will and walk in God’s way, God will be our refuge. And may the face of God shine upon us; may the peace of Christ rule among us; may the fire of the Spirit burn within us this day and forevermore. Amen.