Sunday, October 21, 2012

Defining the Relationship


Sometimes you just have to know where you stand with another person.  For instance, when couples have been dating for a while, one or both of them may be wondering where the relationship is headed.  Are they dating each other exclusively? Are they boyfriend-girlfriend, or just friends? Are they heading toward marriage, or is the meter running?
There’s a sense of connection but a lack of clarity in the relationship.  That’s when it’s time for the DTR talk: the define the relationship talk.  You just need to know where you stand.
Romantic relationships are not the only kind of relationship that calls for a DTR.  At work we call the DTR a performance review if our superior initiates.  
Pierre-August Renoir's "The Lovers"

We talk about asking for a raise or seeking a promotion if we broach the subject with a superior.  
You could even say that every election cycle is a very public DTR between the public and our elected officials.  We let them know where they stand with us.
We all want to know where we stand.  Am I accepted or rejected? Do I have a meaningful role to play or am I just an extra? Does what I say matter or should I save my breath? Can I make a difference or am I wasting my energy? Am I safe and wanted and welcome? Do you love me?
To know where we stand, we have to make ourselves very vulnerable.  When it comes to relationships, where we stand with someone else is beyond our control.  Others put us in our place: our place in their heart, in their life, and in their community.
That’s why the DTR--the define the relationship talk--evokes such anxiety.  The place others make for us in their life is up to them, not us.  We are at their mercy.
James and John are looking for a DTR with Jesus.  They want to know where they stand.  And they are quick to tell Jesus the place they want.  They want to be special, his right hand (and left hand) guys.  Apparently, they think they have to earn their place by being especially good at the whole disciple thing.

But deep down, they know they are at his mercy.  Only Jesus can say where they stand in his heart.  And in fact, he’s been telling them just that as they walk doggedly toward Jerusalem.  For the third time now he has predicted his Passion.  In other words, he has already put them in their place.
James and John and the rest of the Twelve and all of us are at Jesus’ mercy.  More accurately, we are in Jesus’ mercy.  He freely gives his life so that we can have life.  We have a secure place at the very center of his heart.
We don’t have to ask, “What do I have to do to be saved?” Jesus has already chosen to be our savior.  Our question is this: “What should I do now that I am saved?”
Here’s what Jesus says to that.  Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  (Mark 10:43-44)
To put it another way, humility is a result of a deep relationship with Jesus.  Humility defines the relationship.
Contrary to what you might think, being humble is not only a personal character trait, a matter of the individual heart.  Humility is about relationship, and it characterizes how we live in community with each other.  And when we live together as a humble community, we begin to infect the world with the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let’s unpack this cluster of ideas together one step at a time.  
The first step is to explore this question: What is humility?
Then we’ll discuss a second question: What practices make a group of people a humble community?
By way of conclusion, we’ll touch briefly on a third question: How does our humility impact the world?
A Kingdom Community
Jesus teaches us about how to follow him as a community.  He called together twelve apostles and spent three years teaching them how to carry on his message and his work after his death, resurrection, and ascension.
Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven.  That proclamation continues today in the communities who follow him.  We don’t just talk about the Kingdom.  We embody the Kingdom in our life together as a community.  Our common life gives the rest of the world a partial glimpse of what the Kingdom will be like in its fullness.
First and foremost we are a servant community.  Humility is at the core of who we are and how we are together.  This is what makes us a Kingdom Community.  So let’s get clear about the nature of humility, especially given how misunderstood it is these days.
Humility has nothing to do with being shy or timid.  Neither should we confuse humility with being servile or being given to faint-hearted conformity or wanting in self-esteem.
It is closer to the mark to say that the humble lack vanity and lack pride.  But humility is far more than the mere absence of character defects like self-absorption and feelings of grandiosity.
Humility is a joyful realism.  It consists of the following marks.
You know what you’re made of: dirt.  And the breath you have is God’s gift to you.  That’s what the story of God’s creation of Adam is all about.  You are always dependent upon God for every breath you take.  Your whole life is an unwarranted, infinitely precious gift at each instant.
Other people have gifts that you do not have.  Instead of aching with envy about their superior gifts, you recognize that God gave them those gifts for the benefit of other people, including you.    That’s what Paul was getting at in his first letter to the Corinthians.
Along with this acknowledgement comes the realization that you have some gifts, too.  God gave you gifts to enrich the lives of other people, not to make you better than other people.
God created an economy of spiritual gifts and gave each of us an irreplaceable role in that economy.  A humble person sees that we complement each other.  We need each other.  And we need to nurture and care for one another to find fulfillment in life.
Jesus has put us in our place.  We know just where we stand.  We stand securely in his heart at the center of his community.  When he told us that the first would be last and the last would be first, he wasn’t just turning the losers into winners and the winners into losers.  
He was doing something radical.  He was erasing our distinctions between insiders and outsiders, higher and lower, central and peripheral.  Each of us is at the center of his heart and at the center of his community.
Jesus-following communities are not the Kingdom come.  But they are foreshadowings of the Kingdom.  We are a messy, imperfect bunch, but the Kingdom still shines through us for all the world to see.  That is God’s work.  Our work is to cooperate with God as best we can.
Practicing the Kingdom
This brings us to our second question.  What practices make a group of people a humble community? In short, a humble community embodies practices that model life in the Kingdom of Heaven.
There is a long list of practices that reflect the Kingdom.  Among them are hospitality, service to the poor and the marginalized, generosity, forgiveness, discernment, and evangelism.  In the weeks ahead I will be touching on all of these, and I invite you to follow my sermons by blog at Pelican Anglican or by audio at sermon.net.
For now, I’m going to focus on one practice: how we worship.  A Kingdom community worships sincerely.  But that may not mean quite what you initially think.
You misunderstand what makes worship sincere if you think sincerity means a devotion to God unclouded by doubt or undistracted by lesser things.  Sincerity in worship is an offering, a sacrifice to God, of our lives as they truly are to God.
Paul Serusier's "A Breton Sunday"

In liturgical churches, our prayers articulate beliefs and desires that we may still be struggling to get our heads and hearts around.  Instead of reporting the state of our hearts and souls and minds, we say the prayers of our tradition trusting that God will make us what the prayers show us we can be.
Let me explain what I mean.  We worship according to The Book of Common Prayer.  Our Prayer Book contains ways of praying instituted by Jesus himself, and those prayers reverberate with the wisdom of the saints who have gone before us.
We are like spiritual children taking up company with spiritual grownups.  When we pray for clean hearts that “we may perfectly love you,” we realize how imperfect our love is at present.  But our community’s prayer encourages us in our desire to give that perfect love.  
When we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” we know that there is an unspoken “except for this or that” in our hearts.  And yet we say these words not as hypocrites, but as apprentices learning the art of following Jesus.
Our prayers do more than express our hearts.  They shape our hearts.  We believe that we are encountering God in Word and Sacrament and that this encounter changes us forever, one little bit at a time.
Putting Others in Their Place
We sometimes fear that humility makes us into doormats and victims.  Jesus never sugarcoats the truth.  Suffering can come along with humility.  But humility is not the same thing as surrender.  On the contrary, humility puts people in their place.  And that is the key to understanding how Kingdom communities are changing the world, our third and final question.
Persistent and courageous humility extends beyond the boundaries of our church property and offers itself to even and maybe especially to those who would condescend to it or even abuse it.
We love others whether they love us or not, whether they are themselves lovable or just a bit icky.  We feed the hungry, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned, and clothe the naked no matter how they got that way and even if they reject our beliefs.
And at some level our humility defines their relationship with their Maker.  God loves them, whether they like it or not.  And deep down, that’s a place that even the most debased and calloused among us wants to stand.

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