Sermon – October 1, 2017 – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Flying empty

If you watched the series on Vietnam last week, you couldn’t but catch that one of the iconic images of the Army abroad, is the OD green helicopter.  In Vietnam they were Hueys, evacuation and supply vehicles.  Later they were converted for combat rescue, then the advent of the combat craft and the value of the helicopter for military operations came into being.  Later, when I served in the Reserves, the helicopter had graduated to the Apache Longbow. The longbow is a fierce war machine that was smart, fast and deadly.   But there were problems, you see.  It’s slow when it’s loaded.    The Army requires that it have a vertical rate of climb of 450 per minute at an altitude of 4000 feet.  It can do that at over 800 feet per minute . . . but only when it’s empty.  Fully loaded it has a negative rate of climb. . .  meaning it can’t.  Just as well put wings on a cow..  My point is that like that helicopter, we fly better empty.

I occasionally tune in to a blog called, Ethics For Everyone,  written by a Dr. Michael W. Austin, psychology professor from Kentucky. In one entry, he took on the notion of humility.

Here’s a bit of what he wrote, “Recent studies show that humility is connected with many forms of prosocial behavior. . . . .  The humble person keeps her accomplishments, gifts, and talents in a proper perspective. She has self-knowledge, and is aware of her limitations as an individual and as a human being. But humble individuals are also oriented towards others, they value the welfare of other people and have the ability to “forget themselves” as well, when appropriate.

Interestingly, he goes on, the empirical research on humility shows that this trait has great value. Humility has been linked with better academic performance, job performance, and excellence in leadership. Humble people have better social relationships, avoid deception in their social interactions, and they tend to be forgiving, grateful, and cooperative. A recent set of studies also shows that humility is a consistent predictor of generosity.1 People who are humble tend to be more generous with both their time and their money.”

As hard as humility is, it looks like it is one of the good ways to build human being. It wasn’t always that way. The Greek philosophers did not include humility among the virtues, and some later thinkers like David Hume and Frederick Nietzsche listed humility among the vices. Anything that detracted from the upward trajectory of success and self-fulfillment – something like humility might do – was considered by these folks to be contra to our fulfillment. It appears they are dead wrong.

I am particularly struck by Professor Austin’s observance that humility is a consistent predictor of generosity.  Of course, generosity is a character trait turned toward the other.  One empties oneself, lightens one’s own load, let’s say.. One gives of one’s time, means, wisdom, even life, for the benefit of another.  It seems to be a baseline core value of  integrity in living as St. Paul outlines in our Philippians text.  While the self-emptying Jesus is a deeply descriptive rendering of the incarnation, of the coming of God in flesh and the cost of that coming, it is not meant to be an icon or a pretty theological idea to be displayed on a shelf.  Instead, it is intended as a template, a model, path of how to live one’s life with integrity under the gospel.  And as with all the gifts of the gospel, it is meant to be life-giving.

In our lives we are expected to make decisions, make commitments, be partners in deals, take stands, believe in something.   All of these have to do, in their keeping, the keeping of commitments, and keeping responsibilities, and honoring deals, all of these have to do in their keeping, with integrity.  Integrity surfaces when a challenge has been put forth to the commitments that we make, the responsibilities we have taken on, the faith we confess.  And when that challenge comes, it is integrity, it is knowing our center and living out of that center, which will enable us to do the right thing.  It is when we look away from these core values that we equivocate, fudge, break promises and turn in on ourselves.  You’ve heard the expression he is so full of himself, or she is so full of herself.  And when we are full of ourselves we are less likely to honor the other, to be humble enough to live out of our center, to keep our end of the bargain.

St. Paul, in his instruction to the budding church in Phillipi, spoke of that center, these core values, on what it meant to be a baptized Christian. He said, “Do nothing from selfish ambition and conceit”.  Selfish ambition is something that would elevate ourselves at any cost.   Selfish ambition would have us look the other way when challenged by the needs of our neighbors.  It’s being full of ourselves where there is no room for the other.  It is the unity of humanity that St. Paul was speaking about that the Christian man or woman is called to.  “Do not act from that orientation”, he said, where you consider yourself as the highest point on the horizon, that you are the most important person.  “But in humility, regard others as better than yourselves.”


This is a tough one.  That doesn’t mean you regard Mother Teresa or the Pope or Billy Graham or the bishop of our church as better that ourselves, but rather regard the great mass of generic folks as at the very least, partners in our journey on this planet.  It is a call for humility on a grand scale that is born of a center in Christ, out of an understanding of ourselves as Christ’s people, called, as St. Paul says, to be of the same mind as Christ.

Even in a culture that would deny us that, that would tell us there are them and us, in spite of that, we are to see others as brothers and sisters in the kingdom.   Without an orientation, a foundation in the ethic of Christ we can’t do that.

I like James Michener’s remarks on this subject.  He was adopted, so he says I don’t know where I came from, who my parents are, who my people are.   So when I meet a stranger, I treat him with respect, because he may be kin to me.

That is the point St. Paul is making.   That we treat all people as though they were kin.  Such humility can work to suppress the self-centered vanity of our angry ideas, and turn us toward the hungry, the poor, the victims of hate and conflict, the ones on the margins and in the shadows who long for human compassion.  These are the people we are called to love.   These are the same people whose interests, in fact, whose lives, we are called to put before our interests.

When we do that, we change not only change the world, we change ourselves, or more accurately, Christ changes us into that which we are meant to be, for the sake of the world.

Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something, if we live with the integrity of the cross, in humility and self-giving, putting the interests of others at least on par with our own.    St. Paul’s words this morning are more than a call to Christian piety; they are a call to the Christian life—one of humility, integrity, and generosity in both love and means.. This how we can change the world.

Paul goes on to say that our Lord emptied himself, humbled himself and was obedient even to the point of death on the cross.   He does not say, but we know that he means, that Christ did this for us, the needy and lost ones.  So that we might know what it means to be loved, and that we might love in the same way.

To live that life of integrity means we as empty ourselves, we might be filled with the spirit of God.

In this reading, Christ had a dramatic vertical rate of descent, taking on the form of a slave, of a human and death on a cross.   But his vertical rate of climb was to the highest heaven, and at his name every knee shall bow.

Here he shows us the way.  When we live in humility and self-giving and generosity of love and means, our vertical rate of ascent and the lives of those we touch is dramatic.

Like I said.. We fly better empty..