05 September 2007

Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost - "There IS An 'I' In 'Humility'"

Finally getting around to posting Sunday's sermon. I felt pretty good about this one - it rings true to me four days after the fact. The scriptures on which this sermon is based can be found here.

Most of you know the name Peyton Manning. He’s the starting quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, a Super Bowl champion and son of legendary Mississippi quarterback Archie Manning. Peyton Manning is one of the most important names in American sports, which makes him one of the most highly respected people in our country today. But would you expect to see this from arguably the best player in the National Football League?

What makes it funny? You guessed it: you don’t expect to see guys who get paid millions of dollars to play football chanting “Cut That Meat! Cut That Meat!” But here he is: Peyton Manning, turning the tables and putting himself in the position we occupy on Sunday afternoons.

Of course, it’s a commercial. Mr. Manning was compensated handsomely for his antics in these commercials. But he looks like a natural, doesn’t he? If he can do it, so can we, right? In our gospel reading today, it sounds like Jesus is suggesting that when it comes to how we interact with others, we should seek out opportunities to turn the tables and humble ourselves, so that our humility may be the thing for which we are praised. A friend of mine thought that she might title her sermon for today “Jesus’ Not-So-Common Sense Guide to Entertaining.” Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, help us to see wisdom in what You said and how You lived. We have so many questions, but You want to give us more than answers: You want to give us life everlasting. In our baptism You have made us Your own brothers and sisters: help us to claim the great gift of wholeness which You offer us in this place. Make us Yours, to live with You in righteousness and purity forever. Amen.

When I read the scriptures, there are times when I wish with all my heart that I could have been present to hear the way Jesus said some of the things He said. Our reading from Luke today is one of those stories. I’m almost certain that if you and I had been there to hear him say what is recorded in Luke 14.8-11, we would have heard a distinct note of heavy sarcasm in those words.

Look again at how Luke sets up the moment. Jesus goes to the house of a Pharisee for dinner. The word “Pharisee” means “separated:” the Pharisees were a group within the church that did everything they could to keep themselves holy and pure – ‘separated’ from the riffraff of society and any sinners. But the Pharisees also knew that Jesus was a teacher and healer of great power in their time, and so they invited Jesus to dinner. Why? To trap Him in arguments? To expose Him as a fraud? To use Jesus’ popularity as a way to boost their own reputations? It’s hard to say what the reason for that dinner might have been. What Luke does tell us is that from the moment Jesus entered the house, He was watched very closely. One gets the sense that Jesus’ hosts were waiting for Him to slip, to make a mistake. It’s an age-old story, of course: the rich and powerful grow accustomed to their high position, and when they feel threatened by the newcomer with a less-than-stellar background, they conspire to bring Him down. But this was not a fairy tale, and Jesus wasn’t Cinderella: Jesus knew exactly what was happening. More importantly, Jesus knew exactly who He was and why this moment would be important.

Luke tells us that Jesus watched the guests at the banquet choosing the places of honor. Again, there is a note of sarcasm and distaste buried within these words, as if the guests were hyenas snapping at a particularly juicy bit of carrion. In Jesus’ time, inviting dinner guests was a means of proclaiming the dignity and social status of the host: only the best families could expect to host dinners for those of great honor and regard in the community. So the guests had to look around and determine where they should be seated, according to their social status, which you can imagine would involve a lot of judging one’s position and, perhaps, even arguing about it.

Here is where I’m sure Jesus deflated the pomposity of the dinner guests with a particularly well-timed and sharply-pointed bit of sarcasm. Jesus suggests that the dinner guests should be fighting for the lowest place, so that they might be exalted for their humility. It is an absurd argument, even for Jesus. Can you imagine what it would look like, the entire dinner crowd trying to outdo each other in humility and deference to one another? Maybe you can imagine it after all: I see that, once again, the front pews are open this morning, while the back is overflowing with the humble! However, if a crowd of people arguing over the lowest place seems absurd, doesn’t it also seem to be absurd for a crowd of people to argue over the highest place? Here is where Jesus’ sarcasm bites the hardest – in suggesting a hypothetical absurdity, Jesus also exposes a real absurdity; a crowd of people clamoring for position and exalting themselves over their neighbors.

Jesus exposed two sinful problems in our gospel reading for today. First, he exposed the sin of pride, of self-exaltation, which is dangerous indeed. We all need to be deflated now and again. Secondly, however, Jesus exposed the sin of false humility, which may be even more dangerous because it leads us down the passive-aggressive path toward pretension, resentment and self-martyrdom. Trying to outdo our neighbor in humility is a dangerous sin, because it clothes itself in righteousness while it clamors to be recognized. “Look at me – I’m humble!” we shout, and all the while our vanity grows until it explodes in a storm of repressed anger toward those who have not recognized and praised our humility.

I’ll admit that I take far too much pleasure in pointing out the absurdities in myself and in the world around me, but today I’m going to indulge myself just a bit more in the hope that it serves the proclamation of the gospel. Yesterday was the first day of the college football season, when coaches across the country try to find ways to motivate their teams and push them to achieve great things. One of the most delicious absurdities I’ve ever heard is the tired old saying, “There Is No ‘I’ In Team.” The intent behind this chestnut is, of course, emphasizing team goals over individual glory, but you cannot build a team without individuals. The best coaches know how to build a team without removing everything that makes individual players unique. The best players balance a healthy respect for their own abilities with a firmly established sense of how those abilities serve the greater goals of the team. On a football team, players are not interchangeable. You can’t take Steve Hutchinson off the Vikings offensive line and replace him with Adrian Peterson; their abilities are great, but unique and special to themselves, and neither one has any reason to think that they are less important than the other.

It may be true that “there is no ‘I’ in team,” but I’d like to argue that there IS an I in humility. One of the words Merriam-Webster uses to define “humility” is “unpretentious;” I’d like to suggest that pretense is exactly what Jesus is suggesting we avoid. Let there be no pretense between us: we are who we are, no more, but also no less, and let us leave behind our games and our competitions about who is better or worse, who is stronger or weaker, who is more or less deserving of honor and reputation.

Why would I argue for this? Because I’m convinced that what truly matters about us is what Jesus sees within us, individually. Every one of us, whatever position we may hold in the world in which we live, is a child of God created in love by a Creator who can’t help falling head-over-heels in love with us. You are, by yourself, a person for whom Jesus of Nazareth suffered death on the cross – and if you’d been the only one, He still would have gone to Golgotha, willingly, on your behalf. At the same time, your neighbor, by herself, is a person for whom Jesus of Nazareth suffered death on the cross – and if she had been the only one, He still would have gone to Golgotha, willingly, on her behalf. What human honor could possible compare with this? What praise could I offer to the life you live that would be better than this?

There is an ‘I’ in humility: it comes when we take into ourselves the knowledge that no human honor or curse could ever be stronger than this one statement: “I am a child of God.” Let there be no pretense among us – this is the thing which makes all of us wondrous beyond words. Take a moment, turn to your neighbor, and repeat that sentence with me: “I am a child of God.” Now, turn to your other neighbor and give them the greatest blessing and praise you could ever give them, “You are a child of God.” Repeat it with me: “You are a child of God.”

Now, remember this! This is the great humility which Christ imparts to us, the thing against which nothing in our lives can prevail: “I am a child of God” This is the “I” in humility, to remember that in my moments of great achievement and my moments of darkest sin, “I am a child of God.” I can give no greater regard to my neighbor than to remember that he is a child of God. I cannot praise my neighbor with any greater words than “she is a child of God.” To argue that anything else is more important is absurd. I, in my strengths and weaknesses, am a child of God. You, in your fear and in your faith, are a child of God.

So, Peyton chants, “Cut That Meat!” and we laugh. Sure, why not? After all, he is a child of God. A gifted quarterback, to be sure, but more importantly, a child of God. Where are you gifted? What makes you a special individual on this team? Let’s leave behind the false pretense of what we cannot do, why we are not special. Let’s also leave behind the false pretense that we are irreplaceable, that our gifts make us somehow more important to the good of this world than those around us. We are children of God, with unique gifts and talents to be shared for the sake of the world without regard or comparison to others, for they are children of God also. The writer of today’s passage from Hebrews said, “Through [Jesus], then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess His name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

There’s a quote by Marianne Williamson that hangs on my office wall, I’d like to close with it this morning: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Don’t pretend to be something you’re not, Jesus says: be the child of God that you are. Humbly offer yourself to the world, and shine in goodness and mercy, and the children of God around you will be encouraged to do the same. God’s light shine in you this week. Amen.

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