I didn’t plan it this way intentionally, but I find it providential that we are talking about humility and pride on the weekend in between our two national political conventions.
Each party competes to see who can blow the most hot air and puff themselves up the most.
They will talk up their achievements and point out the other team’s failures.
And the national pundits and media will delight in every mistake along the way.
Pretty much the opposite of everything the scripture calls us to be and do.
Today, that scripture focuses on two of the minor prophets… connected only by this thread of pride that rings through their message.
Up until this point in our Summer of the Prophets we have been going in a sort of chronological order. We started with some of the earliest prophets – Elijah and Elisha – and made our way through various kings and rules, to the destruction of first Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and then Judah, the Southern Kingdom. Last week, we found ourselves with the Judeans in the middle of exile, trying to make the most of life in a strange land.
Scholars disagree about where Obadiah fits into the mix. Some firmly believe that Obadiah was the servant of King Ahab mentioned in the scriptures… which meant he would have been in ministry during the time of Elijah. Yet the context of his words make far more sense either during or after the time of exile.
In either case, the word of God he receives is meant not for Israel, or for Judah, but for the neighboring kingdom of Edom.
To understand how Edom fits into the picture, we need to go all the way back to Genesis to the story of two brothers… Jacob and Esau.
Esau is the older of the two – a rough and tumble sort of guy who thinks with his gut. Jacob on the other hand, is quietly clever… a mamma’s boy who uses his wit to trick his older brother and gain the upper hand. And Jacob uses these skills to steal the birthright from his older brother and to gain a deathbed blessing from his father.
Esau is furious at these events. He knows that his father is near to death and promises that as soon as their father is gone that he will take his brother’s life. And Jacob must flee for his life.
Usually we follow Jacob in this story… to Paddan Aram where he works for seven years in order to marry Rachel… and then for seven more when he is tricked into marrying her sister Leah instead.
We mostly forget about Esau… but he lets go of his anger and moves on with his life. He marries and has children and is wildly successful… and his people become the nation of Edom.
While Jacob and Esau eventually reconcile, Edom remains a separate kingdom… sometimes ruled over by Judah… at other times in alliance… and still at other times they benefit from Judah’s downfall.
Such is the case when Nebuchadnezzar rolls through Judah and destroys Jerusalem. The Edomites are recruited to help in the battle AGAINST the people of Judah and plunder the city of Jerusalem.
And so Obadiah cries out… “Because of the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame will cover you, and you will be destroyed forever. You stood nearby, strangers carried off his wealth… You should have taken no pleasure over your brother on the day of his misery… you shouldn’t have bragged on their day of hardship…” (Obadiah 1:10-13)
Zephaniah’s words follow on the heels of these and describe the sort of people God creates out of the judgment and punishment that was visited upon Israel, Judah, and Edom:
“I will remove from your midst those boasting with pride. No longer will you be haughty on my holy mountain, but I will cause a humble and powerless people to remain in your midst; they will seek refuge in the name of the Lord.” (Zephaniah 3:11-12)
We have here a picture of contrasts.
Those who are prideful, who gloat over the misfortunes of others, who are so thankful that they are safe and warm in their beds while others suffer… they are the ones facing judgment and destruction.
But those who seek refuge in the Lord, who know their limitations and weaknesses, who seek to help others and have compassion on the suffering… they are the ones in whom God delights.
In this day and age, our political parties are like the perpetually warring brothers Jacob and Esau. Pride, vanity, power all get in the way of real relationship. And we can be so focused on having it our way and our answers and our recipe for success that we actually hurt ourselves and those around us.
And as much as we don’t want to admit that those same kinds of prideful interactions are part of the church, they are. As someone who has participated in the local, regional and global levels of church leadership, we, too, have political parties and opposing sides… caucuses and maneuvering… winners and losers.
No doubt, some of you will have heard that the Western jurisdiction in the United States just elected and consecrated the first openly gay, married bishop of our church. Bishop Karen Oliveto has served as the pastor of Glide Memorial in San Francisco, one of the 100 largest churches in our denomination, before being nominated and elected.
As Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops wrote the night of the election: “There are those in the church who will view this election as a violation of church law and a significant step toward a split, while there are others who will celebrate the election as a milestone toward being a more inclusive church…”
Whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, conflict is at the center of our relationships in the church and in the world.
But as Bishop Ough continues in his letter, “We affirm that our witness is defined, not by an absence of conflict, but how we act in our disagreements. We affirm that our unity is not defined by our uniformity, but by our compassionate and Spirit-led faithfulness to our covenant with God, Christ’s Church and one another.”
I hear in the Bishop’s letter and in our scripture today echoes of my favorite passage from Philippians 2:
Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:
Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
That call to be humble, to let go of our perceived power, to get down in the dirt and be in solidarity with those who are weak and suffering and broken… that is the core of the Christian faith.
It is right there in the life of Jesus.
It is in the parables… as the shepherd leaves the 99 to find the one lost lamb… in the story of the Good Samaritan… in the story of the widow and her mite.
As the blogger, Joshua Becker, puts it: “Humility is… the opposite of aggression, arrogance, pride, and vanity. And on the surface, it appears to empty its holder of all power.
“But on the contrary, it grants enormous power to its owner.
“Humility offers its owner complete freedom from the desire to impress, be right, or get ahead. Frustrations and losses have less impact on a humble ego and a humble person confidently receives opportunities to grow, improve, and reject society’s labels.” (http://www.becomingminimalist.com/the-hidden-power-of-humility/)
There is nothing we can do to change the dialogue at the national level right now, but we can choose how we engage in the relationships right here in this room. We can choose how we have dialogue in our families. We can choose the kind of dialogue we will have on social media and in coffee shops.
We can let go of our pride, we can let go of arrogance and aggressive attitudes towards one another and instead, we can practice humility.
We can try to hear what one another really thinks.
We can discover and appreciate the values that are at the core of their positions.
We can respect one another as persons and refuse to demonize our opponents.
And we can commit together to turn not to the power of kings or presidents or worldly leaders to save us… but to turn instead to prayer.
Prayer centered in the humble and self-giving life of Jesus Christ.
Prayer that calls us out into the world to love all people as children of God.
Prayer that transforms us from the inside out.
I urge you, as a witness to how Christians act in times of conflict, to live with humility over the next few months.
Seek out conversation with people you disagree with and truly listen.
Be willing to let their positions change you.
Be willing to share openly and honestly and in loving ways what you believe.
Don’t gloat over wins, and don’t pass around falsehoods and half truths.
Instead, stand with people when they are hurting.
Admit when you are wrong.
Try to grow in the knowledge and love of God and the world every single day.