Sunday, September 02, 2007

September 2 Sermon, Cracked Cisterns

Texts: Jeremiah and Luke

Man, I’m happy football season is here! One of my favorite NFL moments was back in 2000, when Terrell Owens, then with the S.F. 49ers, was playing a game against the Dallas Cowboys. T.O., as he is known, caught two touchdown passes in that game, and after each of them, he ran from the in-zone to midfield and stood in the big blue star at mid-field and held his hands out wide, like, “Look at me! I’m the Star!” Not exactly a paragon of humility.
Here is one who exalts himself, and has made his name for exalting himself. After scoring his 100th career touchdown in Philadelphia, he pulled a towel from his waist, folded it over his arm, and then placed the football in the palm of his hand, holding it over his shoulder and pretending to serve it up to the opposing team like a waiter would present a meal.
“The proud man can learn humility, but he will be proud of it”
A church realized the importance of humility, so it formed a committee to find the most humble person in the church. Many names were submitted and numerous candidates evaluated. Finally, the committee came to a unanimous decision. They selected a quiet little man who always lived in the background and had never taken credit for anything he had done. They awarded him the "Most Humble" button for his faithful service. However, the next day they had to take it away from him because he pinned it on. (Kent Crockett, Making Today Count for Eternity, Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2001, p. 122)
Humility is something that’s hard to get a handle on. Is it humility when one stifles their pride? Is it an inner quality, something we are born with, or is it something that can be practiced into reality? Jesus seems to think it is the latter. Here he is in precarious dinner situation—pay attention to the text—Luke tells us his hosts are “watching him closely.”
Haven’t you ever been invited to a dinner like that? Where you sense your kind “hosts” are watching you like a hawk, wondering if you’re going to mess up? I know I have! Jesus gives his hosts plenty to chew on, that’s for sure.
I can just see the other guests of the dinner “discreetly” trying to assume their place at the head table, and then Jesus gives them a little “word to the wise.” “Hey guys, aren’t you going to be embarrassed if someone more important than you arrives, and our host has to tell you to go sit at the “kid’s table?” “Instead,” Jesus says, “take the lowest seat and your host might tell you, Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”
And then he speaks in the future tense. When Jesus speaks in the future tense, he’s speaking about “Kingdom Life.” Kingdom life is the way that God dreams that we will live. Kingdom life is what we strive toward as people of faith. Jesus says, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Humility is not to be feigned as a strategy for recognition. On the contrary, humility is a quality of life open to persons who know that their worth is not measured by recognition from their peers but by the certainty that God has accepted them. St. Augustine said, “Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”
A truly humble man is hard to find, yet God delights to honor such selfless people. Booker T. Washington, the renowned black educator, was an outstanding example of this truth. Shortly after he took over the presidency of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, he was walking in an exclusive section of town when he was stopped by a wealthy white woman. Not knowing the famous Mr. Washington by sight, she asked if he would like to earn a few dollars by chopping wood for her. Because he had no pressing business at the moment, Professor Washington smiled, rolled up his sleeves, and proceeded to do the humble chore she had requested. When he was finished, he carried the logs into the house and stacked them by the fireplace. A little girl recognized him and later revealed his identity to the lady.
The next morning the embarrassed woman went to see Mr. Washington in his office at the Institute and apologized profusely. "It's perfectly all right, Madam," he replied. "Occasionally I enjoy a little manual labor. Besides, it's always a delight to do something for a friend." She shook his hand warmly and assured him that his meek and gracious attitude had endeared him and his work to her heart. Not long afterward she showed her admiration by persuading some wealthy acquaintances to join her in donating thousands of dollars to the Tuskegee Institute.

Here’s the paradox: true Humility rests on the firm foundation of a deep, abiding confidence-- A confidence that our worth is not measured by recognition from our peers but by the certainty that God has accepted us. Humility is a state of rest, it is a state of contentment. Pride and posturing, jockeying for the best seat in the house---all of that springs out of a deep sense of unease.
The Lord says, through the prophet Jeremiah, “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” Jeremiah is referring to the fickleness of the people of God. God has sorrow for his people.
They have the pride to believe that they can choose their own gods much like the dinner guests with whom Jesus ate had the pride to believe they could choose the place of honor. But our worldly ideas of honor and glory and achievement and status are “cracked cisterns that hold no water.” They are rooted in the corroding and corrosive virtues of self-reliance, hoarding, and greed. In the Kingdom of God, these fortresses of earthly glory will crumble.
Why do we leave the fountain of living water and turn to inventions of our own making? Why do we forsake humility for pride? Why do we abandon the surety of God’s promise for the shaky ground of self reliance? Why do we build our houses on the sand instead of the rock? To me, it conjures up the image of trading in a ring of precious metal that I have neglected to polish for shiny tinsel. Does that metaphor translate for you? God’s love and promise is like precious metal. When we do not nurture the connection with God, it, like precious metal, loses its luster. To the casual glance, it might not seem worth anything anymore. Along comes the huckster, the deceiver, and he says to us. Why do you carry around that ugly old ring? I have a new and shiny one for you! But the ring is made out of tinsel—it is worthless. Notice what Jeremiah hears God saying, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?”
Oh, that cuts to the quick, doesn’t it! God’s heart is aching over our short-sightedness, our gluttony. We prop up ourselves instead of leaning on each other. We value pride and exaltation over humility and servanthood. We go after worthless things and become worthless ourselves.
The meaning and value that God gives you when you take your first breath is of more worth than any pursuit in our temporary world that might bring you temporary fame or temporary pride or temporary importance. If we forsake the Divine Breath within us to pursue temporary things, we are trading in a gold ring for a tinsel one. We are leaving the spring of life and making for ourselves cracked cisterns that hold no water. We are taking the honored place at a table when the guest of honor is walking up to the front door.
But God wants to bring you to a table where living water flows freely. God wants to say to us “Friend, move up higher.” God wants to claim you and give you meaning and worth that cannot be taken away. God wants to give you the polish that will bring the luster back to the ring of our inheritance. And it happens right here—it happens at this table. And do you notice what we do before we come to this table? We begin with confession. Sir Thomas More said, “Humility, that low, sweet root, from which all heavenly virtues shoot.” Yes, this is the root of Kingdom Life. This is life at the fountain of life. Paul tells the Corinthians,
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” The response to God’s grace that is revealed to us in scripture is confession. Confession humbles the heart, and it prepares us to receive a place at the table.
Confession opens our ears and allows us to hear the invitation of God— If we are deafened by singing our own praises, we won’t hear God telling us, “Friend, move up higher.”

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