- Parish House
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – Mark 1:29-39
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
Did you see Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes about a month ago? I know, that’s ancient history by now. But it was great. She received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, and her acceptance speech was off the charts. It was an impassioned one about the power of representation in the media, especially for aspiring young artists. Then, echoing the #metoo movement, Oprah expressed gratitude for all the women who have endured abuse and harassment in a culture that has so often silenced their voices, a culture whose time is up she said, to a standing ovation. It was a very moving speech. But what happened next was especially interesting.
People immediately began speculating about whether Oprah will run for president in 2020. They said the speech was “presidential,” and in some way functioned as an opening bid for the ticket. I think folks got swept up emotionally in the speech, and the impulse was to bottle the moment and keep it going. Now, I’m not weighing in on whether Oprah would be a good candidate. For one thing, pastors are not allowed to do that and still keep the church’s tax exempt status. The IRS has rules about such things. And I’m more interested in the crowd’s response anyway, at least for this sermon. So suffice it to say, people got caught up in the moment. And, I might add, caught up in a culture that worships fame and celebrity. All reports indicate that Oprah was moved by the response, and would consider running if the public wants her to. That kind of attention must feel pretty great.
When that transpired in January, I knew there would be a sermon in it, and today’s the day. It’s a clunky analogy, but Jesus was having a bit of an Oprah moment in today’s Gospel. His fame was growing. The story is that he cast out a demon in the temple and then healed Simon’s mother-in-law on the sabbath. Then, at sundown, word must have gotten out because we’re told that the entire city of Capernaum gathered around Simon’s house. He cured many of the sick and the demon-possessed. He then went off to pray. Simon and his companions hunted for Jesus, to get him to come back and keep up the good work. Perhaps they wanted to bottle the moment. And Jesus made an astonishing choice. He decided to move on, going on throughout Galilee to preach and to heal. He gave up the pleasure of an adoring crowd. He gave up accolades and fame and the status of celebrity prophet. He gave that up in order to stay on mission, because he came to preach the kingdom of God to many more.
His choice that day is a guide for us modern-day disciples. Christians have always had one foot in the kingdom of God and the other foot in the culture. It’s easy for us to lose sight of kingdom values when we’re surrounded by more worldly values. We’re called to be mindful of things like fame and fortune. And to be especially mindful of the chattering of our own egos that want to be fed and praised constantly, a kind of sin that is at the heart of many of the problems in our world. The great 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said that man’s greatest sin is hubirs, or excessive pride and arrogance. Echoing today’s gospel, the antidote, he said, is humility, which is, in his words, “the prerequisite of every spiritual achievement.”
It would be easy for us to think we understand humility. There are plenty of times that Jesus taught his disciples about humility, saying the first will be last and the last first, and that we should be servants of all. We got the message, right? But the truth is that humility is part of the advanced course in Christianity. If we think we understand it quickly, we probably don’t.
Let’s start with the humility of Christ. His was complete. Take, for example, the traditional doctrine of kenosis, a word for his complete self-offering on the cross for our redemption. I said this was the advanced course. So, what does it mean for us to imitate Christ, particularly his complete humility?
Let’s begin with what it does not mean. I found myself nodding along when I first learned Niebuhr’s definition of modern sin as excessive pride. Until I read a critique by Valerie Saving, an early feminist theologian, who argued that pride might be the issue for some, but for others the opposite is true. Sin could easily look like “triviality, distractibility, dependence on others for one’s sense of self…. In short, the underdevelopment or negation of the self.” In other words, humility is not a straightforward, one-size-fits all antidote to the sin of pride, especially for those who struggle with a sense of self-worth. Jesus said we should be servants of all. He did not say that we should lose ourselves in the process. There is a difference. True humility takes wisdom and discernment, an accounting of the self and a healing of any excess or lack in our self-understanding.
Today’s story gives us another guide in our search for true humility, in the woman healed of a fever. She doesn’t have a name. All we know is that Jesus came and took her by the hand. Fevers were considered a kind of possession, like demons. He lifted her up – the Greek word here is same one used to refer to Jesus at his resurrection – and the fever left her. She had an Easter moment. She glimpsed the kingdom of God firsthand. How would any of us respond to such a moment except with gratitude and humility? She began to serve them. Her service was not demeaning but rather a liberation, a response to her healing and her encounter with Christ. The power of his presence moved her to imitate him. His complete self-offering inspired her self-offering.
Christian humility must look something like that woman’s service, of which the world needs so much more. Humility at its core is a liberation from false pride or false senses of self, be they too high or too low. Christian humility offers a liberation from egos that drive us and so often lead us astray. And this is freedom not just from such things, although that is certainly great. It is also freedom for the most beautiful calling we have, for the imitation of Christ. By clearing away falsehoods, true humility leads us to see what is true and holy in our lives and in this world God so loves. That love was the whole reason for sending Christ among us, and for Christ’s self-offering on the cross. That very love is what draws little Virginia to baptism today, to begin her journey in the love of Christ. That love is worthy of imitation, far more than the vanities of this world.
Speaking of which, I hope you’ll forgive me for describing the crowd adoring Jesus as an Oprah moment. I couldn’t resist. The analogy breaks down pretty quickly, but I do so love a good gospel and culture mash up. They can remind us of kingdom values by showing them in sharp relief to worldly ones. And they can remind us how much the world still needs those kingdom values. Humility, what this world often values in last place, might just be first on the list.