A frequent occurrence that gives me joy is when someone out in the community asks what I do and as soon as I tell them that I’m one of the pastors at First United Methodist Church they respond with a glowing comment about some member of our congregation who is involved in helping make our community a better place to live for all our neighbors. I feel that same joy every Sunday as I look out on this congregation and see the faces of people who know and live out the meaning of joyful humility.
These people, like so many of our own personal faith heroes, illustrate what we learn from the Bible about humility. Humility is not about putting ourselves down or hiding our gifts to avoid drawing attention to ourselves. When we turn to the Scriptures we discover that there is a kind of joy which comes when we develop a clear and positive sense of who we are, identify our gifts and intentionally connect our gifts to the work of God in our lives and in our world. Humility is expressed in the recognition that all we are and have is a gift from God and that the path to joy involves ordering our steps by the Word and work of God.
Most of us can think of people who served as examples for us of joyful humility. And, as the Apostle Paul, the writer of the letter to the church at Philippi, suggests, all of us can look first to Jesus for such an example.
From a young age Jesus came to understand that God was at work in his life and that God had always been at work in the world through his people. Raised in the Jewish tradition, as a boy Jesus studied God’s Word in the Hebrew Scriptures, he came to know the stories of how God had been at work and he learned to make decisions based on this knowledge. Jesus loved God with all his heart and that love spilled over with love for all of God’s children. “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself” were to Jesus the two greatest commandments in God’s Word. As he matured, Jesus realized that the work which God had for him would not be easy but would ultimately bring a joy with which nothing else could compare.
Ordering his steps by God’s Word and aligning his life with God’s work meant resisting the temptations posed to Jesus in the wilderness. The devil tempted Jesus to abuse his God-given power and gifts for personal gain, to take a short cut and turn his back on God’s purposes and plans. But Jesus knew better; he knew that the cost of bowing down to the devil meant losing his connection to God and to God’s work in the world. This would derail him from his path to experiencing true joy. Jesus understood that joy comes from being blessed by God with a Spirit of love and by following God’s call to put love first. In resisting the temptations, Jesus turned his back on the devil’s invitation to gain power by any means and to use power in order to lift up himself over others. Rather Jesus chose the path of service, using his gifts to empower people with God’s healing and forgiving love.
In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul lifts up this example of Jesus. He wants the people there to understand how important it is to follow in the steps of Jesus. He pleads with them to take on the mindset of Jesus – a mindset of humility: not joyless subservience but joyful voluntary sharing of God’s gifts and love with one another in the church and joyful connecting of their lives to the healing work of God in the world.
For the people in the Philippian church to whom this letter was written, Paul was their faith hero. He not only had been the one to introduce them to the love of Jesus, he had demonstrated that love through his own witness of joyful humility. They had heard the stories of how Paul had once used all of his passion and resources to persecute followers of Jesus. Previous to being transformed by God’s love, Paul had traveled wherever churches could be found in order to drag off church members and imprison them. Now Paul was known for the opposite: his love of Christ and his personal sacrifice to bring others into that same love. Paul was dearly loved by the people in the church at Philippi for showing them the path of joyful humility as he used his passion and gifts to lift up all people rather than to lift up himself and to exclude people whom Paul had at one time considered unworthy and unlovable.
If we turned back from Philippians just a few books in the Bible, we would discover in the book of Acts, chapter 16, that God could hardly have brought together a more diverse group of people than those with whom Paul began this community of faith in Philippi. As a Roman colony and center of trade, Philippi attracted people from all over the Mediterranean world. Paul’s first converts to faith in Philippi represented this diverse community. It was a Gentile business-woman named Lydia whose heart was first opened to hear and eagerly receive Paul’s message of God’s love in Christ. After baptizing Lydia and her household, the next person to be set free by God’s love through Paul’s ministry was a young woman who was bound by slavery to a group of local businessmen. Setting this young woman free resulted in Paul being imprisoned by the Roman authorities for disrupting the local establishment. This led to Paul’s next and perhaps most unlikely convert: the Roman jailer who, along with his entire family, were baptized by Paul after an earthquake had broken down the doors of the prison.
These first members of the Philippian church were united by their love of Christ and of their love for Paul. Following the example of Paul, each of these first church members in Philippi used their gifts to build up the church and to reach out into their community. Connecting their personal gifts and resources to the work of God’s love led to shared feelings of joy and humility. They experienced and celebrated together how the love of God transforms hearts and unites people into a growing faith community across the many barriers of culture, race, gender and religious background. It was an exciting and joyful work – the work of God – that they shared!
This same witness of love and joyful humility was what I saw in the life and work of John Perkins, one of my faith heroes. I had the privilege of first meeting Perkins when he visited the Christian college where I taught back in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. In several of our chapel services, Perkins, an African American pastor from Mississippi, shared his personal story of what life was like growing up in rural Mississippi as a young black man long before the civil rights movement. It was not easy. Perkin’s mother had died when he was seven months old. Perkin’s beloved older brother, Clyde died as the victim of a violent hate crime shortly after returning home from serving our nation in Germany during World War II. Concerned about his own future in Mississippi, Perkins left his home state as a young adult and eventually became a successful businessman in California.
Apart from an occasional visit to family, Perkins never intended to return to Mississippi. But God had other plans. After experiencing the transforming love of Christ within his own life, Perkins felt a powerful tug of God’s Spirit to go into ministry and to return to Mississippi. His faith helped empower him with the resilience he needed to return home. Despite the traumatic losses in his past, Perkins was able to accept God’s call to return to Mississippi with the good news of God’s love for all people and to help organize and lift up his former community through educational and economic development. Instead of using his business skills and financial resources to build his own enterprise and secure his future, Perkins now used them to lift up and help provide a better future for the children and families of his childhood community.
By the time I met Perkins, he had been doing this work in his hometown for many years through the ministry called “Voice of Calvary.” I will never forget John Perkins. Like the Apostle Paul with his followers in Philippi, Perkins taught those who joined with him what it is to experience joyful humility. By his words and life witness he taught how God’s love can heal us and empower and unite us to help mend our broken world of pain, division and injustice.
Of course, you don’t have to go to Mississippi to experience joyful humility. As I started today’s message, our church is well-known for people have given witness to joyful humility in countless ways in our community and beyond.
I encourage each of us today to consider how we can more fully experience joyful humility- who have been our faith heroes and how might we follow their examples and serve as faith heroes for the next generations? Imagine today how we can help build a better world – how each of us can connect our God-given gifts to the work of God to bring love and justice into our broken world. May God guide all of us to order our steps as we follow Jesus and may God anoint us as a faith community with Christ’s Spirit to more fully love God and all our neighbors as we love ourselves. Amen!