Sermon October 1 2023 World Communion Phil2:1-13 Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you remember that song? I should pause here and note that my stepfather used to randomly ask us that all the time. Before invariably breaking into some song that literally NOBODY ever remembered. Usually because it was written decades before any of us were born and had an apparent popular reach of “the north of England in the 1940s”.
So I do recognize that it can be a ridiculous question. And yet I shall ask it anyway, do you remember that song… that went “Oh lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in ev-er-y way”.
It was written by Mac Davis, apparently in 1980, though I suspect became more popular thanks to Willie Nelson in particular. And while I hasten to insist that I don’t remember it at that time due to having been only a tiny tiny child of twelve, it certainly must have penetrated the zeitgeist more generally.
Because I do definitely remember it hovering. Which is presumably why it popped into my head in a way my stepfather would be proud of, as I contemplated the passage this morning from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that Elaine read for us just now.
Because if there are certainly times, when looking at the letters of Paul, when it sort of feels as though his words could essentially be distilled into “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way”… since Paul is a little inclined to be deeply impressed with himself…
This passage from the letter to the Philippians is actually quite different. It’s more evocative, in fact, of the real SUBTEXT of that song – which beneath the boasting quietly reveals how secretly lonesome and disconnected the poor fellow feels, in a world in which his perfectness is apparently too much for everyone around him.
I mean, it’s all tongue in cheek. But the import is poignant.
And it speaks, I think, to the essential truth that Paul is really wanting to communicate to the Philippians, to us, in this passage from his letter. Which is that any genuine connection to one another, any real sense of feeling as though there’s MORE to “me plus you” than just “me” and “you” – that there’s an us-ness that transcends our individual selves that’s the bond of real relationship –
That these are essentially grounded, are grounded in their essence, in being humble with one another. Not ‘being humble’ in the sense of pushing ourselves down, relentlessly self-denigrating, turning against ourselves – but ‘being humble’ as a way of lifting the other person up. Shining the light on them. Turning toward them and granting them space.
Which in effect, if we’re all being humble with each other, doing that for each other, then we’re all lifted up. We’re all granted time in the light. We’re all turned toward and granted space, like we matter.
That’s what Paul wanted for the Philippians, in how they were with each other, with the people around them. That orientation of being humble with each other, and the connectedness it builds, shifting a relationship beyond just me plus you to include also an ‘us’. And everyone gets lifted up.
It’s what Paul wants for the Philippians and we have to assume that that’s because they needed it! Because whenever we read any of Paul’s letters, it’s always probably the most important thing for us to remember that they were sent to real congregations of people who were raising real and ordinary questions to him about how to do this THING of being Christian. Following Jesus’ way.
Because it was very not smooth, for ANY of those earliest Christians, those earliest churches. If we struggle NOW with patience and personalities and power struggles and wondering if we matter and trying to just keep going, in our world of relationships with those around us, the earliest Christians all struggled in all the same ways. These things aren’t new.
And we know that. Because if it weren’t the case we wouldn’t have the letters of Paul. That are all about his responses to those struggles. That are all about his responses to being asked over and over from a variety of different directions, “This is happening right now, so how do we deal?”
We don’t actually HAVE the Philippians’ original letter to Paul. Or indeed ANY of the letters to which he responded with the letters in our Newer Testament. We always have to kind of extrapolate backward from Paul, to picture what’s been going on based on what he seems to be addressing.
And if nine times out of ten, “what’s been going on” seems to be some version of “everyone’s arguing”, in THIS case, with the Philippians, the issue seems to be a little deeper. Because they don’t seem to be really arguing – they just seem to be a little disconnected from each other.
Each kind of on their own path, doing their own thing, sort of measuring themselves against each other but not really feeling connected. More like me and me and me and me, and not much of an ‘us’ to speak of. And it’s not great. They’re feeling untethered, there’s something missing. And so “this is happening right now” they’ve probably written to Paul, “and how do we deal?”
And Paul’s response might have surprised them. Because what he tells them is “start with being humble with each other. Start with humility in how you are with each other and go from there.”
“Recall,” he tells them, using the words of one of the earliest Christian hymns that they’d certainly have known, “how Jesus emptied himself of all the Entirely Reasonable Glory of literally being all of Godness squished up into a person, to be in absolute humility a servant of all.”
Not so we’d all line ourselves up to be the “masters” in that scenario, but so we’d imitate that example. Embodying that humility with others in how we are too.
So start there, says Paul, with humility with each other. Which might have surprised the Philippians and they might even have chafed at it a bit, as we might well too. Because as Paul goes on, his words don’t really get any more comfortable.
Because “Regard others as better than yourselves” he says to them, to us. “Look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” And if that makes us feel reactive, it’s not without reason. Because we KNOW these are words are SO easy to weaponize. They HAVE been in Christian community and western culture. They’ve been wielded selectively and they’ve been lobbed at some people deliberately. To entrench and REtrench power imbalances that some other people have had QUITE a lot invested in sustaining.
So they’re not without a shadow side, and they’re not without danger. And we may well chafe at them and we certainly wouldn’t be the first. And they don’t GET to be weaponized and we DO get to point it out, when they are.
But when Paul is offering them here as describing the essential stance of humility embodied in Jesus as an example for us to follow, he IS doing so in good faith.
Because it’s meant as an example for all of us. And if ALL of us embody that stance, that orientation of humility in relation to each other, then ALL of us are lifted up. All of us get the light shined on us. All of our interests are made to matter. It’s just that it’s by each other. Rather than by ourselves.
Which is actually Paul’s real point. The orientation of humility is inherently relational. We can’t live in a way that lifts the other up, that puts the other first, that stands down so the other can have space – if our only focus is ourselves. If our attentiveness doesn’t have an ‘other’ it’s being attentive to.
So is it about humility? Of course. For Paul it’s always about imitating the way of Jesus in how we are, and that’s fundamentally about the other-lifting-up stance of humility.
But what it’s really about is how embodying humility fosters connectedness. No longer the me and me and me that’s left the Philippians feeling a bit untethered, and could hardly be a more accurate description of our current cultural ethos – but instead a deep sense of us-ness of relationship and interdependence.
Because if, oh lord, it’s hard to be humble if you’re perfect in every way, it’s basically impossible to be humble if we’ve learned to make our primary focus ourselves.
So what Paul wants for the Philippians and for us is that deep sense of connectedness. With others, as a human family, and we might add with all of creation as equally formed into being by God out of all the same elements as we are. From the beginning in that same relationship of interdependence and connectedness.
So, oh lord, is it hard to be humble? The funny thing is that I think we’re actually really pretty good at it in relation to creation. We do feel that sense of “oh this is all about YOU” at the glory of a sunset or the deep breaths by the ocean or in the woods. What we maybe need to work at a bit more is the real sense of interdependence with creation.
While meanwhile, I suspect we’re not really dreadful at feeling an interdependence and mutual responsibility with other people, but we’re possibly not quite so good with others at the standing down and making space, and the awe and the wonder, and “this is all about you”.
So we’re a work in progress. Just like the Philippians. Just like Paul himself. But do you remember that song? It’s called Deep in our Hearts. And when we sing it together we’re reminded we’re not alone. Amen.