November, 11th, 1942. It is a day that will live in hilarious infamy in the small town of Wabash Indiana. On that day the circus came to Wabash a town that is about a thirty minute drive from my last church in Indiana. The Great American Circus featured three Elephants that faithful day; Empress, Judy, and Modoc. The Elephants were tethered outside of the high school awaiting their performance when they suddenly got spooked by a bunch of dogs barking at their feet. The elephants broke loose. Empress and Judy were chill about it. They just mossed into nearby neighborhoods. But Modoc, well she was like James Dean, an Elephant without a cause. Modoc went on a rampage through downtown Wabash, a sleepy country town on the banks of the Wabash River. Stereotypically, and this is true, she raided the local drugstore because she smelled roasted peanuts. Chauncey Kessler, was a clerk in the store at the time, and he stood between Modoc and her peanuts. Let’s just say he got ruffed up a little bit. For five days Modoc ran amuck in rural Indiana till she was lured back into her circus car by a circus hand.
When it comes to conflict I would argue that many of us are like Modoc. We may think we are well behaved. But given the right trigger we break free of social restraints and revert back to our more basic animal instincts, destroying our communities often over things that amount to peanuts, pun completely intended. But is that the way it has to be?
Several weeks ago I preached a sermon about Division in the church. So I thought it only right that I preach a sermon on unity in the church. I know Paul says unity and not disunity should be the norm. And I have begun to think that the reason disunity is the norm is because we don’t understand the basics of our faith. We try to talk about our differences, we try to talk about what we are passionate about, and yet we lack the framework of the Holy Spirit to hold us together during those difficult conversations. Today Paul teaches us that there are four attributes that contribute to the unity of a community
- Long suffering
Humility is perhaps the most difficult attitude to define and to obtain. Weird Al Yankovic, a well known humorist and musician who mocks pop culture, pointed out the problems we get into with humility with his 1990’s song “Amish Paradise” which mocks the rapper Colio’s song Ganster Paradise. In the song Weird Al turns Amish life into a rap video. One part of the song is particularly relevant for our purposes and it goes like this,
“We been spending most our lives
Living in an Amish paradise
We’re just plain and simple guys
Living in an Amish paradise
There’s no time for sin and vice
Living in an Amish paradise
We don’t fight, we all play nice
Living in an Amish paradise
Hitchin’ up the buggy, churnin’ lots of butter
Raised a barn on Monday, soon I’ll raise another
Think you’re really righteous? Think you’re pure in heart?
Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art”
This absurd parody illustrates the point that humility is a really hard thing to obtain. It can become a religious competition. Can one even admit to being humble and truly be humble? Does one have to constantly speak badly about oneself to be humble? How do we cultivate humility without falling into the religious competition trap that Weird Al sums up so well with the phrase, “Well, I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art”
Richard Foster, author of Prayer Finding The Heart’s True Home, defines humility as living as close to the truth as possible. The truth about ourselves, the truth about the world we live in, the truth about God. If Lebron James, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Sabrina Williams, or some other well accomplished athlete goes to a news conference and starts talking about how awful they are at their respected sport, that isn’t humility, that is false humility, that is trying to make people like them better by making themselves appear less than they are. Someone who has true humility is a grounded individual. Indeed, the English word for humility comes from the Latin Humus, which means ground or to be close to the Earth. A person with true humility can accept praise and is honest about their abilities, but they do not go seeking praise or telling people all the awesome things they do. The often quoted phrase humility is not thinking less about yourself but thinking about yourself less is part of the answer to humility but it doesn’t get to the whole truth. Because even in this well quoted phrase humility is still talked about in terms of ourselves, thinking about ourselves less. We don’t learn to think about ourselves less by reminding ourselves, “ops, better stop thinking about yourself Will,” we think less about ourselves less by thinking more highly about others.
Jon Stott, in God’s New Society, makes several points about humility in this regard. The Greek word humility can better be translated as lowliness of mind. The term was often used to refer to slaves, those who are subjected to the will of others. It was not a positive term in the Roman world. Humility doesn’t just have to do with our attitude about ourselves it has to do with our attitude about others. As Paul says in Philippians 2:3 we are to consider others as more significant than ourselves. The words in that passage suggests that we are to lead people to surpass us. We want people to surpass us and we are not jealous when they do. Isn’t that the best type of teacher? Isn’t that the best type of coach? One who doesn’t keep back some of what they know because they are afraid that their pupil might take their job but give everything they have to the next generation so that the next generation might surpass them? And that is why I ask for your testimonies. Not because I think all of you are better than me at speaking. But because I want you all to surpass me. To surpass me in love, and truth, and power. I know I have done my job well when I am called away from this place, may that be 2 years or 20 years from now, that the church doesn’t miss a beat. Not that you won’t miss me or I you. But I have taught you in a way that you have surpassed me. That is what I hope for as a teacher. That is the greatest honor in my life.
Gentleness, is also not a quality that we admire in our society. We prefer winners over losers, people who are assertive and powerful, over those who are gentle and meek. Yet, as John Stott points out, our concept of gentleness and meekness, is not what Paul is talking about in this passage. This word for gentleness was used for the domestication of animals. It was not about taking something powerful and making it pitiful. It was about taking something powerful and making it usable. Indeed, before the machine age, the domestication of animals made human civilization possible. Take the example of Modoc. We human beings love the power and majesty of large animals like elephants. But as the story of Modoc shows that power is hard to tame. This word suggests that Paul believes every human being has a great power within them because they are made in the image of God. And we believers have an even greater power because the creator of the Universe dwells within us through the Holy Spirit. But we need the fruit of the Spirit. We need the spiritual fruit of self-control. One who develops self-control is like someone who walks around with a pet tiger. I mean you really respect a person who can tame a tiger. And you are not going to mess with a person with a pet tiger, because well they have a tiger and that tiger is pretty powerful. Such is the case with a Christian with self-control. Such people are gentle, they do not react to circumstances around them, instead circumstances seem to react to them, the atmosphere in the room seems to change because of their presence, because their gentleness is backed up by Jesus Christ, the lion of Judah, the lamb who was slain. Many of you have told me that your supply pastor Dave Baldwin did this for you all. You all were not in a great place when Dave came. But he spoke love to you. He spoke what was not into existence. He made you believe you could be better than what you were and you became what He spoke.
Patience is the next divine attitude that promotes unity. The word here better translates as “long suffering” or “forbearance”. The term is often used of God withholding judgment to allow time for repentance. 2 Peter 3:8 says this about God, “ with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promises as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Indeed, I have read some estimates that if the Israelites had just listened to God it would have taken them eleven days to get through the wilderness instead of forty years and yet God still provided for them through all that time. One of my seminary professors used to call the disciples the “du” sciples because Jesus had to explain to them over and over again his purpose and they just didn’t get it. Not until he rose from the dead did they understand that he was Lord. Not till the power of God broke forth from the tomb were their eyes opened.
A humorous example of long suffering is the 1993 movie Groundhog’s Day staring Bill Murray. Murray plays Phil Connor’s an arrogant weatherman from Pittsburgh who resents covering Groundhog’s day festivities in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania . Phil wants nothing more than to leave the town and go back to his comfortable life in Pittsburgh. But Phil gets snowed in by a storm that he predicted would miss that area. The next day he awakes to find that he is reliving the same day over again. He realizes his actions have no consequences so he begins to spend his day in hedonistic living. But after a few time loops he realizes he isn’t going to be able to escape so he becomes depressed and decides to commit suicide, even driving off a cliff with Punxsutawney Phil , the local groundhog, in his car. Yet even killing himself and the groundhog fails to break the timeloop. Eventually, he decides to use his suffering to better himself, embracing the small town, giving an impassioned and loving speech to the townspeople, and winning the woman of his dreams. Only then does he escape the time loop.
Maybe some of you feel like your life is a Groundhog’s day except there is nothing funny about it. You have endured suffering, you have endured trials, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. You have watched those you love suffer. My sister has a chronic pain condition and I have watched her deal with it for the past seven years now. There is the suffering of the one you love. And then there is the feeling of helplessness as you watch the one you love suffer. But recently I watched a TED talk of a Doctor who described her condition to a T and showed how he treated people far worse than her. I sent it to my sister. But my sister was afraid to hope because she didn’t want to be disappointed again. But she has decided to take the chance. It is so easy to let go of hope. It is so easy just to accept your circumstances and say this is the way it always has been and always will be. Many religions see the universe as cyclical. All that has happened will happen again and you escape this cycle of suffering by achieving some ill defined idea of enlightenment. But that is not what we believe in Christianity. We believe that all of human history is moving towards the return of Christ, the Day of the Lord. And on that day every wrong shall be made right, the Lord will wipe away every tear, the glory of the Lord shall cover the Earth as the waters cover the sea, and justice shall be done whether we like it or not. It is the hope of the promised land that helps us endure our long suffering. And the Lord has given us a sign of that promise land when he raised Jesus from the dead and conquered death. Every miracle, every answered prayer, is a sign of that promised land. It gives us hope. And we need to hold onto hope to endure long suffering. If we hope in what we do not see we wait for it with long suffering.
Finally we have love. This is not any normal sort of love it is God’s love, sacrificial love that seeks the good of the other. The love of God does not wait to be loved, He does not wait for a tit and tat relationship, but God’s love loves first. To quote 1 John 4:10, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” Love is the glue that binds together humility, gentleness, and long suffering. Our divine attitudes are grounded in God’s divine attributes. For God is Love. God is Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One God three persons. Our God is a God of community. A God of Unity that brings together diversity. To quote our scripture today, “ There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call- One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” It all belongs to you Lord. Come and take your glory. Come and give us humility. Come and give us gentleness. Come and give us long suffering. Come and bind us together in your love a love that loves first. Come Holy Spirit, Come Holy Spirit, Come Holy Spirit, come and give us unity.