“Learning humility: looking through the lens of a crucified God”
Sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on February 5, 2017
Texts: Isaiah 58:1-9a; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
February 5, 2017—Epiphany 5A
Isaiah 58:1-9a; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
When I was in the process for ordination, one of my interviewers from the Commission on Ministry asked, “You have a degree from Harvard. How are you going to be able to speak to people who aren’t as educated as you are?” And I’ll confess that my weary self wanted to say, “Well, I’m talking to YOU, aren’t I?” But in fact, I understood what she was asking. I could hear the echo of Paul from this passage of First Corinthians, in which he discusses the fact that the kingdom should never be preached in such a way that (a) the hearer can’t understand, and (b) that the glory is reflected onto the extremely righteous and scholarly speaker, rather than onto God.
It’s not supposed to be about some kind of spiritual elite. It’s not about the Pharisees or the scribes or the priests, even if they are (maybe) fulfilling more of the law and the prophets than other people. Because the point of the Sermon on the Mount is that not even they are fulfilling all of it! So if the way into God’s kingdom is fulfilling the law? You’d need to do even better than they do.
The laws of God are important, don’t get me wrong. Those who live according to the Torah’s basic precepts are what keeps the world on track; they are the salt of the earth, the thing that preserves it through the long winter so we can survive.[i] But nobody does it perfectly. Nobody. And so nobody should be boasting, and setting themselves above everyone else. Nobody should be boasting, and making others feel inferior, or less holy, or stupid. People who speak that way about the law are not actually preaching the Kingdom of God. They’re preaching about themselves.
Paul struggled with this. It’s clear. He struggled with it all the time, trying to overcome his own sense of superiority. My guess is, he LIKED being a Pharisee; liked feeling better than those around him, who weren’t as zealous for the law. And he fought against that impulse all his life, even after that conversion knocked him off the horse of his self-righteousness. You can see it, as he dictates his letters: part of him wants the recognition of how significant he is, how righteous he is, how humble he is (if that’s the only prize that’s available) … but he also recognizes that as a flaw. He knows that his desire for recognition, his desire to be MORE special, is a stumbling block to the Gospel.
And so, when writing to the church at Corinth, he sees his own besetting sin reflected in them. They want to divide themselves into strata, to establish a hierarchy of righteousness or spirituality. And there is no way he is going to cut them a break on that.
And so he tells them: I chose to know nothing among you except Christ, and him crucified (he’s reminding himself as much as them, I think). I set aside the lofty wisdom and fancy words that might have made ME seem impressive. You can almost hear the internal dialogue: Make no mistake, I WANTED to be impressive. I could have been impressive! But I’m working on it, because this isn’t about me; it’s about Christ.
And so Paul offers them his secret, the way he manages to set aside his own tendency toward pride and self-aggrandizement: that he tries, to the best of the ability, to see the world through the lens of Christ crucified. Not so much, I think, that he sees nothing other than Christ on the cross, but that everything he does see is colored and shaped by that event, that image, that spiritual reality.
Between him and his desire to self-aggrandize, he sets the image of a savior who emptied himself completely, humbling himself even unto death. Which is the kind of thing that shifts your perspective, even if the sin you struggle with isn’t pridefulness. No matter what flaw you are attempting to battle down, or (more often) pretending to battle down because it seems like the right thing to do, that struggle will not look the same when seen through the lens of how much Jesus was willing to give up. If we have any illusions about our capacity for self-indulgence, the cross will help to strip them away.
But what else might the lens of the crucified Christ do? How might it affect us, to keep such an image front and center as we view the world? Not to preach or proclaim it, but simply to know it, and let that affect how we see things.
His suffering was long. His excruciating hours on the cross are impossible to brush away or minimize with platitudes of any kind. Even though it was God’s will, and the whole thing was eventually redeemed for the good of all humankind, it was agonizing and awful. Which might transform how we encounter those who are suffering: towards greater awe, perhaps. Towards a sense that great pain cannot be rushed through or dismissed. We must wait with it a while, keep it company, and allow redemption to come in its own time.
As we keep it in view, we will also remember that crucifixion is messy. Not just as a reality of blood and bone, but as a solution. As a victory over death and violence and sin, it seems … indirect. Slightly less than obvious, and way more trouble than a band of avenging angels would have been! Keeping a crucified Jesus in our vision reminds us that the easy way is not always God’s way. That the right thing to do might involve sacrifice or suffering. That a win doesn’t always look like a win. It might be small, it might be partial, it might even look like loss: if not to you, then certainly to the people around you! Which is a bitter, bitter pill to swallow. In fact, it sounds like foolishness.
Paul’s advice: know Christ. Before you choose to know humiliation and swallow it whole, know Christ (and him crucified). Remember that answering violence and hate with love is messy, and will likely only change the world around us a little bit, but it is the way of Christ.
Remember. As you walk through this world, with all the people and the situations that tempt us to build walls around ourselves to protect our hearts and minds and bodies, remember Christ crucified. Remember our Savior who willingly abandoned self-protection, who was willing to be broken, willing to lose, willing to seem weak and foolish in the eyes of the world. Remember how he did this in order to embody the power of forgiveness, in order to demonstrate the redemptive nature of love, and in order to confront those who control by force with the truth that death is not, in fact, the ultimate power in this world.
Know Christ. Before you, like the Corinthians, go running after teachers or leaders or labels that seek glory for themselves or you, know Christ. Remember Christ, and him crucified, and look on the world through that lens. See him as you examine yourself, in all your strengths and struggles. See him, when you encounter your neighbor, whether that person is friend, enemy or stranger. See Christ crucified, and choose to know that before everything else.
This is the challenge Paul set himself, and clearly struggled with his entire life. I can only begin to imagine how it would transform my life to take on this same challenge. How might we all be changed by a perspective on the world colored by such an icon of weakness and humility, love and forgiveness, suffering and offering, courage and endurance? And not just colored by one of those things, but by ALL of them at once.
If you choose to live and die in this world by only one thing … if you know only one thing … indeed, make it Christ. May it be so. Amen.
[i] Richard W. Swanson, https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2017/01/30/a-provocation-the-fifth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-the-second-sunday-after-the-travel-ban-february-5-2017-matthew-513-20/