A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 25, 2016
University Baptist Church
This is the first of three sermons focusing on the great words of the Prophet Micah: “What does God require of you, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” For many people, including myself, this is a life-verse. A summary of how to live ethically in the world. It’s about setting priorities. Wouldn’t it be great if the world did justice, loved mercy and walked humbly with God? Now, we can legislate justice, as long as the leaders aren’t beholden to the bribes of those who benefit from injustice. But we can’t legislate mercy or humility. Those last two are the work of those of us who seek to be the moral compass of society. That’s what the church is for. It’s about finding ways that we can do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Now, if we were honest, we are probably the best at doing justice. We know the difference between right and wrong. We know Jesus’ words that when we did unto the least of these, you did it unto me. We are good at talking justice, which should not be confused with doing justice.
We are a little less good at showing mercy. In our desire to get ahead, we don’t always care about whom we step on in our quest for power or wealth. We will often be merciful when it is convenient. When it is not, well…More about that next week.
So how are we at walking humbly with God? I think that’s the often overlooked portion of the scripture. And since it’s the hardest, I would like to start with it. So, we’re going to look at these three topics in reverse order. Next week, we’ll talk about Mercy and two weeks from now, we’ll focus on justice. Imagine if everything we did, all the mercy and justice work, actually had humility as its basis. How would our world look? Here’s the rub. We can’t really make people be merciful or humble. The change that we seek needs to start with us: Our very lives.
Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait to look in the mirror. I get better lookin’ each day.
To know me is to love me. I must be a (heck) of a man.
Oh Lord, it’s hard to the humble, but I’m doing the best that I can.
--so sang Mac Davis many years ago.
Preaching in front of you week after week is a humbling experience. It’s not because I don’t spend time preparing my sermons. But I always know that I will fall short of someone’s expectations, especially my own. I know that I can’t speak for God, but offer my own insights and limited life experience to the dialogue with you about how God would have us act in this world. I once heard Ken Sehested, former executive director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship, pray:
From the cowardice of resisting new truth;
From the laziness of being satisfied with half-truth;
From the arrogance of thinking we know all truth. Deliver us, O God.
I know that many of you have insight and life experience to make a case better than I can. Humility is knowing that we don’t have all of the answers, but are willing to engage in questions that make us uncomfortable, that challenge us, that show our growing edge.
We could use some humility in this election season. Humility is seen as weakness. But it is actually strength. “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12)
Humility means being able to admit that you are wrong. Humility means taking advice from people smarter than you. Humility means doing what is right, not what will fan the flames of a partisan electorate. Humility means not confusing yourself with God. Humility means prayerfully searching scripture for inspiration and remembering that when we did it to the least of these, we did it unto Christ.
I expect to see very little humility at tomorrow night’s debate. They have probably focused grouped it away. The scripture says humility toward God, not toward your political opponent.
Kim Bahmer, a schoolteacher and Sacred Harp singer placed this on her FB feed: “A good discussion tonight with a friend about the death of evangelicalism. Love justice, show mercy and walk humbly. Full stop. Anything else said/done in the name of faith is not the will of God. Many would actually need to abandon their faith in order to be faithful.”
Martyred Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero wrote in his book, the Violence of Love:
“We must overturn so many idols, the idol of self first of all, so that we can be humble, and only from our humility can learn to be redeemers, can learn to work together in the way the world really needs. Liberation that raises a cry against others is no true liberation. Liberation that means revolutions of hate and violence and takes the lives of others or abases the dignity of others cannot be true liberty. True liberty does violence to self and, like Christ, who disregarded that he was sovereign, becomes a slave to serve others.”
Today’s scripture from Hebrews tells us why we are to be humble. The writer says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality, for you might be entertaining angels unawares.” That’s good sound advice. It’s part of the ethic of inclusiveness that pervades the scriptures.
In Sacred Community, we welcome strangers as if they were angels. That’s humbling work. We are judged by how we include, not how we exclude. An angel is a bridge between God and us. Emissaries. Angels relay divine messages and hold up a mirror to us. We miss opportunities for holiness when we refuse to welcome the stranger.
And so we welcome a rainbow of people, humbly knowing that one of them might be Christ. To do so is to be humble. It is to be like Christ.
The ultimate story of the strangers was when God sent angels to visit the sinful towns of Sodom and Gomorrah. They did not appear like angels. They appeared like traveling strangers. The people of Sodom, however treated them with suspicion and violence. They grabbed them and sought to lynch them, all because they were threatening strangers. They were strangers and therefore a threat, we need to protect our own. The book of Ezekiel said of Sodom: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) Does this sound at all familiar?
Do not neglect to show hospitality, for you might be entertaining angels unawares.
It’s easy to love the family and friends in your community. But the writer of Hebrews says that if love is to be genuine, or worthy, or at all helpful, we need to expand our love beyond our comfort zone. For God’s love is a boundary dancing love that tiptoes on the edge of acceptance and blasts us into new territory, like stepping off a cliff, or stepping into off the curb and onto the street of a protest march.
51 years ago, Howard Johnson joined thousands on others on the streets of Selma, humbly seeking to guarantee voting rights for all. Many people did not see them as humble at the time, but they were willing to put their lives on the line for someone else. That’s the ultimate humility. They knew that their suffering would usher in a new future, for it would expose the brutality of their opponents.
We had fun with the skittles this morning. But we need to do more to combat arrogance. We need to say that humility is the way of God. It is good news. It is redemptive.
The writer of Hebrews says:
Welcome the strangers.
Remember those in prison.
Don’t become obsessed with money.
Remember those who taught you and try to be like them.
Do good, share what you have and please God.
Cancer is a great humbler. It plays with our myth of immortality. It reminds us that we are only in control of some things. And those things that we can control, we will. But ultimately, we are only in control of our reactions to the disease. That is a lot. We wish it was more and that cancer did not come into our lives. But it reminds us that we need to do what will help us on the path toward healing. We need to do that which will release serotonin and endorphins, all those wonderful God-given enzymes that help with healing. And so, we pay a little more attention to beauty. We need to do what gives us life. We need to hold people close. We need to remember that we cannot confront this alone. We need doctors, and nurses and integrative medicine practitioners, and cooks and prayer warriors and friends, and people who will make us laugh and will hear us cry. We need people who will point us in a better direction. We need to remember that God is there and that we are not alone. Just as there is a force more powerful than ourselves that seeks to destroy us, there is an even greater force that seeks to bring us to health, be it physical, emotional, spiritual or psychically. This is the power that we are clinging to. We see it in you. We feel it in music. We experience it in the beauty of the changing colors and the joy of our dog when we arrive home and might take her for a walk. We experience it in a candle-lit meal that makes us stronger and points us toward tomorrow.
The hymn writer Ira Stanphill said it best:
I don't know about tomorrow
I just live for day to day
I don't borrow from the sunshine
For it's skies may turn to gray
I don't worry o'er the future
For I know what Jesus said
And today I'll walk beside Him
For He knows what lies ahead
Many things about tomorrow
I don't seem to understand
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand
Ev'ry step is getting brighter
As the golden stairs I climb
Ev'ry burden's getting lighter
Ev'ry cloud is silver lined
There the sun is always shining
There no tear will dim the eye
At the ending of the rainbow
Where the mountains touch the sky
Many things about tomorrow
I don't seem to understand
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand
Humility is knowing that we are not God, that we cannot accomplish anything on our own. We are all part of a community. We need each other. We cannot succeed without each other. There was a world triathlon championship recently. About 400 meters from the finish, the leader started staggering. He was obviously exhausted, probably a bit dehydrated. I’ve been there. I remember at the end of a marathon when it was 100 degrees and humid. I was within a few hundred yards of the finish line and someone came up to me and said, “sir are you okay?” I said, “no, but I’m gonna finish.” Well, this guy had lost the ability to speak. The second place person passed him. Then the third place racer, who happened to be his brother, put his arms around him and held him up for the last few hundred feet. By touching this other runner he probably disqualified himself, but he pushed his brother over the finish line, assuring that he came in second to his third.
My friends, living a Christian life means that we are to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. But without humility justice becomes vindictive. Without humility, mercy becomes selfishness. But with humility comes real power, because we are dovetailed with God’s power. It’s about remembering that God is in control, not us. And when we can humbly walk with God, then we might see the world with new eyes. We might even see ourselves in a new and redemptive light.
You know what is good, says the prophet Micah, What does the lord Require of you, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. May we humbly seek so to do.