May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our strength, and our Redeemer. Amen.
Humility is not very fashionable. A few minutes spent watching television, or on the Internet, will tell us that. What do we share on Facebook—updates to our “status.” We share pictures of beautifully curated lives, we follow the achievements and retweet the pronouncements of the wealthy and provocative. There is an entire genre of self-portraiture, self-promotion, that has democratized the kind of self-absorption of a Louis XIV. There is even an anxiety over not participating in this competitive arena, a fear, of missing out on other’s experiences, or our own, if they are not sufficiently publicized and influential. But humility never was fashionable. That’s sort of the point, really—if it were popular, or a way to gain power and influence over others, it wouldn’t be humility.
Jesus makes the contrast plain, between His way of humility and the world’s infatuation with fame and power. The world’s values are not subtle thing, even if it walks softly, it’s always got that big stick ready: domination, being first, getting whatever you want by the necessary means. I sometimes wonder if the whole unfolding of evolution, survival of the fittest, is the working out of original sin, a sort of existential Hunger Games in which we are forced into a battle to the death with the rest of Creation. The coming of Christ into our world begins the unworking of that evil, the redemption of God’s good will. It starts, though, so small. It starts by just doing the opposite. Jesus’ way, as He has to explain over and over again to His followers, is so different from what we’ve been taught about surviving, adapting and succeeding. He had said it so many times, how unexpected God’s invitation to new life is: come to me like a little child, don’t labor to impress God with your perfection, but still the disciples are trying to fit Him back into the world’s reassuring, predictable box. It’s the world’s most predictable box, of course, a coffin, but they can’t see it.
Walking down the road one day, James and John come to Jesus and make a bid for recognition, in the vocabulary of their time and place. They want to prove their loyalty, and secure his, in return. Give us what we ask for, put us at the places of honour, make us your right and left hand men. They want this to be the kind of movement that needs a hierarchy of authority, a shadow-cabinet, ready for the revolution and the establishment of a new power structure. With infinite tenderness, and not a little grief, Jesus sets them straight. It’s not going to be like that, this is not just another regime change, taking one party in power (them) and putting another in its place (us). This is a subversion of the whole idea of power itself.
They had thought they were making progress, getting somewhere, as they gained followers and momentum. Jesus stops them in their tracks, and asks, where do you think we’re going? What do they think He’s been talking about, along the way? When He asks them, can you be baptized, with the Baptism that I am baptized with, what does He mean? He doesn’t mean a special ceremony, a celebration. He means His death—and it will not be a glorious death in battle, ushering in the victory, but a shameful death, a public execution, a humiliation of his movement and his followers. When He asks them, are you able to drink the cup that I drink, what is Jesus’ cup? Suffering. Not the noble suffering of an athlete or a warrior in training, building from strength to strength, but the pitiless, pointless suffering of a terminal case, the moment-by-moment poisoning of life and hope. All of this is going nowhere they expect, nowhere they want. But it is going, in a way they cannot understand, towards us, to a changed future, to life. Because the road they were on, the road they thought was speeding them on their way to power, the shortest distance between them and success, was carrying them inevitably to ultimate alienation from God and each other.
Power over others is isolating, we set ourselves against others and we end up alone, fearful of losing what we have and unable to trust anyone. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, the saying goes. When you’re at the top, you’ve got to watch your back constantly, keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, sleep with one eye open. God doesn’t want that for His children. Would you want it for yours? Jesus knows there is no possibility of peace, when we set ourselves in opposition to, in competition with one another. What ends that cycle, what brings us together, is humility. To serve each other truly, not just handing people things we think they ought to want and congratulating ourselves, but asking, listening, to find out what others really need.
Wonder of wonders, in this crazy, mixed-up world, there is a place where we get to do that. This is the place where we get to practice Jesus’ way, for our own healing, for the good of our community, and as a witness to the world. This is where we try out Jesus’ model of humble service, of coming together. We learn how to do it in our Godly Play story circles and youth groups, which teach us how to pay attention to our children’s needs and discoveries. We practice it in offering our members pastoral care, taking time with those who are dealing with illness or loss, making sure to include them in our common life so that they know they are not forgotten or alone in their struggles. We follow Jesus’ way in praying for and with each other in worship. He told the disciples that they would share in His Baptism of death, and His cup of suffering, and so will we. We share them in transformed ways in this place, in washing that leads to new life, in food that nourishes and brings us together. Then we take His way out into the world, feeding and clothing and visiting and teaching and testifying.
Sometimes you hear the state of our world lamented as a race to the bottom, a corruption of our standards until we reach the lowest common denominator of civilized society. But I think that Christian life, as Jesus talked about it, is its own race to the bottom. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Before we are too quick to claim our lifestyle or even our faith tradition as honorable or enviable, as exemplary or divinely approved, let’s think about how we can take our places at the back of the line, with those fortune hasn’t smiled on much lately. As Christians, our call is not, “Faster, better, stronger,” but “Slow it down, make it smaller, come close.” Slow down until we’re alongside those who can’t keep up with the world’s feverish pace. Admit, with humility, how often we fail, how we see ourselves in one another’s weaknesses. Come close enough to hear quiet voices, to take someone’s hand in love and help, to share what we have. We often hear, when we encounter stories of hardship, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” No doubt that is true. But perhaps we could also say, and make it our prayer and our action: “Here, thanks to the grace of God, go I with you, my neighbor and friend, the last and least, together.”