May 16, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

John 17:1-11 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

6 "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. (NRSV)

1 Peter 4:12-14 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. (NRSV)

1 Peter 5:6-11 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen. (NRSV)

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Sermon: Have you ever been humiliated?

Have you ever been humiliated? I sometimes have dreams where I find myself in a humiliating situation, and often it involves just what I’m doing now - standing up in front of the church. Sometimes, in my dreams, I’ve forgotten my sermon. Sometimes I’ve forgotten my robe. Sometimes it’s even worse - I’ve forgotten my pants. Is there a psychotherapist in the house!?

Why I remember those dreams, I don’t know. Nor do I know why a strange memory popped up in my brain the other morning. For some reason, the remembrance of a very bad day came back to me. This memory is over 30 years old, and although I can’t say it’s a powerful memory, the event is certainly not something I’ve forgotten. It was quite powerful at the time.

It was my first job - working as a counselor at a summer camp. Everybody was gathering for an evening event, and I was late. It was the first summer I’d ever had allergies, and it seemed like I was either sneezing or sleeping from the medication most of the time. When I got to the group, the person in charge just let me have it. Out of nowhere, right in front of everybody, this guy dressed me down without mercy. I was completely shocked, totally humiliated. I must have turned a couple of shades of red and looked like I was going to explode, because people came over to me and tried to calm me down. They were very nice - they couldn’t believe what had happened. But boy, I was humiliated and I never forgot that or forgave the person who did it.

Why this thought came to my mind, I don’t know, except I had been reading the texts for today and thought that the topic suggested was humility. Humility is a virtue held up for us in the Gospels and letters and traditions of the church. We are instructed to be humble, to not think too highly of ourselves, to not count ourselves better than others. Paul makes it clear, Peter makes it clear, Jesus makes it clear: "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

I think of the virtues that scripture sets before us, and I believe that when I practice them I will experience happiness and joy. Patience is a virtue, and when I am patient I overcome anxiety and feel contentment and peace. Generosity is a virtue, and when I am generous I am happy and feel very rich. Loving kindness is a virtue, and when I practice loving kindness I feel a deep and abiding joy fill my life. Humility is a virtue, but when I am humiliated, I feel shame and anger and resentment and a desire for revenge. There is no positive feeling that comes from being humiliated, not one.

Well, maybe I’m answering my own quandary, since there no doubt is a big difference between being humble and being humbled; between having humility and being humiliated.

Maybe the difference comes because a person can be humble and still maintain their dignity - dignity seems only to shine brighter when it is polished with humility. Maybe that’s the difference.

Although, I have to admit, I can think of times when I’ve seen people humiliated and they, too, seem to shine with a bright glow of dignity.

A case in point that remains an indelible image from the early days of the civil rights movement when the Freedom Riders went into the pharmacies and department stores of the segregated South and sat at the lunch counters and soda fountains and waited to be served. Do you remember how the white racists would taunt them and humiliate them, dumping salt, sugar or ketchup on their heads?

The racists inflicted humiliation on those Freedom Riders, but, as time has amply proven, the racists only humiliated themselves. The Freedom Riders suffered their taunts and slurs and were steady and patient because they had their eyes on the prize - they had a vision and a purpose that turned their humiliation into dignity, their suffering into glory.

And this was the case, as well, with Jesus Christ. Do you recall the opening words of the Gospel lesson this morning:

John 17:1-11 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.

Jesus is speaking here of the cross, that ultimate symbol of terror and humiliation, where a man was hung naked along the public way so that all could see his powerlessness and slow death. What could be more humiliating? Yet for Jesus, it was the hour of his glory. How could this transformation take place.

I think, as we read in John’s Gospel story, we get a clue in this passage from the tenth chapter:

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."

The virtue and strength of humility comes when we give something up of our own accord, of our own free will, for some greater good. Jesus walked to Jerusalem knowing that the cross awaited him. No one took him by surprise. The Freedom Riders drove into Mississippi knowing that hate and prejudice awaited them. They didn’t have to go into those lunch counters and soda fountains. It was their free choice, and the reception they received was known to them before they ever began their pilgrimage.

There is a distinction about power here. Who has the power? Who determines the situation? Sometimes these issues of power play out in unexpected ways. When I was working in fund raising for a theological seminary, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting in San Francisco for all the Vice Presidents or Directors of Development for seminaries in the United States and Canada. It was a very interesting crowd, and I would say almost half women. The people presenting the conference were mostly men, and the keynote speaker, a man, had chosen as his topic: Being a Servant of the Church.

Now, from a man’s perspective, this probably seemed like a safe approach. After all, Christ came to serve and not be served, and weren’t we all humble servants in his name. But it was not that simple. Many of the women who were there objected. Their line of reasoning was that it was fine if the men who had occupied an easy position of privilege in the church for centuries wanted to call themselves servants, but the women, who had actually been the servants, and with little voice in the matter, wanted the freedom to choose. They might want to remain the Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations for just a bit longer before giving up the dignity, power and authority which took so long to wrestle from the predominant gender at the top.

I bet, in fact, those women were much more oriented towards the service end of the equation than the presenter was anyway, and his idea of servanthood was more intellectual than practical. In any case, he managed to hit a nerve. As my wife likes to say: I’ve got one nerve left and you’re getting on it. But the truth is, it’s one thing for those who enjoy prestige and privilege as their assumed birth right to suggest humility as the proper framework, and quite another for those who have had to struggle for equality and dignity to take that suggestion lightly. It’s all about power and freedom and choice.

Well, after thinking about this for a while, it occurred to me that perhaps I should turn the question around. Not, "Have I ever been humiliated?" but "Have I ever humiliated anyone else."

You might think that being so sensitive to the experience of being humiliated certainly I would be sensitive enough to avoid ever humiliating anyone else. But I’m afraid I can’t plead such innocence. I don’t remember a specific incidence, but I think back to the end of my several years teaching High School in New York City, and I know that my frustrations and sarcasm and power as the teacher combined on more than one occasion to create humiliating situations for some of the students. That sense that I was becoming a person I didn’t like was one of the reasons I left.

And it’s easy to humiliate kids. They’re so powerless. I remember many years back seeing a kid get on a bus in New Jersey going into New York. He handed the driver a $20 bill. The guy lit into him. Didn’t he have a smaller bill? I was taken aback because I’d given the driver a $20 just a few stops before and I received no tongue lashing. But this was a kid, and he must have seemed an easy target for the driver’s pent up anger.

Humiliation has a way of cascading downhill. The workers who are humiliated by the boss are probably not ennobled by the experience; they don’t go home better able to cope and be kind. The spouse who is humiliated by the husband or wife is probably not ennobled by the experience; they do not become a better parent, more able to give patient love and care to the children. And the child who is humiliated in the home is probably not ennobled by their torment; they are not more likely to grow up straight and true and ready for school, work, and family life.

I can’t imagine what could be more humiliating than being abused by a parent or a spouse. I hope no one stays in an abusive relationship out of some sense that humility is a religious virtue because there is precious little virtue in those kinds of relationships.

God’s love comes to lift us up and give us dignity, freedom, and power as children of God. That must be our first lesson. When that is learned, Christ does call us to humility. But that humility must be freely chosen. It is not godly humility if it is thrust upon anyone by people, circumstances, society, or the institutions of society. Giving up power for the sake of others is good and righteous. Being powerless and humiliated is quite the opposite.

Humility which is freely chosen, founded on dignity, and which finds its strength in a sense of mission is the world’s greatest source of transforming and redeeming power. Humiliation is the world’s greatest evil.

Humble yourselves therefore, under the mighty hand of God. Amen

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