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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Humility: Readings, Religion and Relationships



God’s grace, peace and mercy be with you. … My focus is on Philippians 2:6-8. “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, death on a cross.”
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the psalmist wrote, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”[1] Now that our feet are within your gates, we rejoice to hear your Word. As we listen, may your Spirit enlighten our minds and move our hearts to love deeply as Jesus loved. This we pray to you, Most Holy Trinity. Amen.
O Lord it's hard to be humble when you're perfect in every way. I can't wait to look in the mirror cause I get better looking each day. To know me is to love me. I must be a wonderful man. O Lord it's hard to be humble but I'm doing the best that I can.
"It's Hard to Be Humble," the title track of Mac Davis’ 1980 album, and the first of four consecutive Top Ten country hits, is one of the funniest songs ever written. Every pastor over age 40 has quoted it in a sermon that addresses humility.
Today, I will talk about humility as it relates to our reading, our religion, and our relationships with God and one another.
First, our reading. The word humble comes from the Latin word humilis meaning “lowly.” It literally means “on the ground or earth.” Because you are “of low birth or rank” you are not to assert yourself, or as Golda Meir said, “Don't be so humble; you're not that great.”[2]
Two weeks ago, Pastors Wietfeldt and Fritsche explained humility and greatness in God’s Kingdom. In Matthew, Jesus cited children as examples for his disciples to emulate because they were dependent upon God for everything. Children, like faithful Israel, knew that everything – from identity to food to protection from one’s enemies – came from God. Unless his disciples became like children dependent on God, not only would they not be considered great in His Kingdom, they would not even enter it.
Paul expressed similar concern for Christians in Philippi. He wanted them to be blameless, shining as lights in a crooked, perverse generation, knowing that he did not run in vain.[3] While Paul enjoyed the support and friendship of the Philippians, he had 3 groups of troublemakers.
First, his outside opponents were pagans who complained Paul did not acknowledge the gods. They reported him to the civil authorities in an attempt to stop his preaching. Second, workers of evil, whom Paul called dogs, were those who insisted on observing the Jewish custom of circumcision. Finally, Philippi was rife with internal dissension. Without citing the cause, Paul condemned conceit and self-interest by holding up Christ as an example of self-giving service in the hymn of today’s reading.[4]
The Philippian Hymn, verses 6-11, deserves its own sermon, as it is the most famous of several dozen hymns inserted into New Testament letters.[5] For now, suffice it to say that Paul used the hymn to exhort Philippians to follow the exalted Christ.
Rather than seeking their own interests and bettering themselves, Paul urged the Philippians to have the mind of Christ who showed that the way to God comes not by grasping at a higher place on society’s ladder but by becoming humbly obedient to God, even unto death on a cross.[6]
The Cross symbolizes self-emptying and obedience, but in Paul’s day, it was the human symbol for ultimate rejection, scorn and degradation. Yet, the one who did not grasp at equality with God was honored by God and exalted as Lord. In a marvelous line of reversals, the One who dispossessed all, including himself, came to possess, in the end, all things as Lord. This is not only a message about Christ, but also a message to Christians, especially Christian leaders.[7]
Because it was a message to all Christians and leaders, Paul cited not only Christ, but also Timothy, Epaphroditus and himself as examples for Christian living. Christian living is, of course, about relationships, but before we go there, let us examine how our religion used the passage.
Martin Luther interpreted humility as nothingness of man before God, the crucifying of self and the will to hear God's Word.[8] Regarding Philippians 2:7, he wrote that God the Father let His Son come into the world from heaven above. The devil saw Him as a poor, plagued person who suffered hunger, thirst, cold and heat. Jesus wept and had nothing but misery and trouble in this world. Yet, His conduct was like no other man. In the end, Christ conquered Satan along with sin and death.[9]
In the Book of Concord, Luther and his colleagues cited the passage to develop our teaching of the Person of Christ and the Righteousness of Faith before God.[10] Francis Pieper summarized the Formula on Christ’s humiliation and exaltation, and used it to address the errors of Unitarian and Reformed theologians.[11] And while we may not have these works at our fingertips, the Introduction of our Lutheran Service Book tells us that its cover is based our reading. The dark, innermost portion of the cross is a reminder of Good Friday when our Lord “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death … on a cross.”[12] … Makes me wonder if I can judge a book by its cover.
Can I judge a book by its cover? Or an individual by his skill? The question leads to my 3rd point – relationships with God and others.
Pastor Wietfeldt opened the September Parent Teacher meeting by examining the attributes of strong leaders. Often, we judge a book by its cover or equate a leader’s skills with his character, though they are not the same. We judge a person based on skills we see – medical practice, musical performance, business or political acumen, acting or athleticism – and fail to examine the character we cannot see. Pastor likened it to the iceberg. We see the 10% above the surface, but never the 90% below. We see skills, but not self-discipline, emotional security, core values or one’s sense of identity.[13] True humility is a core value and an attribute of a strong Christian leader.
Since Paul used the Philippian hymn to exhort Christians and leaders to imitate Christ, how can we apply it to our lives as Christians and leaders? How can we read it to examine our relationships with God and others? Is humility one of my core values? When I look in the mirror, do I sing the Philippian hymn or “It’s hard to be humble”?
You know, humility is making a comeback. Recent articles include 10 Self-Made Billionaires Who Remain Grounded and Humble,[14] The 20 Most Humble Athletes of All Time,[15] and 7 Ways To Tell If You're A Truly Humble Person.[16] Unsurprisingly, none referred to the Philippian hymn.
Bloggers and beat writers report on psychology and eastern religion, and cite Kevin Durant, Derek Jeter, Tim Cook and Warren Buffet as examples of humility. I ask that we look deeper.
Paul challenges us to emulate not the rich and famous, but Christ Jesus. He remains our model. We should not grasp after equality by seeking our own interests, but empty ourselves in service to one another.
Have I truly emptied myself? Perhaps, but I should consider that I have not yet emptied myself in service to others as Christ emptied Himself for me.
Have I embraced or experienced rejection, scorn and degradation? Would Luther say that I am a poor, plagued person who suffers hunger, thirst, cold and heat, and have nothing but misery and trouble in this world? Do I prefer the humility Christ experienced for me or am I satisfied with my state of humility?
As a parent, do I encourage my children to embrace the humble life of Christ or emulate the skills of the rich and famous? Have I taught them to climb the ladder of success or descend into the dregs of poverty with Christ? Do I want my children to be like Derek Jeter, Warren Buffet or Pastor Joel Fritsche, and work with the poor for Christ?
As a grandparent, do young people in my family tell me that my humility inspires them to love Christ? As a Lutheran, do borderline believers tell me that I inspire them to seek a deeper relationship with Christ?
I ask these questions because Paul encourages us to deepen our relationships with God and others by emulating our Lord’s humility. Likewise, I encourage you to challenge your children and grandchildren to embrace humility as an essential character as they develop into Christian leaders.
Emulating our Lord’s humility is not simply suffering, but being with Christ in His suffering. If I love Christ, I go where He goes. I love Christ so boldly and deeply that it leads me to embrace even the cross.
Such humility does not depend on my personal effort but on my openness to God’s power. I surrender my life to be with Jesus no matter what the consequence.
My parents were humble in that they spent time with people who were sick and dying – church and family members, neighbors and friends. I learned much from their invaluable lessons, so much so that in 2005, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I asked to be reassigned from a church in Eureka, California, to one close to her home. I became her caregiver for the last year of her life. In the end, I had no regrets.
Husbands and wives who take seriously their vows relate to each other in this way: “I will feel with you. I will suffer with you in your sufferings. I will be joyful with you in your joy.” Suffering with others is a test of love and humility. Suffering with people Christ comforts is our test of love for Him. As Christians and leaders, we measure humility by such compassion.[17]
Because some of us ran in Angels for Autism, I close with a story of a humble Christian missionary forced to choose between his religious beliefs and competing in an Olympic race.
Eric Liddell, England’s top 100-meter sprinter and the favorite to win the 1924 Olympics, loved God deeply. His life and martyrdom witness this fact. In the movie Chariots of Fire, we see Eric as a deeply religious man who never ran on Sunday. When the Olympic schedule was released, the final for the 100-meter race was set for Sunday. Eric was crestfallen.
Word got around England that Eric would not run on Sunday. The public put incredible pressure on him to violate his conscience and run. He refused. The newspapers labeled him as a traitor. Eric remained loyal to his beliefs. Eventually, Eric switched to the 400-meter event, a race he had never run.
In the movie, Jackson Scholz, the famous American runner, handed Eric a note with this sentence: “The Father will honor whoever serves me” – John 12:26. Seconds later, Eric won the 400-meter race. Still clutched in his hand – the note Scholz handed him.[18]
If you want the Father to honor you as no one on earth can honor you, serve His Son and those He comforts with humble love. When you do, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.


[1] Psalm 122
[3] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday (1997), 487.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid, 491.
[6] Ibid, 493.
[7] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: Third Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2010), 331.
[9] Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian. St. Louis: Concordia Press (1959), 194
[10] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2006), 511 and 572.
[11] Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Volume II. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (1951), 280ff.
[12] Lutheran Service Book. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (2006), p. ix.
[17] See http://www.theway.org.uk/Back/4712endean.pdf. Philip Endean quotes John English’s Spiritual Freedom.
[18] Mark Link, Decision. Valencia, CA: Tabor Publishing (1988), 67.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Holy Indifference!



God’s grace, peace and mercy be with you. … My focus is on Philippians 1:20 and Matthew 20:15. Paul wrote, “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” Jesus said, “’Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’”
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the psalmist wrote, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”[1] Now that our feet are within your gates, we rejoice to hear your Word. As we listen, may your Spirit enlighten our minds and move our hearts to love deeply as Jesus loved. This we pray to you, Most Holy Trinity. Amen.
I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy
Down in my heart - Down in my heart - Down in my heart
I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy
Down in my heart - Down in my heart to stay
"Down In My Heart," sometimes titled "I've Got the Joy" is a popular Christian campfire and scouting song written by a Unitarian minister, George Cooke.[2] Cooke’s song reminds us that no matter the circumstances, Christians are to be joyful.
The word joy appears over 400 times in the Bible and more than 12 times in Philippians. Indeed, Paul had joy in his heart when he wrote this letter, but do we know why?
We understand joy as an emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying.[3] For example, a mother feels joy at seeing her son's success. Joy can be a source or cause of keen pleasure or something or someone greatly valued or appreciated. Watching Troy Polamalu play football is pure joy. What were Paul’s joyful circumstances when he wrote, “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death”?
Examining Philippians in its entirety and Matthew in its greater context offers insight into the joy a Christian should feel when following Jesus.
First, Philippians. According to Acts 16:9, a vision summoned Paul to preach the gospel in Macedonia.[4] Unlike most cities where Paul preached, Philippi had no significant Jewish population or synagogue. His relations with this church were warm and affectionate, and the Philippians consistently supported his work. You see the warm relationship they shared in Paul’s greeting. Normally, to enforce his authority, Paul included the word apostle. In Philippians, he opened with “Paul and Timothy, servants (or slaves) of Christ Jesus.”
Paul wrote to the Philippians while imprisoned. He explained his reason for writing in chapter two. Paul wrote:
“I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I am more than eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”[5]
In other words, Paul reassured the Philippians who sent gifts with Epaphroditus that their messenger, who had a brush with death, was ready to resume his apostolic work upon return to Philippi.
In today’s passage, Paul conveyed that while imprisonment seemed to be a disadvantage, it served to advance the gospel.[6] Even nonbelievers knew Paul was imprisoned for Christ, and was not a common criminal. However, there were men who sought to cause Paul trouble, hoping to prolong his imprisonment. Quoting Job,[7] Paul assuredly insisted that though he knew not whether his sentence would bring death or life, God would vindicate him and bring him deliverance. Paul exuded hope – the virtue that waits with eager expectation – in his desire to glorify Christ through life or death.
Indifference to death is difficult to understand. We associate such indifference with the depths of despair and pain, but here it arises in a letter which, more than any other, exudes hope and joy. This gives us a glimpse into Paul’s spirit and motivation – that his life and identity were wrapped up in his allegiance to Jesus. That is why he encouraged the Philippians to boast joyfully – not because of what they could do as independent individuals apart from God but because of what God was able to do through them.[8]
Joyfully boast of what God can do through you. On that thought, let us end Philippians and turn to Matthew.
In its greater context today’s passage comes on the heels of the rich young man who asked Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. After assuring Jesus that he observed the commandments, the man went away sad, because he was not up to Jesus’ challenge to sell his possessions, give the poor the proceeds, and follow Him.
Jesus stated how difficult the rich find it to obey Him prompting Peter to reply, “We left everything and followed you. What will we have?” Jesus assured his disciples that when the Son of Man would sit on his glorious throne, they would sit on judgment thrones, receive a hundredfold of what they left behind and inherit eternal life. But before he told today’s parable, Jesus concluded, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” This saying concludes two successive sections in Matthew, but it does not supply the meaning of today’s parable.
… A denarius would feed one’s family for a day; anything less would be subsistent pay. In the parable, the master paid every worker enough to sustain his family for a day.
The first hired were paid last because the point of Jesus’ story depended on their seeing what the last hired received. Contrasting the two extremes, the first and the last, those who worked twelve hours and those who worked one, revealed that the master was strikingly generous. Every man could feed his family.
But when the last were paid, the first calculated how much more they would be paid. Against conventional expectation, they also received a denarius, the agreed upon wage. Equal payment is why the first hired grumbled about the master’s apparent injustice, expressed in their lament, “you made them equal to us.”
Equality is what is offensive and scandalous about Jesus’ parable. Equality is what is counterintuitive and remarkable about the reign of God.[9] In God’s Kingdom there is no room for self-promotion, no occasion for competition, no basis on which one disciple can say to another, “I have no need of you” or “I am more important than you are.” The master treats all workers the same, and owing to God’s grace, there is no distinction on the Last Day.[10] Even the apostles are simply laborers in the vineyard.
The parable was a reminder to Christians, especially those with authority, who saw themselves and their congregations as special, that like the first followers of Jesus, we are all simply laborers in His vineyard.
Finally, what do Paul and Matthew teach us today? What lessons do we learn about joy and grace? Do we feel like singing Cooke’s campfire song? Do I have joy in my heart when living through unfavorable circumstances? Do we recognize the difference between generosity and grace? If imprisoned for practicing my faith, would I acknowledge that God’s ways and thoughts are higher?[11] When evildoers assail me and extract a pound of my flesh, am I confident about my deliverance, my salvation, my redemption?[12] When God shows mercy to people who damaged my reputation, am I joyful or resentful? If my fate lay in the hands of those who hate me, do I prefer life, death or God’s will? In a word, am I indifferent?
By indifference I do not mean apathy or a “who cares” or “whatever” attitude. On the contrary, holy indifference means total openness to the will of God in one’s life.  In other words, whatever God wills for me, I will strive with all my heart, mind and soul to conform to His will. I will not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short one.
How did Jesus expect His disciples to attain holy indifference? How did Paul achieve acceptance of God’s will? How did a sentenced Paul bring glory to Christ? Through a constant, dynamic prayer life which led them to total confidence in God and a willingness to give themselves wholly to the Trinity.
They were indifferent because they knew God directed them. Their love for Father, Son and Spirit was so deep that all obstacles between God and themselves were removed to the point that they knew how to use things properly, for example, money, property or talent, to glorify God. They were able to do so because they recognized that all things came from God, that all people were from God. Hence, Paul not only withstood his enemies’ inflictions, but welcomed them if they brought glory to Christ and His Gospel.
As laborers in the vineyard, we have much to learn from today’s Scriptures. We have much to learn from Paul. We can all learn from others who accept their fate and witness for Christ.
Consider what we can learn from Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman raised by her Ethiopian Orthodox mother after her Muslim father abandoned them. Her cousins claimed Meriam committed adultery and apostasy by marrying Daniel Wani, a Christian. The religious court in Sudan sentenced her to death.[13]
Meriam was always a Christian, but the prosecution claimed she should have followed the faith of her absent father. It demanded she abandon her Christian faith and believe in Islam. The judge gave her three days to do so, but she refused, arguing she was a lifelong Christian, and could not abandon her genuine personal faith at the request of a court.
Meriam’s story is tragically dramatic because when arrested she was the mother of a young boy and pregnant with a daughter. Since the court considered her son a Muslim, he could not remain with his Christian father but rather lived in a bug-infested prison cell with his “Muslim” mother. Worse, the court did not admit Meriam to a hospital to give birth. She delivered her daughter in her cell while shackled to the floor. Shockingly, the court ruled Meriam could live for two more years to nurse her daughter. When weaned, Meriam was to be hanged. … International pressure allowed the family to emigrate to New Hampshire where they live with Meriam's brother-in-law.
Imagine if a court gave you three days to embrace Islam to save your life. It was an easy choice for Meriam, but she refused, declaring: “I am a Christian and I will remain a Christian.” Yes, heroic, saintly courage still exists in our world.
While we witness demonstrations over the deaths of Palestinians used as human shields by Hamas, and the UN holds inquiries on Israel for defending itself against Hamas, why is the world silent at the barbarous slaughter of Christians in the Middle East and Africa?[14]
While demanding respect for people like Meriam and religious freedom for Christians around the world, should we not welcome trials that test our faith? Should we not pray for deliverance and holy indifference? Should we not joyfully accept what comes as long as God is glorified? Should we not rejoice that God extends His grace to those who have labored one hour to our twelve?
God’s activity insults us when we shift our gaze from our Triune God to our fellow laborers. We must pray for strength to keep our eyes fixed on God, to avoid envious eyes and see through joyful eyes His grace at work in our world, even in the midst of trials.
I conclude with a meditation found on a Confederate soldier.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity, that I might to better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need for God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for – but everything I hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered. I am among all men most richly blessed.
This week, consider how blessed you are. Thank God for your trials that you too might be most richly blessed. And when you do, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.


[1] Psalm 122
[2] I've Got the Joy Joy Joy Joy from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%27ve_Got_the_Joy_Joy_Joy_Joy
[4] Vincent M. Smiles, The Letter to the Philippians in New Collegeville Bible Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press (2009), p. 620.
[5] Philippians 2:25-30
[6] Philippians 1:12
[7] Job 13:16
[8] Smiles, 624f.
[9] Ibid., 991.
[10] Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 11:2- 20:34. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (2010), 988.
[11] Isaiah 55:9-9
[12] Psalm 27