May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some of the best advice I received growing up came from my mother. Whenever I came home upset from school, she used to say, “If you are able to find the humor in any given situation, you may also find the truth.” As a pastor, I spend much of my time trying to understand what is really going on around me. I want to know how people feel, how they live, and what gives them meaning. I think that is true for all of the priests here at St. James’s.
Yet, often times, we hide our true selves from one another, so it’s hard to know what is true and what isn’t. I found myself wondering. Are the people exiting the church after our services truly happy or putting on a strong face? Does everyone at church seem to have the perfect family or do they struggle at times like my wife and I, who are still quite new to marriage? Do the older members of our parish understand themselves to be the strongest foundation on which our community lies or do they feel unnoticed and underappreciated by younger generations?
At church, in the very place it should be okay to let others know about our thoughts and our struggles, I often find that it is one of the hardest venues to really know the truth. So, I am glad to call myself a comedic enthusiast. Many of you, my friends, know this to be the case. As an adult, I still avidly watch children’s cartoons. I enjoy standup comedy and shows that push our social conventions. I even enjoy a bad pun, which are often the best kind.
Humor is a wonderful thing. It disarms us. It brings a smile, but more importantly it often points to something we know all too well, but fail to otherwise acknowledge it. So when looking at today’s reading in the gospel of Luke, I found myself asking, where is the truth in this passage? After some time, I remembered a funny little story that was told to me during my days at Berkeley Divinity School. I believe it sheds some light on what we heard earlier in the service.
A minister died and was waiting in line at the Pearly Gates. Ahead of him was a guy who was dressed in sunglasses, a loud shirt, leather jacket and jeans. Saint Peter addressed the guy, “Who are you, so that I may know whether or not to admit you to the Kingdom of Heaven?” The guy replied, “I’m Joe Cohen, taxi driver, of New York City”. Saint Peter consulted his list. He smiled and said to the taxi driver, “Take this silken robe and golden staff, and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The taxi driver went into Heaven.
Then it was the minister’s turn. He stood upright and boomed out, “I am Joseph Snow, pastor of St. Mary’s Church for the last 43 years.” Saint Peter consulted his list and said to the minister, “Take this cotton robe and wooden staff, and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” “Just a minute,” said the minister. “That man was a taxi driver and he gets a silken robe and golden staff. How can this be?”
St. Peter looked sternly at the minister and said, “Up here, we work by results.” “While you preached, people slept. While he drove, people prayed.”
That is such a bad joke (corny might be the more appropriate term)! Still, it always causes me to smile, because there is so much to it. At first, we laugh because we all know the stereotype. New York cab drivers are notoriously known to be a little crazy.
But, I must ask, what about the minister and his response to Saint Peter? As a shepherd of God’s people, why was he not satisfied with the plain robe and staff given to him? A simple leader has no need for finer adornments. As a minister of 43 years, why is he so up in arms about a taxi cab driver finally getting a taste of the finer things of life? Did he not know that the first shall be last and the last shall be first? They both got into heaven, so what’s the big deal?
Somewhere in this story lies the crux of the joke. It’s really not about the cab driver at all. We all know what the ideal minister should look like, but the caricature we see in this story seems all the more familiar. It is familiar, because we may sometimes see these faults in our ministers. We may see them in our fellow Christians. We may see them in ourselves. In acknowledging this, we find some truth. This same approach applies to the Bible.
As Christians, we believe that scripture has been passed to us from generation to generation to help us know God’s love and to find wisdom within it for our own lives. To do that, we are often called to put ourselves into the very stories we hear and read.
In our story today, we see the religious elite challenging Jesus once again. They view him as blight to the social order and say, “If Jesus was truly a religious sage, then he would know the kind of filth that surrounds him.” Then, as usual, we see Jesus turning their argument against itself. He counters by asking “If we are indeed godly leaders, then shouldn’t we be with those in need of leadership, like a shepherd that seeks out strays from their pin?”
At first, we may feel that our place within this narrative is alongside Jesus. We are to be like Christ and seek out the lost sheep. We are not called to be those overly pious Pharisees that want nothing to do with people in need of help. However, if we were to simply stop at this revelation, I would argue that we missed something from the larger narrative and as such, became the butt of our own joke.
It is too easy to see ourselves in the right, without pretense or shame. It is too easy to see another person’s problems and not our own. And as a shepherd to lost sheep, it is too easy to treat a person in need as “the other” or “lesser than you.” Sadly, when this happens, (and it does happen) the Church becomes nothing more than the caricatured religious institution we hear about in mainstream culture, rather than, the spiritual compass that leads others to an authentic relationship with God.
So if the lesson we are to learn is not simply to see ourselves as Christ within the gospel, where is it that we find the truth? I find that we are not simply called to place ourselves in the role of Christ or the shepherd of lost sheep. I believe that with any situation, we are first called to be our authentic selves and then put that person into the narrative. The story, then, is not only about Christ. It is much broader. The story is about the people of God and human nature.
And putting ourselves into the story, we find that we are the Pharisee and the scribe. We are the shepherds sent to find lost sheep. We are the lost in search of a shepherd to lead us and care for us in our loneliness and our suffering. We are everyone in this gospel story, because each role represents truthful aspects of human nature, our thoughts and practices, and how we present ourselves to one another. And this is true in most any church setting.
At any one time, we may be the Pharisee, the ideal as we present ourselves as the pious priest, the perfect husband or wife, the dutiful son or daughter, or the wealthy entrepreneur succeeding by his own brawn and merit. However, the image of our perfection is only skin deep. At the same time we may feel like the lost sheep, as we think about other aspects in our lives that aren’t going the way we intended, things that worry us or cause us to feel inadequate. We may have lost a job that we don’t want people to know about or the family seems to fight all the time. We try to match the things our friends have, but know we are spreading ourselves too thin. We are worried, because we aren’t as charitable with our treasures as we know we should.
Still, despite our inner struggles between how we present ourselves in public and how we feel about ourselves in private, God also calls us to be the shepherd. And as a church community, we must have courage to take on this charge. Yet, I would argue, that in order to do so with greater integrity and to build up the health and strength of our church body, we must also find the courage to share our true selves with our community.
In order to build ourselves up, we are called to trust one another, not fear possible judgment. We are called to lean on each other, not put up a barrier of protection. Christ’s most powerful and transformative work came to those individuals who intimately trusted Him with their imperfections and fears.
I charge you to start trusting your community of faith with the same level of intimacy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we struggle with the same issues. We are far from perfect. But God gives us strength and we move forward.
Yet, if we are to truly be the Church, a spiritual beacon for others and not simply an institution, then we must move forward with greater authenticity to ourselves and each other and we must do it together.