Walk humbly with God

Sermon Reflection at Washington Community Fellowship
Common Lectionary Readings:
Is. 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matt. 3:13-17

For all who wish to follow Jesus in a way that changes the world, there is one unmistakable theme that runs through the Common Lectionary readings for this second Sunday in January — humility.  Humility is vital to our relationship with God, to our relationships with one another, and for our engagement with God’s world.

One of the great things about living in the Middle East is the gift of thousands of years of history.  History offers many stories of human courage and accomplishment.  But history is also filled with humbling stories that remind us of human frailty, of our tendency to try to play God, and of our propensity to stray from what we know to be good and right and true.

Less than half a mile from the MCC office in Amman, there is a large hill topped by the Citadel.  Inside the Citadel, one can see the remaining pillars of the Temple of Hercules and other 2nd century Roman ruins.  Indeed, Persian, Roman and Ottoman ruins are scattered across the Middle East and serve as sobering reminders that great civilizations — great world powers — rise and fall.

Temple of Hurcules -- 2nd Century Roman Ruins in Amman

A thousand years before the Romans built their Citadel in modern-day Amman, this same hill was the site of the battle where King David ordered Joab to put Bathsheba’s husband Uriah “in the front line where the fighting is fiercest” — so that he would get killed (II Sam. 11:15).  I see this hill often on one of my running routes in Amman.  It helps me remember the tangled webs we weave when we try to cover up sin rather than confess it.

The Lectionary readings for this Sunday focus on several aspects of humility.

Humility means that we learn to embrace a servant identity. The Old Testament reading is one of four “Servant Songs” found in the book of Isaiah.  These songs describe the character of God’s servant – and can refer both to the people of God and to Christ.  It is a beautiful text:

  • God chooses and delights in this servant (Is. 42:1).  This is no ordinary master-servant affiliation – it is a loving relationship.
  • God upholds and keeps this servant, who lives by the power of God’s Spirit and is a light for the nations (vv. 1, 6).
  • God’s servant strives for justice (vv. 1, 3).
  • God’s servant is not loud or showy.  “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.” (v.2)
  • God’s servant shows compassion to the weak and vulnerable. “A bruised reed he will not break,” writes Isaiah, “and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” (v.3) This compassionate servant seeks sight for the blind and release for the prisoner (v.7).
  • God’s servant is persistent in carrying out God’s mission.  “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.” (v.4)
  • Humility means that we learn to embrace a servant identity.  That’s not an easy message for us.  Frankly, we prefer more catchy and prominent titles than “servant.”  After all, we can do much greater good when we are in charge, right?  But the long and short of it is that we are God’s servants, not God’s supervisors.

    Have you ever sent an email to the wrong person because your email program tried to outsmart you?  You thought that you typed “Dr. Curt Thompson” in the “To” line of your confidential email and an hour later you get a response from your boss “Curt Taylor,” stating, “No he will not prescribe an anti-psychotic medication for you – even though, based on your work performance, you could probably use one.”

    We’re like that sometimes.  We think we know best. We’ll just help God along.

    If we are interested in being part of God’s strategic plan, if we want to be part of the amazing enterprise of God’s work, we do so as God’s servants, not as God’s advisers.  The biblical narrative is clear about this:  We don’t so much choose our roles as God chooses us.  Just think about Abram and Sarah, David, the prophets, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the disciples of Jesus.

    Being God’s servants may mean working in a behind-the-scenes role or a very public role.  The issue is being faithful to the role the Master calls us to.

    In 2009 a young man named Brent Stutzman graduated from Bethel College in Newton, Kansas, with a degree in biology.  Brent signed up with Mennonite Central Committee to spend a year in Jordan working at the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf.

    Mohammad and Brent

    The Institute assigned Brent to their deaf-blind unit. Brent had no previous experience working with children with special needs. But he now spends most of his day working with a young man named Muhammad who is both deaf and blind.  In the Middle East, persons with disabilities are often seen as a shame on their family.  Often they are hidden at home.  Rarely are their gifts developed – as was the case with Muhammad – whose previous teachers did not consider him capable of learning very much.

    Brent quickly discerned that Muhammad was actually very bright.  Brent communicates with Mohammad through the touch of fingers to palm.  It is hard to imagine a more obscure role – and yet Brent loves what he is doing so much that he extended his volunteer commitment for another two years. He is teaching Mohammad many Arabic words, how to sign, how to walk to the store and other life skills.  More importantly, Brent is slowly helping to change a cultural attitude about people with disabilities.

    We are God’s servants; God is not our servant.  God chooses us.  God sets the agenda.

    Humility means that we learn to embrace our enemies. The history of hostility between Jews and Gentiles is well-documented.  That’s what makes today’s reading from Acts 10 so fascinating.

    In the verses before today’s reading, God appears to Peter in a vision to prepare him for an assignment.  A large sheet containing unclean animals descends from heaven and a voice tells Peter to “kill and eat.” Like any good Jew, Peter declares: “Surely not, Lord, I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:14) But the voice persists.

    While Peter is trying to make sense of all this, servants of Cornelius arrive where Peter is staying and invite him come to their master’s house.  Now Cornelius was a Gentile – on top of that, a Roman centurion.  Jews were forbidden from going to the homes of Gentiles.

    But Peter does not hesitate.  He returns with the men to the home of Cornelius.  By this time, Cornelius has gathered his family and friends to hear all that Peter has to say.  And that is where the text today begins: “Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.’” (vv.34-35)

    This is a major breakthrough in the life of the early Jewish-Christian community – embracing the notion that God loves and accepts their enemies.

    Why? Because enemies, too, are created in God’s image.  Why?  Because God loves the whole world. Why? Because God has no favorites.  In his message to the household of Cornelius, Peter describes how Jesus is Lord of all and how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil (vv. 36-38).  He ends his sermon with this very interesting quote from the prophets: “Everyone (by implication, not just the Jews) who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (v.43)  It’s almost as if the scales fall from Peter’s eyes and for the first time he sees the Gentiles as his sisters and brothers.

    Humility calls us to come to the place where we accept that God cares about people that we don’t like very much; that God loves even our enemies.

    In the 1980’s Saddam Hussein developed a systematic campaign to empty out 4,500 Kurdish villages in northern Iraq.  Some 200,000 Kurds died in Saddam’s “Anfal” campaign and hundreds of thousands more were displaced.  In 2004, a Kurdish man named Dana Hassan attended the Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) at Eastern Mennonite University.  Dana is the executive director of REACH – a Kurdish non-governmental organization (NGO) that operates a variety of health and development projects in northern Iraq.  The concepts Dana learned at SPI have dramatically changed the way that he runs REACH today.

    One of many small Kurdish villages nestled in the mountains of northern Iraq

    In 2008 Mennonites in Canada and the United States shipped some $2 million in material resources to Iraq – relief kits, school kits, blankets and more.  REACH was one of the NGOs through whom MCC distributed these resources.   About five miles from REACH headquarters in Suliemaniyeh, is an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp where 62 Sunni Muslim families from Baghdad now live.  Because of their associations with Saddam’s Baath party, they no longer feel safe to live in Baghdad, so they have fled to northern Iraq.  Only problem is, they are not welcomed in northern Iraq either.

    Dana Hasan with MCC worker Evanna Hess

    When REACH received MCC’s material resources, Dana told his staff that some of the relief kits and blankets would go to the Sunni IDP camp.  His idea nearly created a staff revolt.  “We’re not giving any of these goods to the people who gassed our ancestors,” they insisted.  But Dana used this opportunity to remind his staff that, in spite of the terrible things some of the Baathists had done in the past, the people in the IDP camp were human beings in need.  And that, as an NGO, REACH had a responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance based on human need – not on whether or not they liked the recipients.  It was a powerful example to us of learning to forgive and serve one’s enemies.

    Humility means that we learn to embrace our enemies.  We do so because God loves them – and because God calls us to do the same.

    Humility means we recognized that our ministry flows from the power of God’s Spirit. There are few stories in the Gospels that more clearly demonstrate the humility of Jesus than this story of his baptism.  John the Baptist had become a popular preacher and baptized many.

    There is a spot in the Jordan River where scholars believe that many of these baptisms took place — including the baptism of Jesus.  On the Jordanian side of this site, Jordan’s King Abdullah recently donated land to various Christian denominations so they can build churches at the baptism site.  Cindy attended the dedication of the Anglican sight last spring.

    Now John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.  So there was no apparent reason for Jesus to be baptized.  And yet he insisted on doing so.  And God confirmed his choice.  When Jesus “came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,* with whom I am well pleased.’” (Matt. 3:16-17)

    What a powerful moment that must have been!  And, of course, the baptism of Jesus was the beginning of his powerful ministry of teaching, healing and confronting the forces of evil and injustice.  It was a ministry that flowed from the power of God’s Spirit – as is also indicated in the readings from Isaiah and Acts.

    God’s Spirit – God’s anointing — does not rest on the proud and haughty.  So if being in the limelight, if appearing to be important, if being in control, is our cup of tea – then we best be prepared to operate on our own strength.

    God uses most powerfully those who are most fully surrendered to God’s purposes.  Think of the many biblical examples:

    • The reluctant young prophet Isaiah: “Here am I, send me.” (Is. 6:8)
    • Teenage Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel: “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38).
    • Jesus in Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mk. 14:36)
    • Peter’s willingness to go to the house of the Gentile Cornelius — in spite of his upbringing that taught him otherwise.

    Humility gives power to our ministry because it keeps the focus on God’s power and God’s purposes — not on us.  And yet our role is not insignificant.

    The late Archbishop Oscar Romero said:

    This is what we are about:
    We plant seeds that one day will grow.
    We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
    We lay foundations that will need further development.
    We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
    We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
    This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
    It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
    We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
    We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
    We are prophets of a future not our own.

    Humility means that our ministry flows from the power of God’s Spirit.

    I doubt that there is a person in this sanctuary who doesn’t want their life to make a positive difference in this world.  The Common Lectionary readings for this week offer this good news:  It is possible to do so.  But not by being full of ourselves.

    Maybe humility seems like a strange strategy for changing the world.  On the other hand, we don’t need to look very far to realize that arrogance hasn’t done a very good job of it.

    In Jesus, God has shown us the way to leave a mark on history.  It is by learning to embrace our role as God’s servants.  It is by learning to embrace our enemies as God’s beloved.  It is by learning to minister through the power of God’s Spirit.  By God’s grace, may this be our experience in 2011.

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