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.

The Heart of Giving (Luke 20:45-21:4)

As all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the experts in the law. They like walking around in long robes, and they love elaborate greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ property, and as a show make long prayers. They will receive a more severe punishment.”

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box. He also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.For they all offered their gifts out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.” (New English Translation)

Holy Scripture is replete with contrasting characters. A common teaching device of the ancient world, as well as Jesus, was to make clear narrative contrasts between different persons or groups. In the telling of the story, it would be evident that one is virtuous and the other not. In contemporary terms, we refer to such characters in a story as the protagonist and the antagonist.

It is abundantly clear, in today’s Gospel lesson, who is the godly virtuous person and who is not. Jesus is the one who illumined the contrast because it was not evident to the crowd of people.

You often cannot tell a fake by the external appearance. 

A pious religious person on the outside may not necessarily be a genuine Christ follower on the inside. And, conversely, a poor, old, bedraggled person may seem unimpressive on the outside, yet has a lush garden for a soul on the inside.

The religious experts in Christ’s day liked to do things for a show, for the attention. They were important and respected people, desiring and enjoying the accolades of others. They lived to be noticed. 

In reality, however, it was all a façade, a carnival sideshow. The outside and the inside were incongruent to each other. Their very selves were fragmented, not integrated; disparate, not synced together. The false self, displayed for others, hid a darkened true self underneath.

But Jesus saw them inside-and-out. He named the hypocrisy and condemned it.

There is a marked contrast between the rich and respected religious experts and the poor overlooked widow. Whereas the rich men put a wad of money in the temple offering for everyone to see, the impoverished widow put barely anything in. Yet, it was everything she had to give. 

The widow’s outward giving and inward disposition were perfectly matched. She gave everything out of the abundance of her heart. There was integrity, congruence, and a complete synthesis of the inner and outer person.

And Jesus saw her, inside-and-out. He named the genuineness and affirmed it.

The kingdom of God is not a matter of outward eating and drinking and ostentatious displays of spirituality; it is rather a matter of inner righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17)

We are to beware of those who do things for a show – who try and appear pious, while on the inside, they only have self-serving agendas. For the hypocrite, giving is more like a business transaction; I give money – you give respect and attention.

Remember that the person who plants few seeds will have a small crop; the one who plants many seeds will have a large crop. You should each give, then, as you have decided, not with regret or out of a sense of duty; for God loves the one who gives gladly. (2 Corinthians 9:6-7, GNT)

But giving is not designed by God to be done so people will admire and see what wonderful Christians we are, or so that others will know that we have done our proper duty. 

If our motive for giving is for others to admire us, then we will likely receive exactly what we want – and nothing more. There will be no reward from God because God isn’t even in the picture.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So, when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4, NIV)

Giving is important and, I believe, needs to happen much more than it does. And there is also much more to the act of giving than placing money in an offering plate, supporting humanitarian causes, or donating resources; it involves the heart and the motives behind it. 

If I give because I want people to see how generous and benevolent I am; or to gain attention and approval; or to let people know how they need to act or change; then I have ceased to truly give. 

If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.

1 Corinthians 13:3, CEB

Let’s call it something else: “The Me Show.” Tuning into “The Me Show” is not good. Giving is not supposed to be a circus with me in the center ring of the big top. Instead, giving is to be a heartfelt, genuine connection with both God and our fellow humanity. If it isn’t this, then we are spiritual clowns who think we need to perform more than we need to steward our God-given resources.

Yet, if we will but aim for the heart, the hands will follow with sincere generosity and grace.

Loving God, my heart longs to worship you with everything I possess. Transform me from the inside-out so that all my thoughts and motives may humbly express my words and actions, to the glory of Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are One God, now and forever. Amen.

Be Generous (Mark 12:41-44)

The Widow’s Mite by James Christensen

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you; this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (New International Version)

Money. Can’t live without it; can’t live with it. *Sigh*

If there’s a litmus test of one’s true benevolence and spirituality, it’s how money is handled and/or mishandled. And it isn’t as cut-and-dried as giving large sums of it away.

In today’s short Gospel lesson, the offerings of rich people were unimpressive to Jesus. To him, their big donations are insignificant.

On the other hand, a poor widow’s measly offering is validated as a rich contribution. In giving everything, Jesus holds up the widow as an example for us to follow.

This raises a natural and interesting question: Does this mean everyone should give everything they have? Maybe. Maybe not. Yet perhaps the very question betrays how we tend to think about money – that it’s ours, we earned it, and we can do whatever we want with it.

But the fact of the matter is that we really own nothing. We are merely stewards, entrusted with using that which has been graciously given to us by God. The Lord is the owner of it all. It was never really ours to begin with.

Taken from this perspective, anything we hold onto and refuse to let go, no matter how large or small, is a form of theft. We have taken something that doesn’t belong to us. We aren’t satisfied with being stewards; we want to be owners and masters.

What you do with your money shows your allegiance to the true Owner of it. If it belongs to Caesar, well then, go ahead and give it to him. And if it belongs to God, then there isn’t an issue in distributing money in ways which benefit humanity and uplift the poor.

The widow knew that her money, what little of it she had, belonged to God. She seemed to understand that God’s values are very different from earthly values. The kingdom of heaven expects us to hold all things, money included, with open hands. Whereas the kingdoms of this world fully expect that people will hold their money with tight fists – which is why we have so many layers of cybersecurity around our assets.

Money is a means to an end and not the end itself. It is the means to ensure the welfare of the common good of all persons. It’s a tool to shape a better society, built not on the backs of the poor, but for the benefit of the needy so that everyone can participate fully in the community.

To build a petty kingdom and become master of a small world is nothing more than stealing from God and withholding resources where they are needed.

And to make things more complicated and challenging, in today’s world, time is money. It’s easy to write a check, transfer some funds, or allocate some resources for others. However, it is never easy to grace people with the gift of time. Relational connection takes time and effort – the kind of time many people believe they do not have. Yet, time also belongs to God, and it is to be stewarded with care, just like our money.

The Poor Widow’s Offering by Unknown artist

Let’s come back to the poor widow. After all, she is our example of true generosity.

In ancient Israel, those in poverty were not required to give. So, whenever the poor did so, they simply gave because they believed in the need to maintain all it took for the worship of God to happen. The widow was under no compulsion to give anything, let alone everything she had. She seemed to understand what the Apostle Paul discovered later:

The person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously. Each one of you should give just as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, because God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace overflow to you so that because you have enough of everything in every way at all times, you will overflow in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:6-8, NET)

A spirit of generosity is to be ubiquitous throughout Christianity. It is a spirit that doesn’t let the left hand know what the right hand is giving (Matthew 6:3). A generous spirit rightly discerns that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21).

And the guide of altruistic giving is savvy to the reality that the accumulation of money often leads to the love of money. So, the generous person keeps temptation at bay by withholding love toward things so that love can be lavishly given to people. For some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:10)

Like the poor widow, we are to put our hope in God, who richly provides everything for our enjoyment.

Eternal God, we pray that stewardship will be our way of life. We acknowledge You as the source of all we have and all we are.

Loving Creator, help us to place You first in our lives by being prayerful, loving, and caring for our families neighbors in need, and by becoming less preoccupied with material things.

Sovereign Lord, help us to hear your call to be good stewards, caretakers, and managers of all your gifts by sharing them for your purposes. May Your priorities be our priorities. May we have an active and generous faith.

Blessed God, help us to serve the Church, our communities, and our world with Your good and gracious gifts; and with joyful and grateful heart, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Overwhelming Victory in Overcoming Suffering (Romans 8:31-39)

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (New Living Translation)

There is a way to overcome suffering; there’s a path you can follow, leading to the overcoming of your struggle.

That struggle with suffering comes in many forms:

  • Wrestling with guilt and shame;
  • Dealing with the meanness of others
  • Chronic physical pain
  • Continual financial trouble
  • Ongoing estranged relationships
  • Past bad decisions that keep coming up to bite you in the present
  • Constant feelings of angst about the state of the world’s great needs and problems
  • A crippling Anfechtung (spiritual oppression and depression)

These and a hundred other reasons for suffering in this broken old world can discourage and debilitate us.

I invite you to consider that the road ahead will likely be counter-intuitive to how you may currently be thinking about overcoming suffering. In fact, it might be so far off your radar that you might simply discard what I’m about to say to you.

But before I get to that, I’ll say first, that suffering is endemic to the human condition. Everyone suffers. Since we live in a fallen world, there is not one person who hasn’t suffered in some way, whether it is physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional. 

None of us will ever be immune to affliction. There is no way to insulate yourself from pain. If you are not currently suffering in some way, it means that you are either coming off a time of hardship or are about to enter a new period of distress.

Holiness and godliness don’t keep suffering at bay. Just the opposite. The Lord Jesus promised us that following him will involve suffering: 

“While you are in this world, you will have to suffer.” (John 16:33)

The Apostle Peter, who was part of Christ’s inner circle of followers, came to understand the reality of suffering. Peter understood that all Christians are not above their Lord.  If Christ suffered, his followers shall suffer, as well.

“Dear friends, don’t be surprised or shocked that you are going through testing that is like walking through fire. Be glad for the chance to suffer as Christ suffered.” (1 Peter 4:12-13, CEV) 

James, the Lord’s brother, wisely discerned that suffering could become a teacher for the Christian; all the adversity the believer faces are the means of producing maturity, strengthening faith, and developing patience.

“My friends, be glad, even if you have a lot of trouble. You know that you learn to endure by having your faith tested.” (James 1:2-3, CEV) 

The Apostle Paul was more acquainted with suffering than any follower of Jesus; he continually faced terrible circumstances. His reflections on the matter are sage and true:

“Anyone who belongs to Christ Jesus and wants to live right will have trouble from others.” (2 Timothy 3:12, CEV) 

“Suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope that will never disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-5, CEV)

“It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” (Philippians 1:29, NIV)

The New Testament writers have a perspective on suffering which is very different than how we typically think of it. Although suffering is a part of being in the world, yet Jesus said:

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV)

Now, let’s wheel back around to the overcoming of suffering. Here is the truth and the practice we must adopt when it comes to suffering: 

The truth about overcoming suffering comes not from us, but through Christ; and the practice of overcoming suffering doesn’t come from fighting against it but by sitting with it and learning from it.

Stated a different way: Jesus has overcome the world through his death, resurrection, and ascension. On the cross, he absorbed all the sin and suffering of everyone. Your suffering, then, may hurt and it might be senseless; yet no matter it’s source, that suffering will always rule over you unless you invite it to take a seat with you and have a conversation with it.

More pointedly: Quit fighting against your suffering. Stop kicking and screaming long enough to look your suffering square in the face and learn from it.

Your suffering is trying to tell you something. 

If you keep taking the stance of a pugilist trying to punch it away, it will just keep moving forward at you. You can’t beat suffering. You can only learn from it. And you’ll only learn from it, even overcome it, when you embrace it. 

So, here’s the counter-intuitive, counter-cultural practice that you might not like and might think I’m off my rocker for suggesting: Submit to suffering.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not trying to sanitize your troubles or trauma. Evil is evil, and no amount of saying otherwise will change the leopard’s spots. However, only through submitting to the process of what suffering teaches us will we ever have power over it.

Perhaps an illustration is in order. Let’s liken suffering to encountering a bear in the wilderness. The National Park Service gives us this advice if facing a bear while out hiking:

“Once a bear has noticed you and is paying attention to you, these strategies can help prevent the situation from escalating:”

  • Identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. Remain still; stand your ground but slowly wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you as a human. It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
  • Stay calm and remember that most bears do not want to attack you; they usually just want to be left alone. Bears may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second. Bears may also react defensively by woofing, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back. Continue to talk to the bear in low tones; this will help you stay calmer, and it won’t be threatening to the bear. A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal.
  • Hike and travel in groups. Groups of people are usually noisier and smellier than a single person. Therefore, bears often become aware of groups of people at greater distances, and because of their cumulative size, groups are also intimidating to bears.
  • If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways; this allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Moving sideways is also non-threatening to bears. Do not run, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and down. Like dogs, they will chase fleeing animals. Do not climb a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears can climb trees.

Fighting suffering is about as useful as taking on a bear. Both bears and suffering can be dangerous. We don’t blame bears if they act like bears. Likewise, we ought not be surprised when suffering hurts. But we can learn a lot about suffering and even come to the point of oddly admiring it for its large ability to teach us things we would not learn otherwise.

Face suffering like facing a bear in the wilderness of trouble. Calmly identify yourself. Talk in low tones to your suffering. Speak to it. Remember who you are. You belong to God. Treat suffering as if it is curious about you. Stay calm. Freaking-out only encourages suffering to attack. 

If you’re alone, that’s not good. Walking with others in Christian community is one of the best practices of the Christian life. Suffering is intimidated by groups of people encouraging one another and showing hospitality to each other. Keep your eye on suffering. Don’t ignore it, or pretend it isn’t there. 

Don’t run. The Lord is with you. Face suffering. Keep it in front of you. It will pass, but you must be patient and calm. Once it is gone, then you can reflect on what happened and debrief with others about the experience.

The path to overcoming suffering is to acknowledge it, respect it, submit to it, and let it pass. Then, you will be able to consider it joy whenever you face various struggles, knowing that your faith is being exercised, and perseverance developed. (James 1:2-4)

Stop fighting. Stop going it alone. Don’t be a martyr. Be silent. Listen. Change suffering from an adversary to fight to a companion to learn from.

You and I have nothing to lose. For nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.