May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In this last trimester of pregnancy, my husband, Chris and I have started working with a birth doula. A doula is someone trained to provide support to the person giving birth as well as their loved ones. The first step in our doula's process is to listen to the story of previous deliveries. She unpacks the experience so that any memories that elicit fear or insecurity about the upcoming delivery can be surfaced, enabling her client to feel as confident and trusting in their body and the process as possible. As I’ve been revisiting my own story and memories, it has reminded me of the power of the stories we tell ourselves.
I’ve been reading a book called How to lead when you don’t know where you’re going. It’s written by Susan Beaumont, an ordained pastor and a church consultant, who sees her vocation as a spiritual director for organizations.
One of the key steps she identifies in leading in uncertain times is to shape institutional memory by having members tell the story of the community. The work of the leader is to listen, to help the community examine its own memory, flesh it out and reinterpret its core stories.
When we remember the past, we imagine that we are recounting facts, but usually we tell some combination of truth and fiction, our imagination often fills out gaps in our memories. The way we tell our stories contain messages about aspects of our values and identity that are important to us. The leader’s task of reinterpretation needs to both honor the truthfulness of what happened and help the community figure out to do next, drawing on the best of the organization's past identity.
To illustrate these principles, the author shares a long-standing story from a parish that she once belonged to. It’s the story of a woman named Anna B. Quick, a laywoman credited with saving the church over 100 years ago. Her portrait hangs in the church lobby, and her story is one of the first that a newcomer will hear.
The story goes like this: Anna was a parishioner when the congregation was pretty much dead. The building was so run down it couldn’t be used safely by the congregation. The congregation couldn’t afford to pay a priest, so there wasn’t one. Eventually people stopped gathering for worship on Sunday mornings. However, Anna B. Quick continued to show up alone at the church every Sunday morning, week after week. She lit the lights and opened the doors just in case someone showed up for prayer. She filed the annual papers that maintained the congregation as a legal entity. These simple acts of faithfulness kept the congregation alive for several years. The church barely survived, but eventually rebirth happened, and the congregation once again became a thriving community.
This is a beautiful story of faithfulness, trust, and loyalty. It’s a story about the power of one individual, the role of lay people, and the role of women in the church.
However, there are a couple of sides to this story.
Anna kept doing the same things that had always been done. She opened the doors, lit the lights, and filed the reports. She didn’t change anything. She walked faithfully until the world righted itself again. Fast forward one hundred years, and the congregation is again in trouble. Membership and attendance have declined and the congregation has let go all of the staff, except the pastor. The new pastor has been trying to introduce new ideas to the church leaders, who on the surface express support for his ideas, but then don’t follow through to make things happen. The congregation continues to love to tell the story of Anna B. Quick.
Curious and frustrated, the pastor researches Anna’s story. He learns parts of the story he’s never heard before. He discovered that the church revitalization happened when Anna and a few others gave sacrificially from their own personal income to hire a new pastor. Anna led the church in a decision to tear down the old building, and helped to raise funds to build a new sanctuary. With these daring efforts, the church found new life and energy.
So why might the congregation have left this part of the story out?
Maybe because they wanted to believe that revitalization can take place with simple acts of faithfulness, maintaining things the way they have always been. Maybe they were scared of new initiatives and the possibility of failure with plans that hadn’t been tried before.
The pastor shared his findings, hoping to help the congregation embrace its old values and inviting the congregation to play with new possibilities and embark on new paths inspired by Anna’s courage.
In the parable that we read today from the Gospel of Luke, we hear two men’s stories about themselves. We hear the inner prayer of the Pharisee who is grateful not to be like the other and reminds himself of all the ways in which he was righteous before God. And we hear the inner prayer of the tax collector who is fully aware of his brokenness and the ways in which he needs God’s forgiveness, so much so that he keeps his distance from others in the temple and doesn’t even look up to heaven.
It’s easy to judge the Pharisee and say that we’re not as arrogant as him. However, the minute we do that, we’re doing exactly what the Pharisee did to the tax collector. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote: “Every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.”
I read scholars who were annoyed by the tax collector. The text tells us that he was humble and contrite, but doesn’t tell us anything about whether he stopped collaborating with the Romans in collecting taxes from the Jewish community. Great - he was sorry about his part in a system of exploitation of his own people - but did he actually do anything about it??Jesus doesn’t focus on what they do or don’t do, instead he highlights the posture of their hearts, their posture towards each other, and their posture towards God.
From the text, it would appear that Jesus’ audience had a lot more in common with the Pharisee’s self-image than the tax collector’s. When I read the Gospels, I’m struck by how often Jesus is irked by arrogance and self-sufficiency and how much he values humility.
Humility is an old-fashioned virtue. We don’t see much of it in the media or public discourse. Between polarization and the increasingly smaller margins we give each other for failure, there seems to be less and less space for humility.
Humility requires vulnerability and a different kind of confidence. It requires vulnerability because we have to be able to entertain that we might be wrong or that we might have an incomplete picture of reality. And it requires a kind of confidence that is grounded in our belovedness in God and therefore can withstand our fallibility and blind spots.
The thing about the stories we tell is that they are so real to us. The virtue of humility that Jesus highlights in this parable invites us to hold our stories lightly, with detachment, giving space for the recognition that our stories may not be all that there is to a person or reality as we’re perceiving it. This may help us turn towards each other with curiosity and generosity, rather than with a critical eye or an eye towards assessment and judgment.
Seeing ourselves and others in all of our complexity is a great gift of our spiritual journeys. Coming to terms with our limitations, befriending our shadows and our perceived imperfections contain as much value as finding parts of ourselves that we celebrate and might be tempted to put on display.
And the ancient spiritual technology that our Christian tradition offers us to get in touch with the core of who we are - the shadows, the edges, the light and the gifts - is prayer. In prayer, God invites us to shed the images we project and the filters that obscure our vision. In prayer, God gives us the grace to see ourselves anew, because God’s vision is completely different than the world’s vision.
I would like to offer two prayers for us today: May God’s Spirit grant us the humility to hold ourselves lightly and to be generous in heart towards each other. May the church embody a more loving, more humble, more compassionate way of being in the world. Amen.