Virture of Humility

November 29, 2017

 

 A Sermon based on Matthew 5;1-12 (The Beatitudes)

 

  Every Sunday morning –in fact every time that I come into this sanctuary –I look into the radiant face of Jesus in the stained-glass window front-and-center above our altar-space, behind the choir. On bright mornings, when light streams through, it’s as though we make eye contact. Jesus is carrying a lamb in his arm, but he’s looking out at us.

 

He is stuck up there, in the window--a radiant reminder of the Man of Nazareth, who came to us, shared our common lot, taught us about God’s  Kingdom, and demonstrated by how he lived his own life in the community of his day how we, too, could be good citizens in that realm. Jesus, the Christ (represented in that most-central window) laid out a pattern and a plan to change the world for the good for God’s sake.

 

In our choir’s anthem, we heard: "Know that He has overcome every trial we will face… and none too lost to be saved, none too broke nor ashamed… all are welcome in this place! By your mercy, we come to Your table; by your grace, You are making us faithful." ("Remembrance" by Matt Maher and Matt Redman, © 2009 Thank you Music, Word Music: Nashville, TN)

 

As I said, the Jesus figure is stuck up there –aglow with hope and love, accessible by faith, like a beacon to guide us on our daily journey. But we, who gather here in this sanctuary dedicated to that purpose, are the ones who have the ability (the mobility!)to get it done. We have the hands and feet… We have the resources of time and energy and money to do our part so that God’s Kingdom may "come", and God’s Will may be "done on earth, as it is in heaven."

 

Isn’t that our prayer every time we gather? We call it our "Lord’s Prayer" because Jesus himself taught it to his followers in that famous "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew’s Gospel (part of which we heard this morning in the text Dottie Haase read for us.) 

 

Jesus laid out for the crowd that day (in easily-understood language)just what it would mean to be his disciple, a follower of Christ –what life would be like if  people chose to be a part of the Jesus-movement to reform their society in ways more aligned with God.

 

That stained glass picture of Jesus here in our sanctuary reminds me of the transcendent ideal he brought(his vision of heaven), as well as the deeply personal relationship with God that he demonstrated for all to see. Jesus invites us into a daily lived-relationship with a God who not only created us, but who knows us, and loves us just as we are "warts and all", and accepts us despite our frailties and our failings, our short-comings and mistakes; a God who wants to live with us--within us, among us --shaping us through the Holy Spirit, giving our lives deeper meaning and enduring purpose.

 

That’s the Jesus I came to know during my formative years here at First Congregational (United Church of Christ)in Alpena. I was a class-mate of Jim McNeil, who just gave his own personal testimony a few minutes ago. I followed Edith Gerber (Rosenthaler) and Blair Diamond and Mary Minnick (Standen) and Dave Zeller in Pilgrim Fellowship, right here in the days of Rev. Barksdale and Mrs. B, of blessed memory.

 

I describe all that about Jesus and his love --Jesus and his ministry, Jesus and his personal involvement in our lives through the indwelling Holy Spirit --for one purpose: to let you know what I think it means to be "Christian" ("Christ-like"). It means to be aglow with that same inner light and fire that Jesus revealed to us, starting with his Sermon on the Mount.

 

And the opening words of that Sermon reassure me that the people who are poor, and those who are poor in spirit–people who are merciful, people who mourn, people who attempt to be peace-makers, even at the cost of being misunderstood and even persecuted –are beloved by God. They are congratulated by Jesus for being just the way they are.

 

Here’s the setting the way Matthew tells it: Jesus’ fame spread throughout Syria (which was the general name for the province that included Israel), and great crowds followed him from the Decapolis(the Ten Roman Cities of the Trans-Jordan frontier), and from Jerusalem, and from all Judea, coming from both sides of the Jordan River. Jesus was surrounded! People were coming to him from every which-a-where!

 

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain and sat down to teach. Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount with a list of Blessings or "Beatitudes." We heard them again this morning.

 

The late, great Rev. Robert Schuller --the famous founding minister of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California --calls the Beatitudes: the "Be HAPPY Attitudes." A cute turn of phrase…but it actually represents quite well what the Latin word "Beatitude" means: "beate" is to be blessed… to be congratulated… to be pleased with oneself. In other words, Jesus gave them eight reasons to be happy!

 

The Beatitudes follow a certain poetic pattern: "Blessed are they which do thus-&-so… for they will be rewarded such-&-such."

 

Now, the eight traits (or characteristics of the people) whom Jesus points to as "blessed" are not the kinds of experiences that most folks would see as all that positive! Comforting those who mourn; feeding the hungry; blessing the meek, the merciful, & the peacemakers… the poor in spirit… Frankly, these are not the kinds of folks usually considered very high on the Happiness Scale!

 

I mean: Blessed are the poor in spirit… they that mourn… the meek& the merciful? These traits tend to fly in the face of general opinion. In a competitive economy, with cut-throat business and dirty politics, people might say: "Baloney, Jesus! You’ve got to get out there and fight; make your own way in the wilderness;  hack your  way through the urban jungle; you’ve got to look out for #1!The meek and mousy won’t inherit anything; they’re gonna eat humble pie, or else go hungry."

 

Now, I’ll admit that’s a caricature--a rather simplified and biased depiction of civic arrogance and social indifference--but it seems to me that there’s a lot of that going around these days: abuses by media personalities and among very public politicians(you fill in the names!).

 

Actually, arrogant self-aggrandizement is not really all that new in Western society. The "rugged individualism" and "pioneer spirit" of our American history has forged an assertive independent streak in many of us…a reliance on the self-made man(or woman) who "pulls them-selves up by their own bootstraps"…a society and economy in which people (like Horatio Alger’s heroes from long ago) "strive &succeed."

 

But then, once they’ve established their place on the continent… once they’ve made as much money as Midas, standing with feet planted firmly and with their hands on their hips… have they wondered:"is thatall there is"?I mean: what’s thepurpose to be a Daddy Warbucks if you’ve got nobody to share it with? Why be a Wall Street tycoon, if everyone you have used in order to get rich hates you in the end? Enduring happiness does not come from centering one’s life around oneself.

 

More blessed than even a wealthy ruler (according to Jesus) are the poor in spirit, those who are able to mourn, those who show and receive mercy, those who seek to be righteous, those who walk humbly with God.We don’t see such traits modeled much in media, sports, or politics.

 

Let’s take being " pure in heart" for example. The pure in heart have no ulterior agenda nor manipulative motive in what they do. Their words and their deeds "line up"–in other words, what they say, is also they do; what they promisethey actually perform! Thepure in heartdon’t just talkthe talk, they walkthe walk.When you meet a person with a "pure heart", you know they are "the real McCoy." Their word can be trusted, even if you disagree with them…because they will live up to it.Their behavior matches their words. It can be counted on. To be "pure in heart" means to live with transparency, and integrity, and consistency.

 

It’s opposite(its nemesis)is "hypocrisy" –to present a false face.

 

So, to be a "Jesus follower" is not about agreeing to a particular social code of conduct in public, while behaving differently at home. To be Christian –means(first of all)to live without a mask, without a false-front, or a hidden agenda, or a secret life. What people see is who you really are.(!) I say that comes "first of all" because without that sense of personalintegrity, your words mean nothing! What you saythat you "believe" is only so much smoke & mirrors if you hide who you really are.

 

What I’m trying to say is that what a person projects to the public--even if they do so in the name of Jesus Christ --does not make them " Christian" unless it is Jesus-like in its attitude and its intended outcomes. If I may put it bluntly: one cannot be a follower of Jesusanda hypocrite.(!)The terms are mutually exclusive--diametrically opposed. To be a hypocrite and claim to be"Christian"should strike our ear oxymoronic: like an "embezzling" banker, or a "jumbo" shrimp. 

 

To repeat what I said a moment ago: Jesus reveals a transcendent ideal…of living in a personal relationship with the God he called "Our Father" –a God who knows all about you and loves you unconditionally, accepts you as you are(faults and all), and wants to shape us together into a community of grace and faith which will give our lives deeper meaning and provide a sustainable purpose for our world as a whole. To me, that’swhat it means to be a disciple of Christ, a follower of Jesus.

 

Assuming oneself to be "holier-than-thou" (or signing-on to a list of evangelical beliefs or an Apostle’s Creed or a statement of moral markers) gives a pretence of purity--or a socially-expectedkind of righteousness, or demonstrates public piety--but it does notmake one "pure at heart",normove us forward in our Jesus-designated role as "peace-makers."

 

The pride of being seen as a "true believer" is a besetting sin of so much of organized "religion"--of people who call themselves "Christian" as well as in Islam and Judaism. The arrogance of  believing that weare the ones (and maybe the onlyones)who have gotten the "God thing" right–is as much a sin among Protestantsas amongCatholics(not to mention the many sectarian and non-denominational churcheswho base their very identity on being "not like" the rest of usmainline long-time churches: Mormon saints, Jehovah witnesses, congregations whodivide/ splitover doctrinal disagreements ora particularsocialissue.)In such settings, religious prideis held up as a virtue, while humility(the meek, the poor in spirit, which Jesus applauded) is thought to befor losers.

 

Back in the days of JFK, when America’s Russian nemesis was not Vladimir Putin but Nikita Khrushchev--the man who banged his shoe on the podium at the United Nations and said: "We will buryyou"and who had the "stand-off" with President Kennedy in the"Cuban missile crisis" more than 50 years ago --expressed his contempt for the Christian ideal of "meekness" or "humility" as taught in the churches. This characteristic (in Khrushchev’s opinion) is directly"contrary to the instincts of natural man, who exalts the concepts of strength, force, and aggressiveness. In the real world of economic competitiveness and military power, meek-nessis equivalent to softness, lack of courage, and moral weakness."

 

It was in direct contrast to Jesus’ promise in today’s reading –that "the meek shall inherit the earth" –that the Russian leader declared to the UN that communism would "bury" us. No soft, submissive, morally weak ethic like "humility" would grant anyone title to the earth’s real estate. No,  that would be determined by military powerand by missiles and by bold boasts of superiority.The rising threat of "godless communism"(together with Darwin’s assertion of natural selection and "survival of the fittest") sent America’s politicians, diplomats, & military advisers into a Cold War. A lot of people began to believe like the Russian dictator that humility was a weakness, a liability, a character flaw in a true "America-first" patriotism.

 

My sermon title suggests that humility is actually a virtue. A strength of character, not aweakness. An indicator of a Jesus-like attitudein the midst of contrary emphases. It was controversial then, and still is today.

 

More than 100 years ago, German theologian/philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought that humility should be seen as a vice. In his opinion (which is shared by many in modern Western culture), a humble person is someone who thinks of herself (or himself) as "lowly" –someone who leans toward self-abasement. Ludwig Jaskolla, a post-doctoral fellow at the Munich School of Philosophy, in an article in Process Studies Journal (vol. 44.2, Fall/Winter 2015, page 239) defines "humilitas" as (and I quote) "someone who exemplifies realistic self-understandingin the sense that she (or he) assessescorrectly or truthfully the relationsthat are constitutivefor her being the person she is." It is a "kind of self-under-standingin a way which limitsits extent to direct, realisticevaluationof the risks and benefits of our situation and different courses of action."(!)

 

That’s a post-doctoral philosopher’s way of saying that what it means to be poor "in spirit" (humble)--as well as to be meek and merciful, and some of the other characteristics that Jesus calls "blessed" --does not mean becoming a doormat, or eating humble pie, or acting like that sniveling Uriah Heep(who refers tohimself in one of Dickens’ novels as "a meek &’umbleman").It isto look at yourself realistically, without puffing yourself upwith pride nordisregarding your shadow side.

 

To be poor in spirit--to be humble–means looking at oneself realistically, much like we may be seen from God’s all-embracing perspective: warts & all. In the commentary on this text in the Christian Century(vol. 134, #21, Oct. 11, 2017, page 25) J. Scott Turner writes: "Poverty of spirit, like any kind of poverty, in an unenviable (but survivable) state of being. It is blessed not because it is desirable, but because it is a state of potential… a prerequisite for appreciating a true richness of spirit, and abundant life. People who have crawled back from desperate poverty are usually 7 incredibly grateful. Those who proclaim no need of God (or some greater source of life), those who have been handed wealth (or think they have created it all by themselves), tend to be self-congratulatory, not grateful."

 

Jesus’ praise for "the meek" as the ones who will "inherit the earth" is intended to counter-balance the  dominant society’s praise of the wealthy and  the powerful. Just like hypocrisy is  the nemesis of  being "Christian", so too is "holding far too high an opinion of oneself"the opposite of what it means to be meek.

 

To be humble means that we recognize  our inability to pull our-selves up by our own bootstraps, and so we turn to a Higher Powerfor aid. To be poor in spirit (humble, meek) is to baware of our short-comings and inadequacies: those places in our spirit where we need to grow; those situations that have become self-servinginstead of adding value to the wholeof life. (Some people are unawareof anypersonal shortcomings and take offense when they are pointed out. How sad!)

 

So, being humble(being "meek")doesn’t mean being wishy-washy, or submittingto that which we know is wrong. Jesus himselfis said to havebeen "meek and lowly in heart" (and in Judaism, the same thing is said of Moses!) So humility demands a strong character! One who unselfish, placing the well-being of othersahead of our own.

 

To be meek, humble, means you are prepared and willing to serve the common good, looking out for the welfare of others, working toward the flourishing of all!Those who are meek, like Jesus was --open to the leading of God’s Spirit, like Moses was --will enjoy the blessings that make life on earth truly worthwhile: peace of mind, a good conscience, respect in the community, a good reputation, harmony in the home, and all kinds of unexpected love. In my opinion, these are among the richest blessings that  life has to offer, and they are the heritage of the meek among us.

 

So it goes with all eight blessings: the peacemakersare called "children of God", the pure in heartshall see God, the mercifulshall themselves receive mercy. To show compassion to aperson who has made a mistake… To lend a helping hand to aneighbor in their time of need… To erase from our own hearts all the resentment, bitterness, and desire for revenge toward those people who have wronged us…such thingsshow forth in usthe mercy that God requires. 

 

Such character traitshelp the light of God’s love to shine through us, as the sunlight shines through the Jesuswindow up front here. "

 

What does the Lord require of you?"asked the prophet Micah.The answer he gave was very clear:"To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." I believe Jesus’ eight beatitudes, his eight reasons to be congratulated, are practical measures of how we can to do that… to walk humbly with our God.

 

The Scholar’s Version of The Five Gospels(1993, Polebridge Press,page 138) translates the word "beatitude" not as "blessings" --which is a "church" word, a word hardly even heard except in churchy-settings --nor merely as "be-happy-attitudes"like Rev. Schuller did. No, the scholars of the Jesus Seminarsay: "Congratulations to the poor in spirit! Congratulations to you who grieve… Congratulations to the gentle… to those who hunger & thirst for justice… Congratulations to the merciful... to those whose hearts are undefiled…to those who work for peace. Congratulations to those who have suffered persecution for the sake of justice. Heaven’s domain belongs to you!"

 

May we show forth such character traitsfor the salvation of our world in Jesus’ name, for God’s sake, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

 

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