Sermons

Sun, May 28, 2017

O Lord, it's hard to be humble

Series:Sermons

"Oh 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 hell of a man.

Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble,

but I'm doing the best that I can".

 

Pride!

Within Catholic moral thought it's one of the seven deadly sins...

and some even suggest that it's the original and most deadly of them all...

the root of all of the others.

And it's a vice that we detest in other people:

in politicians...

in celebrities...

and, especially, in our friends.

Indeed, it's a quintessential Australian trait--

the tall-poppy-syndrome--

we can't stand people with big-heads...

and, secretly, we love to see them take a fall.

Humility, on the other hand, is something that we admire.

It's something that we consider to be a cardinal virtue.

And, if we're honest... 

most of us struggle with that tension between humility and pride--

a struggle that Mac Davis parodies with that tongue-in-cheek song with which I began.

But taking our tongues out of our cheeks... 

perhaps we can identify with the American writer-- Laurence Peter--

who described humility as... 

"the embarrassment you feel when you tell people how wonderful you are". 

So often in practice...

humility becomes a sort of feigned modesty--

a deliberate playing down of our gifts...

and our abilities...

and our achievements...

which we really ought to celebrate and rejoice in.

So often, like Laurence Peter suggests...

we're too embarrassed to say who we really think that we are...

or what we think that we are capable of...

because we don't want to come across as arrogant...

or pompous...

or being too full of ourselves.

All of which brings us to today's reading from the first letter of Peter...

where the author urges us to...

"clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for 'God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble'. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time."

And that only seems to reinforce or exacerbate this tension that we feel.

Clearly, the author seems to suggest that, as followers of Christ, we ought to be humble;

we ought to feign modesty;

we ought to feel embarrassed about--

and play down-- 

our gifts and abilities and achievements;

with the implication that God will reward us if we do.

 

But is he really saying that?

 

No!

You see, within the context of the first century world--

and within the culture of the people to whom the author was writing--

it was saying something quite different.

In fact, in the ancient world, "humility" was a cardinal sin.

It was the attitude that was expected of slaves and the poor--

of those on the fringes and margins of society.

It wasn't held up to be a virtue for good, decent, ordinary folk.

In the first century world, what mattered most of all was honour--

your public reputation;

how you were perceived by your peers...

something akin to the Japanese sense of "face".

Everyone had a certain level of honour--

because of their family name and where they were born--

but they could also acquire more honour.

And the main way to do that was by challenging someone else's honour--

by insulting someone...

by besting them in court...

or by inviting them to dinner or your daughter's wedding.

If they didn't want to lose honour--

if they didn't want to lose face--

then they would have to reciprocate.

What that meant, in practice... 

was that there was this constant battle going on...

with everyone trying to better or out-do each other...

with everyone trying to earn a greater reputation at someone else's expense.

Within that world--

within that culture--

being "humble" meant that you didn't play that game;

that you didn't try to compete;

that you didn't try to acquire honour or a better reputation.

And, in reality, the only people who didn't do that were slaves...

the poor...

and those on the fringes and margins of society.

 

So, the author of First Peter was calling his readers to a counter-cultural way of life.

What he was telling them was:

don't compete with one another for honour...

don't try to out-do one another...

don't use one another to feed your ambition...

don't use one another for your self-advancement or personal gain...

don't use other people to bolster your self-image...

and don't be concerned with your public reputation.

Instead, concentrate on your standing before God.

Be concerned with how God sees you...

and with what God thinks of you.

And note what the author says in that regard:

"Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you".

God cares for you.

God loves you--

no matter how hard you try...

no matter what others might think of you or say about you...

no matter what your public reputation might be.

God cares for you, regardless.

And if God isn't concerned with your honour or reputation...

or your standing in the community...

then why should you? 

And that was significant for the first readers of this letter...

as they struggled to fit into their society...

and were subjected to abuse, ostracism, and injustice...

because they refused to worship the traditional gods of their community.

 

But what about us?

How is that relevant to us, here, today?

After all, we live in a very different world...

a world where self-esteem--

what I think of myself and how I see myself--

is paramount.

For us, it's tempting, sometimes, to try to use other people to bolster our sense of worth...

to make ourselves feel better...

or to make ourselves seem more important or more valuable.

We may not compete with each other for honour...

but sometimes we use cheap insults or put-downs--

witty one-liners--

in an effort to make ourselves appear funny...

or clever...

or the life of the party.

So much of our humour is at someone else's expense.

And subtly, we do try to compete with one another.

We do compete for a better reputation at someone else's expense...

trying to outdo each other...

like...

showing off my education and learning;

subtly advertising my philanthropic endeavours;

bragging about the achievements of my family;

the car I drive;

the outfitting of my home, or how it's maintained.

Subtly, all of us, at times, try to boost our sense of worth--

our reputation--

at the expense of others.

So the words of the author of First Peter are an important reminder:

if we try to use other people to make us feel better about ourselves...

or to gain kudos...

nobody wins from that game.

Instead, it's our standing in the eyes of God that really matters.

And that's already been decided...

long ago...

when Jesus came...

and lived...

and loved...

and died...

and rose again...

to show us the depth of God's love for us--

a love and an acceptance that is completely unearned... 

and that knows no conditions or limits.

And you know...

when we put everything in that perspective...

it's really quite humbling...

isn't it?

 

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