Sunday, February 2, 2014

Today's sermon - It's not that Easy

Micah 6:8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

Today I’d like to focus on part of the Micah passage, in particular the part about walking humbly with God.  It can be really hard to be humble.  Even, or maybe even especially, when we are insecure.  It can be hard to not brag or at least state our credentials to those we admire or want to impress.  Even children’s books reflect on this simple fact that it is hard to be humble.  We all know the story “The Little Engine that Could.”  The engine that is supposed to take the train with children’s toys and food over the mountain breaks down.  So along come four other engines which the toy clown and the dolls and toys all ask to help pull the train over the mountain.  Three engines say “no” before the last one finally agrees to it and she is the hero of the story as she goes over the mountain saying “I think I can, I think I can.”  And really the moral of the story is that no matter how small or insignificant you think you are, you can do it if you put your mind to it - you can do that thing you find in front of you that you are called to do.

But along the way there is a lot of commentary about humility.  Does anyone remember the reasons why the other three engines don’t pull the little train over the mountain?  The third engine is old and tired and decides he cannot make the effort. But the first two engines the toy clown asks say no because of pride.  Because they feel superior or above the task in front of them.  And they both take the opportunity to brag about their accomplishments: to raise themselves up while putting down the train with the children’s toys and food.  The first engine they ask says, “I pull you?  I am a passenger Engine.  I have just carried a fine big train over the mountain, with more cars than you ever dreamed of.  My train had sleeping cars, with comfortable berths; a dining-car where waiters bring whatever hungry people want to eat; and parlor cars in which people sit in soft arm-chars and look out of big plate glass windows.  I pull the likes of you?  Indeed not!”

The second engine acts similarly, bellowing, “I am a freight engine.  I have just pulled a big train loaded with big machines over the mountain.  These machines print books and newspapers for grown-ups to read.  I am a very important engine indeed.  I won’t pull the likes of you!”

While we may not say words like this, I think it is a rare individual who is completely exempt from feeling the need to, at least occasionally, put our credentials out there to impress others, to prove we are worthy, to be accepted.  Some of you have witnessed these moments coming up for me, moments when my position, or abilities have been questioned.  When my ability to parent my special needs son, for example, has been questioned, I can feel threatened and respond with a quickness to defend that does not, I am certain, ever succeed in convincing whomever I am talking with that I am the competent person I am trying to show I am.  I think all of us can struggle at times though with threats to our egos.  When I was in CA, I ran into an old friend, who, when asked how he had been, felt it necessary to give me the entire list of his accomplishments over the years we had not seen each other. I had a conversation with a pastor friend of mine this week who was lamenting being excluded from a group of other pastors and who felt that his gifts and thoughts had not been valued.  Of course he was hurt!  Of course!  And these are normal reactions….wanting others to know we are good, smart, accomplished, successful.  Wanting others to appreciate us and include us.  Wanting others to see us and value us. We have pride in who we are, what we do, what we think, and we want others to know these things about us, too.

But the question is there…Why do we do this to ourselves?  What is it about being human that causes us to feel we need to defend our lives, defend what we have done, make sure the world knows that we have “made it”?  And why do we let others determine for us a sense of who we are and if we are okay by their compliments or critiques, by their ability to see the successes in us, or their failure to do the same?

It’s universally human to have difficulty with humility.  And yet, it is so important to work towards humility.  Today’s Micah passage says there are but three things required - just three things:
1.  To do justice
2.  To love kindness
3.  And to walk humbly with God.

What does it mean to be humble?  Does walking humbly mean simply refraining from bragging?  I believe it is a lot more than that.  First, I think we are called to recognize that we can’t really take most of the credit for the stuff we would brag about.  Let me say that again.  We cannot really take most of the credit for our accomplishments. We are born with certain gifts.  These are given to us by God.  We are given other gifts in the form of our education, the parents that cared for us and raised us, the community that offered us opportunities.  We didn’t earn these things.  The gifts that come from God and those that surround us are pure grace. I think about myself, and playing the piano, for example.  I began playing piano because in first grade I caught mono and was out of school for three months.  A woman on our block offered to come and teach me piano since I could not do anything else.  She gave me free lessons for a few years because I got sick.  It wasn’t because my parents cared for me to become educated in this way. And I played well because there was nothing else I could do with the time in those three months.  I was stuck at home, sicker than anything.  But I could manage to get out of bed for a little bit each day to practice.  There is nothing in that to brag about.  It was luck.  It was blessings found in neighbors and in an illness!

Another example: While at college, one of my roommates was a woman named Robin.  Robin married a man, Bruce, with whom I attended seminary.  Following seminary, Bruce, after knowing me first through his wife Robin and second through seminary, asked me to come work with him doing music at his church.

Through that work, I met Sarah, his mother, who happened to pastor a church in San Leandro where I happened to be living at the time.  When Jasmyn was born, she hated riding in the car, and the commute into San Francisco was excruciating for both of us.  Around the same time, the music director at Sarah’s church resigned, leaving an open position.  So, through Bruce, for whom I was still working in San Francisco, Bruce’s mother, Sarah, asked me if I might come work for her since she needed a musician and I needed a job closer to home.  What started as a three month temporary commitment turned into working with Sarah as Associate Pastor for 8 ½ years. I landed there because of connections, circumstances, timing – all of which I had no control over and all providential – completely beyond me.    

This is not to say that we don’t have a hand in our fate.  We do make choices that affect where we go, what we do with the privileges and connections we make, etc.  But again, the first part of humility is recognizing that we are called, at a basic level, to let go of our ego attachment to our achievements and to recognize that our successes are as much gifts from God as anything else.  Second, being humble does not mean denying the gifts we are given, but striving to use the resources God gives us towards helping others.  It is not humble to fail to use God's gifts.  It is not humble to reject God's call to use them either. Third, we need to remember that what we think of as “accomplishments,” the things our society recognizes as accomplishments are not the things that God prizes.  Does God think those who die with the most money win?  How about the most power?   The most fame?  How about the most friends?  The most successes?  No, instead, God prizes the very things Micah mentions:
A. Doing justice - in other words, caring for people, empowering people, loving your neighbors and even your enemies as much as yourself.
B.  Loving kindness - not being snippy or rude but compassionate, present with people, honest, yes, but with love and the other’s best interest in mind.
And, again,
C.  Walking humbly with God.

We walk humbly with God by doing the things that God places in front of us to do while recognizing that God is not calling us to a particular task because we are somehow “better” or “superior.”   We see this when we look at the Bible as well.  Why did God choose Mary to birth Jesus?  We are told nothing about Mary being superior.  Instead it seems she was quite ordinary except for one thing - and that is that she said, “yes” to God’s call for her.  The same could be said of any of the prophets or holy people in the Bible.  Though many resisted their call (Jonah, Jeremiah), in the end, all said yes.  If you say “yes,” to God’s call, you have succeeded.  If you do that without bragging about it or somehow feeling superior, then you have truly learned to “walk humbly with God.”

C.S. Lewis’ main character in the second of his space trilogy, Peralandra, says, “Don’t imagine I’ve been selected for (this task) because I’m anyone in particular.  One never can see, or not till long afterwards, why any one was selected for any job.  And when one does, it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity.  Certainly, it is never for what the (person) him (or her-)self would have regarded as their chief qualifications.”

Being humble.  It means giving thanks for the gifts we have, not in relation to others, but just giving thanks for the gifts we have.  It means taking the risk of doing the loving, doing the justice, being kind and saying “yes” to the tasks that come before us.  It means recognizing that all are called, and that we are called out of God’s love for us, not because we are more special than the next person.

Finally, and most importantly, I think walking humbly with God means, above all else, remembering that we are okay simply because God loves us.  God loved us into being, God chooses us, God calls us.  And no matter what we do or do not do in this life, no matter what we have or do not have in this life, no matter what we succeed in or fail in, no matter who we love or fail to love, no matter who loves and appreciates us and who fails to do so – no matter WHAT, we are “okay” simply and fully because God loves us.  That is being a child of God. And the recognition that it is GOD who determines our self worth, and that God has determined that we are worth it all to God – worth God’s coming to be among us, worth God’s dying in Jesus, worth God overcoming death in the resurrection, that we are worth it all to God – THAT is what gives us worth.  There is nothing we can or can’t do to earn or fail to earn that love.  It is grace, pure and simple.  And that should inspire us to humility beyond all else.  Walking humbly with God just means saying “thank you” to God for every breath we have, recognizing that it is by grace, and grace alone, that we have it.  Amen.