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Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Paul would have made a horrible career counselor. In today’s reading from Philippians, he writes: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” In terms of our work lives and getting ahead, this is wretched advice. It’s a worthy ambition, though, to have the mind of Christ. It’s the loveliest of dreams; it’s the way non-Christians expect us to behave. I wonder sometimes though if that’s all it is – a lofty, unrealizable dream to put others’ interests ahead of our own. Is it really possible to follow the cross in our world?
Our world, after all, doesn’t look so different from the world portrayed in our first reading from Exodus. We personally may not know what it’s like to go for days without water, but we’ve seen it this week in Puerto Rico – and it’s awful. This passage has haunted me all week as I’ve watched the coverage. I know how we’re supposed to read it. We’re supposed to take Moses’ side and be annoyed with the Israelites by now. The LORD just delivered them from slavery. They complained about water two chapters before and got it. They were hungry in the last chapter, and God provided. You’d think they’d catch the pattern and give Moses a break.
The problem is – I’m not sure I would have acted any differently. People need water. It’s our most fundamental human need. We can live without food or shelter for a while; most of us can survive without electricity. But take away clean water for over a week when we were just getting by to begin with, and our most noble ambitions start sounding like unaffordable luxuries.
Take away my ability to offer my elders and my little ones the most basic necessity; I might start railing at my leaders too. I might start questioning too: “Is the LORD among us or not?”
There are a lot of questions in this reading – some fair, some not. The people vent their anger and frustration at Moses, but even he knows he’s not the real target. After all, he’s in the same boat as they are; he’s thirsty too. Maybe they’re mad at themselves for getting their hopes up, for believing that there could really be an alternative to slavery. Maybe they’re frustrated at their own inability to provide for themselves. Or maybe Moses is just a more convenient target than the One they’re truly disappointed in. They don’t feel safe enough with the LORD yet to be honest, so they take out their rage on someone they know won’t hit back.
How should they have acted instead? It costs us nothing to tell other people that God will provide; it’s the cheapest of bromides. And let’s face it, it’s the height of arrogance to think that we’d automatically be more resourceful in their place. Most of us have no idea what it’s like to face true deprivation. We feel uncomfortable or guilty in the face of clear need – whether it’s the homeless guy on the street or the hundreds of thousands we’ve seen in the last few weeks devastated by natural disasters. We want to justify our own inadequate responses by blaming the victims or blaming our leaders. Whether or not there’s some blame to be found there is not my point. Let the pundits argue that.
It’s our own inability to live up to the teachings of Christ that concerns me here. We can’t meet all the needs we see; we can’t always put other’s interests ahead of our own. So we throw the equivalent of spare change to ease our consciences; we let the scope of the need paralyze us into doing nothing; or we throw off the burden of responsibility altogether and say it’s not our problem. I want to have the mind of Christ here; I want to offer more than my good intentions and uneven follow-through. I want to give us tasks we can easily accomplish for the good of the world. But it’s a struggle this week. It feels like all I’m left with are questions. Is that enough?
Well, I will say that not all questions are created equal. The religious leaders in the Gospel reading, for example, have their own questions for Jesus, but they’re not real questions. They’re accusations designed to justify the lives they’re already leading. Genuine questions come from a place of not knowing and are open to answers we can’t predict or control. We can ask genuine questions of God; in fact, I’m not sure what faith would look like without them. They may even pave the way for a deeper, more productive faith.
Jesus’ real problem here is not with those who question or even with those who protest the work they’re given to do. It’s with those who don’t take the work seriously enough to question their ability to do it; it’s with those who think that their good intentions are a suitable substitute for action – for advocacy, for generosity, for strategic help. To will the right thing is not the same as doing it. To be clear, Jesus isn’t expecting perfection here; the people he lifts up at the end are far from perfect. The tax collectors and prostitutes don’t go into the kingdom of God ahead of the professionally pious because they’ve somehow stopped being human; they simply believed when John told them to repent, that it was possible for them to turn toward the arms that were already reaching out for them and start again.
So where does that leave us? Paul in Philippians throws more work back at us than we’re prepared to handle. He starts: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” What does that mean? For one, it means that we’re not the judge or jury on anybody else’s salvation; that’s clearly above our pay grade. But it’s more than that. It means that we live out our freedom from the powers of sin and death by the things we do in this life. We find out what God saved us for by living it out here, in the ways we invest our time and money, in the people and planet we refuse to ignore. And lest the burden start to feel paralyzing again, we’re shored up by the reality of who’s carrying us: “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for (God’s) good pleasure.” Praise God - we’re not expected to do it alone. It is possible for us to stop making ourselves the stars of our own movies, to have a higher calling than appetite or kneejerk guilt, to have a reach that exceeds our grasp and to keep reaching anyway. It is possible to follow the cross in our world; that’s why we practice it here – so we can do it out there.
In the silence that follows, I invite you to consider what your work might be today. What questions have you been afraid to ask? Whose interests need to take center stage in your life today? Where might God already be at work in you? In the Name of the One who gives us tasks that are bigger than us and equips us to do them anyway – Amen.