Sermon for Pentecost 16, Proper 20, preached on Sunday, September 20, 2009
The news media has told us of banks too big to fail, of industries too large to go under, so they must be bailed out. How big is too big to fail? Who draws the line? Where did we get such ideas? Business is not alone in this thinking. Schools have determined that failure must be avoided and so children are passed on without learning the material. We live in an age when no one fails – when we all succeed. It is what some have called a T-ball world in which you get as many strikes as you need, when no score is kept, and instead of outs we take turns.
To these notions of too big to fail comes the call of James to confront failures, not avoid them. We are bidden to confess our sins and to find in such confession and absolution the classroom of the Spirit who teaches us even through our failures. Jesus calls us to humble service that delights in others before self. In a world that puts ME in the center of everything, this message may seem out of step. Today we are told humility – no character defect but the domain in which God works to forgive, teach, and direct His people. Pride is what leads to destruction but a humble heart that confesses sin is the place where God displays His mercy and gives to the unworthy the blessed gift of grace.
Let us live under no illusions – we are not too big to fail, not too big to serve, and not so important that others cannot come first. This is the radical new life of the Kingdom, made possible through the Gospel, apprehended by faith, and displayed in the pattern of Christ’s own life. His example of humility of heart shows us the way of the cross, the way of life.
Humble yourselves... If we could, would it be a source of pride? What kind of humility? The false kind that deflects honest compliments while hiding pride underneath? Or is it something different? The humility spoken of in the lessons today is the work of the Spirit. It is the work of the Spirit who opens our eyes to what we are and leads us to admit “I am responsible.” Only the Spirit can help us face up to what sin and pride have made us. The first mark of a genuinely humble heart is our acceptance of this responsibility: It is the Spirit who teaches us to accept responsibility and confess: “I am a sinner.”
Humility is the work of the Spirit teaching us to accept responsibility and to say “I am guilty.” In a world which avoids guilt and blames others, only the Spirit can teach us to admit that it is my fault. A long time ago the penitent would beat his or her chest three times in private confession: “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa...” My fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault. Humility is when we blame no other but ourselves; when we stand before the Lord in painful admission, “I am a sinner. I am guilty.”
But this Spirit driven humility does not leave us to wallow in our regret. For the Spirit leads us to trust in the Lord even in this confession. From the Spirit we learn to say, “I am sorry.” This is not the same as “I am sorry I was caught or I am sorry that somebody else found out.” This is the genuine sorrow which not only regrets but laments who we are and what we have become. It is a humility that is not content with this broken life of sin and that calls out to God for mercy. Contrition laments what we have become and cries out to God to repair what we cannot, to overcome what we cannot. From the Spirit we learn to say to the Lord, “Make me clean as only You can...”
To a people on bended knee comes the God who exalts us – not rewards us – but exalts us with His love. Forgiveness is not the reward for taking our medicine. Forgiveness is the triumph of God’s love over His wrath, the God who refuses to leave us in our misery. To the humble on bended knee, God shows a greater humility. It is the voice of Jesus who says, “I will take your place in suffering.” The great paradox of the sinless who dies for the sinner, of the innocent who makes Himself guilty for us.
To the humble on bended knee, God displays a greater humility in the voice of Jesus who says “I forgive you all your sins...” His forgiveness is no reward for confession or promise conditioned upon our faith. For us and for the whole world He died that absolution may be spoken. The surprise of grace is that God reaches out to us brought low by sin and guilt and death – and He raises us up through absolution. This gift so free to us cost our Lord His all on the cross. But what He paid so dearly for, He gives to us without price or charge. “I forgive you.”
To the humble who acknowledge they deserve nothing, a greater humility is heard in the Jesus who says, “I restore you from you failure.” Not only sin is forgiven but the Spirit works in us to bring forth the new life He died and rose to give us. What He earned in righteousness and holiness becomes our clothing so that we may stand before God, restored, renewed, and forgiven. He lifts us from our humility and gives us the high place at the Table of the Lord, the prodigal returned by grace, the lost found by His relentless love, and the wounded made whole by mercy’s power.
Greatness is not the fruit of pride, accomplishment or a little image polishing. Greatness is born of those who do not hide their faults but confess them... those who do not a fair shake but cry for mercy... those who expect no reward and are surprised by grace rich enough to reach down even to them.
It is this grace in which we leave behind the life we once knew and to embrace the new life that can only be known in Jesus Christ. It is this grace which teaches us to renounce pride and self-centeredness. It is this grace that seeks to be what love has claimed for u, that seeks to serve others as love has served us, and that delights in forgiving as Love has forgiven us. It is this love that enlarges our hearts beyond our own self-interest so that we seek the greatness of service, learning to lose our lives in Christ to gain them for eternity. It is this that Jesus was talking about on the road while His disciples were arguing over which of them was best, which was greatest.
We have a God who notices the humble and does not see the proud – the exact opposite of the world which notices the proud and walks all over the humble. The humble whom He notices, God serves and forgives. From this experience, we learn to notice the humble. The path to greatness begins in the humility of confession and our delight in absolution’s rich gift. There we are taught to love God above all, to love neighbor before self, and to serve this God by serving others in His name. Amen