Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Renouncing “Sufficiency”

Ps 107; Mk 8:31-38[1]

Ralph Waldo Emerson has been called the prophet of American ideal.[2] His most famous essay, on “Self-Reliance,” may fairly be said to present perhaps the central theme of his life and work—“Trust Thyself.” Of course, what Emerson meant by that was an endorsement of the ideal of “individualism.” Today we might say it differently: “believe in yourself,” or perhaps “stand in your own truth.” It articulates our belief in the sanctity of self-sufficiency.

Self-sufficiency is a sacred dogma for us. We believe in “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” We want to be able to do any job that needs to be done; we want to be able to find our way to any destination without asking directions; we want to make our own way in the world. Self-sufficiency represents the American version of the belief of the modern era that we can solve any problem, climb any mountain, ford any stream.

What I might point out is that this represents an interesting contrast to the perspective of the Psalmists. The Psalmists speak of self-sufficiency in a very different way. The “mighty ones,” the “proud” the “rich,” the “princes”—everyone who we might think could very well stand in their own self-sufficiency—are those who go astray in their foolish independence and rebellious self-reliance. In the Psalms, self-sufficiency is an obstacle that has to be overcome in order to call upon the Lord for help. Asking for help—truly asking for help—is not something that comes easily for most people. To ask for help requires the ability to recognize that you need help. It requires a significant dose of humility to break through self-sufficiency.

More than that, our Psalm for today calls those who have experienced the God’s help to take a further step of humility and to offer thanksgiving in public worship.[3] It also takes an act of humility to be willing to gather with a group of people and recite prayers out loud and then actually sing hymns of praise! Out loud. So that those around you can actually hear you! But the kind of heartfelt praise that the Psalmist has in mind comes from the humble recognition that “We are the hungry and thirsty who have been fed. We are the bound who have been liberated. We are the sinners deserving death who have been given life. We are the fearful before the terrors of existence who have been given hope.”[4]

As we have seen, the Psalms tell us that God’s torah or instruction is for those humble enough to know that they need it (Ps. 25:9). But they also tell us that God’s salvation, God’s deliverance, God’s gift of new life are for those who are humble enough to know that they need it. Those who are open to God’s way are the ones who are humble enough to realize that they need God in every aspect of their lives.

I think there is a striking resemblance between what the Psalmists have to say about the humble who seek God’s way and God’s help and what Jesus says about those who receive the good news of the kingdom of God.[5] It takes a significant dose of humility align our lives with God’s kingdom. In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus called those who would follow him to “deny themselves.” The central act Jesus called for in response to the kingdom of God is an act of supreme humility—denying self. Denying oneself is “not the denial of something to the self but the denial of the self itself.”[6] Jesus disclosed to his disciples that his obedience to God’s way meant that he would have to go to the cross. Then he proceeded to make it clear to them that following him would mean giving ourselves away in sacrificial love, a “love that serves others no matter how much it costs,”[7] even if it means suffering tremendous loss, even if it means death![8] It’s a matter of leaning to say “not my will but thine be done”[9]

I think part of what Jesus is talking about is being willing to renounce the illusion of self-sufficiency. I think it is very similar to the perspective of the Psalmist about the “humble” who recognize their need for God versus the “proud” who think they can take care of themselves, thank you very much. It requires humility to take this step, because it can feel very foolish to actually identify yourself publicly with such a way of life. But as Paul reminds us, it is only by becoming “fools for Christ” (1 Cor. 4:10-13) and following Jesus’ example of self-surrender and suffering for others, especially the outcasts and the downtrodden and the forsaken ones, that we discover our true identity as “the community of the crucified Jesus” and “the fellowship called into life through Christ’s self-surrender.”[10]

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/22/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX

[2] See Harold Bloom, “The Sage of Concord,” The Guardian, Saturday 24 May 2003; accessed at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/may/24/philosophy. I would hasten to add that was true for the white middle- and upper-class of the Nineteenth Century.

[3] James L. Mays, Psalms, 344-45.

[4] Mays, Psalms, 347.

[5] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 35 and Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 92-95.

[6] Garland, Mark, 333; quoting Ernest Best, Following Jesus, 37.

[7] Garland, Mark, 335.

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 96, 99

[9] Cf. Garland, Mark, 327.

[10] Jürgen Moltmann, Church in the Power of the Spirit, 92, 96.

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