The Worst Advice in the World
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Tags: love, compassion, humility, advice
September 27, 2020 • The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Emmanuel Church, Geneva
Text: Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”
Saint Paul is nothing if not filled with advice and eager to give it. We have distilled from his writings the first theological claims of the Christian faith, and in what we heard read this morning from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi we have one of the earliest and most significant claims about just who Jesus is and how it is that the eternal divine source of all that is could become a mortal, time-limited human.
But Saint Paul also has a pretty good claim on being the original mansplainer. In what we heard this morning he is linking his theological idea about how Jesus is the messiah to a series of statements about how we should live.
And the problem is, it is terrible advice. Most people would dismiss it as the worst idea in the world. So we should hardly be surprised when people reject the theology that comes with it.
We are in the second of four weeks in which we’re being subjected to Paul’s strange advice. I am not sure just what the Holy Spirit had in mind having these four weeks of readings from year A of the Lectionary come upon us just now, in this moment that many of our nations are making important decisions—not just about their governments, but about their values.
Can you imagine us going out into the streets with this advice, or standing in the train station handing out little pamphlets with this advice?
“Hi, I’m from a group that advises people to put other people’s interests before their own. Would you like to read about our ideas?”
“Hi, I’m here with some friends just to offer you the advice that you should regard other people as better than you. Would you like to come join us for coffee on Sunday morning?”
“Here’s something for you—just a list of some advice we’re offering here today, that whatever ambition you have shouldn’t be for yourself or your own promotion, but for the good of other people. Would you like to learn more?”
Yeah, probably not. Think about what is happening around us at this very moment. Do you think anyone would take us seriously, handing out advice like that? Do you think Mr. Chiesa would be persuaded by the idea that we should put other people’s interests ahead of our own? Do you think Mr. Trump, a man who had his own name lit up in fireworks over the White House, would be interested in the importance of humility as the foundation for building a community?
For a long time, we have accustomed to the basic ideas and values of the Christian faith having at least a minimum level of respect in the public square. Yes, our societies may be more and more secular; yes, the life of the church has been restricted to a smaller and smaller corner of our public life.
But at least we knew that basic values like compassion, like respect for human dignity, like the importance of welcoming the stranger and protecting the most vulnerable, like the fundamental equality of all people—we thought those ideas were pretty safe.
Over the long arc of the history of the church we remade the culture around us in the image of the ideas we have been teaching every Sunday morning for a hundred generations.
But all of a sudden all of that seems to have come apart. Our leaders openly question the values that we teach. There are movements of people in the streets of cities across the West who prefer to follow preachers of hate and intolerance to any of the ideas we have to offer.
This is not familiar ground to us. We can deal with being marginalized in our own cultures, but we are disoriented at the idea of our values, our teachings, the things we hold most dear, being cast aside as irrelevant or foolish.
Since the victory of life over death, since the victory of love over power on Easter morning, we have stood for the proposition that right makes might and not the other way around.
We have stood for the idea that the most privileged people and the most neglected people are bound together in a single human community, and that all of us depend on the others.
We knew all along that many people who sought power in this world would at least give some basic regard to these ideas to earn our trust. But now, you know, we proclaim a God who saves us through humility; we proclaim a God who exercises power by absolute vulnerability, even to the point of willingly going to his execution on a cross.
When the world around us still bore the recognizable marks of the values Paul taught, when the societies we organized still were organized around our ideas of human dignity, and radical equality, and the presence of the sacred in this secular world, then we didn’t have to make any hard choices about where to stand. Maybe our religious traditions had become sidelined, but at least our values were still in control.
But that is now changing. And if we intend to be disciples, if we intend not just to live by, but stand up for, the kind of advice Saint Paul has to offer the world, we are going to have hard choices to make—costly choices.
I am a pastor. I am supposed to offer comforting words when I stand up here. But I would be failing as a teacher if I offered you words of comfort that will blind you from the trouble around us—and from the challenge ahead of us.
Today is a day of decision in Switzerland. We are in a season of decision in the United States.
But all of us, our entire culture, is entering a decisive era, in which the basic values that will guide our relationships with each other and the structures of power we create to order our society will be reframed and redrawn.
We have to decide now where we will stand—whether the values our faith has been teaching since they were lived out in the person of Jesus of Nazareth will be the values we teach our children, the values that guide our choices as citizens, the principles by which we are willing to be known.
And we may find, in the midst of all that, that we feel very much in the minority, that our plea to order society in terms of the law of love and our certainty that the frailty of humanity can only be compensated by compassion will be a dissenting voice.
But we must always remember something that Justice Ginsburg taught—Justice Ginsburg who herself so tirelessly wrote opinions in dissent when her views did not carry the day. Were they the complaints of a minority perspective, the lamentation of a defeated value?
Not at all. “Dissents speak to a future age,” she wrote. The contention over how we best should live, how humans and their societies will flourish, will always be with us.
If we cannot be heard in the clamor and noise of the demagogues around us, we must not despair. Because like Paul, our task is to speak to the future; to describe the world as it might be, in the future that God—who dwells equally in the future as in the past—is calling us toward, even at this moment.