2 Timothy 4:6-8
One of our sports champs was in his prime and as he was about to take off on an airplane flight, the stewardess reminded him to fasten his seat belt. He came back with “Superman don’t need no seat belt.” The stewardess quickly responded, “Superman don’t need no airplane either.” The champ fastened his belt.
How do we count our blessings? How do we give thanks for the gifts we are given that make us who we are? Well, often I think we do it in relationship to others. That’s how we understand the world; relatively. We thank God that we have enough to eat, knowing there are others who do not. We thank God that we have nice places to live, knowing there are others who live in much meaner accommodations. And then, we thank God for the talents and situations we were raised in that have allowed us to lead successful lives, knowing others have not been so fortunate. We thank God that we are relatively healthy in both body and mind: that we don’t have THAT issue - the one over there that Susie has. We thank God that we have a church community and are faithful Christians and ..... because look at all those poor people over there who don’t.
Like I said, I think this way of relating to the world is pretty normal. I mean, how do we know what blessings we have except in relationship to others? I think it can be harder to remember to be thankful for those things that everyone is given: air to breath, sun to keep our planet warm enough for life to exist, the company of other people and creatures, water...but even then we can start thinking relatively again: not everyone has clean water or enough water all the time: thank God that we do. Not everyone lives in warm climates, not everyone has GOOD company in the people around them. Again, this way of thinking is normal. We understand our world in comparisons. We understand our culture and our community in terms of how it is different from others, and we understand our unique selves often in terms of how we are different from those around us.
Yet, in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus challenges this way of thinking. He does so in terms of those who give thanks for their piety, their dedication to God over others. This is truly self-righteous behavior. “God, thank you that I am not like these other people: thieves, abusers, adulterers, or even this person with a terrible job who is despised by others. Thank God that I am able to tithe and fast and do everything I can to be in good relationship with God.” etc. It is easier for us, I think, to agree with Jesus if we see this passage only in terms of this obviously self-righteous behavior. But why were those Jesus critiqued thanking God in this way? Because they knew that faith is a gift, like any other. And they believed that this gift of faith was leading them to a better life than those who were unable to be as faithful. When we look into their reasoning, the separation between those who compare themselves to others because of piety and those who compare themselves to others because of other “blessings” - that separation diminishes and even disappears. Why do we compare ourselves? Because we know we have gifts that others don’t. We know that we have blessings that others don’t that enrich our lives in ways that others don’t experience. Isn’t it right to be thankful for those blessings? For those gifts?
How many of you have seen the movie, Trading Places? Well for those of you who haven’t, Winthorpe is a very successful business man. He hangs around with the elite of the elite and is very self-righteous about it. He despises and looks down on all below him. In contrast, Billy Ray is an African American man who grew up in the ghetto. He sells drugs, lives on the street and is poor and desperate. Winthorpe’s bosses decide, out of their own unfeeling curiosity and sense of unlimited power to force these men to trade places and see what happens to them. So they plant drugs on Winthorpe and strip him of his money, his power, his rights. They take Billy Ray and offer him Winthorpe’s position: his job including training for that job, and all the money and luxuries that accompany such a high power position. Without spending too much time on the details of the movie, Winthorpe’s experience in particular is fascinating. He must go from one who looked down on and despised anyone not in an elite position to a person who can only get help from a prostitute. In that position of desperation and need, he begins to get to know people in these “lower” classes. As he gets to know the prostitute who helps him, he also grows to love her. But more than that, his desperation, his need and dependency on people that he used to judge, getting to know these people as people rather than as inferiors, this actually enriches his life. In the end, even after he has gotten revenge and has his wealth, his “blessings” back, he is a changed man. He is a man who is able to love. He is a man who is enriched by people of all different standings. He is a man of depth and substance where before he was one-dimensional and poor in that snobbery. Now given, this is a movie, and a comedy at that. It is harder, I think for those of us in the real world to really let go of our prejudices and classism. But that is exactly what Jesus asks us to do. Jesus asks us to stop comparing ourselves to those around us, those different than us, those in positions of less power, wealth or education and to stand with them instead. To get to know them. To learn from them. To see them as the brothers and sisters they are. Micah and the passages from Timothy and Proverbs take this a step further and call us into humility, into a recognition that all that we have, including our intelligence, our parents, our talents, our faith – ALL that we have is a gift from God. Therefore to have conceit around it, to think we are better than others because of it is a grave problem. It is a spiritual problem because it is failing to honor GOD for what we have and what we are and instead is claiming this as our own.
C.S. Lewis recounts that when he first started going to church he disliked the hymns, which he considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But after a time, he said, ”I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then I realized that I wasn’t fit to clean those boots. It got me out of my solitary conceit.” When we see people, really see other people, we cannot remain in our self-righteousness, even if that is thankful self-righteousness. Instead, we find ourselves challenged to be humble.
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 ‘til long afterwards, why ANY one was selected for ANY job. And when one des 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.” We may have opportunities that others don’t. But to me, those are higher tests of our faith. Will we really use the multitude of resources that we have been given for the good of others? Will we be able to pass the test of using our wealth, our talents, our gifts to serve God and other people? It is a very, very hard test. Many are unable to do it. They increase their resources only for themselves or their families and have a very hard time passing that on to those really in need.
So in light of this, maybe the real question for all of us is: how, then, can we be thankful, properly thankful, for the good gifts in our lives, without doing it comparatively, without looking down on what others have as “less-than?” How can we be truly humble?
First, we must pray and WORK to increase equity: to help share the gifts that we have rather than just hoarding them and being thankful. Sometimes that is easier than others. If people lack work or housing or money, there are concrete steps that can be taken to help them. It is harder to see the steps needed to help someone who is suffering for health reasons: physically, emotionally or mentally. But still there are steps we can take: we can still pray for them. We can help them obtain medical and psychiatric care. But in those cases where there just isn’t enough to bring justice and wholeness to them there are other things we can do:
Second, we need to strive to be aware that though others have different experiences, their gifts are just that - different. Even when it looks like they have “less” sometimes that less gives them a different challenge that is good: others may not have the same material wealth that we have, for example, but they may be very gifted in their relationships or friendships. We do not know all of the gifts that others experience.
Third, we must remember that we all fall short. We are all in need of God, no matter how well off we seem, how many blessings we have, how self-sufficient and complete in ourselves we feel. We are all in need of continued spiritual growth. None of us have “made it” on our journey with God. It is a journey and one that needs continued re-dedication, self-reflection, and commitment.
Fourth, and I think this is key: we need to remember that when we separate ourselves from others, even by the simple prayer “thank God I am not like so and so” we have separated ourselves from God as well. God is in the poorest of the poor. God is in the “least of these” as Jesus tells us. That is where we meet God. That is where God meets us as well.
Finally, we also need to remember the message of the prophets, of Mary, Jesus’ mother when she prayed the Magnificat, really the message of the entire Bible, “By God the high are brought down and the lowly exalted”. Today’s gospel story gives us another example of that. Do not be too proud in what you have, because God is a God of reversals. Mary’s speech, the Magnificat is in the beginning of Luke’s gospel. As such it is a statement about the message of the whole gospel. As Mary says, “God... has performed mighty deeds with his arm: he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” This is Jesus’ promise as shown in today’s gospel lesson as well. The righteous man has been found unrighteous. The rejected, sinner man has been made righteous and whole in God’s eyes. We cannot be too cocky in our gifts because God is a God of reversals.
Through all of these ways, we remember that God called us to relationship with our brothers and sisters. We are all equals under God. We are all loved by God. And we are called to care for one another as family. We don’t do that when we compare ourselves to our brothers and sisters. We are not helping or being loving when we separate ourselves from one another with comparison. Of course we are called to be thankful. Thankful for all we are, all we have, all we experience and all we do. But that thankfulness must be from a place of humility, and recognition that our life is just that: our life; with its own issues, own gifts, own challenges. Thank God for your life and its gifts. But do so in humble recognition that we are all just children of God, making our way in this life as everyone else with blessings and with challenges.
Christian Herter was running hard for reelection as governor of Massachusetts, and one day he arrived late at a barbecue. He’d had no breakfast or lunch, and he was famished. As he moved down the serving line, he held out his plate and received one piece of chicken. The governor said to the serving lady, “Excuse me, do you mind if I get another piece of chicken. I’m very hungry.” The woman replied, “Sorry, I’m supposed to give one piece to each person.” He repeated, “But I’m starved,” and again she said: “Only one to a customer.” Herter was normally a modest man, but he decided this was the time to use the weight of his office and said, “Madam, do you know how I am? I am the governor of this state.” She answered, “Do you know who I am? I’m the lady in charge of chicken. Move along, mister.”