Sunday, February 19, 2017

Humility and Shining

Humility and Shining
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 19, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Philippians 2: 5-16

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

I’m breaking from the Lectionary this morning. . . I’ve never been all that disciplined to it in the first place. But this morning I wanted to preach from one of my favorite epistles. Ever since Seminary, this epistle, the Letter to the Philippians has always been my favorite. It holds so many of the great and memorable lines and quotations. So many that I wanted to include a second portion in addition to the New Testament Lesson.  I’ll read in a moment, as the Prayer of Meditation this morning, containing that famous phrase, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” And the other leading up to that, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. . .

Just beautiful, but this morning I want to look at something that has been on my mind this week. We are called to live out a strange dichotomy as Christians of having humility and at the same time letting our lights shine; being humble, knowing the weakness and meekness that makes us up, but in the idea that the weak become strong through the power of Jesus Christ, knowing and living into the amazing things that we can do with Christ’s perfect strength, not shrinking from them. Listen to this morning’s reading. In it you will hear one of the great hymns of the humble example of Christ, but then following straight after is yet another call to for us to let our lights shine, rather than hiding them under a bushel to bring us back to the Sermon on the Mount, like we’ve been looking at the last few weeks. Listen, Philippians 2: 5-16

Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
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.
12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
14 Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. 1It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.

Perhaps the thing that I am the absolute worst at in all the world, above all else, is selling myself. Do you have that problem, too? I can sell an idea, I can sell the greatness of someone else, I can even stand in front of a group of teenage boys and sell Dante, Homer, Virgil, Socrates, Keats and Wordsworth, Jesus, even Shakespeare, I can even stand in front of you all and sell Shakespeare, and perhaps if you can do that you can sell ice to an eskimo or however the story goes, but I have the worst time selling myself. And it’s strange because it is usually caught up in the dichotomy I want to talk about this morning. We as Christians, as children of God, as disciples and followers of Christ have a double legacy, a conflict that we must live in and find our way through. In one way we are called to emulate Christ, in his humility. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was equal to God, did not regard his equality as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, in human form, like a slave, he humbled himself to the point of death. . . it’s very much like turning the other cheek, right, going along. . . it is the meek for instance whom inherit the Earth afterall, right. . . But on the other side, there is this call, and it is just as constant as the call to humility, that calls us to let our lights shine, let the Light of Christ Shine, for you are the Light of the World, a royal priesthood, the children of God, those whom in Christ, Christ can do all things. . . both ideas are here in this epistle back to back, being humble like Christ, and then shining like stars in the world. . . so how do you know, when to be humble, and when to let your light shine.
There is nothing that drives me more crazy than someone who is arrogant, who is constantly talking about how great they are, what they’ve done, what they’ve accomplished, one of those who is a one upper,  you know the type, who always has a story, you tell a story, and they have one, that always is one upping it, and it would be fine if it were only once and a while, but no it is every time. . . there was this SNL skit a number of years ago, with Kristen Wiig, the character’s name was Penelope, and she’d sit there and twirl her hair, and any time someone would say anything, she’d just twirl away and one up it. . . someone would say I have a dog, and she’d say oh yes, I have a dog, it’s a big dog, probably bigger than yours, so. . . ok. . . . and then the person would say oh yeah I have a cat too, and Penelope would say, Yes I have a cat, I actually have two cats, so that’s ok that’s better than yours, and one of them happens to be a tiger, so. . . You know the type, and the reason the sketch is so funny is we all know someone who is like that. . . it’s the worst, and part of being humble is to avoid being that.
We also cannot turn the tv on without seeing athletes, celebrities, politicians, talking heads, everyone, is so sure, that they absolutely know, they know what you should do, what you should care about, what you should think. . . and it doesn’t matter how wrong they were a week ago, they are talking again, and just as sure that they are right, and that they know. . . and they are paid to be arrogant. . . and we find that odious . . . and so with those types of things always in the back of your mind. . . and more. . . how do you ever begin to sell yourself? How often do you hold back even though you do have a story because you don’t want to be “that guy”? How often do you hold back the idea you have because you don’t want to appear a know it all. . . where is the line?
How do you, in a world where everyone is being aggressive and where arrogance sells, how do you find a way in, how do you let your light shine? How do you begin to sell yourself, while still holding on to your conscience, that voice in your head that wonders, did I cross a line there? Did I just become what I disdain? It’s hard. . . but we are called to let our lights shine, and frankly the world needs us to let our lights shine. . .
I was watching a movie this week, maybe you have seen it, it is called “Thirteen Days”. . . . it was probably made about 10 years ago or so. . . it is about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Kevin Costner plays Kenny O’Donnell, President Kennedy’s special political advisor, and with Bobby Kennedy, the three of them plus the whole cabinet, wade through the Thirteen Days where we were closer than we’ve ever been to Nuclear War. . . it is a fascinating movie because it shows the inner workings of the White House, the cabinet, security advisors, Joint-Chiefs, handling of the Press—fascinating in today’s world, thinking of the turmoil of the last two weeks with our new executive branch. . . but who wants to go there, especially in a sermon about the odiousness of arrogance, right?. . . . but there is this point where the three of them, JFK, RFK and O’Donnell, are talking, unwinding, being second guessed by every military advisor they have, all much older men. . . and JFK says, “it kinda makes you wonder why we wanted this job in the first place,” and O’Donnell jokes at first saying it was for the money. . . . then laughs and says, you know why we wanted it, because we knew that we could do it better than any one else.
That stuck with me because that is the way you have to think about it if you are going to shine your light. And that is not arrogant, he didn’t mean it that way, he just had the resolve, to know that he was called to the action, and that skills he was given by God were right, exactly right, the perfect fit for that time and place. . . I don’t know if that happened in real life with Kennedy, but it was powerful for me this week.
Humility is a funny thing, because it really can work like an excuse for hiding our light under a bushel. False humility where you sell yourself short, either in your own mind, or out loud to others. We were talking about humility in class. . . as the opposite of pride. . . as if pride is thinking too highly of yourself, so I asked them what they thought humility was, and most of them said, thinking too low of yourself. . . as if it was just as much of a character flaw as pride, as opposed to a virtue, humility like that is not a virtue at all, in the Old Testament, we see Moses selling himself short to God, we wouldn’t call that humility, we’d call it fear, cowardice. . . not a virtue at all, but a scared hiding of his light. . . so I posed the idea, perhaps humility, if it is a virtue, that the virtue of humility is actually self awareness, to know and accept your faults, but also know your strengths, to know and appreciate the gifts you’ve been given. It made a lot of sense to me and to them, in theory it’s great, but in practice, we still feel the need to hold back.
And here is the shame of it, too, we think, we assume, we believe that other people already know, that they already see our light burning, because we know ourselves so well, we’re sure that we’ve already let them know, and to repeat it would just be laying it on too thick. . . I actually think that social media makes this phenomenon so much worse, but it was bad to begin with, but with our cyber lives, we put things up, ads for ourselves, and we assume that everyone knows everything that we have posted online. . . but what percentage do they actually know, we are never sure. . . we think they do, but people really don’t know us, we don’t know each other, even as well as we think we do, and I promise you that other people actually think about you much, much less than you think they do. There is a great quote about it, and I looked and looked for it but couldn’t find it, but it is about the idea when you are young you think everyone is thinking about you, so you care what others think, but as you get older, you realize no one was thinking about you at all. . . . that’s true, but we sell ourselves short often because we think other people already know, we assume. . . and we fall into this trap of false humility, selling ourselves short.
Here is the other side of it too, I don’t think it is just ourselves, I think we run into this same trap, at church, when we think about evangelism. . . no one wants to be the pushy Christian, the flashy Christian, the arrogant, self-righteous Christian, so we rarely talk about Jesus, our faith, or our church with others. We hold back, even though for many of us, it is a central and irreplaceable piece of our lives, the very foundation it all stands on. You all give so much to this church. . . . it is a part of you, but how often do you feel comfortable inviting someone else into it, into this world, for a Sunday morning, for some other occasion, or simply for a conversation about what we are all about. . . and just like we assume people know us, we also assume that people know what church is about, but they don’t. People have no clue, and they want to know, and I honestly think that I want us to be the ones to tell them. . . . I even have trouble saying that without feeling that humility alarm go off. . . but I do, there are so many misconceptions out there about who Jesus is, what church is, what the message is, what the challenges are. . . I happen to believe in my very core, that what we say, what we hold up as Presbyterians, our Reformed Understanding of faith is the needed message in our world, but why do we hold that message back?
I want us as brothers and sisters in Christ to really think about this, both on a personal and on a church level. . . I think we can really help each other with this, make each other comfortable with sharing our stories, each others stories, to become a church that celebrates our gifts, each other’s gifts, our own gifts, and the gifts that we as this little church have to offer the world, or at least our immediate community. . . and maybe that can then help us encourage each other to share our message, our unique message, a witness of the very Lordship of Jesus Christ with world. We need to learn to help each other as Brothers and Sisters in Christ to live out the famous quote by Mariane Williamson:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.  

Let us seek in the next few weeks, and maybe to start to find tangible ways, during Lent, to do just that, 40 days, of shining lights would be an amazing start. Let’s begin thinking today about what we can do. If you have ideas let me know, I’ll be thinking too, and maybe, just maybe we can plan something meaningful for Lent to push this forward. Ash Wednesday is in 10 days. . . let’s think until then. . . that night with ashes on our forehead, having been reminded of our mortality and weakness, we be set free to begin something very real. Until then. . . amen.