“Put God first, put your neighbor second and yourself third,” Rev. Cecil Murray says in this sermon about resisting the natural temptation to always put yourself first. Self-surrender leads to self-discovery. Self-surrender does not mean putting yourself down, but putting yourself in perspective. When Jesus leads you somewhere, follow Him all the way, and do not let your sense of self become and obstacle.
During his 27 years as the pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME), Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray transformed a small congregation into a megachurch that brought jobs, housing and corporate investment into South Los Angeles neighborhoods. After the 1992 civil unrest, FAME Renaissance, the economic development arm of the church, brought more than $400 million in investments to L.A.’s minority and low-income neighborhoods. Rev. Murray remains a vibrant force in the Los Angeles faith community through his leadership of the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement.
The Murray Archive preserves Rev. Murray‘s sermons and interviews in order to inspire the next generation of pastors, activists and scholars.
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Following is a lightly edited transcript of the above sermon. To quote from the sermon, please provide credit to: Rev. Cecil L. Murray, Murray Archives, USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
“It Ain’t About You, Brother or Sister”
September 1, 2002
Now if you glad you woke up above ground this morning, if you saw the ceiling when you woke up, let everything that saw the ceiling say, “Praise the Lord!”
Now point up and say, “Order my steps!”
Order my steps. Traveling in order. Traveling in order. And what is the order? Put your God first! Everybody, say, “Put your God first. Put your neighbor second. And put yourself third.”
Point to yourself and say, “I’m third.”
Put your God first, put your neighbor second, put yourself third. Last.
How do you get to that place? Because it’s human nature to put yourself first. And even to put your God second. And to put your neighbor third, or at best, to put your God first and put yourself second and to put your neighbor third. But here’s how you get self-discovery. Self-discovery through self-surrender. Everybody, say, “I surrender, Lord!”
Self-discovery through self-surrender.
About the best advice, missionaries, you can give some people is to say, be yourself. Tell your neighbor on your right, “Don’t be yourself.” No, no, tell them, “Be your best self.” Don’t be yourself. You got to learn self-surrender.
These two little children riding this wooden horse. And the little boy says to the little girl, if one of us would get off, that would leave more room for me. For me!
Here we are, Matthew 16, verse seven, page 762. Mathew 16, verse 24. Then Jesus said to the disciples, if anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let that person deny self. Take up your cross and follow me. Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me. That suggests our subject: It’s not about you brother, or sister.
It’s not about you. The battle’s not yours. Who does it belong to? It’s the Lord’s! The battle’s not yours. It’s the Lord’s. We began reading now at verse 21. From then on, Jesus began to speak plainly to his disciples about going to Jerusalem. And what would happen to him there. That he would suffer at the hands of the religious leaders. That he would be killed. And that three days later, he would be raised to life again. But Peter took him aside to [get things] straight with him.
Heaven forbid, sir, he said. This is not going to happen to you. Jesus turned on Peter and said, “Get away from me, you Satan! You are dangerous trap to me. You are thinking merely from a human point of view and not from God’s.”
The battle’s not yours. It’s the Lord’s.
This is my Father’s world. Sometimes, we forget that this is not your world, or my world. This is my Father’s world. And the only question is, which one do you put first? The world of your Father or the Father of your world? Some of us put my Father’s word ahead of my Father. Some of us put the anxiety and the neurosis of my Father’s world ahead of the Father, who is the Creator of the world. Some of us put the created thing ahead of the One who created the thing. Everything on Earth, God created, and God wants you and me to enjoy it. But God explicitly says, don’t get confused around here. Put God first and put the created things second.Some of us are getting drunk on this world. Some of us are drunk on what we wear, what we eat, what we drink, what we ride, what we have in the bank. We are drunk on what instead of the cause of what. Don’t get drunk on the thing. The battle’s not yours. It’s whose? It’s the Lord’s!
One drunken old man, stumbles by the river where the preacher’s out there baptizing. By mistake he stumbles on into the water to be baptized. The preacher says, “Are you ready to meet Jesus?”
“Yeah preacher, I’m ready to find Jesus!”
The preacher takes him under the water and when he comes up, “Did you see Jesus? Did you meet Jesus?”
“No, I didn’t see Jesus.”
Takes the drunk down under the water again, brings him up, says, “Did you meet Jesus that time?”
“No, I didn’t meet Jesus!”
Exasperated, the preacher takes him under and holds him under for 30 seconds brings him up:
“My God, man, did you meet Jesus that time?”
He says, “Preacher, are you sure this is where He fell in?”
In this old drunk man, we see the conflict of our two natures that Jesus is talking about. Our human nature and our divine nature. Our human nature can lead us into some strange paths. Can it? Our human nature can make us do some things we wouldn’t dream about doing while we are sober. Our human nature often leads us into the paths of error.
To err is human. Tell your neighbor on your left, “To err is human!”
Yes. Those are the words that we have repeated many, many times. To err is human. Sophocles says those words. To err is human. Robert Burns says those words. To err is human. Dryden says those words. To err is human. Pope says those words. But none of those four can make it as plain as Pope does. Because Pope captures the spirit of Jesus Christ. Pope captures the spirit of the conflict between our human nature and our divine nature. Pope adds a line: To err is human, to forgive is divine.
That’s where we get our great strides in favor of God. Whenever someone makes a mistake, we can forgive them. They make the mistake because they are human. We forgive them because they we are divine. We forgive ourselves because we are divine. The greatest challenge you have is not to forgive your neighbor, not to forgive your enemy, not to forgive the one who mistreats you. The greatest challenge you have is to forgive yourself.
Everybody, point to your chest and say, “I forgive you.”
I forgive you! Put it behind you. Bring it here to the altar this morning and leave it. And then you’ll walk up the aisle a totally different person. Burden down, Lord! Burden down. When I laid my burden down. Remember the Bible is not yours; it’s the Lord’s. ‘Cause you can’t fight Satan. Satan got more tools than you’ll ever have. The only instrument you have to fight the tempter is the scale of almighty God, our Lord. And God will say to you, no matter what you’ve done, I can forgive it for you this morning. The battle is not yours. I want you to know I’m in your corner. Forgive yourself. Then forgive your neighbor as you forgive yourself.
One sister stands in her younger sister’s room. Her younger sister is 13 and out. And the older sister is bringing the laundry to various rooms of the house. And as she comes in–oh, my goodness!–she sees her younger sister’s diary. You know, sibling rivalry. She’s so jealous of her younger sister. Her younger sister has a winning smile, a winning personality, a very sharp mind, only makes A’s in school. The teachers all respect her.
She is so jealous of her sister and she says, “Ah, here in her diary. Now I can find a weapon. Because I know my name is in here and I know she’s gonna be talking about me and castigating me, and putting me down. Now I’ve got the ultimate weapon.” And she starts scanning through the diary. And sure enough, there is her name and what is written about it: “My hero is my sister. I want to be like her when I grow up. She’s the finest human being on the face of this Earth.”
Oh, my Lord, the sister collapses to the floor. Her legs seem to fail her. And on the floor, she makes a commitment to the Lord. When I rise from here I’m going to find my sister and I’m going to hug my sister and I’m going to tell my sister I thank her. I’m going to apologize to my sister. And then, she adds, and then, I’m going to forgive myself. You can’t love somebody until you love yourself. You can’t love yourself until you get the right order for yourself. Put God first. Put your neighbor second. Put yourself third.
Peter doesn’t understand that yet. Peter pulls Jesus over to the side. Man, don’t be telling them brothers that you gonna be killed in Jerusalem. You’re the Messiah! Nothing like that is gonna happen to you. Don’t say that Jesus. Jesus calls Peter the tempter, the Satan. ‘Cause Jesus is scared. Jesus is human. Jesus says, “Peter, cut me some slack. Peter, don’t tempt me when I want to be tempted anyway. Peter, I got to go into Jerusalem. I got to die Peter. And I want you to know, Peter, you got to carry on. Didn’t I tell you a few minutes ago, Peter–I gave you the keys to the Kingdom! And the keys to the Kingdom also open up the doors to understanding. Peter, you’ve got to learn to put yourself in proper perspective. You’ve got to put yourself last. And if you put yourself last, God will take care of it this morning.”
If you believe him, come on and say, “Yeah!” It ain’t about you, brother or sister. The battle’s not yours; it’s the Lord’s!
Secondly, we all fight the same battle. Now here we go. Mathew 16:24. Then Jesus said to all the disciples. Imagine yourself one of the disciples now: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, then you must deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me. For anyone who keeps his life for self, himself, herself, shall lose it. Anyone who loses his life for me shall find it again. What profit is there if you gain the whole world, good bank account, and lose eternal life. What can be compared with the value of eternal life? For I, the Son of Mankind, shall come with my angels and the glory of my Father and judge each person according to his or her deeds. Some of you standing right here now will certainly see me coming in my Kingdom.”
We all fight the same battle. Jesus must not bear the cross alone. There’s a cross for what?
And there’s a cross for everyone! That’s what Jesus is telling Peter. You’re telling me, “No I’m not gonna bear the cross, Peter!”
I’m telling you, you won’t bear a cross. All of the disciples died a violent death except John on the Island of Patmos, died of old age. Jesus says, “I want you to follow me and I want you to follow me all the way.” Some of us follow Jesus through green pastures. Some of us follow Jesus beside still waters. Some of us follow Jesus to the dining room table, when your cup runneth over. But when we get to the Valley of the Shadow of Death. When the valley appears, we disappear. Some of us follow Jesus when we got a good job. But when the job is threatened, we stop coming to church. We stop coming to the altar. We stop believing in God. Some of us follow Jesus when the summertime is here. But when winter comes in our lives, we fall away. You gotta follow Jesus all the way! Where He leads me, I will follow. I’ll go with Him. Go with Him! How far? All the way! All the way. All the way.
Some of us are living in halfway houses, in halfway houses. Last night there was some 250 people in our substance abuse program. There’s a three-day marathon. They’re across the street now. Many of them live in halfway houses. Some of us in faith live in halfway houses. We are half in faith and half out of faith. We’re half in belief and half out of belief. We are half in doubt and half in assurance. We are half in the church, and half out the church. We are half following Jesus and half falling away from Jesus. We need to stop living in halfway houses and follow the formula that Jesus gives to you and me to go all the way!
First of all, deny yourself. Everybody, say, “Deny yourself.” That doesn’t mean to put yourself down. We done had enough of that haven’t we? And don’t put yourself down. Don’t put yourself down. That’s when we act so angry, ’cause we have been put down too much. Is your color alright? Say, “Praise the Lord!”
Some of you didn’t say it ’cause you’re still mad, ’cause God made you Black. Is your color alright? Is your hair alright? Are your feet alright? Are your legs alright? Is your history alright? Is your God alright?
To deny yourself don’t mean to put yourself down. Just mean to put yourself in perspective. It ain’t about you, brother. It ain’t about you, sister. This whole world is spinning on its axis right now. And if this world stopped for a microsecond and let you off, in another microsecond it would go right on spinning. It ain’t about you brother or sister. When they say put yourself in perspective, deny yourself. They mean, don’t let yourself escape all that you see around you. It’s a wonderful world! It’s a wonderful day! I’m having a good time in worship! It’s good to be alive! I’d rather be alive than its opposite. I don’t have a lot in my pocketbook, but I got a lot in my heart. I don’t have a lot of people I can pick up the phone and borrow $100 from. But I can get to Jesus on his royal telephone.
To deny yourself means to make the best of every moment. Every moment. Every moment. ‘Cause if you’re obsessed with yourself, you just think of all the bad things that can happen to you. And there are so many there. But tell your neighbor on your left, “This is beautiful!”
Deny yourself. Neighbor, don’t turn back and say, “What’s so beautiful ‘bout it?”
See, you still affirming yourself. Deny yourself! And then God will open up a whole new world.
This little girl riding on the train, sitting in her mother’s arms. “Oh, mommy look–the horses!”
“Yes, darling! Yes.”
“Mama look–the houses!”
“Yes, darling. I know.”
“Oh, mommy the trees, the birds, the…”
She’s embarrassed. She turns to the man in the next seat and says, “Please excuse her. She’s still at that age where you get excited about everything.”
That’s where we come in. Would you rather be a child who can get excited about everything, or a cynical old adult who doesn’t get excited about anything?
Let me again remind you of that man who spent his whole life complaining, then when he died, he calls to be put on his tombstone: I told y’all I was sick!
Tell your neighbor on your right, “Just dying to prove it.”
Deny yourself! Take up your cross. Look, here’s what Matthew is telling us for Jesus. When you deny yourself, it creates space. It creates space. There’s room in your life when you deny yourself. It creates space. Now, nature abhors a vacuum. God abhors a vacuum. The Holy Spirit abhors a vacuum. So, the minute that vacuum is created, your cross comes in. Your cross is your mission in life. For the children that’s going to school right now. For dad and mamas raising their children. Going to work. Tithing in the church. Working in the community. Establishing a home. Getting a fund ready to take. Taking care of their grandparents. Working in the community. The cross comes in. It focuses you.
A lot of us are unhappy in life ’cause we ain’t about nothing. We are on the ant syndrome. When the ant is hungry, I eat. When I’m thirsty, I drink. When I’m lonely, I go find me an anthill. Yes. That ant is just reflex action. But that human being, you can be about something beyond your appetite. You can be about something beyond your visceral mode. You can be about something beyond what you can see. You can see the invisible. You can hear the inaudible. You can touch the untouchable. You can reach the unreachable star. But you gotta dream big!
So, then, denying yourself creates space. Taking up your cross fills space. And following Me gives you focus. It takes you somewhere in life. If you just heading for retirement, you ain’t going nowhere. Sister, nobody prays for your husband more than Pastor. But if you holding your breath ‘til your husband comes, you ain’t about nothing. Brothers, you been through hell, and going through hell. But if you fixated on nothing but getting out of hell instead of getting to heaven, you ain’t about nothing.
When Jesus comes and says follow me, it’s like in the military when you’re in that second rank or that third rank. Your eyes are fixed on the head of the person in front of you. And you can almost count the hairs [on his head], and you following him. Where he leads me, I will follow. And when Jesus say right turn. Follow me. Catch the rhythm. Catch the rhythm of life. Catch the rhythm of the life. For what does it profit you to have a million dollars in the bank. God bless you if you have, but if you think you gonna get off this planet alive, I got news for you.
Remember that man who asked, that rich man? How much did he leave? He left all of it. He left all of it. Maybe following Jesus should go down by the seashore. And you’ll see some children, a boy and a little girl building a sandcastle. Oh, God! If we could build sandcastles again! And they have it there, the turrets, and they have the towers and the gate. It’s a magnificent work of creative art by children. But then a great big wave washes it away. I expected to see them start crying and to go into the despair. You know how it happens when life washes your castle away? But instead, they run up on the beach, laughing and holding hands. Laughing and holding hands! And they start to build another castle. The battle’s not yours, it’s the Lord’s.
We all fight the same battles. All of us are building on shifting sand. No matter what you have, you are building on shifting sand. And the tidal wave may come along and wash it away, but somebody’s holding your hand, laughing with you this morning. For all you can say is on Christ the solid rock I stand! All of the ground is sinking sand. Thank you, Lord, for putting me first. Therefore Lord, I put you first! In the name of Jesus. Rise to your feet! Rise to the occasion. Give God a hand! Give God some glory! Give God the battle!