Since September I’ve been preaching on the Marks of a 21st Century Disciple, and I’ll be continuing the series until May. The importance of this lies simply in the reality that many of us feel unsure about discipleship, about how to incorporate it into everyday life. To live in the way of Jesus and follow the path he showed us in his life and teachings.
So up to this point those marks include:
- Recognizing that we’re lost.
- Seeking the wisdom found in vulnerability.
- Living with gratitude.
- Praying even when you think all hope is lost.
Which is not the kind of list you’d make if you wanted to talk about how to be a successful person in our culture. There’s nothing in there about making the most money, or using your power to influence others, or even having power to begin with. There’s nothing about braggadocio either, that brazen talk about how great we are and how everyone else is, well, not so much. And when that thought flitters across our minds, it’s time to cue the story.
Jesus—recognizing that some out there trusted that they were righteous all on their own, and that they disdained others—told this tale. Two men went to pray at the temple, a religious leader and a tax collector. The religious leader stood in a prominent place and prayed in a loud enough voice for others to hear saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the other man—the tax collector—stood far off, and couldn’t even look up toward heaven since he was so overcome by guilt. “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
“This one,” Jesus told them, “this one ‘went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.’” (Taken from the Message Bible).
The first compares himself to the other and then casually dismisses him with a quick judgment. “Thank you God that I’m not like other people who cheat and lie and steal, and especially like that worthless man over there who will never be nearly as righteous as me.” He looks and makes a one second assessment without regard for anything else, and certainly without considering what might be going on inside that man’s heart. The religious leader doesn’t have a clue about that sort of thing, rather he relies simply on a once-over and pegging that tax collector for a fraud, a con and then writing him off as worthless.
You may remember a similar theme in Disney’s animated film, “The Emperor’s New Groove.” The young and narcissistic emperor Kuzco decides that he’s going to build a new summer home in one of the villages in his kingdom, at the very top of a mountain. He calls the modest village leader, Pacha, to come to his palace to discuss this building project. We learn that Pacha’s home sits on that mountain top and the Emperor plans to tear it down.
Through a series of circumstances, the emperor is turned into a Llama — it’s Disney, just go with it — and Kuzco has to depend on the good natured Pacha to protect him from predators both human and animal. Kuzco behaves horrifically for much of the time, belittling Pacha and thinking that everything was still about him. But slowly through their adventures he begins to see himself for who he really is and does some deep soul searching, or as deep as soul searching can get in an animated film.
It’s often pretty easy to think that we can just go it alone and become judgmental and dismissive of others. Especially when those others don’t have much when it comes to the ways of our culture. The ones not earning much or who are unhoused, the ones who hail from a different country and speak a language other than English. Those who have made some poor choices in their lives or gotten involved with the wrong crowd. The ones who back a different candidate from us. We think that we can just casually brush them off and get on with our lives.
But that’s not how it works. Because that’s not how Jesus sees it. Jesus sees these others as having great worth. Theologian Karoline Lewis suggests that “This story calls out this sin of ours — the sin of dismissal. The sin of one-upmanship. The sin of appraisal and assessment before compassion. It calls attention to that time and space in between an all-too-quick evaluation and the final verdict of whether or not we deem another as one who meets the expectations we have set out.” Because we do have expectations, right, both for them and for us.
The question is will we see that as the sin that it is? Will we recognize that when we deem ourselves better than the others in our lives and flick them away like a pesky mosquito, that we negate who Jesus has created them to be? Can we see our propensity to judge others as a sin? Or will we only listen to the blaring voice of our culture telling us how much better we are than those other folks?
I think Jesus longs for us to have self-knowledge, recognizing who we really are. Uncovering who Jesus called us to be. Thomas Merton writes, “Sooner or later we must distinguish between what we are not and what we are. We must accept the fact that we are not what we would like to be. We must cast off our false, exterior self like the cheap and showy garment that it is…. We must find our real self, in all its elemental poverty, but also in its great and very simple dignity: created to be the chid of God and cable of loving with something of God’s own sincerity and his unselfishness.”
So as you might have guessed, the 5th mark of a 21st century disciple is humility. But not in the way we imagine. False humility often comes in two flavors—the ones who think they are humble and are proud about it because it shows they are superior to others, and the ones whose self-concept is so low they think they have nothing to offer. Neither reflects the humility of a disciple.
Which brings us back to Emperor Kuzco. What he learns about himself doesn’t lead him to renouncing his power, but rather makes him more dependent on others. His greatest weakness—the way he treated other people and dismissed them—became his point of conversion. He develops friendships with Pacha and his family, and he becomes a ruler that sees value in the other.
I’m just getting in to Ian Morgan Cron’s new book titled The Road Back to You, using the Enneagram as a tool for personal and spiritual growth. Ian is an Episcopal priest and psychologist who uncovers the Enneagram—a model of our personalities in nine interconnected types—to help understand more about how God had created him. Early in the book he recounts a conversation he had with his spiritual director, a monk named Br. Dave. Br. Dave says, “What we don’t know about ourselves can and will hurt us, not to mention others. As long as we stay in the dark about how we see the world and the wounds and beliefs that have shaped who we are, we’re prisoners of our history…. Working with the Enneagram helps people develop the kind of self-knowledge they need to understand who they are and why they see and relate to the world the way they do. When that happens you can start to get out of your own way and become more the person God created you to be.”
In my own journey, I’m learning that this recognition, this becoming, leads to true humility and to our own deepest salvation in Christ. The one who created us, who knows us better than we know ourselves, desires for us to become our truest and best selves in this life. As the tax collector vividly shows, we cannot do it on our own; we need God’s help, guidance and especially God’s forgiveness. But when we repent of our past failings, the point isn’t so we remain stuck there forever loathing our sins, but to enter into more fully the essence of the people we’ve always been created to be, recognizing that at our core we were made to be in relationship. To bring healing and redemption. To love. To see others not as objects of rejection or fear or ridicule, but, just like ourselves, beloved children of God. And when we do that, when we journey deeper into self-understanding with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can get out of our own way. We can enter into living as the person God created us to be. That’s true humility. To be completely ourselves living into and recognizing our strengths and our weaknesses and offering ourselves with Christ to others.
So who has Jesus called you to be? How have you lived in to that and how have you avoided it? For what might you need to seek forgiveness? How can you let go of pretense and judgment? And what might you need to do to recognize that you cannot do this on your own? That the only path to humility is in crying out to God who loves us sinners with more passion than we will ever know and longs for us to fully be our selves. God is here, cheering us on, encouraging us to come to terms with our past failings and to make amends so that we can find redemption and fullness of life. Amen.