I had the privilege to speak at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Service at Mount Nebo Baptist Church on Sunday, January 20th at 7 pm. The event was sponsored by the West Point Ministers Association. For some reason or another, I was unable to print out this manuscript. I don’t consider myself to be the best at extemporaneous public speaking. But, I got my points across even if I didn’t get every sentence.
Our Need for a Radical Humility
… And being found in appearance as a man, He (Jesus) humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name. Philippians 2:8, 9
America will never be great, nor will any resistance work until we learn how to die. Dr. James Cone, the father of Black Liberation Theology, said in a conference a few years ago that the church today needs to learn how to die. That the black church spends way too much time striving to be prosperous and successful in the kingdom of earth rather than dying for the kingdom of heaven. Fr. Turbo Qualls, an African-American Orthodox priest, made the same point in a St. Moses Conference lecture. It is easy to get caught up in the trappings of religion and ritual. But, if we are to achieve oneness with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we need to possess a humility that will allow and cause us to die. And the scripture teaches us that Jesus did this and was greatly rewarded by the One he humbled Himself to obey.
I believe that our nation’s ongoing problems of class, race, sex, and other issues is that we don’t know how to be humble enough to die. Not everyone will be shot on a Memphis hotel balcony, run over by a racist in Charlottesville, or be butchered by an Islamic terrorist in Libya. But, I think we Christians of all branches have a strong bad habit of skipping to the good part of the Gospel message. In whatever form or style of worship, we all love to get to the part where At the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father. We used to play kick-ball in elementary school and we had a playground rule. If you wanted your turn to kick, you had to spend some time in the outfield. I loved my mother’s deserts. But, I had to eat my meat and vegetables before I could have some blackberry cobbler. Today, we want God to bless our nation, give us breakthroughs and favor. We cannot have any of that unless, like Jesus, we humble ourselves to be obedient to God to death.
Black or white, conservative or liberal, eastern or western Christian; we don’t want to die in any shape, form, or fashion. We have to have the last word in an argument face to face and on Facebook. Our point of view has to come out on top in every discussion. Keeping up with the Joneses is not enough, we have to beat them at their own game and make up things that they can’t do. Anyone who doesn’t fully agree with us is not a friend, not simply an enemy, but not even human. And we pray that in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ we will defeat them. We want to live and win this kingdom of earth and will abuse the name of God to do it. Apparently, we have forgotten history and faith. Jesus rebuked Peter’s feeble swordsmanship and rather than calling on legions of armed angels, the Lord continued to the Cross. When the Jewish zealots resorted to armed struggle to re-establish the kingdom of David, the Romans wiped Judea off the map. And after 300 years of violently striving to destroy the faith, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. C.S. Lewis said it in a nutshell, “If you aim for heaven, you’ll get the earth thrown in as well. If you aim for the earth, you’ll get neither.”
Look at what we are doing in this nation that has “In God We Trust” on our currency. We spend more on military protection than twice that of our closest rival and putting ourselves in a deficit in the process. Our life expectancy rate has declined over the past three years caused by our increasing number of drug overdoses and suicides. While the rate of abortions have been in decline, adults under 50 are dying of ODs more often than automobile accidents. Fear and despair are killing us faster than any illegal immigrant or racist cop. But rather than become repentant and self-evaluating, we chase after catchy slogans, popular marches, and the latest real and fake news of the politicians we don’t like. We are refusing to die and yet we are dying anyway. Our Christian ancestors of all races in the first three centuries went to their deaths with joy honored to leave this earthly kingdom for the heavenly one. Our “Christian” nation today is dying with needles of careless living, pride, and self-righteousness in our arms. We are quick to condemn those who commit surface sins. We have to understand our deeper faults of our nation as the Prophet Isaiah 16:49 revealed about Sodom; “pride, gluttony, and calm complacency.”
I propose that a radical humility, a humility and obedience to death will help us as individual Christians and perhaps save our nation. This mind that was also in Christ overcomes the evil one. Among the early African Desert Fathers, Macarius the Great was walking back to his cave when Satan tried to cut him with a scythe and failed repeatedly. Tired, the adversary said to the saint, “Everything you do, I do even more. You fast, I never eat. You wake up and pray at midnight, I never sleep. The reason I can’t overcome you is your humility.” Think of how many times churches were bombed, marchers were beaten, and counter protesters opposed the Movement. One reason why the enemies failed was that the forces of good were made up of share croppers, house keepers, ordinary adults and young folk who knew how to be humble enough to obey to the death. One cannot be humble and a slave owner at the same time, that’s why Paul sent the runaway slave back to Philemon to learn that it’s better to have brotherhood than bondage. One cannot be a racial supremacist and obedient to the God who made us all in His image and likeness at the same time. That is why white supremacy is failing and black supremacy will never succeed.
This radical humility builds community that breaks barriers. A legion of African soldiers was sent by the Roman Emperor to slaughter the survivors of a Germanic tribe that was defeated in a battle. The commander, Maurice, and his troops refused because they saw the Europeans wearing the same cross of Christ they believed in. They saw each other as brothers. The emperor slaughtered Maurice and his entire legion instead for disobeying him and being obedient to God. To this day, there are towns and churches named for St. Maurice and the Theban Legion in France, Germany, and Switzerland with the commander’s statue, though with late European armor, very much dark skinned. A more recent and less gruesome social death was felt by Clarence Jordan of Georgia. Jordan was highly educated and skilled in agriculture and New Testament Greek. His Kionia Farm was a place where blacks and whites learned modern farming practices, gained a greater knowledge of early Christianity, and lived together as brother and sisters. Needless to say, he was one of the most ostracized white men in the South. The society Jordan was born in considered him dead.
But let us not forget that the Gospel is good news for our salvation to kingdom of heaven, not a religion to rule the kingdom of earth. So, we must seek a radical humility to better obey the will of God. That obedience will mean leaving some things of earth for the sake of gaining the kind of life that leads to eternal life. Arsenius was a wealthy and powerful Roman senator who wasn’t satisfied with his place of comfort. Seeking a closer walk with Jesus, he fled to the Egyptian desert and was found getting advice from an older Christian peasant. Someone recognized and asked him, “You are a well-educated man. Why are you talking with this peasant?” The saint replied, “As educated as I am, I don’t know this man’s alphabet.” Moses the Black, a dark Nubian brother, didn’t make excuses for his sins saying, “I was born this way.” But, he continued a life of disciplined and earnest prayer and repentance for almost 15 years and became one of the most honored saints in our Church. Mary of Egypt struggled even longer until she got to the point where a monk-priest who thought he was living holy found her to be even holier. Every 5th Sunday of Lent, we of all ethnicities and nationalities honor her as an example of repentance and redemption. These and other saints from all the corners of the earth died to their sins so that they could be alive in Christ.
Thou receivest saints of all ages and from all races,
Without caste, without distinction, the last and the first,
Pure of sin, fruitful in goodness,
Noble souls, kindred to thy Christ-
These Thou callest saints.
— Hymn of Praise for Saint Sylvester