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Good morning, everyone. Happy Sunday, but mournful lent. Meg, is that the right greeting? Having Ash Wednesday fall on Valentine’s day this year was a weird mix of emotions. What gift really says, I love you, and let’s contemplate our own deaths? I tried to order a dozen roses in a funeral urn instead of a vase, but apparently that’s not a thing. It was either that or applying chocolate to our foreheads instead of ashes. But in the end, it didn’t matter. We missed both Tuesday and Wednesday; all four of us were sick. Apparently the last time those two days overlapped was in the forties, so we’ll have to catch the next one in eighty years or so.

Please go with me, if you will, to the book of Philippians, chapter 2. Last week, we wrapped up a sermon series on Spiritual gifts talking about the work of the Spirit to bring unity to his church, a unity which the book of Galatians tells us flows out of humility and patience. My hope with that sermon series was to get us thinking about the ways we love each other, practically, as a church. I’m hoping each person in the church will go about finding an intersection of the needs of our community and your own talent and skill and do your best to build up the body of Christ, inviting others into family through participation in God’s work of redemption. What’s your fit? What’s your role, and do you have the work of the local church in the right place of priority in your life? “Above all else,” Peter writes, “keep loving one another earnestly as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

It’s been my habit each year at the church to do a miniseries through the lenten season on some topic which helps us to forget ourselves and focus on God, so this year, urged on by a book we’re going through at work, I’ve decided to focus on humility, hopefully to learn what it mens to be humble, to give us a way of living that’s not wrapped up in the pride and vanity which is definitive of the world we live in. If you want to be different, if you want to be a rebel, and be conformed to Christ rather than the world, I would encourage you in your pursuit of Christ, in everything, to be humble.

Specifically, I’ll be borrowing heavily from a book called Humility Rules on the teachings of Benedict of Nursia on humility, and I’ll tell you a little bit about him, but mainly I want to learn from the Scriptures and from the great Tradition of our Church, what it means to pursue humility in Christ. That we might become less, and Christ become more in our lives. Even though I’ll be citing Benedict through this miniseries over the next couple of weeks, the point of this, again, is to focus on Christ in his sufferings as we prepare ourselves through Lent for the Easter Season. Jesus is our truest example of humility, and the Holy Spirit is the source of humility and life in us. But Benedict blazes the path as one who has gone this way before.

Benedict grew up in Italy at the turn of the sixth century. It was a tumultuous time. Western Rome, in his lifetime, fell to barbarian invaders, and Benedict had to learn to live a life devoted to Christ in a world turned upside down. He’s famous and sainted in many faith traditions for founding the Benedictine order of monks which remarkably still exists to this day, over 1500 years later. St. Joseph’s, about 45 minutes from here, still practices his rule. He took his example from Christ, and took on twelve disciples at each monastery he founded, to teach them a path to humility, and through humility, to thriving in Christ.

I’m going to let his rule be our guide through this miniseries. We have four weeks before palm Sunday, including today, and his ladder of humility has twelve rungs—which, if you’re doing the math is three steps per week. Think about it like a version of AA for pride, the original twelve-step program. I thought it was important to have three points for each sermon, too, as a Baptist allowing a saint of old to guide our discussion, just to keep us comfortable here. Though Benedict’s work was a thousand years before the reformation which divided the protestant and Catholic faith traditions, so he’s as much in our tradition as anyone’s. In many ways Benedict is a door to a lost age, a door we seldom walk through because it’s so far removed from our time and place; but perhaps, because of the distance, standing with him there in the sixth century can help us see our current century for what it is.

For this morning, we’re looking at the fear of God, self-denial, and obedience. Let’s read our passage for today, Philippians, chapter 2, vs. 1-18. [] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

Fearing God. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” our passage tells us, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Benedict tells us the first step into humility is fearing God, and this particular biblical teaching is one our culture despises. Again, if you want to be a rebel in this day and place, fear God in pursuit of humility.

Our culture despises the fear of God because we are already so afraid already, of everything. We’re afraid of losing the good things and people in our lives, afraid of not being successful in life, afraid of the way the country is headed, afraid of being rejected, being unhappy. Anxiety rates are up in our society over 80%. We’re an anxious people, we Americans. And especially in terms of religion, there are enough preachers out there willing to paint God in terms of an angry, critical father, always looking for faults, that I kind of want to raise my hand and ask, have we forgotten grace? I know Christians who seem so afraid of making mistakes that they miss the beauty of this world and the people in it, always avoiding some inevitable crash into reality.

Our culture hates the idea of the fear of God—which is why that idea is so valuable for us today. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, “we don’t really [need] a religion that’s right where we are right. What we [need] is a religion that is right where we are wrong.” We need the fear of God in our lives today. Notice what Paul writes, that we’re meant to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. So he’s talking to Christians. I would argue, in many ways, learning to fear God is our salvation, meaning we learn to fear, not what God has done or will do in our lives, but we learn to fear what our lives would be like if he were not here to save us. We learn to fear our own sins and the effects of our own actions upon our lives without God’s salvation.

The fear of God Paul means is not the fear a child feels when he hears her abusive father pull into the driveway at night. The fear of God is like the fear I felt this week when my wife first got sick and I realized how what even a week without her contribution to our family is like. I’m afraid of her dying or leaving me, not because I think she will, or because she is edging that way or threatening it, but because of how wonderful it is to have her in my life. That’s a very different kind of fear. It’s fear all the same, but one which makes me approach her with greater love, appreciation, and admiration.

In my bones, though, the thought of Annie leaving or dying, the thought of my life without her makes me afraid, but especially in this lenten season I can admit, I don’t need her. Oh! There you go, that’s a good slogan for an ash Wednesday/valentine shirt, “I love you, but I don’t ultimately need you.” It would be unbelievably hard to lose her, but we would recover. I’m more afraid of God than of her. In fact, my fear of God casts out my other fears. I can be alone, I can be a failure, I can be rejected and ashamed, but so long as God still loves me, I can find joy, hope, and purpose in him. I know what my life would be like without God in it. I know it every time I consider my own sins, and it is a long life wasted on pride and pursuit of success at everyone else’s expense. I see that very clearly in me.

Fear of God is the first part of the gospel and the first step toward humility, because fear of God teaches you of your own sin and your utter dependence upon God. Without him I am lost in the outer dark. Without his spirit in me I am empty. Without him I am never truly satisfied. When I consider my salvation I am afraid of my world without God in it. Without God, my life is hell, this life and the next. With him, God’s perfect love casts out fear.

In the end, fearing the Lord allows you to let go of all your other fears and rest in the fact that he is enough. Fearing God casts out every fear, and because God has promised never to leave or forsake us, even in our worst mistakes, we can be confident in him that our worst fears will never be realized; that in him we are forgiven, welcomed, and loved, and nothing can change that—no relationship lost, no amount of failure, no sin. Come what may, your father will be all you need.

So fear the Lord, one, and two, the next step toward humility is self-denial. V.4 “let each of you look not only to his own interests, but to the interests of others.” And as always, Christ is our example: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

The book, Humility Rules, is funny. Wetta, the author, titles the chapter on self-denial, “Don’t be true to yourself,” which is his way of pointing out how different Benedict’s steps are from the advice we usually receive in our time and place. Don’t be true to yourself—be true, instead, to something greater than yourself. To Christ and his kingdom, to your family, to your community and church. I like the way Paul phrases it in our passage—this doesn’t look like a rejection of your own interests, but loving your neighbor as you love yourself, an inclusion of other people’s thriving into consideration of your own.

Wetta also writes, “self-fulfillment is not about self-satisfaction,” which again is wildly countercultural but true, and therefore deeply needed. Self-fulfillment is not about self-satisfaction. There is a difference between fulfilling your desires and living with purpose. You can see this truth played out all around you. The purpose of a meal is to be eaten, which destroys it. The purpose of clothing is to be worn, which eventually ruins it. Or take the common question of whether you see your cup as half-empty of half full. Christianity would tell you, the point is not how full your cup is, but whether or not you are using it for its purpose, drinking from it, pouring yourself out, filling others up.

Self-fulfillment is not self-satisfaction. Oftentimes pouring yourself out for the sake of others will bring you closer to self-fulfillment than filling your own cup, because it brings you closer to your purpose. The individualistic culture of the US would tell you to get yours, to take what you want, to be true to yourself. Christianity would tell you to give yourself away, to deny yourself, and be true to Christ, and in that you’ll find self-fulfillment.

Most of what people are calling “being true to yourself” these days is just selfishness, repackaged and rebranded. You’re not being true to yourself by being neglectful of your family, for instance. If you being true to yourself leaves them behind, unconsidered, the Bible would say you’re lying to yourself and trading the truth of the living God for a lie. You may find a kind of satisfaction that way, but you’ll never find fulfillment, because it runs counter to our purpose as humans to live within a healthy, redemptive family, be it nuclear family or church family, and to be faithful to each other. We need each other.

Practically speaking, being true to myself would mean being a jerk all the time. That is true of me. Wouldn’t we all rather I be true to something else? It may be true to yourself to care for your own needs and give little, for example, to provide to the poor; it may be true to you, but only because you are sinful and broken. Humility dictates looking at ourselves and not being proud of who we are. We’re meant to look at ourselves and see how far we are from what we were created to be, but then to know how deeply loved we are in Christ, and how capable he is of healing every wound, changing every part of us which most deeply needs to be changed.

Humility is found in fear of the Lord, in self denial, and lastly for today, in obedience. I have a friend who’s an author; mostly he writes historical fiction, and once he visited an international, interdenominational monastery in France called Taizé. He sat down with one of the monks, and asked the monk what the most difficult part of his vows was. Before the monk could answer, my friend blurted out, “Is it celibacy?” To which the monk smiled at the much younger man and said, “no.” He said the most difficult part of his vows was obedience. V.9 “Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” We humble ourselves when we become obedient, but obedience is incredibly difficult.

Obedient to whom, pastor, Louis asks? You?!? To which I would say, not ultimately. Ultimately we are obedient to God. But oftentimes obedience to God is learned through obedience to others. I was thinking this week of how to instill this idea in my children. I want them to be confident enough to challenge injustice in the world, authorities of all sorts which overreach and have rules which either don’t make sense or actively harm people. I want them to learn the importance of civil disobedience in our faith tradition, to learn about cults and predators, people who would use authority over them to use or abuse them. I want them to stand up for themselves among their friends, to be assertive and not just do what they’re told, or what everyone else is doing. Disobedience can be deeply important.

But in humility, I also know deeply, before any teachers, before any professors or bosses drive them nuts, before friends influence them, the first unjust authority and influence over each of my children will be me. In humility I know I am unjust. From time to time I have been wrong—usually with me, I’m too harsh, or come in with unrealistic expectations—but even with all of my flaws, it’s also deeply important that my children learn to obey me. Of utmost importance, even to fear me, like we talked about earlier, I want them to fear what their lives would be like without my rules. I need them to see the danger, for instance, of crossing the street without looking both ways, to fear the relational consequences of being rude to other adults and friends, to fear breaking my rules because my rules keep them alive and healthy. I need to teach them obedience, even to me. Even as sinful as I am. Obedience is hard precisely because we live under unjust authority.

Ultimately we obey God our father and fear him alone, but that’s complicated by our own sin and brokenness. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we could all follow God, directly hear from him, not have to pursue knowledge or learn in the midst of a community? But in humility, we recognize that even we get hearing from God wrong. We misinterpret texts. We fail to see beyond the common mistakes of our people our age and of our times. We need to hear from others, even learn to obey them.

Benedict models a radical kind of obedience in his rule. He talks about grumbling and gossip as the death of community. He says grumbling is always damaging, even when, and especially, when the person grumbling is right. Wetta writes, “The hallmark of a really strong soul is the ability to be joyful, even when the going gets tough, because a good reason doesn’t make grumbling, which is a form of ingratitude, less wicked. One might even argue that grumbling for a good reason is worse than grumbling for a bad reason precisely because there is a basis for it. Justifiable grumbling is more likely to spread.”

I remember a conversation I had with a high-school English teacher about poetry. I think we were reading ee Cummings, and I pointed out to her how many grammatical rules he broke in his poem, and she said the best poets and writers often break the rules. I asked her why we spend so much time learning grammatical rulesDCFV B , then, and she told me, the people who know a language best are able to break the rules of that language in the most meaningful ways.

Obedience is like that. We have to learn obedience in the midst of unjust authority before we know what it means to obey a higher law and power, before we’re able to break rules and laws in a way that serves the people who come after us. Until then you’re just rebelling like every teenager does against his parents. Again, if you want to rebel in our current society, pursue humility. That’s the thing no one is doing.

Through fear of God, self-denial, and obedience we can begin to humble ourselves, and when we do humble ourselves we enter into real community.

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