I got to spend time with a dear, old friend last night who was in town for a few meetings, visiting from the Pacific Northwest. His name is Jim Henderson and if you don’t know him, you should – he has been doing amazing work for decades, current project being something called “Three Practices,” which focuses on bringing people together who vehemently disagree about important things to listen to one another. He says it’s the first work he’s ever done where he feels like real transformation is happening in the room. I believe it. Everything good in this world begins and ends with listening.
I met Jim when I was 19 or 20 and living in Maryland. We got to know each other through another one of my dear friends and mentors, Brian McLaren (another human doing amazing work.) There was no reason, really, for Jim to reach out to me back then -at least that he knew of- no reason to keep up by email and get lunch with me every time he was in town. There was no reason, really, for Brian to take the time he did to have endless coffees with me over those years. These were both guys with a lot of other stuff to do and plenty of people who wanted time from them. I was a 19 or 20 year old, still finishing college and totally unsure of what would come next. I asked them for their time only because I didn’t know any better; I have no idea why they gave it to me.
Here’s the Gospel reading for today, from the 22nd chapter of Matthew:
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
I remember the first time someone came to me for vocational guidance. I was in my late twenties, and the person who reached out to me was looking for advice having to do with the harp. They were feeling constricted by the confines of the classical music world and asked to have coffee. As we sat there together I found myself feeling, I am the LAST person who should be giving vocational advice. I was floundering around in the world myself, wondering if I had made one too many bold mistakes, wondering if there would be any way for me to recover any kind of professional respect in the world, wondering if all I had been chasing was simply an illusion (spoiler alert: most of it was.)
So I didn’t give advice, because I had none to give. All I could do was hear their story, and share mine.
As a pastor and a professor now, I find myself often placed in situations where people are asking for advice and wisdom. It’s a mixed bag because now, on the verge of turning forty, I do have a notch or two on my belt. But mostly not, because I am so deeply aware that the vast majority of my life has unfolded thus far due to those two grand theological categories: Good luck and Bad luck. And, of course, being held by dear old friends and mentors who embodied what Jesus described in this reading by standing next to me, not over me; walking alongside me, not pretending to have some mystical compass; who insisted (and really made me believe) that they were learning from me at the same time I was learning from them.
I take these words from Jesus seriously: we are all students, we are all struggling on this path, and none of us, no matter how highly exalted by the culture or the church or whoever, has any secret key to unlock life’s mysteries. Not even if we’re called Reverend. Or Dr. Or rabbi. Or Father or Mother or Mom or Dad or Nurse or Teacher or Elder or Bishop or any other title. As soon as those of us who lead forget that our best teachers are our students and congregants and children and patients and employees and volunteers, we have made ourselves unworthy of our titles.
Which, perhaps, is part of the reason that Jesus says here that we should just forget about the titles altogether.
This morning as the snow falls in NYC I find myself giving thanks for the mentors and guides in my life, the people who helped me uncover my own gifts and vocation, the men and women who called me out on my bullshit when it needed to be called out, the people who deserved titles of Pastor and Rabbi and Teacher but who never used those titles or depended on them for authority, and instead insisted the whole way that we were learning together.
Thanks be to God!