Tag Archives: humility

Discipleship 101: This is Jesus – Sermon on Philippians 2:1-13

October 1, 2017

Note: The gospel lesson for this Sunday is Matthew 21:23-32, and should be read immediately before this sermon.

Imagine the frustration those priests and elders must have felt! This Jesus was always catching them in their own words, making them look foolish in the eyes of the people. They liked the respect shown to them in the streets and the markets. They loved being the ones in authority. And here was this unschooled carpenter, teaching right under their noses, sounding like he knew God more intimately than any human possibly could.

We just heard Jesus describe two sons, who are each given the same direction to go work in their father’s vineyard, and the connection between authority and obedience becomes clear. One says he will go, and doesn’t, while the other refuses, but then changes his mind, and does what he was told to do. “Which did the will of his Father?” Jesus asks. The answer is obvious. The one who went to work, even after he said he would not.

What prompted Jesus to tell this parable? The Temple leaders gathered around Jesus hadn’t been able to answer the question he had asked them about John the Baptist’s authority. They got into an argument among themselves trying to come up with an answer that would appease the crowd and uphold their own honor, but that wasn’t possible. So they said, “we don’t know.”

What they meant was, “We aren’t willing to commit. We don’t want to look bad in front of the people.” So Jesus uses this parable to teach that appearances can be deceiving. It isn’t what we say, it’s what we do that shows our commitment to faith. It isn’t our lip service God wants; it’s our repentance. It isn’t our fancy words; it’s our obedience that matters to God.

Here’s how obedience and authority are connected. There is a difference between power – having the strength of will or muscle to accomplish something – and authority – being authorized to act by one who holds the actual power, the “author.” But sometimes, authority comes from a different direction. Instead of being handed down from above, it gets “handed up” from below, from people who submit themselves to another’s authority by their obedience.

Like the two sons in Jesus’ parable, it’s what we do, not just what we say, that matters. How often do we fail to commit, for fear of being ridiculed? Or maybe we just aren’t sure that Jesus is the Way the truth and the Life. We waffle, and instead of confessing that Jesus is Lord, we bear a different kind of testimony. By our silence, we tell the world that we aren’t so sure Jesus is worth committing our lives to.

But even more important than what we do and say, is our focus on the One we follow. Our identity lies in Christ Jesus, and we respond to his authority with our obedience. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he quotes an early hymn of the church that describes Christ’s authority perfectly.

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Continue reading

According to Your Word – Sermon on Luke 1:26-38 Advent 4B

The gospel lesson we are about to read is so important to our faith that it appears in the cycle of readings every year for the Fourth Sunday in Advent. The story of Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel has captured the imagination of artists and theologians for centuries. It’s an amazing story. It’s a story filled with mystery. You have heard it already, in the annunciation hymn of this morning’s offertory, “To A Maid Engaged to Joseph.” Hear it now, as given to us in the gospel of Luke, chapter one, beginning at the 26th verse:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. – Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel doesn’t show up much in the Bible. We see Gabriel here in the first chapter of Luke, appearing first to Zechariah, who will become the father of John the Baptist, and then to Mary. Other than these two encounters, the only mention of Gabriel is when the angel appears to Daniel in a vision (Daniel 8:15-16, 9:21). This is an angel whose rare appearances always carry important news from God. So when Gabriel shows up, it’s a pretty good idea to pay attention. Gabriel is no little cherub with rosy cheeks and a sweet smile. This angel means business. Continue reading

Justified – Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

Justified.
In printing, this word means the way text lines up along both the left and right margins of the page. “Justified” can also mean acceptable, or reasonable under the circumstances: for example, if someone proves to be trustworthy, you would be justified putting faith in that person; or, under certain conditions, an action is justified, such as deciding not to wait any longer for someone who is already an hour late for an appointment.

But in this passage we are given today from the Gospel of Luke, “justified” means something else. It means being made righteous in God’s eyes. It means being made right. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Luke, the 18th chapter, verses 9 through 14:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Like last week’s passage, this story is introduced with an explanation. Some of the parables Jesus come to us without clarification, and Jesus explained other parables to the disciples only after the crowds had gone home. But here, we have two parables back-to-back that Luke introduces with some editorial comment, so his readers will be sure to understand their purpose. Last week, Luke told us that the parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge was about the need to pray continually, and to not lose heart. Jesus closes that teaching with a question: “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?” We can almost see the people around Jesus nodding to one another knowingly, assuring themselves that they will certainly be faithful. Others might fall away, but surely those who are closest to Jesus will stay strong. Sounds a little like Peter on the night Jesus was betrayed, doesn’t it? But there isn’t a rooster crowing this time[1], to alert these listeners to their foolishness, so Jesus tells another story. This one is aimed at those who trust in their own righteousness, and regard others with contempt – in other words, the very people smugly nodding to each other, sure that they have what it takes to stay faithful to Jesus, even if others fail.

Jesus first describes someone who, by all appearances, should be one of the most holy and devoted Jews around: a Pharisee. Pharisees get a lot of negative attention in the gospel stories, so we might need to adjust our thinking about these men – and they were all men, by the way – to understand how they might be seen through the eyes of first century Jewish culture. Pharisees were extremely devout, and highly disciplined in their religious practices. A Pharisee was a real Jew’s Jew: obedient to the Law, even going above and beyond what the Law required. The Law required fasting on one day of the year – the Day of Atonement. A good Pharisee fasted at least once a week, and the most religious Pharisees fasted both on Mondays AND Thursdays, for the sins of all Israel, as well as for their own sin. The Law required tithing, but made allowances for those who were too poor to offer a regular tithe. A Pharisee might give ten per cent of everything he bought, as well as everything he earned, just in case the person who sold him goods had not tithed those goods before he received them. A good Pharisee considered it his duty to know the Law inside and out, and to live according to each detail of that Law. A Pharisee was a Really Good Guy.

A tax collector, on the other hand, was a Really Bad Guy. Tax collectors were considered traitors and cheats. They had sold out to the Romans who oppressed Israel, collecting the Roman tolls and padding their own pockets with whatever they wanted to charge over and above the required tax. And it was all legal. But Jews considered the practice to be highly unethical, and contrary to God’s commands. If a Pharisee was at the top end of the righteousness ladder, a tax collector was on the very bottom rung. It would be perfectly understandable for a Pharisee to see a tax collector and think to himself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

So the Pharisee goes to the temple to pray, feeling confident before God about himself and his own righteousness. He knows he’s a really good Jew. In fact, he’s much better at being Jewish than most other Jews, and his prayer reflects his attitude. He stands apart, where he can be clearly seen by others who might look to him as an example, and he lifts his hands and eyes to heaven. His very posture looks righteous as he begins to recite a familiar prayer of thanksgiving. Perhaps he borrows from a Psalm of David to pray, maybe the one David used to rejoice when he was delivered from the hand of Saul.

Psalm 18:20-24 reads:
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

But even if he uses a psalm of David to frame his prayer, the Pharisee doesn’t stop there. He goes on to declare, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people.” Four times, he uses the word “I” as he prays. He sees himself as the subject of each sentence. In the Pharisee’s mind, his own actions are what’s most important. As he compares himself to rogues and thieves, and especially to the tax collector he sees off in the corner, the Pharisee is proud of the sharp contrast between his good works and the evil he sees around him.

The tax collector also prays from a Psalm of David, but, by contrast, he chooses Psalm 51, the psalm David wrote to ask forgiveness for his sin with Bathsheba:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

The tax collector beats his breast, head bowed, off in a corner of the temple court. His sin is such a burden to him that he can only speak the first phrase of the psalm, ‘Have mercy on me, O God.” In the tax collector’s prayer, God is the subject. God is the do-er, the one who shows mercy. Compared to God, the tax collector can only beat his breast and beg forgiveness. He can’t help but pray for God’s mercy, fully aware of his own sinfulness.

If the story ended here, it would be easy to think that each of these prayers accurately reflected the men who prayed them, and leave it at that. But Jesus doesn’t leave it at that.

The movie, Shadowlands, tells the true story of theologian C. S. Lewis and his wife, Joy Gresham, whom Lewis married late in life. Joy died of bone cancer only four years after meeting C.S. Lewis. During a brief remission from Joy’s cancer, a friend tells Lewis, “I know how hard you’ve been praying, and now God is answering your prayers.” Lewis replies, “That’s not why I pray. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.”[2]

Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us. That’s why Jesus doesn’t end the story with two prayers that reflect the men who pray them, because prayer changed one of them. And that is a beginning, not an end. If the tax collector kept praying from Psalm 51, he’d get to verse eight: “Create in me a clean heart, o God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” This is not an end, but a beginning.

While we do need to follow the tax collector’s example of humble repentance, it’s also important that we don’t get stuck in the “What a worm I am” mode, certain that we are stained beyond redemption. Jesus doesn’t encourage us to wallow in our failure to measure up to God’s standard. Yes, we need to admit our sin and ask God for mercy, but it doesn’t end there. Once we are made right, we need to act in that assurance, and do right. Not like the Pharisee, so we will be noticed, but like the tax collector who knows how precious grace is.

At the same time, Jesus doesn’t encourage us to be like the Pharisee, either, proud of the good work we do, the way we show up for church on Sunday, the committees on which we serve. Jesus has addressed this issue of pride and self-righteousness before, among his own disciples, so it isn’t something new. When James and John come to him and ask to be seated on his left and right, the other disciples are pretty upset with the way these brothers try to insert themselves at the head of the table. Jesus reminds them that “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”[3]

Once again, we are reminded that God’s ways are not our ways. God is not interested in hearing about how good we are, for not one of us is good enough. Scripture tells us that there is none who is righteous, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The proud Pharisee’s problem was that he trusted in his own righteousness. The humble tax collector trusted in God’s mercy. The tax collector’s honest humility is what sends him home …

justified.

The Greek word used here comes from legal language, and it means “shown to be in the right,” or “acquitted.” The tax collector is the one who is made right with God, not the Pharisee. Prayer doesn’t change God, but it did change the tax collector.

Wait a minute! The tax collector is a Really Bad Guy! It’s the Really Bad Guy who gets it right?

Comparison may be the key to understanding this parable. The Pharisee compared himself to a tax collector, and made himself feel better by comparing himself to someone he considered to be less than he was. The tax collector also made a comparison, but it wasn’t to another person. The tax collector compared himself to the holiness of God, and he recognized how far he was from matching that kind of righteousness. The Pharisee saw himself as holy because of what he did, but the tax collector saw himself as a sinner, dependent on what God does. The tax collector knew his only chance at holiness was by the grace of God. His humility saved him. His request for mercy sent him home justified.

Both men addressed God directly in their prayers. Both men quoted psalms, those models for prayer covering nearly every circumstance. Both men prayed about themselves. But one put himself at the center of his praise, while the other prayed persistently and humbly for God’s mercy.

That’s the kind of attitude we ought to have, says Jesus: persistent and humble. Not just in our prayers, but in the way we live our whole lives. We need to think neither too highly or too lowly of ourselves, but to be honest in our humility and desire for restoration to God.

We pray not because it changes God, but because it changes US.

  • It changes us into people with humble and grateful hearts.
  • It changes us into people who care less and less about having our good works recognized
  • It changes us into people who care more and more about loving God, and loving others as much as we love ourselves
  • It changes us into disciples of Jesus Christ, who eagerly participate in Christ’s mission to transform the world.

So, I must ask you: Have you, like the tax collector, been justified by repenting of your sins? Have you thrown yourself on the mercy of God? Have you accepted the righteousness that God offers through his Son Jesus Christ? If you can answer yes to all these questions, go in peace this day to share the love of God with others, and offer them the good news that God loved them enough to send his Son to die for them. If you long to be justified, to be forgiven of your sins, to live in the peace and knowledge that you have been made right with God, I invite you to talk with me, or with someone here you trust, to learn how you, too, can claim this gracious gift. Amen.


[1] Luke 22:60

[2] Dawn Chesser, Director of Preaching Ministries, United Methodist Church General Board of Discipleship (http://www.gbod.org).

[3] Matthew 20:26-28

Where Will You Sit? – Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14

This Sunday, we celebrated the Sacrament of Baptism and the Sacrament of Holy Communion at First United Methodist Church in New Ulm, MN. After worship, we celebrated a significant wedding anniversary for a couple in our congregation. It was a celebration-filled Sunday!

Several celebrations this week focused on civil rights and equality for all. On Wednesday, you may have heard excerpts from Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech as the nation remembered the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, a major event in the struggle for racial equality, a struggle that continues even today. On Monday, we also observed Women’s Equality Day, celebrating the 93rd anniversary of the certification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Were you aware that Monday was Women’s Equality Day? Among the historic events noted in that celebration was the women’s equal pay act of 1963, the same year of the March on Washington.

This particular law had a great impact on my family. My mother had been working two jobs as a single parent of five children, and we were all happy for her when she landed a job at the local company that printed city directories, because this meant she could work one job. She ran one of two large Xerox machines, and often came home with black printing dust spattered on her clothes. But it was a good job, and the hours roughly coincided with our school day, so she didn’t have to feel guilty about leaving us at home alone. An added plus was that the print shop was only a couple of blocks from our house – within walking distance! – and even at 29 cents a gallon, gas for the car was a precious commodity. One day, her supervisor called her into his office to give her good news – she was getting a raise! She thanked him, then asked how much the guy was getting who ran the other Xerox machine, doing exactly the same work as my mom. The supervisor spluttered and stuttered. The other guy had a family to support, after all. “What on earth do you think I’m doing?” my mother asked him. Equality isn’t always something you can legislate.

In the passage we have before us today, Jesus is talking about Kingdom equality. Hear the word of the Lord, as given to us through the Gospel of Luke, chapter 14, verse 1, then skipping to verses 7 through 14. Luke writes:

Luke 14:1  On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7  When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”12  He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

The Jesus of Luke’s gospel has a strong interest in eating. There are more references to eating, banquets, and being at table in Luke than in any other gospel. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like reading Luke so much – I share his affinity for all things associated with food! So here we find Jesus at table with a large group of people, and –as is his habit – Jesus is teaching while everyone eats. Jesus isn’t particularly interested in the food being served. What he’s really interested in is the people at the table.

Jesus was not giving a Miss Manners lesson for table etiquette here. He was explaining, once again, how different the rules are in the Kingdom of God. To understand just how radical this teaching was for the people gathered at that Pharisee’s table, we need to remember the social system that was in place at the time.

Jewish Palestine, where Jesus lived, was a part of the Roman Empire and governed by the Roman class structure. Birth, wealth, position and citizenship determined the social classes. You were either a patrician eligible for the senate, an equestrian – one small step down from a patrician, or a plebian – of the lowest class, just above slaves. There was no middle class. Women were in the same class as their fathers or husbands.[1]

The foundation of Roman class structure was Patronage, an intricate system of benefactors and their clients. Favors were the currency of this system, and the more favors that were owed to you as a benefactor, the higher you could rank in society. That ranking was also affected by the number of favors you, as a client, owed yourself. Tied up in this system of favors owed and collected was a strong sense of honor and shame. It would be extremely embarrassing to owe someone a favor and be unable to repay that debt when the benefactor requested it. Such an embarrassment would certainly lower your social standing. At the same time, there was some stigma attached to calling in a debt that you knew could not be repaid. Social advancement was everyone’s goal, and putting yourself forward by associating with those who were one rung above you on the social ladder, while making sure you were owed enough favors by others who were one rung below you, required constant maneuvering – and a good memory for who owed what to whom.

But Jesus has a different idea for the way things ought to work. By now, we should be familiar with Luke’s focus on turning expectations upside down. As Jesus watched the guests at this Pharisee’s house jockeying for good positions at the table, he saw a double teaching opportunity, and he grabbed it.

First, he addressed the guests. He reminded them of the advice found in Proverbs: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”[2] While this was practical social advice for his listeners, it carried with it a reminder that the people present at the table belonged to God, not Rome. Jesus was reinforcing their identity as children of Israel, an identity that had eroded as Roman customs and attitudes had been adopted over time. The Roman practice of self-promotion did not fit well with the prophets of old, who had encouraged “walking humbly with your God.”[3]

Within a few years, the early church would sing a hymn about Jesus that the Apostle Paul would record in his letter to the Philippians. Paul writes:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very natureGod, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very natureof a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.[4]

Jesus was telling the guests at this feast, “Instead of seeking glory for yourself, spend your time and energy giving glory to God.” While the guests chewed on that food for thought, Jesus turned to his host, the leader of the Pharisees.

Knowing what we do about social customs of the time, and recognizing that any self-respecting Pharisee would invite to a dinner only those who could be considered at least equals, one has to wonder what Jesus was doing there in the first place. Granted, not all Pharisees were opposed to Jesus – in fact, some had warned him earlier when Herod was looking for Jesus to kill him. And it’s possible that Jesus was invited to this particular banquet simply so the Pharisees present could watch him, to see if he broke Sabbath rules again. But it is also possible that this particular Pharisee did, in fact, consider Jesus to be at least an equal. He may have even seen Jesus as a step up the social ladder from himself. Jesus had demonstrated a keen understanding of scripture, and had been an effective teacher in synagogues wherever he traveled. Jesus certainly had a following. Whatever the connection was, Jesus had no intention of letting his host off the hook when it came to table etiquette in the Kingdom of God.

“You’re inviting the wrong people,” Jesus told him. “By including only friends, family, and those who can advance your status, you are no better than these guests who are fighting over the best seat in the house. You’re trying to make yourself look good by surrounding yourself with “important” people, while you ignore the ones who should be enjoying your hospitality.”

Jesus always knows how to cut to the chase, doesn’t he? He recognized both the guests and their host as social climbers, and he wanted to urge them toward true generosity, real hospitality that expected nothing in return. It was time to throw out the old guest list of relatives and members of the same social class, and replace it with a list of people who would never be the natural choice, people who could never return the favor. It was time to throw out the old order of self-promotion and realize that we are all in equal need of grace and mercy in the eyes of God. And if we are in equal need of grace, how can we continue to participate in a system that places more value on some people and less value on others?

Treating others, such as the poor, the sick, the blind, the crippled in spirit, as if they were our equals still places barriers between “us” and “them.” Treating others as equals is only the first step toward becoming equal as joint-heirs in the family of God. And this is what Jesus came to accomplish. Jesus came to level the playing field between the haves and the have nots, between the wealthy and the poor, between the healthy and the sick. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All of us need grace. Jesus wants us to understand that our all-too-human drive to seek the best seat in the house does not show genuine participation in God’s mercy or love. Even treating others as if they were our equals is not enough. Only true humility can give us the right perspective.

Think about it. How often do we draw attention to what we are doing for God, in an attempt to justify ourselves? This is the same thing as taking a “better seat” at the table. We do not need to justify ourselves before God – he has already justified us through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Or maybe we are trying to prove to others that we are good Christians by doing more and more. We wear our hyperactivity like a badge of honor – see how much I love Jesus? Look at all the good works I am doing for the Lord!

But Jesus says, you don’t need to try to impress anyone with your righteousness. The only one whose opinion of you matters is God, and he knows your heart. He knows how far short of his righteousness you really fall. And he loves you anyway.

The one who issues the invitation has the final say about the ranking of guests. As we accept Christ’s invitation to join him at Table in the Kingdom of God we must admit that we are only there by grace. We don’t deserve such grace, and we aren’t any better than anyone else because of it. Taking our place at the bottom of the table, where we know we belong if we’re really honest, allows us to respond with joy when Jesus, our host, taps us on the shoulder and says, “What are you doing down here? Come on up and sit by me.”