Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Sermon July 3, 2017 3rd Sunday after Trinity

1 Peter 5: 5    The Humble Brag 

‘I am the most humble person in the world!’  We know immediately there is something wrong with that statement — even if we’re not quite sure what.  If someone is humble they do not think of themselves in comparison to others.  In fact, the person who makes that statement is ironically prideful about their humility — which means that he or she is basically not humble.   There is an interesting variation on pride which I have run into recently; it has been coined as the humble brag.  The person who humble brags gets to blow his or her horn and yet appears on the surface as being humble. It can go something like this, “I am so humbled and honoured to be awarded this great award or honour.  I don’t deserve it but it is wonderful to be able to do the great things that I have done.”  In effect the person is saying, “aren’t I wonderful I   have done these great things and am humble as well.  Quite a neat trick, the humble-brag. 

Today’s first reading sets out a very stark contrast between pride and humility, “all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble”.  Peter is very clear – God exalts in the humble and not the proud. 
This is a change from the assured Peter who proudly claimed that he would never desert Jesus.  And we know Jesus had him pegged, “Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’”

Pride does not get very good press in the bible.  Here are a few of the verses which deal with pride: Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs); One's pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honour (Proverbs); For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy (2 Timothy);  When they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding (2 Corinthians). I could go on but I’m sure you get the idea. 

Pride is definitely frowned upon by God and by the first Christian leaders.  With this very clearly negative view of pride I’m surprized that it’s opposite, humility didn’t make it into the Beatitudes.  
Let’s look at humility – the state of being humble.  Here are a few examples of how humility is viewed in the bible: Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves (Philippians); The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honour and life (Proverbs); Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matt.); Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (James).  Our Epistle set out humility in opposition to pride – God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble.  Another passage gives a similar comparison, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom” (Proverbs).   We can see that it doesn’t seem that pride and humility can exist at the same time.  That is why that first statement I made is just wrong.  If you are truly humble you are not going to believe you are more humble than everyone else or even anyone else.  You aren’t going to compare yourself to others — you just are who you are.

From this we can see that as Christians we are to strive to be humble rather than proud.  There is an implication in some of the passages that we should strive to be humble because we will get our reward in the next life, the reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honour and life; humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.  There is an implication from this that humility is not its own reward.  We must be bribed to be humble.  It doesn’t seem to be something that comes naturally to us. 

Indeed our culture today certainly promotes pride as a good thing.  We are not encouraged to downplay our accomplishments and abilities.  We are told that to be successful we need to trumpet our accomplishments in social media.  If we are in business we see that those who don’t promote themselves don’t get customers — at least not many.  It seems that the sizzle is more important than the steak.  So it seems that to be a Christian then is to be counter cultural — to be against the culture.  I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise to us.   As Christians we are told to turn the other cheek; to go the second mile; to love our neighbours — better, to love our enemies. 

One of the reasons that true humility is difficult is because it is natural to compare ourselves to others.  We want to know how we are doing and the way we seem to do that most naturally is in relationship to others.  We seem to receive that lesson right from the cradle.  We are told directly or indirectly that we should be like others – and by implication do better than others.  We are given marks in school and by implication are those marks better marks the others —where do we stand in the class.  Even our play is turned into competition — we are taught that winning is good and losing is bad or at best it is an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and by learning win the next time.  We win awards in life – medals in sports and academia — we get the job and after that the promotion.  By implication others do not succeed and therefore we conclude that we are better than others. 

In this context then it is a real challenge to be humble.  In our world to be humble is to put others before you.  It seems to means that others are more important than you.  How are we to develop humility? 

How are we to become truly humble?  Is it something that we can work to become or is it something that will be given to us as grace from God?  One of the best definitions of humility that I have come across is by Sister Jane — an Anglican Nun.  She defines humility as ‘seeing clearly’ — to be humble is to see clearly.  When I first read that I was puzzled by that.  How was humility related to seeing things clearly?  Well I first thought that if we clearly see ourselves as we are we will know that we don’t compare that well to others at least some others in the world.  No matter how much we succeed there will be others who are better than us in whatever way we judge ourselves.  Even world champions are not the best in everything or even many things. 

However, on reflection I believe that to see clearly means that we can see what is truly important in life — we can see what is truly important to God.  I don’t believe that God wants us to be better than others.  God wants us to be the person that God intends us to be. 

God does want us to develop and grow and become fully mature human being.  I believe that we have a human need to be better than others because we believe deep down that that is the only way we will be of value — the only way we will valued by others and by God. 

If we can truly come to believe and know that God loves us unconditionally — that God loves us because we are God’s beloved children then we can just be the people of God.  That is something to be proud of.   Amen.

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