09.20.2015 Preaching Text: “God gives grace to the willing humble.” (James 4:6b, MSG)
It was the best of times and the worst of times. A tale of two churches. Both Methodist.
The first we attended while visiting Southern California a few weeks back. Among other things, it featured video clips from a Hugh Grant movie, and several Jesus-and-me songs using guitar and drums, the words splashed onto big screens on both sides of the ‘chancel.’
The self-described “young, hip pastor” pranced around the stage drawing far more attention to herself than seemed judicious. State-of-the-art spotlights highlighted the diamond stud in her nose which periodically glistened and shone like a star whenever she moved her head, dramatically, I might add.
Her message related tangentially to the gospel. And her relentlessly upbeat demeanor betrayed a kind of fragile optimism that probably can’t be anything but. No shadowed reflections would intrude on this sunshine-y performance.
The following Sunday, however, the Methodists redeemed themselves! It was here on the Cape and we found the service joy-filled and spiritually uplifting while simultaneously meditative and thoughtful. It didn’t work hard to avoid the shadows, but helpfully drew lines and ably expressed the grace of Christ’s gospel. We walked outside afterward under an admittedly dimmer northern sun, but with the undeniably radiant warmth of Christ’s spirit within.
I was especially struck by what was said in the sermon. The pastor began by citing a decree made by President Nixon in 1971, as he announced a new war on cancer.
Since that time, she said, roughly 500 billion dollars has been spent – a half trillion dollars. She pointed out that over these years great advances have been made in both research and treatment. And for this we should celebrate and be grateful.
Yet cancer, as we well know, has not been eliminated. Which led to various comments on the limits of human effort.
She brought up the humanitarian crisis of Middle Eastern refugees flooding into Europe. She described the horrific pain and suffering felt by so many. Yet, like cancer, she also was willing to admit the hard truth about our relative helplessness in the face of it all.
While stressing the obvious importance of human efforts to help alleviate the evils and hardships of this life, she also stressed the necessity of accepting limits on human activity, and thus the importance of looking to God for comfort and peace, because paradise here on earth is ever elusive. No agency, or government, no institution, she said, can fix all that’s wrong with our world.
Such a message is critically important today as the often unstated assumption is that human beings can fix everything. If our strategies haven’t as yet succeeded – or so the thinking goes – in time they surely will.
The problem, as we’ve said, is that many of life’s problems are simply intractable. And if we falsely assume life can be perfected by means of human effort, we have no excuse for life’s inevitable failures. We can never be at peace unless we effect the Promised Land here on earth.
The great Christian novelist, Walker Percy, once wrote in Lost in the Cosmos, “We live in a deranged age – more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea who he is or what he is doing.”
Pope Francis, who is scheduled to visit the United States next week, picks up on this theme in his recent, much-discussed encyclical, Laudato Si. In it Francis delves into modern misconceptions about who humans are and how we fit into the cosmos.
At root, Francis cites our inability to see the connections between and among the various parts of our universe. We lack even a vocabulary for defining the true nature of the human person and his or her place within the whole.
Instead, all knowledge in our age is seen as instrumental, meaning that rational, scientific, and technological methods alone are used to reshape and remold reality according to our will.
Yet without a highly developed ethical and spiritual means of judging how to use such technology prudently, or of discerning when and where to put limits to its development and application, we risk allowing technology, as Percy infers, to dominate and rule us.
As if echoing the words of the Methodist pastor here on the Cape, Francis praises technology for remedying “countless evils” and celebrates its progress in the fields of medicine, engineering, and communications. Still, he worries about the modern attitude that puts no limits to the scientific conquest of nature.
We lack, he writes, “a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.: Thus “we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it.”
Similarly the Cape pastor urged her hearers to seek not mastery, but humility. As Francis puts it, “once we lose our humility and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society…”
Or put slightly differently, the modern tendency is to compartmentalize knowledge and behavior, separating them out from moral, spiritual, and theological realities. Yet, as Francis writes, a healthy existence requires “openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.”
Francis contrasts a curiosity aimed at domination and control with a spirit of wonder that’s silently receptive of nature, and that ushers forth gratitude toward what is revealed to us in the natural, human, and spiritual orders.
He writes: “Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood, and controlled,” but “creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion.”
Needless to say, all of the above accords perfectly with what both Mark and James tell us in our scripture readings this morning. There are two kinds of wisdom: the earthly and the godly. Wisdom and knowledge without God enslaves. With God, it bequeaths humility, grace and an inward peace, which thus rightly orders human knowledge and behavior.
For, as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, citing James 4:6, “God gives grace to the willing humble.” Amen.