Our scripture readings this morning talk about the inevitable fall that comes from self-exhaltation and the inevitable rise that comes from humility, or as Paul puts it: our sin leads to death, but God’s gift is eternal life. It is easier for us to see the truth in the first part of that statement because we have examples from history about downfalls caused by selfishness and self-centeredness and sin. It is harder for us to remember examples of humility leading to true exhaltation, because we tend to think of humility in a negative or weak way – as a way of letting people walk over us or as a way of giving up our needs because we don’t think we are worthy of having any sort of happy life. It shouldn’t be that way, because true humility requires strength and brings us a sense of our true self, rather than the common belief that humility is a sign of weakness and a source of self-negation. We are of infinite value, but that value is not of our own making; it is a gift from God. That is good to remember, because it means that our infinite worth can be taken away by nothing – it does not depend on our own opinion or the opinions of anyone else. It also means that others’ infinite worth does not depend on our opinions of them. It is not about us, it is always about God.
Maybe one of the reasons that we so often think of humility as leading to self-negation is because we have a false sense of where our legitimacy and integrity – our true selves – lie. We get caught up in the idea that our worth is based on what others think of us, and so we desperately try to look good in the eyes of others in order to boost our standing – we try to have the perfect family or the biggest business or the nicest stuff, or we try to look cool through sex or drug and alcohol misuse, or wearing the right clothes or hairstyle, or being good-looking. There is nothing wrong with having nice material things or with others having a high opinion of us, but that is not where our worth as a person lies. Our infinite worth comes solely from being a wonderful creation of God. The flip side of worrying about our existence being dependent on others’ opinions of us is just as dangerous – the false view of living only for ourself and our own pleasure, regardless of what anyone else thinks and regardless of how many people we hurt in the attempt to have our own way in every situation. That way is just as unstable as worrying about our standing in the eyes of others because we never know how long we can maintain our grip on things and control them the way we want.
God is the only true and stable reality, so anything not based on God will crumble, while those things based in God (with love as the true foundation, rather than fear of other people’s opinions or self-aggrandizement as false foundations) will flourish and bring joy and peace. By grounding our life in God, rather than in the need to impress people, we can live as our true selves and be happy, instead of living a fake life wasting time and energy building a false image. Living in God’s love rather than in fear of our own or other people’s opinions of us is true humility, but it doesn’t bring us down in a negative sense. It brings us down in a positive sense – rooting us in the sure foundation of love so that we can flourish, growing taller and stronger than we ever could by trying to ride the waves of self-centeredness. Basing our life in God rather than our own needy egos does not stifle our true selves. It allows our true selves to grow and flourish, unhindered by the constant need to worry about our social standing or our domination of others. The humility that comes from living in God’s love is not negative. It is positive – a proactive form of humility that says: “I am a wonderful, beautiful child of God, and so is everyone else, regardless of what I or anyone else thinks.” Once we live in that way of humility, we are free to allow ourselves and others to grow as the unique children of God that we all are without the worry of fitting into anyone else’s mold or trying to force others to fit our mold.
This goes against business as usual, and that is why Jesus describes it as a sword, setting families and everyone else against those who chose to follow his path of humility. It is new to us and so we are frightened by it and fight it, because it threatens our false sense of security based on our own abilities or projected image. It is not unpeaceful because God makes it that way, it is unpeaceful because we make it that way. We want ourselves and our loved ones to be happy and fulfilled, and since we are so used to looking for happiness and fulfillment by the unstable means of self centeredness, we balk when the people we care about abandon that road and look for their fulfillment in the security of God’s loving acceptance of them, regardless of their material wealth or societal status. We fear that they might not be happy, and we ourselves are afraid of following the path of humility because we are afraid that we will not be happy. The truth, however, is that the only way to happiness is by letting go of worrying about ourselves and instead trusting in God, because God is the only stable reality. God is the basis of all existence, and therefore only those things based in God really exist.
All of this is not to say that families and businesses and cultural aspirations are bad, or that having good material things and being popular are wrong, but we must choose to base those things in God and act with love, instead of being driven by the constant need to promote our own over-inflated sense of importance, or worrying about anyone else’s judgment of us. We are important, but our integrity and legitimacy are not based on anyone else’s perceived opinions of us or on our own ability to dominate the world around us. Our infinite worth lies solely in our stature as beautiful, unique creatures of God. That is a good thing, because our ability to dominate the world around us and to look good in the eyes of the people around us will constantly change, while our status as children of God will not. That is why we heard Jesus say in the gospel this morning: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” – it is not about us, it is all about God. That is why we heard Paul say in the Letter to the Romans this morning: “…present yourselves to God…” – it is not about us, it is all about God.
We are good and of infinite value, but we need to make sure we base our good and precious lives on the truth of God’s love, rather than on our own wavering emotions and desires. Only then we will be free to be our true, wonderful, beautiful selves because only then can we do what’s right instead of worrying about doing what looks good; only then can we love ourselves instead of worrying about getting more stuff to love; only then can we love others instead of worrying about how others make us feel. Only then can we be free to grow into the fullness of joy and peace that is our birthright as God’s children. God is love. If we live in love, we live in God, and our lives will have no end, because every moment will be an eternity of joy and fulfillment. AMEN