November 5, 2017
“Growing in Humility”
Will you pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen
When I was a kid, my dad had a T shirt that he wore a lot. It said “He who dies with the most toys wins!” I loved that T shirt and I can remember how happy I felt when he wore it. I loved that T shirt because more often than naught, grown-ups seemed to me to be too serious, too tired and anything but playful. I loved that my dad seemed to be an exception to that.
But, as I got older, I started to see a different message in that T shirt and I began to critique it. I began to see that in a time when 1 in 10 American are household are needing to rent storage units to hold all of their things (see article here) and when plastic particle soup-like garbage islands are growing in the Pacific Ocean, (see article here) the last thing our world needs is a kind of frenzied competition of consumerism.
And yet even with that dawning critique, that T shirt still felt important to me. It felt important because it implicitly raised the question that I had been thinking a lot about as teenager, a question that I continued to ponder as a young adult and one that continues to challenge me to this day. The question it raised was, of course “If dying with the most toys does not really make someone a winner, than what does?” “What is the mark of a well lived life?”
Now we do not have to look far before we find a thousand examples of how our culture tends to answer that question. “What makes for a well lived life?” Flip through a magazine in the check-out counter of the grocery store, scan the commercials on TV, listen to the messaging all around us. The mark of a well lived, of course, is success. If you are successful then you are doing things right and you are a winner.
And so we set off working hard to achieve the next big marker of success. My father’s T-shirt evidenced success as having enough disposable income to buy whatever shiny toy one wanted. But we could also very well find a market for T shirts that had emblazing on them all sorts of other markers of success. We could have t shirts that read: “They that gets a high score on the ISEE test — win!” or “They that gets a seat at that exclusive private school or elite college, win.” “They get a big promotion, win.” “They that get called to a big steeple church wins.”
Now while it is certainly fine to set goals and work hard and try to do our best, things start to get tricky when we start equating our own self-worth with how we measure up on these tests of success. It can become deeply problematic when we start equating our value as human beings with how much we have in our bank account or of what our GPA is. For if one makes a mistake or is facing a challenge, or is going through a hard time, we can feel like we are not worth as much as our bright and shinny and successful counterpart.
I remember when my daughter was a baby, probably no bigger than little Alice, I was cooing over her saying something like “Oh what a good baby, what a sweet and perfect little girl” when my three year old son standing nearby and who was still stinging with the injustice of having a little sister enter the house in the first place, said quite emphatically, “well, that’s just cuz she can’t do anything.”
I remember laughing at his reply at first but then feeling troubled by it because, clearly in his little mind, once you become capable of doing things, as he was, then one runs the risk of making mistakes and getting things wrong and one’s worth can suffer for it. “She may be a good, and sweet perfect little girl now, but just want until she can actually start doing things. Just wait to see how she’ll mess it up then and then will you still think she is so good, shiny and perfect?” he seemed to be saying to me. As if being a newborn was the pinnacle of perfection and it was all downhill after that!
So I would like to propose that we go ahead and enjoy success when it comes. Celebrate and give thanks for sure! But let’s uncouple our sense of self worth or the worth of others from the presence or absence of these cultural markers of success. For if we don’t, if we persist in thinking a life well led is a life of measuring up, then I fear we are all headed for a lot of suffering and heart ache.
And heart ache and suffering is not what I believe God intended for us. What I think God intended for us was and is joy. I think that God looks at each and every one of us with a particular fondness regardless of what we have or have not accomplished. I trust God delights in us simply because we are children of God and are loved before we do a thing, and are loved in the midst of all the things that we do.
So if we can release success as a marker of a well lived life, what would we put in its place. How do we know if we are making it? How do we know if we are getting it right?
Last Sunday when many of you were up here hearing a good word from Pastor Amy during the sermon time, I had the good fortune of being downstairs and hearing a good word from our youth during our Sunday school time.
We had read the Beatitudes from Matthew, the scripture that they read for us again today, and we talked about what makes for a well lived life. We talked about the spirit of Jesus and his love. And I mentioned to them that a year ago this Sunday, Pope Francis was addressing a crowd in Sweden as part of an All Saints worship and in this sermon to them, he challenged them to think about what the beatitudes of today would be. He said that Christ’s followers today are called to “confront the troubles and anxieties of our age with the spirit and love of Jesus.” New situations require new energy and commitment, he said and he offered a new list of beatitudes for us this day.
I will let you google that address to hear the beatitudes Pope Francis articulated, because I’d like you to hear instead in this time we have together some of what our youth had to say. Their wisdom, compassion, humility and love, brought me to my knees and sent my heart soaring. They gave me permission to share with you what they wrote and shared with each other. Here is a sampling of it:
- Happy is the one who stands up for others;
- Blessed is the one who doesn’t give up when struggling;
- Blessed is the one who works to save the environment;
- Blessed is the one who shares smiles with the world every day.
- Blessed are the ones that stops bad people and that make bad people good.
- Blessed is the one who helps out others when they are struggling.
- Blessed is the one who accepts the faults of others and themselves;
- Blessed are those who do with what they have.
- Blessed are those who eat their vegetables;
- Blessed are those who enjoy themselves and live in the present;
- Blessed are those who don’t fight;
- Blessed are those who’s job it is to go into dangerous places and fight for things they believe in;
- Blessed are those who can walk away from a fight;
- And lastly, though there are many many more beatitudes here of such wisdom, Blessed is the one who gives something they want to someone who wants it even more.
The articulation of these beatitudes from the youth among us clearly comes from the soil of humility – the root word of which is Humus, ground, rootedness in something larger than ourselves. The beatitudes, that Jesus spoke over 2000 years ago and that our youth speak to us afresh this day, feed and sustain us and mark out what a shared life of goodness could look like. They offer an answer to our searching. Just as trees in a forest participate in the greater life that is unseen beneath the soil, so too do we as in our blessedness we share in the interconnections we have one with the other and with God and our lives work, the mark of a well lived life is found in the blessings of nourishing this life we share together.
And that playfulness that I hoped was alive still in my father when I saw him wear that T shirt? It is the fruit of a life lived out of the blessedness of which Jesus and our youth have spoken. Success and the happiness that comes from it come and go. But the deep joy that blessedness brings endures.
So let us all take up the example of our youth, and commit ourselves to living into at least one of these beatitudes this week. Let us wean ourselves from the markers of success that dominate our culture and excavate the shame that failing to live up may have seed it in us. Let us instead step into the blessedness of being children of God before we have done a thing and even in the midst of our doing, recovering and setting down deep roots into a power and presence of community and God that is the marker of a well lived life not for our successes but for our and other’s well being. Thanks be to God and to this community that is the manifestation of that abiding blessedness. Amen.