Humility, Sabbath and Stewardship
Passage: Joel 2:23-29, Luke 18:9-15
Date: October 24, 2004
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Vischer
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Once a pastor was asked to speak for a certain charitable organization. After the meeting the program chair handed the pastor a check. The pastor was a bit embarrassed, "Oh, I couldn't take this! I appreciate being asked to speak. You have better uses for this money. You apply it to one of those uses." The program chair asked, "Well, do you mind if we put it into our Special Fund?" The pastor said, "Of course not. That is the special fund for?" The chairperson said, ‘It's so we can get a better speaker next year."
That's a story about being made humble! Now, I'd like to tell you a story about recently meeting one of my heroes (who, incidentally, is a great speaker!) --Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children's Defense Fund. For many years, I have been uplifted by her advocacy for children and her writings, which include some wonderful prayers for and by children. "The Children's Sabbath" idea came from the Children's Defense Fund, and Marian's son, Jonah Edelman, the founder of Stand for Children, preached here 2 years ago, on the Children's Sabbath.
I was thrilled to meet my hero face-to-face. But what was most impressive to me about her, was that despite her name recognition and awards and a certain amount of fame, that evening, she was most concerned with supporting the high schools students who were sharing the stage with her. In her actions and in her words, her concern for justice for children rang through, and I realized that whatever power she had-- was at the service of kids!
Some people (like me) consider her great!
"Bt the great shall be humbled and the humbled shall be exalted!"
On this "Children's Sabbath" Sunday, in the midst of an important election, let's focus some time contemplating the meaning of humility, Sabbath and stewardship.
Humility, in the Biblical sense, isn't about a being modest. Humility is about realizing our dependence upon God, not depending upon our own efforts and self-satisfaction. Humility is the ability to know ourselves as God knows us.
Look at the example of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It's tempting to read the Pharisee as a villain, but in fact, he was upstanding, righteous, disciplined and working hard to follow his religion. On the other hand, the tax collector was working for an oppressive foreign government, collecting heavy taxes from his own people. He was a political traitor and religiously unclean. But it was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who was "justified" by God. The Pharisee was self-satisfied; satisfied with and proud of his own efforts. The tax collector was the one "justified" , by his honest admission of sin and his need for God.
I don't know about you-but lately, as the election date looms, and as dire warnings fill the airwaves and newspapers-as I have read ballot measures and done phone banking and studied the issues to be voted upon, it's been hard to feel a sense of peace or reassurance that God will be at work on Nov. 3 (or whenever the election results are finalized.) And I'm concerned with how, as a nation, we'll live with each other, if the votes are as divided as predicted.
As I have read the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, I've been aware of the caution in the story: "be careful that you are not so full of your own righteousness that you judge others wrongly, and so, harden your heart against your neighbor and God." I'm uncomfortably aware, as I read this story, that most times I'm more like the Pharisee and less like the tax collector. The arrogance and judgment the Pharisee exhibits is like attitude my grandpa Archie called "having the big eye on yourself and the little eye on everyone else."
Self-righteousness eclipses love. The Gospel does just the opposite: Compassion and love transforms us and sends us into the world to serve. We have our being and grace in God, not in our own efforts. This is underlined the by example in Luke, of parents bringing their babies to be touched and loved by Jesus, and being rebuked by the disciples.
Maybe today, when we are in such a tense time, we can sympathize with what the disciples may have been thinking when they told parents to stop "bothering" Jesus with their infants:
"This is not the time or place for such a ministry! Investing time and attention on these children won't help us in our immediate need! These are serious, urgent times! Jerusalem lies ahead, controversies are afoot; the enemy is threatening; tensions are mounting! So, get these babies out of here! Children underfoot can delay the coming of God's kingdom! "
But that thinking is far from understanding the nature of God's kingdom! The kingdom is not about accomplishment, or merit-(or even about winning the next election!)
The acceptance of the tax collector's humble prayer (and not the Pharisee's self-righteousness), and Jesus' welcome of the children, shows that we receive God's kingdom without claim or boast, without recitals of deeds or gifts. Babies come with nothing and are utterly dependant upon the care of their parents-- and so are a wonderful illustration of how we receive and how we need God!
Jesus reversed the conventional wisdom about children-to care for, to help, to love the little children, is to welcome the coming kingdom and to welcome its present impact through Jesus!
How do we keep perspective? How do we keep humble when we are working to do the right things? That's where "sabbath" and "stewardship" come in.
The great Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, gave several reasons for Sabbath. Two of the reasons he gave for observing Sabbath, were so that we can meditate upon God's work in our lives and so that we do not oppress those who work for us.
"Sabbath" can give us the perspective we need. When we pause and meditate upon God's work in our lives, we open our hearts. We acknowledge our relationship to God- our relationship to our neighbors and all of creation! In Sabbath, we reconnect with God's good creation and our "humble" part in it. Which leads us to-stewardship.
"Stewardship" is another Biblical concept that has to do with all parts of our lives. The more we commit ourselves to a spiritual life, the more consciously we live out our faith in all aspects of life. As our lives are shaped by God, our values are transformed. The writer of Luke expressed it as "the great shall be humbled and the humble shall be made great." Stewardship, from the Christian Biblical ethic, is about using all our resources, including our power and our votes, in the service of the powerless.
In Sister Joan Chittister's Commentary on St. Benedict , she wrote:
". . .Humility is the ability to know ourselves as God knows us and to know that it is the little we are this is precisely our claim on God. . . Humility then is the foundation for our relationship with God, our connectedness to others, our acceptance of ourselves, our way of using goods of the earth and even our way of walking through the world, without arrogance, without domination, without scorn, without put-downs, without disdain, without self-centeredness. The more we know ourselves, the gentler we will be with others."
I want to close with a story a friend of mine told. He was on a downtown bus when he saw a boy who looked about 8 years old get on and move to the back of the bus. My friend was a little concerned, because the boy looked barely old enough to be on the bus by himself. Then an elderly man with a cane got carefully onto the front of the bus. The boy set his backpack down on the seat and went all the way up to the front of the bus, helped the man with the cane into a seat and then stood by, ready to help. While none of the other adults had gone to help this man, the boy who looked vulnerable himself, had gone out of his way to help the man.
Humility is the foundation of our connectedness to others, and the foundation of our connection to God. Pastor and writer, Robert Drinan, wrote,
"Justice is not an abstract word about law or rights. In the present world situation, justice is another word for love. If a Christian believer fails to be involved in insisting on social justice around the world, he or she is lacking in the one essential ingredient of Christianity-love."
What if today, and each day-we could walk through the world without self-centeredness, without arrogance, without scorn; what if we could walk through with humility and joy and gentleness? What would our lives and the world be like then?