Philippians 2:1-11; Selfishly Ambitious?

I can’t stay up past 11 p .m. so I never watch the late show with Stephen Colbert.  I do, though, sometimes catch Stephen Colbert on You Tube.  The other night on You Tube, I watched Stephen Colbert interview Tim Kaine, who as you can’t help knowing, particularly if you live in Virginia, is running for Vice President.  As part of the interview, Tim Kaine shared that he is a Christian and that in his younger years he was a missionary in Honduras.  Stephen Colbert, who is also a Christian, asked Tim Kaine if he had a favorite Bible passage from the New Testament.  Tim Kaine, asked for clarification, “The New Testament?”  Which is maybe what I would have asked, too.  I mean, I have memorized some of the Psalms, a line or two from the prophets, “Let Justice Roll Down like Water” comes to mind, but Stephen Colbert clarified for Mr. Kaine, “Yes, the New Testament—you know, the one with Jesus in it?” 

After a chuckle, Tim Kaine reeled off, the passage from Philippians, which is part of our reading for today, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, regard others as better than yourselves, and let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.”  

Whoa!  I am embarrassed to say, that I am a pastor, 20 years now a pastor, and two weeks ago I could not have recited that.  I can now, though.  I often challenge myself to memorize lines of scripture.  I do the memorization in the mornings while I walk my dog.   Might as well be productive, right?  So two weeks ago, if you had run into me on Jefferson Park Avenue while walking Pepper, you could have heard me reciting under my breath, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, regard others as better than yourselves….”

 

Walking along Jefferson Park Avenue, with my dog, concentrating on Philippians, I began to wonder—Isn’t it curious that Tim Kaine chose the second chapter of Philippians to memorize and then to recite on national TV?  What do you think? Why not something about love?  Why not the Golden Rule?  I am just guessing here, but maybe, having risen up through the political ranks, as city councilman, mayor, governor, senator, and now candidate for Vice President, Tim Kaine was especially drawn to this passage because he struggles to STAY humble.  It must be a heady business, winning elections. Famous politicians like Tim Kaine maybe begin to believe they really DO deserve the best rooms at hotels, the best tables at restaurants, the adulation of lots of people.

So, to keep from developing a tell-tale swagger, and a “tude” as a young man in a youth group used to say, “He’s got “tude,” Tim Kaine, recites to himself, once, maybe several times a day, the lines from Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility…” And so on and so forth.  Good plan.  And it seems to be working.  At least, that night on Stephen Colbert, Tim Kaine appeared humble.  He admitted it was his first time on a comedy talk show, and he said, “After tonight, it may be my last, we’ll see.”

What we are talking about is selfish ambition vs. humility.  Pride—vs. meekness.  That’s at the heart of our reading for today.

Maybe you’ve heard of Reinholdt Niebuhr?  He was a renowned MALE theologian, and I emphasize male, for a reason I will explain shortly—he was a male theologian who lived and preached and wrote books in the middle of the 20th century.  He thought long and hard about sin.  He wanted to get to the root of sin. Wouldn’t we all? Now, there are seven deadly sins according to Christian tradition:  Those are:

pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. I tried to come up with an acronym for those this week, but I couldn’t do it.  I challenge you to do that.

 Anyway, Reinholdt Niebuhr suggests that there is one main sin. That is Pride.  The others are lesser sins.  We might think of it this way.  Sin is a train.  Each car on that train represents a different sin.  So you have the train car, greed, the train car lust, and so on.  The train’s engine is pride. It powers the whole thing. So, a prideful person wants and thinks he deserves more than other people .  We say he is greedy; a prideful person thinks he can treat other people as objects, we say he is lustful. You get the idea.  Greed is sinful, lust is sinful, but pride is the major driver, the engine of all other sins.

Feminist theologians remind us, though, that pride is only the sin above all other sins for men.  Maybe men are born with that tendency, maybe everyone is, I don’t know.  It is true though, that culture tells men “BE ambitious!  Climb that ladder. It doesn’t matter who you step on.”  When men are power-hungry and insensitive ; when they are selfishly ambitious, when they are prideful, there is a sizable portion of the population that applauds that.

On the other hand, again, according to feminist theologians, for women pride is not the driver or the engine of all other sins. That doesn’t mean that women are without sin, though.  Women denigrate themselves, they refuse to be all that they can be, they wallow in an unhealthy self-effacement, even to the point of rejecting their God given gifts.  Just as culture encourages men to be be selfishly ambitious and prideful, culture encourages women to be self-sacrificial, and meek to an unhealthy degree.

 

So for example, when I got my call-and it really was a call from God, 26 years ago, my girls were 8, 6, and 4 years old.  That call was a disrupter.  I had a life already—super-volunteer at church, mostly, but also a volunteer at the girl’s elementary school, and you know, just keeping up with the laundry and the groceries.I had supporters urging me to go to seminary, thank goodness, many from my church.  One blessed friend, not from the church but an atheist friend actually, took me out to lunch every once in a while, and tolerated our conversations—which were mainly about whether or not I should do this thing God had called me to do.

There was one friend, though, who thought she would be doing me a disservice if she did not lay it out for me.  She said, “If you go to seminary, Gay Lee you will ruin your children.”  Ruin!  And I have to say, that having been raised when I was raised, and how I was raised, when WE were raised and how WE were raised, she wasn’t telling me anything I hadn’t already considered myself. She was the spokesperson for a culture, that back then, 26 years ago, and still to a degree today maybe, says that women if they are ambitious at all, are selfishly ambitious and that women who are not acting totally from a place of service to family, are acting out of pride. 

What sealed it for me, was a sermon I heard at church.  The pastor’s words came out of his mouth—but I wasn’t fooled.  The pastor was merely the amplifier. That pastor, speaking for God, said this: “Be the person you want your children to become.“ Be the person you want your children to become.”

It’s not being selfishly ambitious, it is not being prideful to put God at the center of our lives.  It is not being selfishly ambitious it is not being prideful, to live as a model for our children, for our grandchildren, for others.   It is what God calls us to do.

I have discovered since then, that the line, “Be the person you want your children to become” is eerily similar to a line in Philippians actually.  In Philippians 4 Paul says, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”  Paul tried to live as a model for others in his church community.  And Paul says that there will be a payoff for them, as I think there was also a payoff for him. The payoff is not what we expect to receive when we are selfishly ambitious—money, fame; The payoff says, Paul, is God’s peace.  “God’s peace will be with you, he says.  Peace, I think, comes when we look back at our lives, with no regrets.  

Now I want to end this discussion by talking about selfish ambition and pride in a general way as it relates to both men AND women in today’s world, 2016.

David Brooks is a conservative political and cultural commentator.  He is on TV news shows, he writes articles for various publications, including Atlantic Magazine and The New York Times.  Last year he published a book entitled The Road to Character.   In that book he writes that while driving home from work one evening he was listening to an historic radio broadcast recorded the day after J- V Day—that is, the day after the end of WWII.  Here’s what David Brooks heard:

“Well, it looks like this is it,” the host, Bing Crosby opened.  “What can you say at a time like this?  You can’t throw your skimmer (I think that is a hat) in the air.  That’s for run-of-the-mill holidays.  I guess all anybody can do is thank God it’s over.”  Then, the singer Risae Stevens sang a solemn version of “Ave Maria.” Crosby returned to the radio microphone saying: “Today… our deep-down feeling is one of humility.”  Later Burgess Meredith read these words from news correspondent Ernie Pyle, “We did not win this war because destiny created us better than other people.  I hope that in victory we are more grateful than proud.”

    David Brooks goes on to say in his book, that he returned home, kicked back on the family room sofa, turned on the TV just in time to catch some of a football game.  A quarterback “threw a short pass to a wide receiver, who was tackled almost immediately for a two-yard goal.” 

Then, the defensive player did something we witness so often these days when we watch football.  He did a little victory dance, as if to say, “I did it, I did it!”

David Brooks ends by saying, “It occurred to me that I had just watched more self-celebration after a two-yard gain than I had heard after the United States won WWII.

Are we as individuals, as a culture, becoming less humble, more prideful, more selfishly ambitious? I don’t know, but David Brooks thinks so. 

For me, though, and maybe for David Brooks, too, the key for us is to find that sweet spot in our lives--between self negation and selfish ambition, between unhealthy meekness and pride, and live out our lives there—with God at the center.  It might do us well, too, to keep close to our chests, even memorizing the words from 2nd Philippians.

 “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, regard others as better than yourselves; let each one of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. And let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus.”  Amen