On Being Last – September 28, 2014

On Being Last
The Rev. Philip Tierney
September 28, 2014

Once upon a time, I was the rector of a southern parish. During the search process it was made clear to me that there was one member of the twenty-seven-member church staff, who intimidated the rest, including the former rector. It was the church organist and choirmaster.
Our weekly staff meetings involved coordinating the calendar and taking turns to update each other on our respective programs. The particular staff member that I mentioned dominated others with disapproval, more with his eyes and facial expressions than with words. But on several occasions he did scoff at and criticize other members of the staff, usually the most timid.
One day, during my first year, he and I met to plan an upcoming wedding. We finished half an hour early. Prone to spontaneity as I’ve been known to be, I said, “We have time left. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?” He shrugged. And so I tried to prime the pump with an innocuous question. I said, “Well, I think things are going pretty well. I want you to know that I respect all that you do in the music program. You’re just about the most talented member of staff. Do you have any ideas that you’d like to share?” I came to regret asking the question. He looked up at the ceiling, rolled his eyes, pursed his lips, and said in his slow, deliberate, and well-educated southern drawl, “Well… I don’t like you, or your theology, or your sermons, or the way you lead worship, or the way you make announcements, or your taste in music, or how you lead meetings, but beside that I have nothing to add.” He smiled with a gleam in his eyes. I was taken aback a bit, but sat back and replied, with a laugh, “Well, that’s a lot to take in. Is there anything you wanted to talk over, anything you’d like to suggest in any of these matters?” “No,” he said, adding, “I simply thought you should know what I thought of you.” I replied, “Well, to paraphrase Abe Lincoln, ‘You can please all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time’… but I’ll just have to live with it that I can’t please you. I guess we’ll both have to live with that.” I decided to pause for a moment. I went on, “Since we’re being frank here, let me say again that I think you’re probably the most gifted person on the staff in what you do, and one of the most intelligent. And yet, ironically, I’ve noticed that you often seem to try to intimidate others by the disrespect you demonstrate toward them in staff meetings and around the office. That’s not necessary, you know. You don’t need to diminish others. I want to assure you that you’re safe, here. You don’t need to put others down to make this place safe for yourself. He responded, “I thought you told me that I was the most gifted person on the staff. How can you disapprove of the way I treat other staff members?” I replied that those two patterns were not mutually exclusive, and that I was simply saying that he was safe and that he could afford to help others to feel safe, too. He rose and left.
I found his resignation on my desk the following Monday, effective in nine months. He cited differences with me, and sent it to all the members of the vestry, as well. A not-so-cold war ensued for those nine months. I was privately and publicly excoriated by segments of the parish the whole time, but needed to take it without defensiveness. It was a humbling experience and painful.
Whenever two or three are gathered together, people can disagree with each other and may not even like each other much. Power struggles may break out, even among people of faith. That’s exactly what was going on among the people in today’s scripture readings. The Hebrews complained and criticized Moses. The Jewish authorities publicly questioned Jesus’ authority. And the Philippians, like all the churches St. Paul wrote to, had interpersonal squabbles. Wherever two or three are gathered together power struggles can break out. They can actually paralyze a group from making positive progress — whether families, organizations, or governments — just consider our Congress.
Now when Moses led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, they had all sorts of feelings, I’m sure. Don’t get me wrong, most of them must have been elated to be liberated (especially insofar as they had experienced bonded manual servitude, hard labor, mistreatment, and poverty. But remember that they had lived there, in Egypt, for as long as Europeans have lived in America — 400 years. It was their home. It was all they knew. And while many of them merely subsisted, they were accustomed to it. Moreover, they didn’t know where they were going, how to get there, what things would be like, there, or if they’d actually make it all. So they had to have been a bit sad and very frightened, too. Those feelings of melancholy, nostalgia, and outright fear cropped up time and again, especially in the so-called wilderness of Sin, otherwise known as the Sinai Peninsula. It was a desert, after all. They were often afraid for their lives. And just as often, they fretted, complained, and criticized Moses. They were forever asking why he took them out of Egypt — just to die. They questioned the authenticity of God’s call. They questioned Moses’ wisdom. They questioned his sense of direction. They questioned his competence. And they questioned his authority to lead them. That’s what they did in this reading, this time about water.
Likewise, in the gospel reading, the Jewish leaders at the Temple, the chief priests and the members of the Sanhedrin, criticized Jesus. They questioned his authority. They asked, “By what authority do you dare to take it upon yourself to do the things you do?” They weren’t just referring to healing people on the Sabbath or teaching radical grace and love. They were also referring to his prophetic outburst, the previous day, when he threw all the money changers and sacrifice salesmen out of the Temple. “How dare you, Jesus!”
And St. Paul identified the universal problem of people jostling with each other to put their own interests and perspectives above those of others.
The Israelites were afraid they’d die of thirst. The Temple leaders were afraid they’d lose control. And some Philippians were afraid they’d get overlooked in the shuffle. That fear prompted each in his way to criticize, complain, undercut, and squabble to protect themselves by striving for power like my staff colleague — to put themselves and their needs first, lest they get lost. But Jesus pointed out the irony of that dynamic and its tactics: those who strive to put themselves first will be last and those who are last will be first. He was talking about grace, about actively trusting God for one’s wellbeing and salvation. He urged people not to leave God out of the equation. Trust God instead of human power to get what you hope for.
People who connive and scheme and manipulate and try to use or dominate others to get what they want forget that God is in the equation. People’s power struggles only hurt the group, and ironically, wind up hurting the ones involved. What did Moses do? He prayed, and was able to receive God’s direction. What was Jesus’ advice? Trust God’s power for your wellbeing, not your own. What did Paul say? Follow Jesus’ example. Don’t bother arguing; it doesn’t do any good. Don’t bother striving for power. Look out for the interests of others rather than your own. That’s the way Jesus lived. So when we’re anxious about our wellbeing, position, or control, it’s best to remember God. It’s best to trust God’s good will toward us; best to resist impulse to control others; best to pray and serve — God and others. God will take care of the rest and will protect and save us better than we can ourselves.