by Emily Carson
The Apostle Paul speaks to us this morning about a personal trait that often gets overlooked in the world today. And this trait was apparently not all that popular among the culture of Paul's original audience either. He speaks about humility.
And while his words are certainly inspiring to hear, they are very challenging to live out. They are challenging because we live in a culture that asks us to be just about anything but humble. One evening of watching this week's new season of prime time television reveals that we live in a world that sends us quite a lot of messages about what we 'should' be. We are bombarded with advertisements and programs uplifting the importance of beauty, confidence, intelligence, power and wealth. But I have yet to watch a commercial advertising a single product that will make me more humble.
And very rarely are the heroes and heroines of my favorite shows - Desperate Housewives and The Office - celebrated for their deep desires to put others' interests first. A humble heart is apparently just not all that marketable. And the news media is no exception. In this time of economic distress and political uncertainty, we are led by the media to be a people of suspicion, anger, and even utter fear at where the world is headed. But no where in any of all this drama, do we hear broadcast how helpful an attitude of humility, patience, and concern for the other might be in the midst of such turmoil.
It isn't just commercials, news, and television that ignore the value of humility. Sometimes, or maybe all too often, we do it in the church, too. There are so many interviews and applications we fill out in the church and in life - for candidacy, employment, and assignment. In fact, just last week many of us had our senior interviews. And over the last few years, I've learned that it is quite a frequent practice in the candidacy and assignment processes to be asked the question, "What are some of your greatest strengths for ministry?" And, I'll just be honest, I've never answered that question by mentioning how humble I am. Probably because I'm not convinced society believes it's a legitimate character trait these days.
We are taught to be many things throughout our entire education from preschool on up: intelligent, positive, outgoing, organized - just to name a few. But where exactly does humility fit into the picture of who we are striving to become as leaders of the church? It isn't the sort of quality we directly talk much about. And maybe that's because we have forgotten what it means.
This year at the library, one of my jobs is to weed some of the older books out of the collection. And as I was stamping a bold "WITHDRAW" in the inner cover of an old Oxford Dictionary, I thought to look up the word, 'humility.' And I can't say I was very uplifted by what the dictionary had to say. Humility: lowly, meek, thinks of others as better than oneself, the opposite of pride. Not a particularly glamorous definition with synonyms like 'lowly' and 'meek.' So, as I always do when I don't like what a word means in English, I look and see what it meant in the original Greek. And, not so surprisingly, the Greek word for humility means just the same thing the English word means.
So, I guess when Paul tells us to be humble, he means what he says, glamorous or not. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul points directly at Christ as the one who truly embodied humility. And as we all know, that life of service, generosity, and submission to God's will - even when it's difficult - led him down a difficult path leading to death. But through the power of God, Jesus was raised from that death. And as Paul says in today's text - God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.
In trying to understand what humility is all about, it is vital to understand that humility does not mean 'becoming a doormat' which is one of the negative stereotypes working against humility. Jesus' life shows us that he was certainly no doormat - he lived out strong values of justice and peace, and he certainly wasn't afraid to stand up to the status quo. But Jesus always put God's will first which is the real mark of a humble servant. Humility is about setting aside one's own agenda and surrendering to redemptive work of our Creator.
When I think about what have been my personal roadblocks to living out of a truly humble heart - I realize that I oftentimes forget to be humble and place God's will before my own because I'm too busy trying to prove my worth. I want to prove I'm smart enough to live among brilliant seminarians and professors. And articulate enough to speak up in class. And good enough at gestures to lead worship. And funny enough to keep up with all the witty people around here. And pastoral enough to impress my candidacy committee. And all that proving takes a lot of time and energy. And truthfully, it's all pretty ineffective - because Jesus did all the proving that would ever be necessary when he defeated death and was raised to new life so that we would stop trying to prove how worthy we are. Christ was raised from the dead that we might be freed from the bonds of selfishness, inadequacy, and complacency - and each new day is an opportunity to reclaim that freedom. For it is that freedom we find the courage to be truly humble the way Paul describes - to be of the same mind and the same love - to look out for the interests of all our neighbors - and finally, to place the gracious will of God before our own personal desires and plans.
May the living Christ within us all be revealed as a Church that overflows with true humility. Amen.
Philippians 2: 1-13