In today’s Gospel from Matthew, we have the opportunity to listen in as Jesus shares words of wisdom with the crowd gathered that day. It is clear that he is trying to present a vision of what it means to be holy people, what it means to really follow the word of God. He cautions them to beware of those who set themselves up as spiritual leaders, the scribes and the Pharisees in his day, and yet, who clearly do not practice what they preach. He speaks about the ways in which they create burdens for others, but do not lift a finger to relieve those burdens. He talks about those who wish to sit at the head of the table, or demonstrate to others just how holy they are, but he warns the crowd to beware those who would be hypocrites, who say they believe in God and are righteous but do not translate those beliefs into action. Jesus explains what it really means to be a great person of faith when he says, “The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Let us pray, O God of mercy, you continue to speak to us in the midst of our days. We ask that you be with us as we continue to be be open to your word, through the inspiration of Jesus, and so many other holy people who serve in your name. Amen.
Last year, my daughter and I had the opportunity to watch the inspiring documentary called “He named me Malala” which is the story of the now famous Malala, who as a young girl from Pakistan was shot by the Taliban in October of 2012 because of her outspoken calls to allow girls to attend school in that country. I am sure that many of you are familiar with her story. The film focuses in a special way on the relationship between Malala and her father and his belief in her and hope that she too can receive an education. At the time of the shooting, the Taliban hoped to silence Malala and her campaign to educate children in her country. After she was shot, she was transferred to England where she received medical care and began her long recovery. Her family moved there out of concern for her safety and theirs. Malala still lives with sight loss and other after-effects of this terrible incident. However, the irony is that it has brought global attention to her cause.
Even in the midst of trying to make a new life in England with her parents and brothers, attending school, trying to make new friends, and continuing to heal, she traveled with her father to places around the world where her notoriety continues to bring attention to the plight of other children…and especially girls who are sadly too often prevented from receiving an education. At one point in the film, we hear her speaking in an interview about this effort by The Taliban to stop her important campaign. “They thought that the bullet would silence us, but they failed. Weakness, fear and hopelessness died…Strength, power and courage was born. I am stronger than fear,” she says. She has continued speaking out for education and for the rights of children around the world, and now she has a much larger voice with all the press that follow her in her travels. In the wake of this tragic event, she has found even greater courage to continue her work. In 2014, she was named the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of education for girls.
The book I shared with the children today, Malala’s magic pencil was recently released in a desire to share her story with younger readers. I recently saw another interview with her where she shares that her journey has now led to her studies at Oxford University in England. We can only imagine where her journey will lead.
I share this story about Malala because I thought about Jesus’ important instructions on what we call Servant Leadership, the idea that to truly be a person of faith, we must be more focused on our actions than our words, and we are invited to translate our faith into action each and every day. And, it’s not always easy. There are remarkable stories of people who have emerged, like Malala, from the most humble of places and have found strength through their faith, to be servants to others, to take up an important cause, even if their own lives are at risk. These are truly inspiring stories for us, because the prophets among us are often not welcome. We know Jesus’ own story of being put to death for standing with the lost and forsaken, for standing with those on the margins of society, instead of seating himself with the high priests and Pharisees.
So often, servants like Malala discover an incredible courage within themselves to continue speaking out, to continue acting to correct wrongs they see in society. We are blessed by these messengers, these servant leaders, because they do provide a witness to us; they may coax up our courage to act in faith and to do things that may seem difficult but which we know are in keeping with what we are called to do as people of faith.
In her book, I am Malala, she speaks about her faith in God as a Muslim girl… “We human beings don’t realize how great God is. He has given us an extraordinary brain and a sensitive loving heart. He has blessed us with two lips to talk and express our feelings, two eyes which see a world of colours and beauty, two feet which walk on the road of life, two hands to work for us, and two ears to hear the words of love. As I found with my ear, no one knows how much power they have in their each and every organ until they lose one.”
― Malala Yousafzai, I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban
There are many stories of people who emerged, like Jesus himself, from modest circumstances but who discovered their capacity to be of service to others. Matthew’s Gospel reminds us today of this important definition of greatness, which is to discover within ourselves how our faith may inspire us to serve others along the journey of our lives. God has indeed given us sensitive hearts that allow us to be open to the needs of others. Like Malala, and so many who have found a way to serve, often we may discover a deep sense of courage, of compassion and joy in choosing this way of life. Albert Schweitzer once wrote, “ I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”