September 8, 2009

Sermon for Proper 18, Year B

Last week, Father Keith was very honest with us as he admitted that his place on THE LIST is pride. I sat just over there, listening and shaking my head in agreement because I too find myself struggling with pride. It is, I think, the greatest temptation for the clergy. Every other Sunday, I stand in the back of the church as you file past, shaking hands, and basking in the kind words - good sermon, great service, that sermon spoke to me. It is so easy to believe the hype. It is super simple to forget that I've forced you into the awkward position of coming up with something to say in the dreaded receiving line. I am a good preacher. I am a great preacher. I am great! It is so easy for me to fall into that trap.
But I'm fairly certain that pride is not a sin exclusive to the clergy. It probably wouldn't have made its way onto THE LIST if it weren't a more universal temptation. Pride is one of the three temptations that Satan himself tried to use on Jesus during his 40 days in the wilderness. Pride is the temptation of choice for marketing executives across the globe; buy this product and you will look better, feel better, be better. Unfortunately, pride and its close cousin self-reliance are even the motivations for many churches out there - YOU can get YOURSELF YOUR best life now.
Pride, however, is not the way into the kingdom of God. Lifting ourselves up by our own bootstraps, our own good works, our own efforts leads only to folly - another member of last week's dreaded LIST. It is only through humility, by remembering that God is God and I am not, that we are able to even begin to understand God's desires for us and for his Creation. In this morning's gospel lesson we have two prime examples of humility from the unnamed Syrophonecian woman and the anonymous "They" both of whom are said to have "begged" Jesus on behalf of someone else.
Jesus, in search of a little rest and relaxation from the constant onslaught of his own people, has decided to enter Gentile territory, the beach community of Tyre. Doing his best to stay under the radar, he settled into a house, and hoped to recoup a little. But as is the case in Mark's Gospel, immediately, his presence is known by those who need to know it. It is as if the Spirit just can't allow him to rest, the work, especially its expansion beyond the people of Israel must continue, right now. And so, immediately, a Syrophonecian woman arrives on the scene, she throws himself at Jesus' feet and begged Jesus to to cast the demon out of her daughter. The exchange that follows has all the markings of a prideful encounter, but I want to challenge us today to think that the woman was not claiming any sort of special place, she fully accepted Jesus' claim of the Gentiles as dogs, instead as one who had nowhere else to go, no self to rely on, she laid before Jesus fully resting on his ability to save her daughter.
Realizing that rest was not going to be an option, even in parts where had presumed he'd be unkown, Jesus prepared to return to Galilee but first he continued up the coast toward Sidon another port city on the Mediterranian Sea. During his travels a group of friends bring a man who is deaf and mute to Jesus and they beg Jesus to lay a hand on him.
That word - beg - has no other connotation than humility. No one begs from a position of pride. In fact, it is most often pride that keeps us from admitting any sort of weakness and asking for help. God asks us to put away our pride and rely on him for everything. The beginning of that reliance is trust.
In researching for my sermon this week, I ran across a story of pride and trust that just had to be shared. "It is the story of a man who falls over the edge of a cliff and manages by some miracle to grab a branch that stops his fall. Hanging in midair, growing weary, he cries out to God in desperation. 'Is there anyone up there?' Eventually a voice says, 'Let go of the branch.' The man continues to hang, in silence for a few moments, looking up at the rock ledge above and down at the cavernous drop below. Finally, he looks up and yells, 'Is there anyone else up there?'" (O'Driscoll)
We prayed this morning that God would grant us the ability to trust him with all our hearts. Something that, even as we prayed it, many of us thought to be impossible. When things are going well, do we trust that God will keep them that way, or do we tend to thank God for the help, but assume we can handle the rest on our own? When things are going poorly, do we trust that God will lift us out of despair, or do we tend to turn to work or alcohol or something else to raise us up? Or are we, no matter the circumstances, humble enough to place our trust in someone else?
The Syrophoenician woman was on her last gasp with her tormented daughter. The deaf/mute man's friends were on their last hope for him. And so, they begged for help. Most of us don't find ourselves in their predicament quite yet. Hope is not lost, the point of despair has not yet been reached. For most of us, the difficulty is remembering that even when we are not at the point of throwing ourselves at Jesus' feet and begging, we are still called to humility, to trust in God, to rely on him, and to gain our strength from him. Many of us, however, have been, are, or someday will, for a variety of reasons, be left with only one option - begging. For those of us who find ourselves there, the humility thing is easy - it is the trust thing that is hard. We aren't really wired with the ability to listen to a voice from above and let go of the branch.
And like I said earlier, it is hard even for those of us who are supposed be the experts. I want to end this morning with a story of humility and trust that last week, even I couldn't have imagined. As you've no doubt read or heard already, on October 3rd St. Paul's will begin offering four services a week - Wednesday at noon, Sunday at 730 and 10, and now Saturday at five15. This fourth service has been in the works since before I arrived on scene. Over the last two years, Keith and I have been really intentional about hanging on that branch, waiting and listening for a voice from above. And that voice has started to speak loud and clear. Saturday night. Five15. In the chapel. Something experiential, interactive, creative, with a touch of the ancient and a splash of the modern all wrapped up into one service where God meets us in Word and Sacrament. In order to make all that happen, however, we needed some stuff. So on Wednesday, I sent out a flash message asking you to look in your attics, guest rooms, and under beds to see if you had a digital piano to share with us. Within 24 hours, we had over $1300 in donations to make the digital piano and other audio/visual needs happen.
God is so good. I don't know if you've ever experienced the supremely cool feeling that comes from watching the Holy Spirit work and knowing that you get to be a part of it. If have, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, then know this. It is the most exciting and humbling experience of your life. To know that the Creator of everything has decided to allow you to help create something new is beyond awesome, it is quite possibly the coolest experience ever. Well at least top 5 - getting married and having a baby are up there too. But those blessings would not come, they could not come, if we had not a) given up the pride trap, b) embraced humility and c) trusted that the Lord would provide even something as silly as a digital piano.
Let go of the branch my brothers and sisters. Its a long fall from pride to humility, but it is so worth the ride. Amen.

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