Sermon
August 29, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Reading

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

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Sermon: Winning the Gold in Humility

Today is the last day of the 2004 Olympics, not counting the lawsuits. In spite of all the controversies and the corruption, I will miss the games. In our house we really get into the Olympic spirit, so much so that we begin to talk about even the most mundane daily activities as if they were an Olympic event – and not just talk about them, but talk about them in the third person as if it was running commentary by Bob Costas and a expert consultant in our sport.

Take, for example, the typical task of trying to sit on the couch with both a drink and a snack in your hands. Because of Olympic fever, my mind begins even before I hit the living room: Bob, here comes Moran of the USA to mount the couch in a difficult move using only gravity since his hands are holding soda and chips – and a mighty full glass of soda, Bob, adding to the degree of difficulty.

He steps up to the couch, makes the turn, O, there’s a bobble as he starts to go down, the soda is tipping 1.7 degrees off center, he’s losing his balance in an effort to compensate, it will not be an even landing – there the left cheek has hit first by a fraction of a second and that will be a deduction. But that certainly was a good save for if he’d spilled that soda all over his pants; there would have been no chance for a medal.

It’s just the best way to get into the spirit of the games – think of everything you do as an Olympic event and give it your best. And then you will really be able to relate to the pride and accomplishments of the athletes – win or lose. In fact, I was so moved by Rulon Gardner’s wrestling final for the bronze medal – you know where at the end he took off his shoes and left them at the center of the mat to signify his retirement – I thought that was such a great moment that when the Olympics are over and I finally pry myself off the couch, I’m going to leave two potato chips behind to mark the end of the games.

Can you imagine, though, if our daily lives really were judged in anything approaching what happens in gymnastics or diving or synchronized swimming? And imagine if it was done not just for performance, but for attitude as well. A panel of angles, say, watching us operate our automobiles in traffic, or responding to your child’s request to go to the mall because she has “nothing to wear” for the first day of school, or calling our health insurance companies and going through a series of menus just waiting to hear one option that says: If you’re calling about the same mistake you’ve called about six times before, please press 0 because we don’t want to keep you waiting any longer.

There would be many situations in the course of a week, some silly but some very serious, that would have a high degree of difficulty when it comes to keeping a Christian attitude in your heart when you encounter obstacles, temptations, and difficult situations that seem to be made only more difficult by the very people or technology that are supposed to provide service.

And the key to the Christian attitude - if one were to take a lesson from the Gospel reading this morning or from many other passages in the New Testament – the key to the Christian attitude is humility.

The title of the sermon this morning is “Winning the Gold in Humility” which I hope we recognize is something of an oxymoron – that is, according to the dictionary – a combination of contradictory or incongruous words.

It may not be obvious on the surface, but when you hear someone speak of their humility as an achievement, it gives that ring of total onymoronity. Charles Dickens knew this when he had Uriah Heep assure David Copperfield, "I am a very 'umble person," as he rubs his hands in anticipation of some personal gain. And someone who wanted to exploit the human contradictions of Marion Berry, twice Mayor of Washington DC – before and after his arrest on possession of crack cocaine – attributed this quote to him: "I am a great mayor; I am an upstanding Christian man; I am an intelligent man; I am a deeply educated man; I am a humble man."

There was a time in the life of the church when one of the main tasks of the preacher was to fire up a spirit of humility in the congregation. Sermons on sin were applied like a sledge hammer to shatter the self-confidence of the congregation and break the pride of the listener and bring forth with tears and true sorrow a spirit of humble contrition.

Today, under the influence of psychology and prominent preachers like Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller, sermons are more likely to seek to build up self-esteem and impart a message of positive thinking – a development which Schuller himself has acknowledged as a new reformation.

Sometimes there are odd combinations of the old and the new in these highly marketed mega-churches like the one now being built down on Route 7. From what I know, I suspect they have a fairly conservative theology, but you would never know it from the brochure that was sent out. – Your kids will love “WOW kids” – world of winners. It reads more like a promotion for a self-improvement seminar than for a Christian Church.

I suppose there are many ways each of us could improve our Christian character, but it’s not clear how anyone can achieve a spirit of humility. Perhaps humility is more a side effect of hardship, loss, sorrow, disappointment, and failure than it is a directly achievable goal. Perhaps it is one of those things we cannot control, and that insight itself may be a step on the path to a humble spirit.

But upon close examination, I realized that in the Gospel lesson today Christ did not speak of humility as a personality or character trait but as an action: For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

An action is something we can approach directly – an action is something we can accomplish even if it is struggle against our sense of self-importance and status. There seems to be hope that if we engage in the struggle for humility by humbling ourselves, God will not judge us on our stubborn pride.

The Gospel may not concern itself with winning Gold medals, but it does speak often of judgment, and it forms the heart of our most ancient creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord…..
The third day he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead – not for medals, but for life eternal.

Jesus gives us a pretty clear picture of the rules of this game and the basis of judgment in several of his parables and teachings. None is more vivid than the familiar story in the Gospel of Matthew which we read at the time of our offering this morning:

Matthew 25:31-40 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry… or thirsty…or a stranger…or naked…or sick or in prison you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

I believe one of the key words in this passage is “least” – as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.

The person who does not let social distinctions put a distance between themselves and the least of these, the person who gets beyond wondering “how will this advance me” and acts based on the needs of others, the person who gives without thought for what will be given in return – this person is humbling themselves and growing in the approval of God.

So, in the end, we must give up thoughts of winning the gold or even achieving humility – but simply learn to serve one another and let that service spill over all boundaries of class, race, accomplishment, and each distinction that puts distance between us and every other child of God. Then, when it comes time for the judge to render a decision, we won’t need to be anxious about deductions or degrees of difficulty, but we can simply face the future in peace having loved justice, done kindness, and walked humbly with our God. Amen.

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