Sunday, October 14, 2012

Look Both Ways

Look Both Ways
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 14, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:16b
Mark 12: 38-44 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

So this week our passage from the Marks of a True Christian is the second part of verse 16, "Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly." Taking a look backward at where we've come, beginning with Romans 12: 9: 

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[1]  

There are so many good humility passages in the New Testament. The great hymn of Jesus' humility from Philippians of course, I chose that for the call to worship this morning. There were other's, too, but I finally decided upon this one, because it really I think gets at the heart of some of the issues with "haughtiness and lowliness" and how Jesus always seems to turn our preconceived notions upside down. At first glance, Part 1 seems to show the haughtiness of the Scribes, and Part 2 the Lowliness of the generous widow. Here we go, Mark 12: 38-44 

38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”  

It always seems to happen that my work at Blue Ridge seems to coincide and inform my sermons, but this week I had to fight against it on two counts. One, after our big win last week, we've been trying to work hard all week to keep our boys humble and hungry. Success and the cockiness it seems to breed is one of those things that can destroy the things that we have built this year, so that has been on my mind. The other is we've been reading The Iliad in my World Literature class, where Achilles and Agamemnon just cannot get on the same page because of their hubris, their pride, their seeing their own importance above that of the army that they lead and serve within. I had to beware of falling into the trap of going with these ideas because I learned early on in my study this week of this passage that the "haughtyness" of this passage is very different from the cockiness we were fighting against with the boys, and the selfish pride we were seeing in Achilles. Instead haughtiness deals with an inward view of self that does not usually manifest itself in cockiness and selfishness, but rather in a warped misunderstanding of self and others.
The word haughty, if we were to translate it exactly from the Greek, because it is two words in Greek, "hoopselos" which means "high, lofty, or exalted"  and then "opinion of self, to think to feel". Is haughty a pretty good translation of that: having a high opinion of yourself? I think Haughty does a pretty good job getting at that idea. The other side of it then is lowly, "tapeinos" means, "of low estate" or " low to the ground," in a state of "grieving or pain." Does lowly cover that? Yeah for once, I'm good with the translation. Even "associate with" comes from a word that means, "run with" and "hold company with." Associate is a pretty good word as well, broad enough to encompass the idea of both spending time with someone, but also being of the same state as them, being seen with them. It goes farther than just spending time with the lowly, but being associated with someone means that you are thought the same of as them. Have you ever played a "word association game." You know where someone says a word, and then the first word that comes to your mind you say. I play games like that with my students all the time. I'll say a word and then they'll all write down whatever comes to their mind first. Like I could say baseball, and then they'd say like Orioles, then they'd get an automatic A for the day, and those who said Yankees would get an F, and maybe asked to leave. No, but you get the idea. That's what association means, not only do you hang out, spend time with the lowly, but are to be thought of in the same breath as them. Association is a strong word when you think of it like this, raising the demands on the "True Christian' again, very high standards, but of course they are, they are like Jesus.

Look at the Call to Worship Philippians 2:5-8.

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6     who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7     but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

This is the perfect picture of Christ's example of humility, of not being haughty, but instead associating himself with the lowly, yes as lowly as human beings, and all of the human beings. If you look throughout the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life you get to see Jesus interacting with all types of folks. He's visited at his birth by Lowly Shepherds, and gift bearing Wise Men, Kings from the East, the ruler Herod shakes in his boots, there is a wild man crying in the wilderness, wearing his animal skins, born to a Carpenter, and his wife Mary, from the humble town of Nazareth, but travels to Egypt, Jerusalem, Tyre and Sidon, to name a few places. His followers are made up of fishermen, reformed tax collectors, revolutionaries, zealots, and converted prostitutes. He visits people in their homes, he heals the sick, the demon possessed, the bleeding, the lame, the blind, the dead, the dying, the leprous, paralyzed. He has conversations with Priests, Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, Centurions, Soldiers, Governors, Regents, Puppet Rulers, traitors, more sellout tax collectors, widows, children, orphans, adulterers, you name it Jesus chose to associate with them. The question that keeps coming through my mind is this one, did Jesus see them as types like that? Did Jesus see them as high low and in between? Did Jesus see some of them as high and other's of them as lowly, and if so which ones? This seems to be the question for us this morning because if we look at ourselves, and then we look both ways, we'll see people. Do we see some of them as higher than us and some of them as lower? What do we base that distinction on? When we get the call to go associate with the lowly, and to not be haughty, do we know who that is talking about? We know exactly who the haughty and lowly are, how very haughty of us. . . what is our basis?
Our culture sometimes makes the distinction between, "high" and "low" based on visible tangible material things. What are some of those distinguishing features? Income- Rich vs. Poor? Employment: High Salary vs. Low Salary? Blue Collar vs. White Collar? Part time vs. Full Time? Job vs. No Job? Or is it Success: Winner vs. Loser? Is it looks: Hot vs. Not? Thin vs. Fat? Is it stuff: the size of your house? The make of your car? The size of your TV screen? I could go on and on. . . is having these things mean that you are high, and not having them means you are "lowly?" If you see the world in these terms and you look both ways, you will always find people on both sides of you, some with a better job, some with a worse, some with a bigger more expensive house, some in a shack, some more successful some less. So this is calling us then to focus on those below us on the spectrum and place ourselves in and around them, be seen with them, be associated with them. Looking downward rather than upward, being there with the lowly. Hanging out with the poor and as so many of our world call it "give back." Again like most simple answers I think this simple understanding is missing the boat.
To get at why I want to look at the gospel passage. By all accounts the scribes would be considered the winners, the highly thought of. They are religious professionals, highly educated men of letters. People come to them for their wise judgment, according to the law. They are seen as experts in their field, and people come from miles around to hear what they have to say on topics of importance. It says they walk around in long robes, the trappings of success and authority, it says they like to be seen and recognized in the markets, not just in their place of business, but out in public. Their fame exists outside of the walls of their place. They sit up front where people can see them, and they have great seats when they get invited to all the parties and banquets. They are V.I.P's, but then Jesus gives their ugly, hidden, dark side, the stranger face that they do not show in public, but is all too true, they take the property of widows, but they say long prayers so that no one notices. Despite all of their highness when it comes down to it they are lower than low because they are living off the generosity and goodness of poor widows, while exploiting them. Are they the high or the low?
Then you have the widow of the second part. The poor widow who has nothing comes in while so many more people are giving large sums of money. She barely puts in a penny, a penny in two parts even. We don't even have half pennies anymore. But yet she is the one who has given more than all the others because the others gave a little out of their abundance, but she gave out of poverty giving all. Who is the lowly and who is the high?
The truth seems to be that you just cannot tell by surface oriented material based standards of distinction, so who do you associate with? The poor widow, who seems to be squared away, or the rich scribe, whose success is supported based on feeding off of people like the poor widow. Who is in the more need? Think about the list of folks Jesus associates with, it is hardly easily discernible in term of who is lowly and who is not. He associated with all people. Doesn't that save us from being haughty. We do not think highly of ourselves, and we do not think lowly or highly of others. We look both ways and we don't see high  and low, we see people and people, creations of God, made in God's image. I would suggest that if you see in terms of high and low, there is no way to not be considered haughty, unless you put and see yourself all the way at the bottom. . . but wait, perhaps that is it. What is further down than the cross? What is more lowly than that act of supreme sacrifice? Betrayed, beaten, abused, condemned, left their hanging, nails through your hands and feet, carrion for birds. Can we aim that low? Can we associate ourselves with that pit of despair? Are we willing to give up all of the things that give us status in this world, or are we too haughty?  Mark 10: 20-23:

“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  

He goes on to say that it is more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Hmmmm, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Who are the lowly and who are the high? Christ gave up all, giving up the courts of heaven to become human, giving up the thrones of humanity to become a wandering teacher, giving up the freedom of the poor to become condemned to the cross, and giving up the cross, descending into Hell, low and low and lower. Not haughty, but yet, I will close this sermon with the second half of the Philippians hymn: Philippians 2:

9     Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10     so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11     and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.  

Be not haughty, but associate with the lowly, boast not of anything except in the cross of Jesus Christ. Here is the question of association, when people think of Christians in this world do they think of the lowly humble suffering servant Christ, or do they more think of the haughty know it all scribe? When people think of us, you and I, when they play the word association game with us, are we associated with Christ, or are we also much too haughty for such a distinction? May we be given the strength to be so weak. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 12:9-16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.