Welcome Humility (Luke 9:43b-48)

While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples,“Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” But they did not understand this saying; its meaning remained concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

An argument arose among them concerning which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me, for the least among all of you is the greatest.” (New Revised Standard Version)

Pride and Humility

Whenever we are not focused on what is most important, we then tend to focus on trivial matters which help no one. Another way of putting this: Getting stuck in pride makes us concerned for our position, whereas being humble creates opportunities to serve our fellow humanity.

“It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes people as angels.”

St. Augustine

The ultimate humility was the cross of Christ. Jesus submitted himself to death, even death on a cross. He emptied himself, taking the posture of a servant. (Philippians 2:7-8) Jesus Christ did not come to be served but to serve; and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)

God’s benevolent, gracious, and ethical realm is accessed and rests upon humility.

Wherever there are humble hearts, there is change, transformation, and new life. Where there is the presence of pride, there you will find posturing, positioning, and peacocking – nothing changes.

Humility enables a person to see beyond the end of their nose. A humble posture allows an individual to observe the wounds and pains of those with little power and low societal status. A preoccupation with being great and believing we are indispensable is to amble down a blind path.

Children and Humility

In the ancient world, children were on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. They were mostly looked upon as potential adults – little people who would someday contribute to the welfare of the family business and the community.

Until they became adults, kids were expected to begin learning their future trade with full submission and obedience. They had no power or leverage over others.

So, when Jesus told his disciples to take the lowly position of a child, he was not talking about innocence or cuteness. Christ meant for his followers to divest themselves of prideful positioning for greatness and to instead embrace the helplessness and vulnerability of children.

For Jesus, a child was closer to God’s rule and reign because they existed in truly humble circumstances; whereas an adult had too much concern with looking good and seeking every advantage possible.

The Upside-Down of Humility

Life is more upside-down than we sometimes realize. Adults have more to learn from kids than kids do from adults. To listen to a child is about as near to hearing the voice of God as you will get.

Let us consider how pride and humility work out in our daily lives. For example, when down and hurting, maybe you have had the experience of another person trying to one-up your pain, as if what they experienced was worse than you. In their pride, they ignore that pain is personal, as if it’s a one-size-fits-all. 

Invalidating a person’s state of being or feelings does no one any good.  It happens because of pride and a lack of humility.

“All streams flow to the ocean because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power.”

Lao Tzu

Imagine going to see a doctor who turns out to be arrogant in his approach. He fails to really listen to you. He just gives a quick exam and offers his diagnosis with a regimen of more pills to take. You are left sitting there while he is off to another patient, colonizing another person’s mind and emotions with his expertise.

I am not giving doctors a hard knock. I work in a hospital and have great respect for medical professionals who provide wise care plans. Yet, it is likely that you, like me, have had that occasional experience of the doctor full of themselves with all the right answers on your pain and situation.

You may have also had the unfortunate experience of having a pastor, therapist, or counselor assess your situation with little information and even smaller compassion.  Like writing a script for pills, they give you a few Bible verses and tell you to quit sinning and live obediently.

The Good Life and Humility

If pride and arrogance are the original sin, then the remedy to that malady is humility.

No matter who we are – whether doctors, pastors, laypersons, patients, or whomever – we are meant and designed by our Creator God to live a humble life. That means we are to both give and receive humility-based care.

Humility is the cornerstone to every good thing in this life.  Jesus said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, NIV)

The door of God’s kingdom swings-open on the hinges of humility.

The Apostle Paul, seeking to follow the Lord Jesus in his teaching and humility said:

“Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12, NLT)

Basic human interactions with one another are to be grounded in humility. The old prophet made his expectations clear:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Life is truly life when it is humility-based.

Care and Humility

Caring for another person is not a simple linear matter of offering opinions or expertise; it is believing that the one needing care is the expert on herself. The caregiver has as much to learn from the care-seeker.

The beauty of humility-based care is that two people discover together how to grow, thrive, and flourish in a situation where it is not currently happening.

Breakthroughs occur in the soil of humility when the care-seeker comes out of the darkness and into the light through mutual discovery and insight.

We live with the confidence of the Psalmist:

“God leads humble people to do what is right and teaches them the way.” (Psalm 25:9, GW)

In the end, God saves and heals, not you or me. That God chooses to use us to bring care to others ought to elicit the utmost of humility within us.

Welcome humility into your life and you will find a truly abundant life.

Lord God, let me have too deep a sense of humor to be proud.

Let me know my absurdity before I act absurdly.

Let me realize that when I am humble, I am most human, most truthful, and most worthy of your serious consideration.

Amen.

Pride Comes Before the Fall (Luke 22:31-33, 54-62)

The Denial of Peter by Carl Bloch (1834-1890)

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death….”

Then seizing Jesus, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”

But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said.

A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.”

“Man, I am not!” Peter replied.

About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.”

Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.”And he went outside and wept bitterly. (New International Version)

A Lesson In Trust

One day I watched a lifeguard handle a group of kids for their first time in the pool. She went to each one and told them to put their ears in the water and their belly buttons in the air while she was holding them up. “When I count to three, you won’t feel my hands underneath you, but they’re there,” she said. 

Most of the kids frantically jerked their knees toward their chins and flailed their arms.

Even though nearly all people float when they assume a posture of rest, many believe they’ll sink, and don’t keep their posture for long. 

The disciples had a hard time trusting Jesus. They couldn’t seem to rest and relax because Jesus said and did things that they were not expecting him to say and do. 

Jesus preached the necessity of humility and loving one’s enemies; and he focused on ministry to the least persons around them. The disciples had not yet really bought into Christ’s kingdom agenda because they kept pulling their knees up by thinking Jesus was going to lead a rebellion against the Romans and put Israel back on the map – believing it would be just like the old days of Jewish domination of the land.

But Jesus is all about a different agenda: transformation of the inner person that leads to greater submission to God’s will so that the least persons among us will be reached.

Bad News Before Good News

Many already believe they know what God wants and how to follow Jesus, and so, aren’t much open to the Spirit. They acknowledge they’re sinners, yet don’t believe their sin is as bad as others. “O, sure, we sin, but not like murderers and child molesters. Our sins are ‘respectable’– a little resentment, a little prejudice, and a little gossip is even necessary to make sure people submit to the unwritten rules.”

We must first hear the bad news before we can hear the good news. Once we hear the bad news and accept it, we must receive God’s remedy for it. In order to do this, let’s compare and contrast two disciples: Peter and Judas.

Peter’s Denial, 17th Century Ethiopian

Peter and Judas

Peter and Judas shared a similar vision about seeing Israel restored to its previous glorious prominence. Judas was a Zealot, ready to take military action, if necessary; and Peter had no problem taking up the sword when it seemed the time was ripe for a political rebellion and takeover.

Even though Peter insisted he would never turn on Jesus, Jesus knew better. And, sure enough, Peter did a full-fledged moral belly flop in the pool of denial by disowning Jesus three times.

Judas actually caught on, quicker than Peter, that Jesus wasn’t going to lead a military coup. Judas had enough of wasting time on poor marginalized people; they weren’t going to make good soldiers. After Judas clearly saw that Jesus had no intention of forcing an earthly political kingdom, he actively sought an opportunity to betray him.

Neither Judas or Peter, nor any of the disciples wanted to take a step into the world of suffering as the means of reaching others and embracing the kingdom of God. They wanted glory not suffering. But Jesus chose the cup of suffering.

Both Judas and Peter realized after denying Jesus that they had made a terrible mistake. But that is where the similarities end. 

Judas realized what he had done, and so, went out and died by suicide. Rather than throw himself upon the mercy of God, Judas tried to atone for his own sin. He tried to fix something that could not be undone. It was a refusal of grace.

Peter responded by weeping bitterly, consistent with someone experiencing repentance. He realized he was poor in spirit and mourned over his sin. Peter later becomes a genuinely meek person with God’s righteousness taking root within him as he, in the book of Acts, demonstrated mercy and became a preacher of truth and grace.

The Need for Transformation

There cannot be systemic and structural renewal without personal transformation. And there cannot be personal transformation without a brutally honest assessment of myself. “I will never fall,” comes from a heart of pride that believes “I’m not so bad.”

Our sins and failures stem ultimately from a lack of trust. We keep pulling our knees up because we are too anxious to let the agenda of Jesus control our lives. 

Proud people don’t pray much because they are self-sufficient. But humble people pray a lot because they don’t want to fall into temptation. They pray because they discern they’re prone to being like a cockeye little dog who thinks he is a big dog. 

Even Jesus felt the need to watch and pray so that he could face his hour of pain and suffering on behalf of all mankind.

Following Either Close or From a Distance

Jesus was arrested and Peter followed him at a distance. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, this too, describes much of our own following of Jesus. We want to see how everything will shake-out before we commit. 

Christ is asking us to trust him, to make and keep promises before we even know what it all means. We need to acknowledge and admit that we have commitment-it is; we have made a mess of our lives by our stubbornness and holding on to our own ideas for how we think things ought to go.

If you find yourself in a mess, whether it is of your own making or of somebody else, the only thing that can handle it is a close following of grace. We are to approach God with brutal honesty, humility, and a willingness to rest and relax when he is telling you to. 

The Lord will give you his righteousness; you need not try to obtain it on your own. So, let the knees go down and stick the belly button out – rest in Jesus.

Luke 14:1, 7-14 – How Can I Be Blessed?

Jesus eating with “sinners.”

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched….

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable:“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (New International Version)

A lot of people live by the old adage, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” It’s a phrase referring to reciprocity. In other words, if you give me something I want, I will then respond by giving you something you want.

That old adage works fine, that is, unless you have no ability to give or give back to another. If we only operate by the principle of reciprocity, a large chunk of people automatically get left out. And this situation is untenable and unacceptable to Jesus.

Christ observed that the religious insiders of his day were keeping entire groups of people on the outside through their practice of scratching one another’s backs.

We need to get ahold of the reality that God loves us, as well as everyone else – even the people we may not give the time of day to. God so loved the world that he sent his Son. Jesus has come to feed us all, not just some.

Jesus eats with sinners by Sieger Köder (1925-2015)

The kingdom of God is about food. The food given by Jesus is to feed the hungry by staging a banquet. It is a feast of God’s abundance. Yet, many seem to hoard the resources they have, only thinking about their friends, family, and people just like them. They act as if there is no need to invite outsiders, consumed as they are with their own daily lives.

We have an incredible abundant feast contained in Scripture – in fact, Jesus said that his food and drink was to do the Father’s will, that Scripture was his bread. (Matthew 4:4; John 4:34) 

It’s much too easy to take our blessings of food for granted. After all, when we are well-fed, it’s easy to assume that everyone else is, too. Feeling healthy, it’s easy to forget that others are hurting. Making money, it’s easy to think there are not many poor people around. Living in a community with plenty of churches and more bibles than people, it’s natural to assume that everyone knows the gospel of Jesus – but they don’t!

Then, whenever we get around to acknowledging there are people who need Jesus, we keep devising ways to reach them without having to change or accommodate our own lives to do it.

Christ’s call to faithful discipleship requires people to change from having a narrow focus on our small circle of friends, to including those who have no means to pay us back.

Table fellowship by Sieger Köder 

The gospel of Jesus Christ is open to outcasts and failures, to problem people and unimpressive persons. People with needs and flaws are especially dear to Jesus. It’s the people who outwardly have it all together who are being replaced wholesale with those who admit their need. 

We must not be picky about who we invite to participate in the largess of abundance we possess. We are to avoid the spiritual snobbery of looking down our noses at the needy and less fortunate, who have nothing to offer us in return.

Those who give need to do so without prejudice or favoritism. Even the lazy, the fool, and the sinner still need basic resources to live. By opening our hearts in almsgiving, we open ourselves to Christ, who is present in the least of those among us.

Refusing mercy to people deemed as unworthy, givers then actually shut themselves off from the very mercy God desires for them. There is no reward from God when there is only reward from others.

“If we are going to examine lives, we will never have mercy upon any human being; rather, hindered by this inopportune meddlesomeness, we will remain fruitless and destitute of all help ourselves.”

St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance and Almsgiving

It’s not only the poor who suffer when the rich fail to give. In judging whether or not a particular person is worthy of love and aid, the wealthy person rejects the spiritual fruit that he would have received by giving with humility.

Giving to the poor, simply to relieve our own conscience, is not real charity; it doesn’t consider the other. We attend fully to the other by observing their spiritual and holistic needs for community, purpose, respect, and dignity. Dispassionate giving from a distance, without relationship, refuses to acknowledge the whole person. It exploits the poor for the mental comfort of the rich.

We need to be involved in people’s lives, and that takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. There are too many lost people who need Jesus – and, I may add, too many Christians who are the walking wounded and need the healing touch of Jesus – for us to pay scant attention to the call of Jesus to invite the needy into our lives. 

Seeing people come into God’s great banquet, and into a joyous and vital relationship with Christ, will likely take ten times more work than what you are thinking it does right now. Yet, this is the pathway of true blessing – to having God’s stamp of approval on our lives.

How can I be blessed? Not by posturing for the best place in the room but by being a blessing to the most vulnerable and needy amongst us.

Merciful God, thank you for the abundance of life, relationships, health, comfort, and wealth you have provided to so many. Thank you that, even in times of need, despair, and brokenness, you are there. Please, put your arms around children and families in  poverty and disability so that they feel your comfort and hope. Meet their needs both physically and spiritually. And guide me so I can be your hands and feet pursuing justice for the poor and upholding the cause of the needy, in the way of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Acts 7:44-53 – Pickle Barrel Christians

“The Holy Tent where God spoke to our ancestors was with them in the desert. God told Moses how to make this Tent, and he made it like the plan God showed him. Later, Joshua led our ancestors to capture the lands of the other nations. Our people went in, and God forced the other people out. When our people went into this new land, they took with them this same Tent they had received from their ancestors. They kept it until the time of David, who pleased God and asked God to let him build a house for him, the God of Jacob. But Solomon was the one who built the Temple.

“But the Most High does not live in houses that people build with their hands. As the prophet says:

‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
So do you think you can build a house for me? says the Lord.
    Do I need a place to rest?
Remember, my hand made all these things!’”

Stephen continued speaking: “You stubborn people! You have not given your hearts to God, nor will you listen to him! You are always against what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell you, just as your ancestors were. Your ancestors tried to hurt every prophet who ever lived. Those prophets said long ago that the One who is good would come, but your ancestors killed them. And now you have turned against and killed the One who is good. You received the law of Moses, which God gave you through his angels, but you haven’t obeyed it.” (New Century Version)

Every year it’s a guarantee that some folks will complain about the weather. In the summer it’s too hot; in the winter, too cold. Can’t wait for autumn to come, then when it’s here, the murmuring comes out about how the weekend weather won’t cooperate with personal plans.

No matter the season, no matter the weather, somebody will be grumbling about it.

A big reason why I personally hold to the Christian Calendar with its liturgical seasons is that it helps shape me spiritually so that I can avoid being a stubborn complaining fool.

It seems like some folks have been baptized in pickle juice and inhabit a church resembling a pickle barrel. They have something negative to say about everything. And even when they acknowledge they don’t really understand something, they’ll still give a stone-faced retort, “I’m against it.”

They’re, ironically, surprised when they find themselves in a pickle.

The liturgical calendar, when properly observed, keeps us grounded in faith, hope, and love. There are plenty of things in this old fallen world which can take our eyes off our calling as Christians. Pandemics, politics, poverty, and pain can mess with us.

If we aren’t on solid spiritual ground, all the misfortunes of this life can take a significant toll on us. And for all the tangible things we see which creates angst within us, we miss the invisible God because our spiritual eyes are blind from all that vinegar in the pickle barrel.

Like the ancient Israelites for whom Stephen railed against in our New Testament lesson for today, we might become stubborn, hard-headed, and inflexible. We get lost in doing things our own way, and wanting our way, to the neglect of what God wants. 

Whenever that happens, there is damage to God’s people, God’s name, and God’s law. Rather than tongues being used for praising the Lord and encouraging others, God’s prophets who are calling us to holiness are verbally decapitated.

Anytime someone believes they have piously figured out everything, they will soon find themselves fighting against God.

The Lord of All has not called us to figure out every mystery and nail down each uncertainty. Those who claim to have done it are living in a pickle barrel. Perhaps they will eventually discover how large and immense God really is – much bigger than our puny thoughts and misguided practices. 

How then shall we live?

Let go of our illusions of power and privilege.

Submit afresh to the Lord for whom we must bow in all things. 

Open our spiritual eyes so that we can see the God who made the universe.

Take up our holy calling as Christ’s ambassadors, instead of expecting Jesus to be the ambassador for us.

If we can do that, then we are well on our way to seeing the grand and immense God of all.

So be humble under God’s powerful hand. Then he will lift you up when the right time comes.

1 Peter 5:6, ERV

The following practices can help us become more spiritually flexible and open to the Spirit’s work:

  • Stretch your faith muscle. Physical muscles which get little to no use will atrophy – which is why people who are confined to bed or with limitations need physical therapists to help work the muscles. Spiritually, if we are rarely or never in positions which work our faith muscle, then that faith will diminish and eventually atrophy. Faith is not static, but dynamic. It needs to be worked.
  • Breathe deeply. Proper breathing is essential in using our bodies. The same is true spiritually. Fear, worry, and anxiety cause us to have shallow breathing and unable to think straight. When we are amped-up about something, focus on doing some breath prayers, i.e., breathing in saying, “More of you,” and breathing out saying, “Less of me.”
  • Avoid extreme positions. A hyper-extended muscle will tear and cause a lot of damage. An acceptance of limitations and an awareness of our body’s true capacity prevents us from trying to do something our body simply cannot do. Our faith will not support extreme positions which alienate people and put God to the test.
  • Move more. Getting in bodily shape does not have to be dramatic and involve triathlons. Most of us simply need to get out of our chairs and move a bit more and we would be a lot healthier. Faith is mostly lived in the mundane daily decisions of life. Consistently taking small steps of faith each day will go a long way toward our spiritual health and vitality – not to mention helping us see a big God at work.
  • Listen. It is always best to listen to your body— only push it as far as it can handle, even if it is little by little. Many people would be better served if they would just listen to their gut and the spirit God put within them – rather than pushing themselves and others beyond what they can handle. Behind the attempt at doing too much is typically an issue of wanting the kind of control God possesses.

To do the will of God, we must have a growing awareness of a big unlimited God who cannot be contained in a tent or a building; and a small, limited self who is dependent upon God.

This will take relaxing the puckered pickle face and opening to greater flexibility. If you are not in the habit of following the Christian Calendar through the year, now is a good time to start. After all, nobody wants to smell like they just crawled out of a pickle barrel.

Holy God, heaven is your throne and the earth your footstool. You cannot be kept within any one church or any single place.  You are much too big for that!  Forgive me for my small thoughts of you and my weak faith. I humble myself before you so that you can live in and through me for the sake of Jesus. Amen.