Justice & Mercy Depend on a Humble Heart

A message given at Friends University Chapel, February 9th, 2017

I was born here in Kansas in a very small town south of Greensburg. If this were a joke, you might ask me, “How small was it?” To which I would reply that it was a town so small that I was born the New Year’s Baby on the first day of May. That is how I promptly lost my 15 minutes of fame, just hours after I was born, by being mentioned on the national news.

I grew up in a home where my parents were active in ministry. My dad was a pastor, my mother a pastor’s wife, then they transitioned to camping ministry where we spent the next 8 years living on the grounds at Camp Quaker Haven, just South of Arkansas City, Kansas. We moved to Wichita when I was in 3rd grade, and I attended Wichita public schools until I graduated from East High in 1997. (Go Blue Aces.)

I was always a really good student, and I left High School, and even college feeling like I knew a lot and had a good understanding of the world around me. I can’t tell you how much less I know now than I did when I graduated from High School 20 years ago. That isn’t anything new, I am sure lots of older people give you a hard time about not really knowing anything because you are young. We joke about it, but it really has been true for me that the more of life I experience, the more I learn that I still need to study and grow.

I started at my church 10 years ago. The first week I was serving my congregation, a man went on to hospice care and died. His funeral was 10 days after my first Sunday. I didn’t perform that funeral, thank the Lord there was a former minister who the family had already planned to come do the service. I got to wait a whole 9 months before my first funeral. I have now officiated at over 30 funerals. But that first death taught me something. I had no answers for this grieving widow who was old enough to be my grandmother. I had nothing to say, and wasn’t even sure how to pray or how to help. I went to her house and just sat on her couch saying nothing for almost an hour. I felt like a complete failure. She saw it differently. In the 10 years since, she has often remarked that she felt so loved and cared for because of that time I spent sitting in her living room.

I also serve as a birth doula, supporting laboring women encouraging them and helping them stay focused, to move, to breathe so that they can make progress toward their goal of having a great birth experience. Birth is such a fluid thing, it is different every time, there are no hard and fast rules of what to do or what will help every woman. What they really need is someone to be with them. Years of ministry, of walking with people through death and new life, I am convinced that one of the most important things we can do to support our fellow humans is simply to show up and be present for those life-changing moments. Presence is something that characterizes my approach to ministry. It is how I make a difference in the world.

How many of you want to make a difference? I don’t meet many people who are 100% satisfied with the way the world works, with the way people treat each other, with the health of our families, communities, and churches. There aren’t many rallies where people chant “Keep things the same! Keep things the same!” We all want to make a difference, and it can be so difficult to know how to make our mark, how to impact the world in a way that only we can as individuals.

As Christians, we want to impact the world for the kingdom, it is in our most basic prayer: your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That prayer begins to be worked out in our hearts first. Let your will be done in me as it is in heaven.
I love the verse that has been chosen for your theme this year. Micah 6:8 was one that I learned in high school and I knew it was important. In my mind as a minister, as a follower of Jesus, as someone who wants to make a difference in the world, this verse sits alongside Deuteronomy 6:5 that instructs us to love God with all our heart, soul, and essence, the verse Jesus quotes alongside Leviticus 19:18 which says to love your neighbor as yourself. These are what Jesus used as his ruler when applying the rest of the law and prophets. Love God, love neighbor as you love yourself. The same two things are emphasized in this verse.

There are three things in Micah 6:8. We are instructed to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

I want to talk with you this morning about humility. That doesn’t sound like a very fun topic, but I believe it is critical to understand, to practice, to possess humility if we are going to make a difference in the world.

It isn’t hard to get on board with the first two parts of that verse. Who doesn’t want justice? I want justice for myself, my family, my neighbors, my enemies. As a middle child, I am often accused of having an overdeveloped sense of fairness. I want everything to be fair. If there’s a box of 12 ice cream sandwiches, it only makes sense that everyone gets 2 in my family of 5, with 2 left over that obviously go to the parents. It’s only fair.

And we all can get on board with mercy. Who doesn’t want to be forgiven when we’ve messed up? Who doesn’t want to see the sick healed, for the world to be repaired? We like mercy, it’s something we see as a positive contributor in our lives and society in general.

Humility gets a bad rap, though, because we associate it with humiliation. We think that to be humble we have to think less of ourselves. Some very smart person once said that humility is not thinking less of ourselves, rather thinking of ourselves less! (Rick Warren)

Humility is not a bad thing, it’s just being honest about who we are and what we bring to the table.

Humility is basically this: recognizing our strengths without pride, and our weaknesses without shame.

Wouldn’t we all like this to be our state of being? Wouldn’t you like to be able to tell people about who you are without blushing or strutting? Wouldn’t you like to be able to offer your particular gifts to the world without worrying about people thinking you are being vain? Wouldn’t you like to be able to admit you are not equipped for certain tasks without being though less of? We get to that place by practicing humility.

Humility is a necessary ingredient in self-discovery, and in building true, lasting relationships. Humility allows us to ask for help as well as lend a helping hand. We can do both without worrying what people think about us. Humility takes all our anxiety about getting it wrong or being misunderstood and throws it out the window. Because humility helps us see that everyone has weak spots. Everyone gets it wrong sometimes. When you have gaps in your skills or you take a wrong path, you are not alone. It is the very definition of being human to not be infinite, to not be perfect, to fall short. The other side is also true: Everyone has strengths and something to contribute, you, your neighbor, the least of these has something to give.

That is why we have people included in the scriptures like the little boy who gave his lunch to Jesus. Jesus took his 5 dinner rolls and 2 little fish and fed 5,000. He wasn’t being proud or arrogant in offering what he had. He was just holding out the thing he possessed, with an understanding that it wasn’t enough, but he offered it anyway. When we are faced with need in the world, when we come up to a problem or a situation that needs our input, we don’t have to do everything. We just humbly give what we have and let that be combined with God’s grace and the obedience of others. We can trust God to be faithful to take what we have to give and use it for the kingdom.

There is a great children’s book by Max Lucado called Your Special Gift. It tells the story of a town of folks who have a special relationship with their creator. One morning they all wake up to find they have been given gifts. These gifts all have a function, one gets a hammer, another a pallet and set of paints, the Baker gets a spoon, the Florist a beautiful vase, you get the picture. Later that day, a family limps into town, their wagon broken, their spirits low. They had an accident while on the road to meet the creator. Everyone in town gets to work to help them, but they all just do the first thing they see. The mayor’s wife tries to cook the family a meal, the Baker tries to fix the wagon wheel, someone brings clothes that don’t fit. It’s a disaster. Everyone is yelling, nothing is working, the food is burnt and cold. Then they all start again, each one using their gift to help. The tailor uses his needle and thread, the artists paint the wagon, the Mayor’s wife tells the children a story, the Baker brings them food, and the guy with the hammer fixes the wheel.

The story comes to it’s peak with these words spoken by the creator: “Just do the most what you do the best.”

So much of our ability to make a difference hinges on our ability to know what our unique part is. Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ. It is one of his most used analogies for what it means to work together. He says that we can’t expect everyone to be exactly the same or serve in the same way. We are all different and have different roles to play, jobs to do if the body is going to function. How are we going to know what our role is if we can’t look objectively at our strengths and weaknesses? If we want to make a difference, and we want to be able to do that well, we need to start practicing humility so that we know where we fit!

Humility is a pre-requisite for both Justice and Mercy.

Without humility, our attempts at Justice and Mercy turn into well-intentioned ego boosters. We find ourselves engaging in justice and mercy because it makes us feel superior. It stokes our pride.

When we try to practice Justice without humility. We can find ourselves walking into a situation where things are out of balance, and we instantly become Judge, Jury, and Executioner. Without humility, we have no empathy or compassion. We are instantly above it all. It is up to us to solve the problem, without asking for help, without asking those in the situation what needs to happen.

When I talk about this, trust me I have experience. I have been a parent for 13 years. I am currently parenting a teen, a tween, and a preschooler. You can’t know how many times I have walked into a room where things were happening and immediately brought the hammer down! Without asking questions, I assessed the situation, I knew who the culprit was, I knew what they had done and how much time they would do as a result. And you don’t know how many times I have been dead wrong. It happens to the best of us. Maybe you don’t have kids, maybe you won’t ever have kids. That is great. But you may still find yourself in a situation like this where you have authority and need to use it wisely.

Humility is what allows us to practice the Servant Leadership that Jesus calls us to when we are in positions of privilege or authority. Jesus said “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45

If you want to make a difference, it means setting aside making a name for yourself.
Paul tells the church to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, seeking the good of others over our own. He says, Look not to your own interests, but instead to the interests of others. Philippians 2:4

We need to serve others, but we need to make sure we aren’t doing it for ourselves. We have to be careful not to swoop into the room as the Rescuer! Acting in the role of rescuer puts all the focus on us and how we will save all those poor, poor people who can’t save themselves. When it is about us being rescuers, we totally pass right over the resources of people who we label “victim.” I have a very good friend, Sue, who told me a story a couple of weeks ago. She was at the post office and there was a man in a wheelchair who needed some help with his stamps. She took them and peeled them off their backing, placing one edge of the stamp on each of the envelopes, leaving the rest of the stamp for the man to stick down on his own. She recognized that he had the ability to smooth down the stamps and only needed help getting them in position. The man was tearful with gratitude that she recognized his ability and allowed him the dignity of doing what he was able.

If I were in her shoes that day, I would probably have stuck the stamps down and maybe even put them in the mail slot. It would not have occurred to me to leave him a job to do. Sue has an advantage over me, in this regard. She raised an autistic son, and works in advocacy for autism awareness and support for parents of special needs children. Sue helped me see that our good intentions don’t save us from making people feel like we don’t value them.

Humility empowers others.

One way to avoid making a complete wreck out of a messy situation is to take a step back and ask some questions.

Humility is required to listen, to learn, to see through the eyes of another. If we want to take real action that leads to justice, and improves the lives of others we need to take inventory. What do we really know about the situation? What do we still need to learn? What are our strengths? What is beyond our ability? What is missing?

We need to talk to those we are seeking to empower. What are their strengths? What do they bring to the table? Where do they need help? One big clue is: Where are they asking for help? Too often, we walk in with a solution in hand and never bother to ask those we are trying to help about their ideas for solutions. If we will do this simple thing of taking inventory then we can begin to piece together a picture of how our strengths might overlap with their areas of need. Then we can understand how we can work together and encourage or empower them to use their own resources. It takes humility to empower, cooperate and not simply rescue.

Robert Lupton wrote a book called Toxic Charity, in it he takes apart our typical Western Christian approach to helping those who are in need. He talks about why we often rescue instead of building relationships. First of all it is easier to swoop in with a solution and swoop out again. Second it makes us feel good about ourselves. The one we help is often left with no long-term plan to maintain what we’ve just brought into their life, and are left holding the bag when whatever help we have given runs out. Relationships have to supersede our instinct to rescue. It may require more of an investment on our part and it will take more time, but it will also produce more and better fruit in the long run.

Humility recognizes that our resources have limits, we have our own weak spots.
Do you remember Jesus’s story about the man who was concerned about his neighbor? She had this problem, there was a speck in her eye. The man was so worried about her, about how the speck was affecting her family, her church, her community involvement. He worried about it night and day, until he decided to go help her. He took over a first aid kit with antibiotic drops and tweezers, surgical gloves, the works. When he rang her doorbell and told her his plan, she slammed the door in his face. He had a bigger problem, he had a tree branch stuck in his eye.

We all have areas of our lives where things are not right. We need to seek healing for ourselves before we can truly help others. When we discover areas where we need to seek justice or empowerment for ourselves. Just like before we need to inventory our strengths. What can I do about my situation? We need to look around and see who is near me that I can recruit to help? Have you ever been in a situation where you needed help and you were too afraid to ask for it? Why was that? Why are we so scared of admitting we are not perfect? Usually it is because we don’t want people to think poorly of us. It takes humility to admit we have a need and ask for help!

Without humility, it’s all about us. It’s all about ego. It’s all about pride.

Humility is the bedrock of mercy.

When we talk about mercy, I don’t know if we have a good understanding of what it means. In some cases, mercy refers to a person in a position of power not punishing a person who deserves it. In other contexts, mercy refers to binding up the wounds of the injured and tending to the sick. The definition really encompasses both of those meanings when we use our position and strengths to help others regardless of the reason they are suffering.

Many times when we think about mercy, we immediately associate it with forgiving those who have wronged us. When we have been hurt by someone, it is so easy to shut down the relationship or to become martyrs to try to save it. Neither one is healthy. We need humility to see the situation as it is. Humility helps us recognize our part in conflict, and to recognize what is not our part. If we can’t distinguish between what we are responsible for and what we are not responsible for, we can find ourselves taking on way too much or way too little of the blame.

It takes humility not to hate. When someone has wronged us, it is so easy to write them off and never talk to them again. But cutting someone off does not heal our hearts. Forgiveness recognizes that what they did was hurtful and wrong, but by forgiving, we decide not to make them pay for it. Sometimes we do have to put distance between the other person and ourselves, especially if there is a pattern of abusive behavior. We can still choose to forgive, but we also choose not to put ourselves in a place of being repeatedly abused. We can’t fix other people. It takes humility not to enable.

Humility is also required to seek forgiveness and mercy for ourselves as well. We have to step back and recognize that we didn’t handle that conversation, that interaction well. We need to apologize and ask forgiveness of the one we wronged. It is easy to come up with a list of things that other person did to provoke us, but as I tell my kids, just because they were in the wrong does not give you the right to join them.

Mercy toward the hurting requires humility in order to be healing.

Practicing mercy without humility can turn us into the martyr. Martyrdom looks really good from some angles. It looks really selfless, but reality sets in when we find ourselves talking about how much we’ve given up, how many sleepless nights we’ve spent tending to the needs of others. We may even brag about how we have worn ourselves thin and what we’ve sacrificed. When we do this we guilt everyone around us for asking for help. We guilt others over their sacrificial service that is less-than-ours.

Working in the church, I see this happen, and what it breeds is bitterness, resentment, and a sense of entitlement. This last one is really dangerous, because it leads to well-intentioned people making really bad decisions on how they will spend church money, how they will use church resources, and what vices they will indulge in because they have worked so hard, been so unappreciated, and they deserve a break. Service that should be done out of love becomes a score board where everything we do is measured against everybody else’s service, and whether we get enough recognition and applause.

These score boards show up in other ways when we try to practice mercy without humility. We find ourselves broadcasting our good deeds. Jesus talked about it by referring to men who would literally throw a parade with trumpets to announce when they were bringing their offering to the temple. Humility means not tweeting out that you are being generous. No Facebook posts or Instagram pics of our awesome service. Let’s face it, our service may not be much, but we will make sure everyone knows about that $5 we gave to the hungry or the hour we spent at the soup kitchen.
Once again, it becomes all about us, all about ego, all about pride. We need humility so that our service can be genuine, out of love, out of concern for the needs of others and not our own reputation.

When people are hurting around us, we desperately need to be humble. Have you ever been suffering and had someone say something that was just so insensitive? Don’t be that person! I can tell you from personal experience that when you are hurting it is better for others to say nothing than the wrong thing. I’ve experienced pregnancy loss three times. People say things like “God needed another little angel in heaven.” Or they say “If the baby would have lived, it would have had disabilities.” None of those thoughts are helpful. It takes humility to say, “I have no idea what you might be feeling.” Or “I have no idea what you need right now, but I want to be here for you.” We need humility not to be trite or patronizing.

When we say these things, it is usually because we feel awkward and we’ve heard someone else say something similar. But patting people on the head and telling them everything’s going to be alright doesn’t make anyone feel better, except maybe ourselves. It is so much better to simply sit and say nothing. Just be there. It’s not about whether you have something brilliant to say that will make their pain better. It’s about your presence.

Humility is not a matter of putting yourself down. It is a matter of seeing yourself with the eyes of truth. Humility gives us the ability to practice radical honesty about who we are, about where we fall short, about where we excel. In every job interview you ever attend, you will be asked two questions: What strengths do you have? What weaknesses do you have? If for no other reason than this, you need to learn to look at yourself with some level of objectivity.

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
― Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

If you are going to make a difference in the world you need to know who you are. You need to have a radically honest conversation with God, with those close to you about your strengths and weaknesses. You can’t do everything. No one can do everything. But you have something that you do well. What do you have to offer the world? When you answer this question, you can raise your hand to volunteer with confidence. You can say no to things that do not fit with your skills and talents with grace instead of excuses. You can take your unique talents and by playing the part designed just for you, you might just change the world.

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