Hubris and Humility

Hubris is a rather fancy word, isn’t? It almost makes the user seem as self important as the one being criticized. In Greek society the word carried a legal penalty with it for offenses that were power related and unjust – perhaps even similar to crimes we would call “heinous” today. For us, hubris is just a high dollar word that implies overconfidence to the point of an overblown sense of self importance.

As a nation that occasionally refers to itself as the last remaining Global Super Power, it seems reasonable to consider whether or not our sense of self worth is entirely accurate. In fact, I would suggest that some level of self critique has been as much a part of our culture as fireworks and flags. The sacred tome – or at least a good catch phrase – for such a concern is the novel titled The Ugly American, written by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer in 1958. I say catch phrase because the irony is that we often use that phrase to describe people who are obnoxiously and unashamedly culturally unaware. In truth, the hero of the book was literally an unattractive US architect who lived in a foreign land with indigenous people in their villages and helped empower them to come up with creative solutions to meet their needs.

I think the idea of how culturally aware we are is particularly relevant to the church today, because we have found ourselves in a foreign land where values have shifted and the culture is not our own. Anthony B. Robinson, in his book, Transforming Congregational Culture, suggests that there are a few different things that have happened to move us culturally without moving us physically. One of the biggest is the influx of immigrant populations and a shift in the balance of pluralism. Another is a change in generational perspectives.

We’ve been talking about the generation gap all of my life, but we have always approached it from the perspective of making a bridge from us to them so that they will come and be more like us. Here’s why that will never work – we are strangers in a foreign land. Things that used to matter – obligation, loyalty to institutions, creating and maintaining the status quo, finding and giving the right answers, and to some extent even national pride – do not matter the way they used to matter. Things that matter now include: making a difference (or at least working to change things for the better), a feeling of belonging and community rather than joining or becoming a member of something, gaining new perspectives on issues that do not seem to go away (poverty, homelessness, even cancer research), seeking truth that is not dependent on one right or wrong answer, and finally – national accountability as opposed to pride. Don’t get me wrong, the desire for accountability is born out of the same love of our nation that bore national pride. That is simply the way that love is expressed today.

So, today we hear this word about a foreign power – a General, who thinks pretty highly of himself – and a prophet who demonstrates the God who is not confined by circles of power. Naaman is a man of power, and he knows the way to get things done. So, he gets his King to send word to Israel's King – leaving out the fact that this came at the suggestion of the servant girl – expecting Israel’s King to “make it so.”

The King, of course, thinks this is a provocation and tears his clothes (although he conveniently has ten new sets to choose from). Elisha hears of it and returns the favor with a message to the King, “Oh, you tore your clothes. How sad. How about we all remember that there is someone who speaks for God in Israel, and it isn’t you.” In this case it is not hubris. It is a call to humility. As the story follows, that is the key to Naaman’s healing – humility. True humility that leads to reverence and true reverence that redirects an understanding of self in relation to God and others.

So it is with the early church in Galatia, as Paul reminds them not only to bear one another’s burdens but not to expect someone else to carry their own. Could it be that the 20/80 rule was present even in the early church (20% of the people doing 80% of the work)? Possibly, but the proclamation at hand is not about pointing fingers. It is about reaping a good harvest.

Jesus also uses the harvest metaphor to describe the work of those being sent out, “as sheep among wolves.” I think this is a very difficult passage to connect with for the post-modern church. In some ways it speaks our unspoken fears that we are in a minority of opinion and belief. At the same time, this initial experiment of sending out itinerant disciples does not relate to our experience as disciples except for the fact that we are also sent out by Jesus. It is certainly easier to expect the scorpions we tread on to be more metaphorical, yet we are called to proclaim something so counter cultural that it can poison our relationships and damage our opportunities.

The thing is that Jesus sends his disciples out – and that includes you and me – with the confidence that we have been given what we need. He sends us out with the knowledge that not everyone will accept what we have to say. He sends us out with the understanding that all will not go the way that we want, but everything will work to the glory of God in the end.

The report of the 70 who return is, of course, ecstatic. Who wouldn’t be if they realized that they had just exercised super natural powers! (Maybe that is why some say that it feels so good to serve others in the name of God.) In the end, Jesus cautions them to remember that what really matters is that their names are written in heaven. What matters is not the exercise of power, but the knowledge of its source. What matters is the result. What matters is that we realize the eternal consequences of our actions.

Reinhold Niebuhr said it this way, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

As forgiven sinners we approach the table of grace and mercy today because we believe that the love of God matters. We come as invited guests for a foretaste of the spiritual communion that we will share in eternity, when all that is bad falls away and only the pure image of God in which you were created remains.

Here and now we will proclaim in humility and faith some of the bedrock values of our nation – reverence, grace, and mercy – although these values are not what make us US citizens. They make us citizens of the Kingdom of God, which has come near in the person and work of Jesus, which is present and yet to come in the person and work of you and of me. Thanks be to God that our names are written in heaven. Thanks be to God we might even write the names of others in heaven as well. Hallelujah! Amen.
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