Sermon May 29, 2016
“Need Not Be Present to Win”
Leonard Sweet is an unorthodox theologian who begins lectures with the greeting: “Good morning saints! Good morning sinners!” The first time I heard him do this, I sat in stunned silence when he called us saints. But when he followed that by greeting us as sinners, I understood what he was doing. We are both…all of us. It is human nature to file people away into categories, but we simply cannot be reduced to one or the other. The centurion in the story this morning is an interesting guy. His slave is ill. There is so much to say about the evils of slavery, but I’ll save that for another time. I am curious about the way the story introduces this man. First, the centurion sends some Jewish elders to Jesus to vouch for him. He wants Jesus to heal this slave and he isn’t sure he has the clout to do so. Fortunately, the elders are big fans and explain that he is worthy. That is interesting language to use. The proof that they offer is that he loves the people and that he built a synagogue for them. Jesus seems easily convinced and starts toward the man’s home. I’m wondering if the man panicked at the thought of having Jesus come to his home because he quickly sends his friends to say that he is not worthy to have Jesus come into his house.
Which is it? Is he worthy or not worthy? The answer of course, is yes. He is both. How many of us remember the prayer of humble access or something like it?
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.” (1928 Book of Common Prayer)
I grew up saying those same words in the United Methodist Church. Many of us were taught that humility was key to following Jesus. If we grew up in the south, we may have gotten a false sense of what humility is. I spent my first twenty-five years in the south and I grew to understand a southern phenomenon of something that resembles humility but isn’t actually humility. My aunt made quilts for many of our extended family members. They were beautiful! When we complimented her on it, she would be very self-deprecating and talk about how it really wasn’t much or it was full of flaws. She knew that her work was beautiful and she knew that she had invested too many hours to count in these precious gifts that she gave so freely, but she also knew that she wasn’t supposed to take credit for anything or be proud of her work; so she would act like it wasn’t worth much. She was well trained by the culture to be something that looks like humble and maybe smells like humble, but it isn’t actually humble.
Humility isn’t something many of us aspire to in our culture. In an era that emphasizes good self esteem, we don’t want to spend energy thinking less of ourselves. But that isn’t humility. Humility is not minimizing who we are. It is acknowledging who we are…all of it. True humility is an honest understanding of ourselves. It is standing in the balance between saint and sinner as we look in the mirror.
So, true humility invites us to “believe the truth about ourselves, no matter how beautiful it is”! (Macrina Wiederkehr) There is another truth to this centurion. He is a good man who loves the people and cares for them in concrete and generous ways. He is a man of power and he uses his power to bring goodness into others’ lives.
When we think of power, we often think of situations where it has been abused. We see key players in big corporations stealing and lying to feed their inflated egos. They seem to have no real sense of who they are, but are living a lie that tells them it’s ok to take advantage of people. We see politicians who are out of touch with the people they serve. I wonder if it has something to do with not being in touch with the truth of who they themselves are.
We tend to think of those who live without resources and struggle to survive as humble or we think of those who are in positions of prominence as powerful. Separating these two as if they are opposites doesn’t tell the truth of either one. Power is defined as the ability to act or do something. That’s pretty generic. Power is not something that belongs to some and not others. We all have power to share God’s love with one another. That has nothing to do with our position in society.
It seems to me that the invitation in this text is to take an honest look at ourselves and embrace all of who we are. There is great freedom that comes in knowing who we are and who we are not.
The movie Lincoln shows the former president’s humility and his commitment to using his power to abolish slavery through the 13th Amendment. He knew it was the right thing to do. He gave everything he had to do the right thing. He never lost sight of who he was and his simple beginnings. It was a long, arduous process. It required tapping into the fullness of who he was and it cost him his life. His sacrifice set God’s beloved children free.
It’s interesting that while the church has often paid little attention to humility and its own power, the business world perked up and recognized the marriage of these two. Jim Collins’ bestselling book Good to Great describes the difference between good leaders and great leaders. Great leaders are classified as level 5. Collins says, “Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless. To quickly grasp this concept, think of United States President Abraham Lincoln (one of the few Level 5 presidents in United States history), who never let his ego get in the way of his primary ambition for the larger cause of an enduring great nation.” (p. 22)
None of us are here because of our own perfection and accomplishments. We all stand on the shoulders of many others. As a woman, I would not stand here if others hadn’t gone before and taken risks or spoken out on my behalf. We all have the opportunity to offer ourselves for the wholeness of others. In order to do that, we must be the people God created us to be. When we recognize and claim our power; we can humbly be channels of God’s healing in ways we can’t even conceive. It has happened over and over throughout history. It is desperately needed today.
Who are those living in bondage today? Perhaps they are living next door to us. What can we do to help release one another? It is interesting that in the story of Lazarus, Jesus arrives when Lazarus has been dead for four days and calls him forth from the tomb. It is Jesus who calls him back to life, but he calls the community to “unbind him and let him go.” (John 11:44 NRSV) The centurion is a man of great power. His slave is ill. The centurion cannot heal him. He requires the community to intercede. None of us are solo enterprises. We do this together.
It seems that the church has too often sidestepped humility and been less than cognizant of its power. Throughout history, the church has used its power for transformation and for destruction. The church has funded schools and hospitals. It has started a multitude of nonprofits and ministries that serve the greater community. We use our power for good every time we welcome people who have been rejected, when we feed those who are hungry, when we care for the earth, and build houses for Habitat for Humanity. Through the centuries, the church has abused its power and caused great devastation through the inquisition, the Salem witch trials, justifying slavery, and more recently the sex abuse scandals. Many people have been wounded or rejected by the church and the church has often justified that saying they are acting on God’s behalf. Power can be a source of healing or hurt – in ways that are both small and widespread. We are called to be aware of the power that we hold and to use it in ways that enable healing.
It is my prayer that we will be God’s church – truly offering love and transformation while eradicating systems of oppression and injustice. To do that we must embrace the fullness of who we are, claiming our humility and power, while allowing God to work through us. Notice the one who was healed has no voice in the story. When we dig deep and call on our humility and power, we can act on behalf of those who have no voice; we can bring hope to those we will never see. Jesus never even saw the one he healed. God’s healing love is so great that it extends to the corners of the earth. You need not be present to receive it. It is given to all. Let us go forth as sinners and saints spreading that healing love everywhere we go.