Text: Philippians 2:1-13 (Jesus' humility and exaltation)
This week, the world economy has been moving closer to the edge. The severe recession of 2008, caused by bad housing debts in the United States, looks set to return. Except that this time it might be worse.
In 2008, governments everywhere pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into banks to save them. They also ran up huge deficits in an effort to stimulate the economy. But this time around, it is government debt, especially in southern Europe, that threatens the economy. And world leaders are struggling to come up with a plan that would prevent a banking crisis, another recession, and perhaps even a new Depression.
Millions of people could lose their jobs. Many more might slip further into poverty and hunger. Young people might find it even harder to start careers and leave home. And pensioners could lose their savings.
I was thinking of all this gloomy economic news while reading our text from Philippians this week. The subject of the text is humility; the word humility shares the same root as the word humiliation. And what could be more humiliating for political and business leaders than another economic crisis following three years of their heroic efforts to fix the last one?
In the face of all our collective human genius and effort, another depression would be a humbling disaster. But would the humiliation of our leaders lead them to humility and repentance? Well, personally I wouldn't hold my breath.
Although humility and humiliation are connected, humiliation does not always lead to humility. This is true both for countries and for individuals. And so my subject today is the alchemy that sometimes helps us turn humiliation into humility.
Paul commends humility and encourages us to have the same mind as Christ. He writes that Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross."
Then, because of Jesus' humility and his humiliating death, Paul writes that "God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
In a nutshell, Paul lays out here the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. But how are we supposed to have the same mind as Jesus and achieve the same kind of humility and sacrifice? We are just ordinary sinners. So how can we align our lives with the perfect humility, and therefore the perfect exaltation, of Jesus?
William Shakespeare wrote the following in his play Twelfth Night: "Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them." Since humility is kind of the opposite of greatness, I propose a variation on this quote: "Be not afraid of humility: some are born humble, some achieve humility and some have humiliation thrust upon them."
Being born humble? Well that is easy. We all begin life as helpless infants who depend on our caregivers for everything. And as for humiliation being thrust upon us, that also comes to all of us in due course. We stumble and make mistakes as we grow up, find careers, and build families. And all of us are fragile and mortal. We all face the ultimate humiliation of sickness and death.
But achieving humility out of all this raw material? To quote Shakespeare again, Ay, there's the rub. For many of us, achieving humility is a rare thing.
Probably we can all remember times when, in the face of painful humiliations, we did not become humble. One way we avoid humility is through blame."I got involved in crime because of my friends" one might say. Or, "I failed at school because the teaching was no good." Or "I got into debt because my family insisted that we spend too much on luxuries." And so on.
But sometimes in the face of humiliating circumstances people do become humble. St. Paul gives us a clue as to how this is possible. At the end of today's reading, he writes that we should "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
I am scared by the sound of the phrase "working out our own salvation," so I glad that Paul adds the phrase "with fear and trembling." But then Paul continues with the good news that God is in work in us. And the truth of that latter statement calms me down.
Paul is saying that humility, like other virtues, is not something we can achieve on our own. We have God working in us, and it is only this fact that enables us to have the will and capabilities to work for God's good pleasure.
Our lives involve a lot of striving. We work and study hard to get ahead. We make plans and marshal our mental, physical and spiritual resources to achieve those plans. We build lives and often feel proud of our accomplishments.
But worship and prayer can remind us that our individual achievements mostly are not due to our own efforts. Our lives depend upon an endless stream of gifts: the gift of our existence, of our bodies, of the natural world, and of the accumulated culture of thousands of years of human history – language, knowledge, institutions, and so on.
The reality of these gifts does not free us from having to find our own way. But by thanking God for these gifts, we remind ourselves that our individuality is largely an illusion. We exist in a web of friends, family, society, and history not of our own making. Remembering that these are gifts can help turn our pride into humility.
By the same token, we are often not to blame for the humiliations that happen in our lives. Young people who have trouble finding work are not to blame for the Great Recession of the last three years. Somali families that have fled this year's drought to Kenya are not responsible for the famine that has overwhelmed them and devastated their lives. Cancer patients are not responsible for the tumors that make them sick. And none of us are to blame for the sickness or trauma that will eventually take our lives.
Just as the successes of our lives cannot be claimed as solely our own achievements, neither can our failures be blamed solely on us as individuals. Accepting the tough conditions in which we live helps us turn humiliation into humility. We are only human, after all.
When Paul writes that God is at work in us, this points to our baptism. At baptism, we are reborn into life in Christ. And life in Christ means both the joy and love experienced by Jesus and also the humiliating human condition that Jesus adopted in solidarity with us. So just as we give thanks to God for those aspects of life we love, we also give thanks that Christ is with us in our darkest hours of pain, loss and death.
This is not to say that we welcome pain, loss or death. Just that when these things inevitably come into our lives, we remember that Christ suffers with us and helps us to accept them
Neither would any of us welcome a new economic crisis. I hope that our political and business leaders find ways to avoid a new recession. But if a recession does occur, it could be a moment to pray that this humiliation might lead us to humility.
Perhaps we might reexamine the values embedded in our economy. Many of us are unhappy about the greed and competition that characterize the economy. In the face of new economic problems, we might be motivated to build communities based more upon solidarity, conservation, and cooperation than upon individualism, waste of resources, and competition.
Well, finding new values upon which to found the economy sounds even more difficult to me than finding a way out of the debt crises threatening world markets. And I certainly don't have any solutions.
What we do know, I think, is that any painful moment can be an opportunity to notice where God in Christ might be working within us. Through Christ's solidarity with our suffering and humiliation, God helps free us from fear and blame.
Christ came to us with complete humility. He came as a baby born into a poor family in an oppressed part of the world. And he came as a companion who died a horrible death for his friends. Today Christ calls us to give thanks to God as the source of life and love. And he calls us to courageously accept those painful things about the human condition that we can't change.
If the economy does stumble this fall, we may have difficult days ahead. But if those difficulties oppress us, we know that God in Christ will be there to meet us. Christ will continue to show us that joy, hope, peace and love are possible even in the toughest circumstances.
God in Christ through the power of God's Spirit embraces us in every moment, both those of triumph and those of humiliation and suffering.
Thanks be to God, Amen.