Humility, Community, and Jesus


Jesus called his disciples to humility and littleness.  He called them to become like small children, not to seek to prove that they were in the right and that others were wrong.  He called them to be with the poor, those without a voice, and through them to live in communion with him, just as he lived in communion with the Father.  Pride destroys community; humility helps to build it up.  Humility means seeing in the beauty of others the gift of God; it means recognizing the darkness in ourselves, the self-satisfaction behind our good deeds, our longing to take first place.  It means recognizing that we need Jesus to free us from this pride that is inside all of us. 

Humility means accepting our place in the body of a community and respecting the place of others.  It means obeying others and serving them.  Humility means recognizing the importance of doing small things for the community.  Humility also means having the courage of one’s convictions and being fully responsible so that the community can be more loving and true.

By being in communion with Jesus, who is gentle and humble of heart, we can be freed of our tendencies to judge and condemn others, and live humbly with the humble and build with them places of peace and love, places of hope in a wounded world.

-Jean Vanier, The Heart of L’Arche, p.68-69


Dr. Loren Wilkinson at his farm on Galiano Island
Dr. Loren Wilkinson at his farm on Galiano Island

When I was in seminary at Regent College, there was a professor there named Loren Wilkinson.  Loren was famous for regularly inviting students to join him and his wife Mary Ruth at their farm on Galiano Island, just off the coast of British Columbia’s lower mainland.  This trip to the Wilkinson farm became one of the central hallmarks of the Regent College experience for many students, myself included.

Now, this trip was no mere vacation, mind you.  No, when you went to Galiano Island, you went there expecting to work.  Loren got you up early and gave you a task to complete somewhere on the farm.  There was always something to be done, and with groups of students visiting almost every weekend, there were usually enough hands to get it all done.  Many students, like me, came from urban or suburban backgrounds, so we had never experienced life on a working farm before.  Loren made sure that we got our hands dirty and broke a sweat during the day.

And then, at night, the real treat came: dinner.  After work, the other thing you were expected to do at Galiano Island was eat.  And, oh my goodness, did we eat!  Homemade delicacies of every imaginable variety were set out before us in abundance.  Nobody left that table hungry.  And it wasn’t just the quantity of food that was abundant, it was the quality as well.  Everything was organic, homemade, and delicious.

Loren and Mary Ruth lived very simple lives on the island, but the main thing we learned during our stay with them is that simple need not mean austere.  Visitors never got the sense that these people were sacrificing or going without the creature comforts of life.  They live in abundance.

I thought about my trip to Galiano Island and the abundance I discovered there when I read this week’s scripture passage from the book of Isaiah:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price…

…Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.

Later on in the passage, the prophet compares the word of God to the life-giving qualities of rain:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Finally, at the end, the prophet leaves the people with a promise of even more abundance, which is yet to come:

For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

The power of these images is undeniable.  The earth itself is veritably bursting at the seams with life and blessing.  More than just “the way it is”, to this Jewish prophet, the abundance of creation is a divine revelation: it tells us something about God: the Ground of all Being, the core nature of reality itself.  We humans live, move, and have our being in a vast ocean of abundant blessing and amazing grace.

Why then don’t we see it?  Why don’t we believe it?  Why don’t we live our lives as if this was the most central truth of our existence?

It can be hard to embrace the abundance of creation when we are surrounded by a cacophony of voices and circumstances testifying to the contrary.  Every time we change the channel, it seems like there’s one more voice reminding us how close we are to the brink of Armageddon.  Politicians and advertising executives make their livings off of our fear that there is not enough to go around.  Popular media would have us believe that poverty and starvation are problems too big to be solved.  We tell ourselves there’s simply nothing we can do.  However, according to the World Hunger Education Service, the earth produces enough food to provide every man, woman, and child with 2,720 kilocalories per day… that’s over 1,000 times the amount of calories needed for a healthy diet.  Regardless of this fact, people all over the world (mostly in Asia and Africa) are dying of starvation while Americans are dying of an obesity epidemic.

Is the problem really that there’s not enough to go around?  Or is it that too much has been hoarded into one place?  Could it be that powerful, fear-mongering politicians and executives are holding the rest of us hostage with delusions of scarcity?

What makes it worse is that the powerful people who propagate these lies have come to believe in them so strongly that they are making decisions for the rest of us.  They lob their ideological grenades at one another on TV, meanwhile the children of God line up outside soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  Senators and CEOs drive around in bullet-proof limousines while the people of this country stand in unemployment lines.  Friends, I daresay this is a sin against heaven itself.  Something is radically wrong with our collective worldview if we truly believe the lie that there is simply not enough to go around.

This morning’s scripture reading calls us to change this worldview.  First, the prophet gets our attention:

Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.

And then warns us:

let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts

The details of this passage are worth paying attention to: the problem, according to the prophet, is not the bounty of creation but the small-mindedness of its inhabitants.  Presumably, they want to live and live well.  What is needed then?  We must forsake our wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts.  The problem is not with the world itself, but with our way of thinking and living in it.  Average people are envious of those who have more than they need, so they run roughshod over the rights and needs of the poor in an attempt to emulate the powerful.

The prophet gives us the remedy:

Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live…

let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts

In other words: it’s high time to change our stinkin’ thinkin’.

It’s time for us to stop shouting at the sky about how big our problems are and start shouting at our problems about how big the sky is.

Instead of looking out for number one in our small-minded, self-centered little worlds, we need to cultivate an attitude of gratitude and sharing.  The abundance of creation is a free gift to all.  We lose it when we try to keep it all for ourselves.  It’s time for us, as people of faith, “to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  I borrowed that phrase from our neighbors in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.  In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The simplest answer is that it’s time for us to learn how to share.  I’m not just talking about opening our wallets on occasion; I’m talking about opening our minds on all occasions.  We have to expand our definition of the word family.  We need to nurture global family values, but that’s a tall order, so why don’t we start with local family values?  When we hear about that sickness, that layoff, or that foreclosure for our neighbors, let’s not harden our hearts or turn our backs saying, “It’s not my problem.”  Because it is our problem.  When we live in community with one another, not just proximity to one another, options, possibilities, and resources begin to open up.  All of a sudden, we don’t feel so desperate or alone anymore.  Together we find hope, strength, and courage to overcome adversity and make it through the darkest night.  In short: we begin to manifest the freely given abundance of creation that is our collective birthright.  We start small and work our way up.  As they say, “Think globally, act locally.”

Coming up in a few weeks, on Easter Sunday, our congregation will be participating in a single, unified manifestation of abundance for people all over the world.  It’s called One Great Hour of Sharing.  This ecumenical effort was begun over sixty years ago to pool the efforts of multiple denominations in the fight against global poverty and hunger.  Our forebears realized they could do more together than any of them could do apart.  To date, we have raised as much as $20 million annually to assist with disaster relief and development projects around the world.

Throughout the season of Lent, you will notice inserts in your bulletins that outline a different project each week that is supported by One Great Hour of Sharing.  Take these inserts home with you, pray for the project highlighted that week, and please consider pooling your resources with ours on Easter Sunday so that we might collectively manifest the abundance of creation for the good of the whole.

These are our global family values.  This is our faith-based alternative to the politics of fear and the economy of scarcity.  It has nothing to do with the powers that be in Washington or on Wall Street.  The kingdom of heaven-on-earth doesn’t belong to the powerful; it belongs to the little ones of this world, it belongs to the local communities of average Janes and Joes who reach out to care for one another in the midst of good times and bad.

In a few minutes, we will gather as a church around the Communion Table to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  In this feast of the abundance of heaven and earth, all people are invited to come, eat, and drink without money and without price.

I pray that the message of this feast will not return empty, but will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent: bringing forth life and growth, manifesting the abundance of creation for the common good.  May the meaning of this mystery take root in the soil of your soul, and as you go out from this place today, fed and filled with Word and Sacrament, may you go out in joy and be led back in peace, may the mountains and hills burst into song before you and the trees of the field clap their hands.

May you know the abundance of creation as you share it with everyone you meet.  May you be blessed and be a blessing in the knowledge that I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.


Resurrection People

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Acts 4:32-35

Today, as many of you may or may not know, happens to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  The story of the Titanic is one of the most well-known tragedies of the 20th century (I am, of course, referring to the actual ship and not the movie… although the movie was pretty bad).  I am proud to say that I was a Titanic enthusiast long before the film came out.  I was just a little kid in 1985 when the wreck was discovered by Robert Ballard, the legendary ocean explorer.  When I was learning to read, my mother bought me a copy of a kids’ book called Titanic… Lost and Found!  Later on, my very first “grown up book” was The Discovery of the Titanic by Robert Ballard.  I even own a small piece of coal that once sat in Titanic’s boiler room.  It was recovered from the wreck site at the bottom of the ocean.

In addition to the popularity of James Cameron’s blockbuster film, I think there are many reasons why the story of the Titanic continues to haunt our collective memory and imagination.  One could easily call it a “multi-faceted tragedy.”  On the one hand, it is a story of foolish human arrogance: unwavering faith in “progress” and technology that led to calling the ship “unsinkable,” even though it obviously was not.  On the other hand, it is a story of human vanity.  Titanic’s builders used the cheapest and most brittle of low-quality iron in their construction of the ship’s hull.  They preferred to spend their money on lavish decorations like gold-gilded dinner plates and the magnificent grand staircase that we saw in the movie.  Some scientists have theorized that, had the ship’s hull been made of sterner stuff, it might not have buckled as badly after striking the iceberg.  The ship would still have gone down, but it would have happened much slower and allowed more time for rescue ships to arrive and save lives.  But, in my mind, the greatest tragedy of the Titanic is that it is a story of human prejudice.  Great pains were taken to maintain the distinction between the upper and lower class passengers on the Titanic.  They were not allowed to mix under any circumstances.  There were still many in that day who believed in the inherent superiority of upper class people over others.

These class distinctions were maintained, even after Titanic received her fatal blow from the ice berg.  The crew shut iron gates in the hallways to keep the lower classes below deck.  As a result, people in steerage were blocked from getting to the lifeboats.  Meanwhile on deck, lifeboats for first class passengers were being lowered only half-full.  Apart from the crew, most of those who died on the Titanic were from the lower classes.  This, to me, is the single most tragic fact of the Titanic disaster.  It represents an almost total breakdown in human community.  Artificial distinctions and privileges were maintained, even in a life-or-death situation.  I can’t think of anything else that takes us farther away from what God intends for us as a human family.

It’s easy for us to sit here this morning, look back in time, and shake our heads at their prejudice.  We think we’ve evolved beyond that.  In some ways, we have: most folks these days have dropped the overt sense of aristocratic pedigree that once dictated social relations in Europe and North America.  But, in other ways, we in 2012 are still very much as our ancestors were in 1912.  We still like to categorize ourselves and write each other off for being different from one another.  Some of our distinctions are obviously trivial, such as preference in music or sports.  Other distinctions, like those involving politics and religion, seem to bear more momentous weight in the public sphere.

Looking at the bitterly divided state of things in our society and world today, it seems to me that we too are guilty of maintaining artificial distinctions and privileges among ourselves, even in the face of dire consequences.  Folks seem only too willing to write one another off as “those people” and forego the gentle arts of communication, coexistence, and compromise.  Even after one hundred years, it seems that we have not yet learned our lesson.

I believe the sacred scriptures of our religion offer us an alternative vision for human community.  We read this morning in our passage from the book of Acts a very different scene from the one described on the deck of the Titanic in her final hours.  We are told that the members of the early church were “of one heart and soul.”  So deep was their commitment to God and one another that they abdicated their rights to private property.  Yet, we are also told, “there was not a needy person among them.”  I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds a whole lot more like a hippie farm than a church!

In the midst of this “experiment with socialism,” the text tells us that there is something else going on that is of paramount importance to the church’s identity.  It says that they “gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”  Somehow, this singular activity of testifying to the resurrection was central to everything else that was going on in their community.

What I find interesting is that the text of Acts doesn’t tell us what they said.  It doesn’t tell us how the apostles and early Christians testified to the resurrection.  To be sure, this is something that Christians continue to do to this day.  Some folks try to “testify to the resurrection” by constructing historical and scientific arguments for the likelihood that Jesus got up out of his tomb and walked the earth again.  Some folks simply tell the story over and over again (like this church does at Easter).  But the most important way that people (back then as well as now) “testify to the resurrection” is in the way they live.

When I look at that beautiful depiction of the early church, sharing what they have, meeting peoples’ needs, and generally being a community “of one heart and soul,” I am struck by that community’s similarity to Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, where “the last will be first” and “the greatest among you will be the servant of all.”  The powers-that-be of Jesus’ time were threatened by his message.  The crucifixion was their final “no” to everything that he was and did.  But the resurrection was God’s resounding “yes” that trumped the world’s “no.”  Truly, where God is concerned, love is stronger than death.  In this chapter of Acts, we have a community where people dared to love like Jesus did.  Their daily lives served as indicators that Jesus’ dream was coming true and that the life of Christ was alive in them.  Their lives together served as a living testimony to the resurrection of Jesus.

This reminds me of the words to an old gospel hymn:

He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and He talks with me

Along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives:
He lives within my heart.

You and I have not had the privilege of physically walking and talking with the historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, as the early apostles did.  However, we are not therefore excused from the task of testifying to his resurrection.  We, who claim to be his followers in the world today, give testimony to the world through the presence of the risen Christ in our hearts.  When we allow that Christ-like love to have its way in our lives, it does something inside of us.  It puts us back in touch with the true meaning for our lives and the center of the universe.  We experience Christ, not as an historical figure who lived two millennia ago, but as a living and breathing presence in our midst today.  Like the hymn says, “He lives within our hearts.”

There is another hymn that communicates this same idea.  We sang it as our opening hymn this morning.  Did you catch the lyrics?

They cut me down and I leapt up high,
I am the life that can never ever die!
I’ll live in you if you live in me,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

Earlier in that same hymn, it says, “I am the dance and I still go on!”  Your life is a testimony to the presence of the living Christ in you.  Wherever faith conquers fear, Christ is alive!  Wherever equality dissolves prejudice, Christ is alive!  Wherever selflessness conquers selfishness, Christ is alive!  Wherever opposing individuals or groups sit down together to seek peace and understanding, Christ is alive!  God’s resounding “yes” trumps the world’s final “no.”  Wherever these dreams become reality in our lives, we show the world with our lives that Christ is a present and living reality, not just some inspirational figurehead confined to the annals of history.  Christ is the dance we dance.  Christ is the undying life within us.  How do we know he lives?  He lives within our hearts!  Just look at our lives and see!

This is good and empowering news for us, but it also bestows a great responsibility upon us.  We need to ask ourselves on a regular basis whether the lives we live, as individuals and as a church, are proclaiming a message of resurrection to the world.  We need to ask ourselves if we are living as resurrection people.  Are we practicing what we preach?  The great American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said, “Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.”

There are all kinds of big and little ways that we can live as resurrection people.  Some of us will change the world with our testimony.  Most of us will not.  All we can do, according to theologian William Stringfellow, is “live humanly in the midst of death.”  Our little deeds of compassion and care must carry the light for us.  We, through our actions, can create a small community of kindness around us that has the potential to outlast the empires of history.  The Christian church began as a small, persecuted sect in the shadow of the Roman Empire.  Yet, here we are, Christians still celebrating, worshiping, and caring together, centuries after the fall of Rome.  The presence of the risen Christ in us is stronger and more enduring than the dominating force of empire.

Then again, we never know what kind of impact our small acts of kindness might have on the world at large.  There is a story of a young black boy and his mother walking down a city street in South Africa during the reign of Apartheid.  There was a law then that black folks had to step aside when white folks passed their way on the sidewalk.  As this mother and son were walking along, they encountered a white man walking the other way.  As he drew near, the boy was shocked to see the white man step aside and lift his hat as they passed by.  The boy asked, “Mummy, who was that man?”  His mother replied, “That man was an Anglican priest and furthermore he is a man of God.”  The little boy would later say, “That was the day I decided that I wanted to be an Anglican priest and furthermore a man of God.”  That little boy grew up to be Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the pastor to a nation who helped to peacefully dismantle Apartheid and usher in a new era of equality for his country and set an example to the world.  Who could have predicted that his calling would be inspired by one small, illegal act of kindness and respect given one day on a street corner?  Christ is alive!  Christ is risen indeed!

I’d like to close with another story from the Titanic.  In the midst of all the arrogance, vanity, and classist inhumanity of that tragic story, there is the noble tale of Fr. Thomas Byles.  He was a Catholic priest on his way to officiate at his brother’s wedding in the States.  During the night, he was twice offered a space in a lifeboat, but gave it up to other passengers both times.  He said he would stay on board so long as there was a single soul in need of his ministrations.  He heard confessions and said prayers.  The last time anyone saw him alive, he was saying the rosary on deck, surrounded by a crowd of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.  There, in the desperation of that moment, distinctions between race, class, ethnicity, and religion were all erased.  It seems that only grace remained once the gravity of the situation set in.  I find it amazing that, even there, in the midst of this great tragedy, a small group of people encountered the eternal mystery of God together in ad hoc community.  Even as they walked together through the valley of the shadow of death, their lives “gave testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”

Catching People


Finally, I enter the blogosphere!  I convinced myself the other day that if Dorothy Day were writing now, she might have blogged rather than printed.  Let’s face it: it’s cheaper.

So, my plan is to keep a record of my search for God in the margins of society.  Sometimes (like tonight) I’ll be reflecting on our Thursday night Bible study at St. James Mission.  For you sermon writers out there, our Bible study is based on the texts in Revised Common Lectionary that will appear on the following Sunday.

When I’m not doing that, I’ll be trying to make sense of the time I spend on the streets as a Community Chaplain.  Confidentiality will be maintained.

If anyone cares to read or comment, that would be awesome.  If anyone lives locally (Utica, NY) and wants to show up at our Bible study, that would be even more awesome.  We meet Thursdays, 6pm, at First Presbyterian Church (1605 Genesee Street).

At tonight’s Bible study, we read Luke 5:1-11. Click here to read the passage.

People were drawn to the enigmatic image of “catching people” that Jesus presents to Simon at the end of the passage.

One person commented on the fact that the fishermen in this story used nets instead of poles.  “The whole community of fish gets caught, not just one.”  This flies in the face of our society, in which spirituality has been privatized.  We’ve been conditioned to think of ourselves as individuals, not as communal beings.

Someone else noticed that a fish caught on a pole gets to choose whether or not to take the bait, but a fish caught in a net has no choice whatsoever.  This too is a countercultural idea in a consumerist society where choice is so valued.

Another person pointed out that a fisherman, when using a net, does not discriminate between fish.  The fisherman can’t say, “You’re too sickly.  You’re the wrong kind of fish.  You’re a tuna.”  In the same way, God doesn’t discriminate between people as they’re being “caught” in the net of Jesus.  Male or female, black or white, straight or gay, religious or irreligious, all people are embraced by the net.

God’s activity, according to this passage, is something that whole communities get “caught up in”, not something that individuals choose for themselves.  Where then can we look to find examples of God at work in the life of a community?

One man remembered the way that the gay community rallied around one another during the height of the AIDS crisis in America.

Someone else mentioned a news article about Haiti after the earthquake.  The report indicated that the streets of the city turned into one big church at night, with Catholics and Protestants worshiping together until two in the morning.

A third person told a story about a group of factory workers somewhere in Latin America.  The owners of the factory owed the workers about six million dollars in unpaid wages.  As it turned out, the factory building itself was worth about the same amount.  In lieu of pay, the workers took control of the factory and turned it into a labor cooperative.  The oppressive management had been replaced by the workers themselves in a new spirit of justice and equality.