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God is not out of reach, nor is God a prize

wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

February 4th, 2024

Isaiah 40:21-31

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Mark 1: 29-39

If you have ever taken an Uber, you know the clever way that the company has ensured that everyone is on their best behaviour. At the end of each trip, the passenger gets to rank the driver on a five-star scale. The driver does the same for the passenger. Your score is averaged out, so that you can see how well you have been perceived. What’s more, it can have consequences on both sides: a low score for a passenger means a driver can choose not to pick them up, or a passenger can decline a driver.

All I know is that by all reports, it appears to be working. Uber drivers have an incentive to be chatty and gracious; and passengers the same. As the world of internet Likes and Yelp ratings has clearly demonstrated, we really enjoy keeping score.

But then, this morning, we have Paul, raining on our parade. For this is exactly what Paul is preaching against: the good deeds and kindness that we boast about, our need for constant affirmation. As Paul writes, the gospels give “no ground for boasting.” Good deeds and kindness are an obligation, with its own reward. If we do it for ourselves, sure, we might feel good. But following the gospel is something we are entrusted to do by God. The gospel is “free of charge,” so that we might make full use of it.

Indeed, Paul goes on, to truly serve others, we cannot place ourselves above them. We must be as them. We must be under the law, to help those who find themselves under the law. And outside the law, with those who find themselves outside of it. To help the weak, we must become weak; that is, we must walk in their shoes. And we must do it all “for the sake of the gospel” so that we may share its blessings.

In other words, following the gospel is the reward. The act of doing good is the good we receive. There are no Uber stars in the gospel. God just isn’t interested, we are told in the Psalm, “God is not impressed by a swift horse or the speed of a runner but finds pleasure in those who fear God.” Let us not get tripped up by the word fear – which means, in this context, to stand in awe, to listen to the directions we receive, to hear what God is saying to us.

These last few weeks have been focused on our personal responsibility as Christians, and the directions have been stern. It would seem our tendencies to brag, to flaunt our success, to puff ourselves up with pride, were well known 2,000 years ago, as they are clearly in evidence today. You have only to consult a Facebook feed to see it. It is perhaps the most dangerous risk to our ability to do good. When we need to boast about good deeds, we also need witnesses. We may help only where others we admire can see, and not where we are needed most.

But what is Paul saying: that we cannot feel proud of ourselves when we do good? That we should scorn accomplishment? And Paul wasn’t alone: Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were among those who named pride as the “beginning of all sin.” They were talking about the pride that makes us blind to the needs of others – what psychologists today call narcissism. And perhaps they understand what now makes sense: confident people don’t need to brag; they don’t need to retaliate against those who threaten their self-image. What is hiding underneath the narcissist is not true self-pride, but as Jessica Tracy, the author of Take Pride puts it, “deeply hidden feelings of shame.” This kind of preening, arrogant pride is not about feeling good, Tracy concludes, but about not feeling bad. She argues that we need to learn the difference – between inner self-esteem, the “crown virtue” that pride can be, and the so-called “deadly sin” that leads to unhappiness.

And so, we begin to see that what Paul is preaching has a two-fold goal: his instructions are meant to facilitate the highest form of carrying out the gospel and also to keep those doing so happy. And what we learn is that each of these two aspects is necessary for the other to occur. Boasting of our gospel-led selves leads only to despair – the ways we don’t measure up, for starters. But internalizing the gospel as a way of being, and not as a sum of actions, extends that peace to ourselves. It is difficult to fulfill the gospel with our eyes continually on the prize, so to speak. And it is hard to feel good about ourselves when we are striving for a prize always out of reach.

But God is not out of reach; nor is God a prize. God does just what Paul describes: meets us where we are. What difference does that make for us, the skeptic might ask? What is really different in our life if we see our relationship with a higher power this way? Well, of course, when we can sustain the connection, it makes every difference. We don’t need the gospel to lift us up; we can be the gospel. And when that happens, the very first person we give it to is ourselves. We are the Good Samaritan who helps, the Prodigal Son who is welcomed, the Widow at the Well who is heard. We are the disciples on the fishing boat who are accepted. We are the tax collector who is invited. And having been treated so, we are free to respond. That five-star Uber rating doesn’t matter: we are kind and friendly not to get something back, but because it is the right way to be out of thankfulness for what we first received.

We can live, as Paul says, for “the sake of the gospel.” Because we share already in its blessings. Amen.

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