This is the text of a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it is based on is Ephesians 2:1-10.
One of the nice things about being a curate is the support and focus on ongoing professional development which is built into the role. I received a particularly timely example of that this week; the diocese sent out to all of us curates a “log book” of competencies which we should be developing, to be completed in consultation with our supervising vicars. It runs to sixty-five pages and includes such detailed thoughtful questions as whether I include copyright information on orders of service, and whether I’m aware of the parish demographics. (You can quiz me later).
The reason I’m calling it timely is that it came as I was pondering our epistle reading this morning, and Paul’s statement that we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing, it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. I am fairly confident, even after a quick glance through this enormous log book, that each curate is going to feel that indeed, no one may boast!
So taking this kind of inventory is – for me, at least – a useful exercise in humility. But it left me wondering where, for this parish as a whole, we tend to sit on the spectrum from humble to boastful.
We are not, it must be said, particularly loud in trumpeting our strengths. That would be, after all, a bit crass. But it seems to me that we are, as a group, fairly confident about our own quality. We do liturgy well, the choir are a treat to listen to, we’re friendly over a superb morning tea, and we have the kind of ethos which inspires a quiet confidence that we are the “right” kind of Christians; open-minded, liberal, intelligent, well-resourced.
It left me wondering whether we actually feel we need God for very much? Or do we, perhaps, subconsciously expect that we are doing God a favour by inviting Him to join us?
Forgive me for asking hard questions. It is Lent, after all; the season for hard questions and careful answers.
It is a normal human longing to want to be appreciated, valued and recognized for our potential. And humility does not mean thinking demeaning and low thoughts about ourselves. It’s not denying the truth of our achievements or thinking less of ourselves. Humility stems from an honest understanding of who we are. Coming back to Paul’s comment about boasting, humility comes from remembering our total dependence on God; that we stand before his throne no better than any other in that great crowd, and each receiving even life itself as a gift from His hand.
Longings to be appreciated and valued can motivate us to establish our identity in secondary things – things we are proud of but can lose. But those who follow Jesus are chosen, loved, appreciated and important to the creator of the universe. We are the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. We are free to be who we are, no more and no less, in an unforced way which has nothing to prove, at home with God and in our own skin, and not looking to others against whom we can measure our quality.
So if there is amongst us any temptation away from humility, how can we respond to it? I think the absolute foundation has to be time with God. As we keep company with Jesus, more and more we will see ourselves in the light of his grace; and our identity will be shaped not by secondary, external things, but by our relationship with Him. There’s no quick fix to this, no short cut. It takes giving real time to it. But, on the other hand, there’s no wasted time either. If you can start by only finding a little time, God will be at work in you even in that little time. (Although now seems a good time to suggest that the quiet afternoon next week is an excellent opportunity to set aside some solid time, and to encourage you to consider coming along).
Another suggestion I came across is the idea of writing a resume, not of your expertise, but of your character. To take an inventory of your integrity, your willingness to help others, your generosity, your compassion, and so on, and to notice where you might have some growing to do. Because you see, so much of a Christ-like character rests on humility as a foundation; you can’t be willing to help others when you’re afraid they’ll then be better than you. You can’t be compassionate when you’re more concerned with your own standing. Taking such an inventory can show you your blind spots. I’m not saying it’s easy; just that it can be worthwhile. And it is Lent, after all; the season for things which are not easy, but worthwhile.
And all of this focus on humility does have a purpose. Paul finished this section of his argument by pointing out that we are what He has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Just as curates are assessed on their competency so that we can eventually emerge from this time ready for the good works which lie ahead of us, time for reflection on our weaknesses and working to strengthen them – which is really a form of repentance – is all part of getting ready for what comes next.
We might be a community which does many things well, but of this I am sure – new things to do well await us, prepared by God to be our new, improved, way of life. We only need to be willing to look for them and take them up; to catch enough of the vision ahead to be eager and enthusiastic about what God is making us.