Sermon Sunday, December 11, 2011

John 1: 6-8, 19-28  

 “I Must Diminish So That Christ May Increase”

Franklin Circle Christian Church

(Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio

Rev. Allen V. Harris, pastor and preacher

To see this sermon on video, go to:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6-S_X1AK3Y&list=UUwvkAvkp6Ru5pgPu1kUpgqQ&feature=plcp

Dame Edna Everedge

How many of you know the “simple Australian housewife” and “Giga-Star” Dame Edna Everage?  If you haven’t seen this amazing performer and satirist then you surely must watch for her!  In addition to numerous appearances on television talk shows and New Year’s Eve programs, I had the distinct privilege of being present as one of her “Possums” at her stage show in Playhouse Square in Cleveland’s theater district several years ago.  She’s a hoot!

But one of the things I admire most about Dame Edna, other than her scathing wit, her outlandish costumes, and her signature lavender hair, is her humility.  (And yes, I say that with a sarcasm of which even Dame Edna would be proud!)  In her performance she will frequently refer to her “manager,” Barry Humphries.  (The joke is completely obvious as we all knowBarry Humphries that Barry Humphries is the “alter ego” of this wonderful cross-dressing performer known as “Dame Edna.”)  But in a signature line, and perhaps one of the funniest in the entire show, Edna says of her “manager,” Humphries, that “sadly, his presence diminished as mine has increased.”  Truly, since her first appearance in 1956 in Australia, up to her appearance at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton last April, the man Barry Humphries has been almost completely eclipsed by the drag persona of Dame Edna Everage, or, Mrs. Norm Everage as she sometimes likes to be called!  (1)

What a refreshingly honest appraisal of what happens to a public personality, whether it be a performer, an athlete, or, even, a pastor.  The person who we are in private and, perhaps even, in the past becomes eclipsed by the public persona we become. Now, I recognize that John the Baptist and Jesus were not two “personas” of one individual, and that an Australian cross-dressing entertainer is a far cry from our Lord and Savior, thanks be to God!  But the honest, dare I say, humble recognition of Humphries that he must decrease so that another might increase is precisely in keeping with the mission of John the Baptist?

The Baptism, El Greco, 1560-65. Web Gallery of Art

As I noted in last week’s sermon, one of the completely counter-cultural aspects of the Gospel is found in John’s message that it’s not all about him!  In fact, he is simply a vessel, a guide, a means to steer us to the true message.  In classic art one can often determine fairly quickly which figure in the painting is John the Baptist because he is the one pointing away from himself and to Christ.  In today’s scripture text I was taken that as his fame increases, and as the crowds grew around to hear him preach, when they ask him who he is, John doesn’t respond with any “branding” or “public image.”  He doesn’t even respond with his own name!  When they mistake him for more famous or prominent public figures, such as a specific person like Elijah come back to life, or key figures of the faith such as “the messiah” or, simply, “the prophet,” he points away from himself.  He responds, “I am the voice crying out in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’”  Who are you?  I am the voice… John knows that he must decrease so that Christ may increase.

This is true humility.  I have made a point of melding today’s traditional word for the third Sunday of Advent, “Joy,” with the spiritual discipline of “humility,” because I believe there can be no true and lasting joy unless we are honestly and consistently humble.  For some the idea of humility might be hard to connect with the concept of joy.  Some might see them as being diametrically opposed.  This is where the “spiritual discipline” comes in.

We live in a world where joy is equated with satisfaction, getting our own way, having it all.  Whether it is in winning the fight, yelling the loudest, buying the newest or the best, coming out on top, having the picture perfect family, or matching the culture’s norm for pretty, successful, smart, or famous, joy has been distorted almost beyond recognition.  And I say this not as some churchified clergyperson who needs to keep “joy” in its place to stay in business.  I say it because it simply doesn’t work!  All those things that our culture tells us will bring us joy just simply don’t!

Oddly enough, emptying ourselves of these things… or at least the pressure to obtain them at any cost… is the only true route to joy.  Humility can lead us to a depth of joy not attainable by any other means.  And the joy found in humility lasts a long time.

How do we live into this humility, this ego-free lifestyle that John the Baptist seemed to exude so effortlessly?  Surely it doesn’t involve eating locusts and wearing scratchy leather and burlap clothes!  Well, first there is a perspective, a world view, that has to be grasped.  Daily, or even, perhaps, as often as you take a breath, we must remind ourselves that we are not in the center of the universe.  Just as Galileo had the gall to tell folks the sun and the moon and the planets don’t revolve around the earth, we have to tell ourselves and one another the world does not revolve around us.  And, in fact, it is God, the divine source of life, that is at the heart of it all.

Isaiah 55:8-9 says it well when the prophet channels God’s gentle but firm reminder:

 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

   so are my ways higher than your ways

   and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Isaiah 45 and Romans 9 remind us, using the image of the potter and the clay from which the potter moulds the pot, that we are not in charge.  Using perhaps the most humble of illustrations, dirty, messy, unformed clay, the prophet, and later the Apostle Paul, encourage us that it really is important to ground our self-image in the awareness that someone else forms us, that there is no such thing as a self-made woman or man.  The potter may form from the very same lump of clay that which is special or that which is common.

Grounding ourselves in this knowledge, then there are three things that we can do, in a practical way, to live into humility.  I’ll use the acronym of J.O.Y. and expand on the commonly attributed words, Jesus, Others, Yourself.  I resist simplistic mnemonic devices because they are often more cute than profound.  I mean, what does it really mean to “put Jesus first, others second, and yourself last?”  Well, let me tell you, and by doing so I think we will not only have a better grasp of how to be truly humble, but also set ourselves up for profound and lasting joy.

Jesus First:  What if we understood this as realizing each and every time we do something, that there is a larger universe beyond our own lived lives, and that this entire universe was created by God and meant for love?  When we shop for food, clothes, or gifts or when we make decisions that affect others or ourselves, what if we thought first and foremost about the perspectives of Jesus of Nazareth in how we behaved?  “What Would Jesus Do?” isn’t just a catchy slogan, it can be a way of life!

Others Second:  What if we connected this “way of Christ” with all the conversations we had this past fall about servanthood and volunteerism.  Could we truly live lives that seek to serve the least of these, or as I have heard it stated, “the least, the lost, the lonely, and the less loved ones?”  What if we took to heart the ancient Iroquis mantra that we see every decision we make as having an impact up to and including seven generations after us?

Yourself Last:  And, rather than seeing this as some kind of debasement of our own identity or self-worth, could we imagine this phrase as a fulfillment of the other two movements!  If we see all creation as a gift from the Divine Source of Life, choose to follow, more literally than not, the path Christ lived and taught, and became fixated on how our decisions might help or hinder our neighbor and their ability to thrive and flourish, then, and only then, will we find ourselves, in the words of the old Shaker hymn, “in the place just right?”

Scene From October Sky

Last night Craig and I watched, upon the recommendation of one of my Facebook connections, the 1999 movie, October Sky.  It is a true story about Homer Hickman, Jr., a coal miner’s son in West Virginia, who was inspired by the first Sputnik satellite launch to take up rocketry, even when it was against his father’s wishes, which was to be a coal miner like himself.  I recommend it to you as a most inspirational story.  In it I found the struggle of the father to move his own needs, perspectives, and even lifelong hopes and dreams for his son out of his way for a larger, more important purpose.  The son struggles with surely disappointing his father in order to fulfill a larger purpose in life, one that would indeed affect far more people around the world and for years to come, and open up, literally, the heavens above to new possibilities.  (2)

In the end, there is an acknowledgement by the father that “he must decrease” so that his son “might increase.”  And, in a sometimes most painful path to humility, the father grasps the true joy that comes when one sees a larger purpose in life, moves out of the way so that another might fulfill their true calling, and then finds their own fulfillment, their own purpose in life.

The irony of this is that even Christ, who was most certainly the one who needed to “increase,” even he lived a life of humble submission to the only One who was greater than he: God.  If John made way for Christ, then Christ makes way for God, can we do no less?

Perhaps it might not always be as self-contained, and utterly hilarious, as Barry Humphreys “decreasing” so that the “simple Australian housewife” and “Giga-Star” Dame Edna Everedge might “increase.”  Nonetheless, if we seek and nurture the spiritual discipline of humility, we will discover a deep and abiding joy for our lives and for this world, a world so desperate for such true joy.

May it be so.

Amen

(1) Most of my information is from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dame_Edna_Everage

(2) For more on October Sky go online to: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0132477/

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