Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Wisdom of Humility

The scriptures referred to are James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a and Mark 9:30-37.

It's coffee hour after the service and a surgeon, an engineer and a politician are talking scripture. Specifically, they are arguing which is the oldest profession.

The surgeon says, “God took a rib from Adam in order to make Eve and closed up his side. So surgery is the oldest profession.”

The engineer says, “Wait a minute. Before there were people, God took the chaos and made a beautiful, interconnected and harmonious creation. So engineering is the oldest profession.”

The politician just chuckled and said, “Who do you think made the chaos?”

We do live in a time when it seems that our leaders are more interested in tearing down institutions than in building them up, and in dividing people rather than uniting them. And we see in our politics bitter envy, selfish ambition, boastfulness and falseness rather than truth, which, as James points out, lead to disorder and wickedness of every kind. We don't see many leaders who display gentleness born of wisdom. Everybody is too busy trying to display their strength, which in their mind means trying to be more belligerent than the next guy. Because we all know how being ready to fight at the least provocation makes the world more peaceful. Nobody seems to think that strength is more accurately seen in self-control and restraint, in the kind of confidence that doesn't need to parade its machismo, that isn't afraid to display gentleness because it knows that only those who have doubts about their strength make a show of intimidating others.

Nevertheless going back to our days when we lived in nomadic tribes, we have looked for leaders who are above all strong. The tribe over the hill might attack and kill your men, take your women and enslave your children. You wanted a good fighter as a leader. You wanted a Hercules or a Samson. You wanted someone who wielded brute force. Today, however, the world is a lot more complex and interconnected. No army fights hand to hand anymore. We use weapons that kill at a distance. We have weapons that can turn entire cities into rubble, that can poison the countryside and turn the landscape into a plain of radioactive glass. You'd think that the last person we'd want to have his finger on the button is someone whose persona is that of a bully or who ramps up people's fears. You'd think we'd want leaders who are smart and wise.

The urge to be top dog is not limited to political types. Even Jesus' disciples got into arguments about who was the greatest. James and John wanted to be his right hand and left hand men. We know from Luke that on the night Jesus was betrayed the disciples had two swords. Peter wielded one. Whose was the other? James? John? Who else wanted to be seen as a badass, as a leader among the Messiah's men?

And yet when Jesus calls them out, nobody wants to speak up on the matter. They all sense that Jesus is not the kind of leader who approves of ambition and egotism. And indeed Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 

What does Jesus mean by saying that the first must be last and the servant of all? The people we elect like to call themselves public servants. However, in practice many of them serve their own interests or those of their biggest contributors. But from what Jesus says in today's gospel those of us in positions of authority should be servant-leaders. Those whom the church has granted more authority should be using it not for privilege nor for the enjoyment of the exercise of power but to marshal what resources we command to help others. We are to act as quartermasters, who supply troops with quarters, food, clothing and whatever they need to function as soldiers. In the same way Jesus wants us to equip the saints with what they need in order to carry out what God has called them to do.

Bishop Coadjutor Peter Eaton has said that the bishop's job is to help the local parishes flourish. After all, we are doing frontline ministry. And in the same vein, that is what I am called to do. I am not just up here because I like to hear myself talk (though far too many preachers do that). I am here not merely to proclaim the gospel but to equip you who go out into the world--to jobs, to stores, to homes, to non-profits, to support groups, to hospital rooms, to restaurants, to family events, to craft groups and everywhere else. And so you may apply the good news of God's loving actions in Christ to any and all situations, I endeavor to work out the who, what, where, when, why and how of what the Spirit is saying through the written Word each time we meet. I try to put it in the original context and then show how it relates to the life situations, emotions, tensions, dilemmas, perspectives, pleasures, pains, temptations, and joys we all encounter. And while in any given week, it may not seem to help in your immediate circumstances, I am trying to add to your toolbox so that when the situation comes up you will say, “Hang on! I remember something about how to handle this or how to view this or how not to get distracted by this from the real moral issues at stake.” If I can entertain or inspire along with that, great! But I am basically here to give you, not what you want, but what you need. It's kinda like school. You may not want to hear about multiplication but when the time comes that you need it, you'll be glad you were told how to do it.

Which is kind of what Jesus is getting at when he takes a small child into his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” At first we think, how easy! You just tell kids that they are welcome in Jesus' name. But imagine welcoming a child you have not met before into a place where he or she has never been before. It's not enough to introduce yourself, you need to introduce the child to the new place. Like this church. The kid will want to know what things are, why they are, where is the bathroom and where can he or she get something to eat and drink. Children are curious and if you are introducing them to Jesus for the first time, you need to be ready for questions.

Who is Jesus?” How would you answer that? “Who is he to God? What did he say? What did he do? Why is he pictured on a cross?” How much or how little is enough to tell them? “What is evil? Who made God?” How much of your catechism do you remember? Can you translate it into words a child can grasp?

What about an adult with a childlike understanding of God? I encounter that at the jail. Some inmates know quite a lot about God and the Bible. Some don't. I frequently get asked for The Book of Good and Evil, a comic book version of the Bible. A few copies were donated years before my time and are passed from inmate to inmate. I rarely see a copy. I wish I had more. Because it helps some inmates understand the Bible better than mere words would.

When you welcome a child, or anyone really, it is not enough to say, “How do you do?” and then leave them to their own devices. You have to be a host. You have to see that your guests have what they need.

And that is why Jesus is driving home his point about being a servant-leader by putting this child in front of these big tough fishermen who all want to be alpha males. I've seen grown men intimidated by the prospect of having to watch children for a few hours. Children are demanding. They take a lot of time and effort. And they can't do much for you. You don't mind entertaining friends. You probably wouldn't mind playing host to someone famous or rich or powerful. They might do you a favor down the line. But a child can't lend you a few thou or introduce you to other powerful people or even get a parking ticket fixed. And as they say, character is revealed by how you treat those who can do nothing for you.

What you need in order to deal with a child or the childlike is precisely the wisdom from above that James describes. It is first pure. Little children are guileless. They say what they think and they ask questions because they really want to know the answers. They don't have a hidden agenda. You need to respond in kind.

The wisdom from above is peaceable, which means not that it is merely quiet but that it is concerned with the total well-being of the person. That's what peace, shalom, means.

The wisdom from above is gentle. That doesn't mean ineffectual; it means not rough, not using any more power or force than necessary. As a nurse I have had to remove extensive dressings that were stuck to wounds. There are tricks like soaking it in saline but you can't always get it loose. There's a saying in nursing that there are two types of adhesive: that which won't stick and that which won't let go. And you always seem to be working with the wrong kind for the job. So when you are removing soiled dressings that are adhering to tender new tissue, you do it as gently as possible, trying not to make it more painful or traumatic than it has to be. Imagine if people tried that when dealing with emotional wounds!

The wisdom from above is willing to yield. We don't like to do that, do we? Let the others yield; we have the right of way. But obviously James is not talking about yielding to sin. He is talking about being willing to yield some of our personal, often arbitrary prerogatives. If you are negotiating with someone, if you are trying to win their cooperation, you give in a little. You aren't going to get anywhere if one or both of you won't give an inch. James is saying “Be less rigid.” You will avoid a lot of unnecessary conflict.

The wisdom from above is full of mercy. The reason God sent his son is because he is full of mercy. And mindful of the mercy we have received from God, we should be merciful. Every time we say the Lord's Prayer we ask him to forgive our sins to the same extent we forgive those who sin against us. Those who are merciful are blessed, says Jesus, for they shall receive mercy in return. A lot of so-called Christians seem to have skipped that part of the Beatitudes. Pray that they learn it before they find themselves needing God's mercy for what they've done.

The wisdom from above is full of good fruits. James may be referring to the fruit of the Spirit that Paul enumerates but I think he is just talking about good outcomes. If you are wise and peaceable and gentle and willing to give a little and merciful, odds are you will get farther in your relationships with others than those who are foolish and destructive and rough and rigid and merciless. Treating people properly yields good fruit.

The wisdom from above is without partiality. No one likes it when the situation is skewed towards others, when the game is rigged. The wise one knows that favoring some person over others will come back to bite him or her. Fairness demands that no partiality be shown to those who are rich or those who are poor, those who are white or those who are black, those whom we like or those whom we don't like. We are all biased but if we acknowledge that and try to look beyond our biases we are more likely to be fair to all.

The wisdom from above is without hypocrisy. No one listens to someone who says, “Do what I say, not what I do.” Honesty and integrity are indispensable to real peace.

Speaking of honesty, the root of most conflicts are self-interest, as James says. Your desires may even be at war with your better instincts. You know that when you forcefully confront someone you are unlikely to get your way. But you don't want to lose out on what you desperately want. And that pushes you to do things you normally wouldn't. And that can lead to some unwanted consequences.

James points out that too often what we don't do is take our requests to God. Why not? If we need them, why don't we ask? Is it because we don't think he'll grant them? Is it because we know we don't really need them? Or that we shouldn't have them? Are we ashamed to ask God for certain things? Do we realize that what we are asking for is selfish?

Jesus said if we ask for something in his name we will receive it. But James points out, we will not receive every single whim of ours. If we need it and especially if we need it to do what he wants us to do, we will receive it. God is a wise and loving father. He will not give us what we ask for if it is bad for us or if we are not ready for it yet, just as you would not give a 5 year old the keys to your car to take it out for a spin. Part of trusting God is trusting his judgment in what he gives us.

God did make this wonderful universe out of chaos. Jesus was able to bring us salvation out of the chaos of politics and envy and selfish ambition and fear that led to his crucifixion. And He can make wonderful things out of the chaos of our lives. What he doesn't want is for us to increase that chaos. Which we often do when all we intended was to impose our sense of order on what we perceive is chaos. A lot of what is going on in the Middle East is the result of us trying to impose our brand of order on others. We arm the Taliban against the Russians and eventually they use those weapons on us. We take out an evil dictator thinking we can impose our brand of order on another country and culture and we create a power vacuum which gives rise to ISIS. Our arrogance trips us up again and again.

Humility was not a virtue the Romans or Greeks prized. And yet their tragedies were about people brought low by hubris. We need to look for the Christian virtue of humility in our leaders, secular or sacred, people who don't pretend to be Superman and promise to solve all our problems magically. We need to look for those who only lead in order to serve others and the common good. And we need to be humble enough to welcome those who can do us no good, who demand much from us, simply because God wants us to welcome them. We need to seek that wisdom from above that is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruit, without partiality or hypocrisy. It's not the world's way. But then we've tried to impose our order on this world through arrogance and all we have reaped is conflict. It's time to try God's way.

We do trust him, don't we? 

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