Redeeming a Dirty Word

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Sunday, March 24, 2019
Scripture: Isaiah 55:1-9 & I Corinthians 10:1-13
Rev. Dale C. Swihart, Jr.

Is there anything in the world more self-centered than an infant or young toddler?  Those first 1-2 years of life are filled with insistent demands for attention.  Ask any sleep deprived, first time, parent what life is like with a new born.  About the only time free from those endless demands is when the little creature is asleep.

There is good reason for all this self-centeredness, it is called survival.  In order to survive a baby has to let others know of its needs; it can’t exactly fix its own bottles.  A baby really doesn’t care if you are rested or not, when the urge to eat hits, it’s time to eat.  I have never heard a baby ask, “Is this a convenient time to feed me?”  Infants are demanding, because they are vulnerable and fragile, so they are built to think only of themselves.

Julia was so excited.  Her son Chad had made a huge emotional break-through. Chad had been a demanding infant.  He had no regular sleep pattern and kept Julia and her husband in a state of perpetual exhaustion. For two and a half years Chad had been demanding their constant attention.  Just a few moments ago Chad had engaged in a total melt-down over the color of his sippy cup.  It had brought Julia to sobs and tears of her own.  However, from his highchair, Chad had stopped yelling and asked, “Why cry Mommy?”  For the first time in his young life, Chad was showing a touch of human empathy.

Supposedly, the process of maturation forces most of us to grow past this “the world evolves around me” stage.  Maturing is the process of learning to control our most primitive and base instincts.  It is fun watching 3 and 4 year olds emerge from the cloud of utter self-absorption. Empathy is the start of breaking the chain of self-centeredness.

Unfortunately, there are too many adults who fail to completely break those bonds.  There are a lot of narcissistic people out there. Last week’s breaking news about the college admissions scandal was a bit of a microcosm of the problem.  Why in the world would people pay more than the actual cost of a total college education to bribe their kid’s way into so called, “most prestigious” schools in America?  Ego.  “My kid’s going to Yale, to Stanford, to USC, Georgetown, UCLA…Where is your kid going?”  This is just a tiny example of a condition that is widespread in our country.

I also see America’s collective self-centeredness mirrored in the current state of our politics.  Lost in public service is the concept of servanthood. Political office has come to focus on a state of perpetual re-election no matter what the price, even the corruption of all moral values.  To compromise is to be weak; what is good for me and my poll numbers has replaced the “common good.”  “Since I always have to be right, then you must always be wrong.”

2,000 years ago, Paul started a church in Corinth.  The church there rapidly became filled with self-centered prigs who saw their personal paths of piety and religious practice as the only right paths.  They tried to set up a hierarchy of spiritual gifts and talents; they even ranked their spiritual teachers.  In writing to this badly divided church Paul called for unity built on spiritual maturity.  He lifted up the example of the Israelites in the wilderness, who when the going got tough could only focus upon themselves; they complained mightily against Moses and God.  He also reminded them of the greatest of sins during the Israelites’ days of wandering in the desert, a little bull, a bit of idol worship.

Idolatry: is there any greater form of idolatry than self-worship? Not only does it damage our relationship with our Creator, but it fully erodes the foundation of society. It blinds us to the needs of others, especially those who are hurting.  In the end, it leads to an even more broken world.  If a society is solely governed by our individual concern for self, then we end up with anarchy.  Laws are made to control conflicting individual impulses.

I truly believe that the hardest psychological struggle we face as human beings is overcoming worship of the self and learning the disciplines of self-control and self-denial. With few exceptions, such as a parent’s drive to protect his or her children, it is very difficult for us to put aside the instinct of self-preservation. It takes discipline. That is why the military takes so long to carefully train recruits.

Like with children overcoming self-centeredness, the secret to defeating self-worship is maturation, growing in the faith.  According to Richard Foster in his book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, the way we overcome our focus on self is submission, submission of the self, which leads us to the life of faith.

However, submission has become a dirty word for us, and in some respects probably rightfully so. It is a concept that is often misused.  It is easily associated with slavery, or other forms of abuse.  It is also detrimental when it leads to the full potential of the individual being suppressed or destroyed.  Submission also gets a bum rap in our world because we are fixated on “winning.”   Submission sounds like something “losers” do.  It sounds so weak.    However, there is nothing weak about the concept of submission Foster describes.  In fact, it is something that takes profound spiritual strength.  There is nothing weak about self-denial based on our love of God and others.

Foster also points out that there is actually great freedom found in submission to God’s purpose and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  I have to confess that as I read Foster’s chapter on submission I thought of the halls of government.  Listen to what he says:

In submission we are at last free to value other people.  Their dreams and plans become important to us.  We have entered into a new, wonderful, glorious freedom—to give up our own rights for the good of others…We rejoice in their success.  We feel genuine sorrow in their failures.  It is of little consequence that our plans are frustrated if their plans succeed.  We discover that it is far better to serve our neighbor than to have our own way.

Imagine the difference if our elected officials would use that as a foundation for governance.

Imagine the difference in our own lives if we could shake off the chains of self-worship and submit our lives to God’s plan for us.  It is not easy, but it can be done, it takes discipline and hard work and the Lenten season is a perfect time to begin.

Foster outlines seven acts of submission that can help us grow in our faith walk.   The first act of submission is to the Triune God.  He suggests that the first and the last words out of our mouths each day should be words surrendering our mind, body and spirit to God’s will.  Perhaps the words he quotes in his book, which you find on the bulletin cover, would be a good daily mantra for us, “As thou wilt; what thou wilt; when thou wilt.”

The second act of submission is to Scripture.  Lent is the perfect time to set aside a few moments each day to explore the Bible, because there are so many devotional guides available.   It is a great time to start or renew that habit.

The third act of submission is to family.  Perhaps no earthly responsibility is more important than caring for one’s family. Try having at least one full family meal each day during the rest of the season.

The fourth act of submission is to neighbors.  Jesus made it so clear in his summation of the law that next to love of God, our love of neighbor is paramount.  In these emerging days of spring why not clean up the yard of a neighbor who cannot do so for him or herself?

The fifth act of submission is to the believing community, the church.  During the Lenten season there are a host of special activities here at the church.  I have always felt that the most important gift we can share with our church family is the gift of our presence.  Take in some of those special events.

The sixth act of submission is to the broken and despised. One of the things that continues to impress me about First Presbyterian Church is its variety of hands-on mission opportunities.  Why not get involved in one of them. It is an ideal time to start the habit of helping the less fortunate around us.

The seventh act of submission is to the world. A great tradition in the PCUSA is One Great Hour of Sharing.  For 70 years Presbyterians have joined other denominations in collecting an offering to help those who are hurting in the world.  Get a box and each day drop in your spare change.   In addition, we live on a beautiful planet, but it is in danger.  This year, the day after Easter is Earth Day.  Why not do something special with the family, plant a tree, or organize the neighborhood to clean up a park?  Heck with that one, you could knock out several of the submissions all at once!

Notice what is missing from that list?  There is no submission to the self. Jesus calls us to grow out of ourselves and focus our lives on others and that takes tremendous training and discipline.  Perhaps we can make the rest of this Lenten season our spiritual spring training, so submission might start to become a natural part of our daily living.

A few years ago one of the greatest stories of cross-carrying, self-denying submission I have ever read about occurred in West Nickel Mine, Pennsylvania.  A book entitle, Amazing Grace, chronicles the story of the brutal murders of several Amish school girls at the hands of a very troubled individual, who also took his own life. The amazing part of the story is the response of the Amish community to the senseless violence, it is beyond comprehension; the Amish forgave the man.  When asked how they could forgive a cold-blooded killer, the elder of the community said, “We have to, otherwise we give in to the evil ourselves.”  The Amish even went and ministered to the perpetrator’s family.  They comforted his wife and children, knowing they too had lost a husband and father.   How do you do that? By total submission to God’s purpose.

One of the great symbols of Easter is the butterfly.  It is a powerful reminder of new life and resurrection.  It also holds power for us.  Let us spend the rest of this Lent season breaking out of the cocoon of self-absorption, so on the day of resurrection we might emerge and stand with our risen Lord as freed and renewed children of God.