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Worship and Sermons
Oct. 23, 2016

 

“The Blessings of Humility” by the Rev. Don Wahlig

Year C / 23rd Sunday after Pentecost – Sirach 35:12-17, Psalm 84:1-7, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, and Luke 18:9-17

THEME: Resist pride and seek humility by encountering God in order to enjoy the blessings of the Kingdom.

 

          Over the centuries, Christians have done some far-fetched things to develop a closer relationship with God.

One of the earliest and most famous of these was a young man named Anthony who lived in lower Egypt in the 3rd century. 

          One day, walking past a house church, Anthony overheard a sermon on the passage from Matthew 19 in which Jesus says "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven."

          Suddenly struck by this, as if Jesus were speaking directly to him, Anthony gave away all the considerable land and possessions he inherited from his deceased parents and donated all the funds to the poor.  He then headed out to the desert 60 miles west of Alexandria.  There he lived a life of isolation and prayer.

          There, as the story goes, Antony holed himself up in an old Roman Fort and engaged in epic battles with the devil and his demons.  All of these he overcame through prayer and self-discipline and self-denial.

          That was strange, of course, but it gets even stranger.  Another of these was a young man named Simeon who lived in modern day Turkey.  Simeon developed a zeal for Christianity at the age of 13, after reading Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes.  At the age of 15 he entered a monastery where he subjected himself to a life of such severe austerity that he was actually asked to leave the monastery.

          Then, like Anthony, he went to live in isolation.  For a year and a half, he sequestered himself in a hut and he later took to standing continuously upright until his limbs would no longer support his body.

          Finally, Simeon spent the next 30 years of his life living on top of a pillar.


          There are hundreds of stories similar to these. 

          We have to ask ourselves just what was going on here?  What were these devout men and women trying to overcome?

          In a word, pride. 

          Of the Seven Deadly Sins, Pride is universally acknowledged as number one, the root cause of all the others. 

          John Calvin agreed with that.  So did Augustine, the early church’s greatest theologian.  For both of them, the only remedy for pride was humility.

          Augustine wrote, “It was Pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.”

          This is why these early Christians were so focused on humbling themselves and restraining their emotional and physical desires.  They understood the powerful temptation to pride, and the utter catastrophe that results from giving in to it.

 

          So, we can smile at the images of spiritual warfare and ascetic self-discipline, but they knew the Satanic nature of that temptation first hand. 

          Antony described that when he said, “Having fallen from his heavenly rank through pride, the devil constantly strives to bring down … all those who wholeheartedly wish to approach the Lord; and he uses the same means which caused his own downfall, that is pride and love of vainglory. These … are the means by which the demons fight us and hope to separate us from God.”

          Clearly, that is a spiritual battle that the Pharisee in our Gospel text is losing.  He stands off by himself in the Temple praying a prayer that has far more to do with celebrating himself than thanking God. 

          The Pharisee would do well to heed the warning of another early Christian, Abba Isidore, who said, "If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride; if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and glorify himself."

          At the same time, we can imagine the tax collector, standing at the rear of the room, not even daring to look up to his Lord, praying to God for mercy out of his own sense of complete contrition and utter unworthiness. 

          The contrast between the two could hardly be greater. The one is self-dependent; the other God-dependent. One is proud; the other humble.  One boasts of his own spiritual achievements, the other claims none and simply begs for mercy. 

          That is what makes pride so insidious: it leads to preoccupation with the self.  That preoccupation causes us to compare, compete and set ourselves apart from others.  It’s a short leap from there to the active contempt of those whom we regard as inferior.

          That’s why there is such physical and spiritual distance between the Pharisee and the tax collector in this story.  What this Pharisee doesn’t seem to realize is just how spiritually distant he is from God as well.

          That’s what pride does. It destroys our empathy and it destroys our relationships, not only with one another, but, eventually, with God as well.

          That’s not how the Kingdom of God is meant to be.  As Jesus points out in the very next passage, the Kingdom is for everyone, even the little children who are the least and the lowest in that 1st century Greco-Roman world.  We should regard them as our equals in God’s eyes, brothers and sisters in Christ and equally welcome in God’s kingdom.  

          If ever there was a call to humility, that’s it.  Yet, we resist.  Why is that?

          Maybe one of the reasons we resist humility is we think of it as a synonym for weakness.

          Yet nothing could be further from the truth.  

Session has been exploring that very notion as we read together a book by Presbyterian Pastor Graham Standish.  Graham is one of the wisest people I know.  His book on Humble Leadership offers some of the most important advice in being a spiritual leader that I’ve ever received, in or out of seminary. 

          He writes, “[humility] means bringing an attitude of radical openness to God into our leadership that allows us to be conduits of the Holy Spirit . . . [it] means to be strong in a wholly different and holy way … seeking God’s way and then [having] the courage to lead others in God’s direction despite the resistance and outright opposition by those who want us to follow the ways of the culture and of convention.”

          Friends, we live at a time when simply being Christ’s disciple means being a spiritual leader.  We stand out because we listen for what God is telling us to do, and then muster the courage to do it, despite the resistance of those in the secular world outside who call it foolishness.

          But there’s a catch.  In order to hear the voice of God, we have to quiet the voice of pride that is inside each and every one of us.  That’s what these early Christians understood so well. 

          Only when we encounter God – through prayer, through scripture, through the love of another – will we ever be able to conquer pride.

          C.S. Lewis once said, “In God you come up against something that is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and, therefore, know your-self as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all.”

          For many people, this is not an easy reality to confront, but the blessings that come from this kind of humility are many.  Chief among them are a profound sense of peace and unity, knowing that there’s no competition for getting into the Kingdom.   It’s open to us all – even the smallest child.

          That’s the kingdom of God.  May we all enter it, and may we all share it.

Last Published: July 3, 2017 11:43 AM
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