Sermon for September 16, 2018
Texts: Jeremiah 2:4-13/Luke 14:1,7-14
Title: “The Right Choice”
That great master of the fractured phrase, Yogi Berra, once offered this complaint as his Yankee’s took to the field on a sultry New York afternoon: It’s not the heat [that’s bad], it’s the humility. Credit that as being probably the only time the word humility was ever used in a negative context.
Humility is a universally respected virtue. It is, however, one of those virtues that are positively endorsed in principle, but seldom applauded in practice. One might counter that humility is its own reward, and that is certainly true. But beyond that what do the humble gain, as the world calculates gains and losses, by practicing their humility? The child at school will not be bumped from a C to a B for practicing humility. No corporation that I know of factors humility into their salary decisions. Have you ever heard of a civic or fraternal organization that conferred an award honoring someone as Mr. Humility or Ms. Humility? Humility, of course, has never been a virtue one embraces to secure personal advantage.
When did you ever witness someone deliberately do something to demonstrate their humility? We think of the humble person as one who shuns, or is even embarrassed by the limelight. So, if I can’t impress you with my humility, and if it won’t advance me socially or economically, what’s so great about being humble? Is there an upside? Probably not, if the aim is to leverage humility for personal advantage.
Authentic humility is an unselfconscious act that is in most instances undetectable. Its value is not as easily assessed as other such virtues as honesty, thrift, or goodness. And because humility favors anonymity, it is a virtue whose worth is largely undervalued. Yet undervalued as it might be in the case of the individual, that is not case as it applies to societies. Humility turns out to be a real big deal for societies.
Humility is fundamentally part of the social contract into which members of a society enter. In that contract citizens agree to respect boundaries. We agree to respect the rights of others in their pursuit of happiness. We agree to honor territorial claims, and accommodate customs and beliefs that may be alien to our own. We celebrate the accomplishment of others whose particular gifts outshine our own. We acknowledge the limits of the experience and knowledge we possess, and willingly defer to those possessing that knowledge and experience.
Humility keeps our egos in check. It frees us to see the world from perspectives other than our own. Our ability to stand outside ourselves and empathize with others has its roots in humility. Through it we cultivate friends and neighbors, in its absence we frequently create adversaries.
Humility is about knowing and respecting limits, something the ego often resists. The world works better where humility is honored. Regrettably, we have suffered its absence too often, and as a result history is pockmarked with a long list of tragedies. The historical record chronicles one catastrophe after another where people like us have not kept ego and ambition in check. We have forsaken justice and equity at our neighbor’s expense.
Disregarding the rights of the neighboring village, the neighboring tribe, the neighboring ethnic or racial group, great misery and suffering have been caused. The drive to expand power and influence has proven to be boundless, with all sorts of pretexts offered to justify it. I offer our nation’s failure to acknowledge the rights of Native Americans as just one example. Sad to say, a nation’s conquests, and the suffering they have caused, have more often than not been sanctioned by the church, which saw its own interests advanced by the conqueror’s deeds.
What’s so great about humility? With regard to the family of nations the benefits are incalculable. From the purely personal standpoint the value of humility is much harder to access. It’s unlikely that you or I will get written up in the newspaper for being humble. But when we draw the circle out further and further we discover that collectively humility means a great deal. Indeed, humility is an essential contributing factor to interpersonal relations, and more broadly to the health and happiness of neighbors and societies at large. Without it the weak and less competitive would have absolutely no future.
There was a man who has made a unique contribution to the health and welfare of society. His name was Fred Rogers. For some of you the name Fred Rogers may not mean very much, but that would not be the case for young adults of a certain age. For over thirty years Mr. Rogers presided over “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” one of the most acclaimed children’s television shows in history. This program helped generations of young people shape a moral perspective.
You may not know that Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian. Not only that, he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. While Rogers never served a church, his ministry has arguably had more impact than any minister of his generation, and all because in 1953 he was invited by the public television affiliate in Pittsburgh to co-produce a daily program for children. Reflecting on that event, Rogers would later say that that opportunity convinced him that he had a future in children’s TV.
While the Mr. Roger’s era began some time after my childhood ended, the lessons Mr. Rogers taught in over thirty years of broadcasting really apply to any age group. Fred Rogers summarized the program’s philosophy this way: [Our purpose] is to encourage human beings to be honest with themselves and with each other, and to become convinced that each one of us is a unique and precious part of our world.”
What I hear in that statement is a celebration of humility. The essence of humility, you see, is personal honesty, an honesty that we individually bring to the relationships we establish and maintain with others. Furthermore, humility takes seriously the fact, to quote Fred Rogers, that each one of us “is a unique and precious part of our world”?
I came along too early to establish an acquaintanceship with Mr. Rogers and spend time in his neighborhood, but the philosophy he promoted is very familiar to the Christian. I personally—and I suspect you would agree with me—would like to live in a neighborhood where personal honesty prevailed, where each person grew up believing that he or she was a unique and precious part of the world.
Though the neighborhoods in which we live may bear little to resemble to the neighborhood Mr. Roger’s created with the children in the television studio, Fred Rogers performed a very important civic function, in demonstrating to generations of children that humility, civility, kindness, and generosity yield a personal and societal benefit.
Jesus would have felt right at home in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. Indeed, wherever he went Jesus went about creating such neighborhoods. It was upon celebrating the personal worth and dignity of every person that Jesus’ ministry was focused.
Then, as now, however, there were some with whom he came into contact who had an elevated opinion of their personal worth and dignity. It is upon this group that our lesson this morning is focused.
I doubt that any of us here this morning has lived through experiences where our personal worth and dignity were seriously challenged. Our egos being what they are many of us have a secure sense of our personal worth and dignity. Yet often the ego overcompensates particularly when we come into contact with folks we regard, for whatever reason, as being by some measure our inferior.
Ego run amuck can cause great harm. Each of us has witnessed its destructive force, in some cases the fallout resulting from our own deeds.
The temptation to elevate ourselves at the expense of others for whatever reason is difficult to resist. It was that very temptation to elevate himself that Jesus faced at the outset of his public ministry in his encounter with satan. And the temptation was serious enough, as has been proven, that equipping people like us to withstand it became a major theme of his ministry.
As in so many instances the Lord uses commonplace events to teach important lessons. Picture the wedding banquet. The bride and groom and their attendants are seated at the head table. The tables near the head table are, of course, are the most desirable, tables commonly reserved for special guests who in turn can be expected to receive first priority in food and drink service, and are honored to be the first to toast the bride and groom.
We can imagine a scene where there being no seating assigned in the wedding hall some guests, eager to secure the choice spots, elbow their way to the front without regard to the other invitees. I have seen scenes like that play out, and I’m sure you have as well. Ego says, “me first, out of the way.” Ego craves the spotlight.
Ego wants his name to be called first. “That place up front nearest the head table will do just fine, thank you very much.”
The ego’s way is not Jesus’ way. Jesus’ way was exemplified in a piece I read profiling former president Carter. Carter, as many of you know has never forsaken his Plains, GA. ways. Returning to Plains after his presidency, and the home he owned there for decades, he discovered that his peanut business was foundering in debt. Forced to sell off the business and land to pay his debts he settled into an unremarkable life, unremarkable insofar as an ex-president can lead an unremarkable life. No six figure speeches. No corporate boards. No hobnobbing with the rich and famous. No second home on Martha’s Vineyard. Plains satisfied President Carter and Rosalynn to a tee, and still does.
Most of us are aware, of course, of his affection for Habitat for Humanity. In fact it was on a Habit building site that one of the major networks caught up with him the other day. He is 93, and still going strong with the hammer and nails. If you listen carefully just about now you might hear the words of Jesus echoing in a familiar phrase, “those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The humility that Jimmy Carter and Rosalyn exemplify, and Fred Rogers so effectively attempted to impart to a generation of children, is sadly not a value broadly embraced in our culture today, if it has ever been. More typically the world’s attention is devoted to life’s head table.
The head table is not where you’d find Jesus. There was just only table to which committed his ministry, and that was a single table laid out for all people irrespective of the rankings and labels the world assigns. And, furthermore, where the teachings of Jesus’ have been embraced and lived, you will find his followers taking their places as servers at that table, perhaps taking up a hammer and nails at Habitat site, or leaving the comforts of their homes to help a neighbor bear the burden of a hurricane.
The ego seeks out the head table. It’s the popular choice according to the values the culture endorses. The popular choice, of course, is not the choice that Jesus offers. Jesus offers liberation from the persistent demands of the ego. He offers us the joy that comes with serving, rather than being served. What Jesus offers is a peace that can’t be purchased in the currency by which the world measures success. What is that peace, and where do you find it? For that you might want to ask Jimmy Carter.
Merciful God, be with those who have experienced the wrath of nature. Even as the full extent of loss has not been tallied, we know that the storm’s impact has upended thousands of lives, and caused incalculable property damage. Strengthen those who are just beginning to assess the toll the hurricane has exacted. Grant them courage and endurance as these begin the process of recovery. Abide with first responders and the hundreds of other professionals who have mobilized to help in the recovery effort.
O God, on whose strong arm we lean, grant us confidence today that we may rely on your strength, even when in fear we are sent scurrying for help in other directions. O God, grant us confidence today to read your word with greater assurance, and apply your word with greater determination. O God, grant us confidence today to trust that our obedience to your will offers the peace our hearts crave.
O Christ, who came to earth not to win popularity, but to transform this world, you shared our mortality, but not our fallenness. You gave us a new way of looking at the world, a new way to judge merit, a new way to approach stubborn problems. They came to you; the rich and the mighty, the poor and the beleaguered. They came to you; the young and ambitious, the old and warn out. They came to you, the hypocrites and the deceitful, the wounded and needy. They came to; the proud and vain, and the meek and the lowly. To everyone, the saintly and the sinner, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, you issue an invitation to a new life.
O Christ, giver of peace, you taught us not to judge matters as the world judges them, but to look for you in unexpected places among unexceptional people. You made your home with the lowly and the outcasts. You sought out sinners, the very people the respected members of society scorned. Not to the exalted, but you chose the humble to embody the values you taught.
O God, grant onto us the gift of humility that leads to self-acceptance and peace with our neighbor, When we push and shove to assert our wills in inappropriate ways, be present to counsel us and redirect our ambitions. When jealously rages and we inwardly curse our neighbor and wish her ill, help us to release our grip and accept things for what they are. Nurture the gift of gratitude within us that we may worthy receive your daily blessings, and in turn be a blessing onto others.
O Christ, we give thanks for the gift of this day, and the opportunities you have given us to fill its hours with people and activities we enjoy. Privileged to worship today we pray that from this place we may carry a special blessing into the week ahead, a blessing to savor and to share into the week ahead.
In gratitude for the abundance with which you have blessed us and reminded of the servanthood to which you have committed us, we pray the prayer Jesus taught us