The Call to Humility

In a High-Five Culture


St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St. Paul, Minnesota

October 30, 2011


Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father– the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

                                                                           Matthew 23:1-2

On May 2, 2011, word spread that Osama bin Laden had been killed and celebrations broke out throughout the country.  Outside the White House, crowds chanted, “USA!  USA!” and carried signs: “Obama 1, Osama 0”.  In New York, a crowd of a thousand sang the “hey hey good-bye’” song that sports fans use to taunt their defeated opponents.

On August 14, 1945, the day that World War II ended, there were celebrations, too, but the words of war correspondent Ernie Pyle echoed the feelings of the exhausted nation: “We won the war because our men are brave and because of Russia and England, because of the passage of time and the gift of nature’s material…  I hope in victory we are more grateful than we are proud.”

Columnist David Brooks says, “When you look from today back to 1945, you are looking …  across a sort of narcissism line.  Humility — the sense that nobody is that different from anyone else, was a bigger part of the culture then.  But humility has come under attack in the ensuing decades.”

Maybe Muhammad Ali started it with “I am the greatest.”  But today it extends all the way from professional sports (Number 1!  Number 1 – in your face”) “ to television reality shows (“I’m going to win this thing because I have what it takes and they don’t!”) to politics, where the spirit of compromise for the greater good so often takes a back seat to damaging the political future of one’s opponents.

Enter today’s Gospel.  Jesus says, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So there it is: a call to humility in a high-five nation.

The root of the word “humility” is humus, from the earth. To be humble is to be grounded, have a connection to all creation. It is to catch sight of a little bird with blue and red and yellow feathers and breathe Oh My God, or to hear from those who sleep in our gym in February what it takes to survive a Minnesota winter on the streets.

Jesus has strong words about those lacking humility.  He says, “Some tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and place them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

What would Jesus think of the staggering burdens that the forces of greed have placed on the shoulders of those least able to carry them—and of the leaders who allow this to continue?  What would he think of the selfishness we all display in big and small ways and how easily we drift into thinking that we are “self-made” people?

The recent words of Elizabeth Warren, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, have permeated the social media.  She wrote:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you!

But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

 Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea — God bless. Keep a big hunk of it.

But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay it forward for the next kid who comes along.”

These are not only words for the corporate giant, but for each one of us, reminding us that we didn’t build our lives and our bank accounts, our networks of friends and our fine families by ourselves. Paying it forward, being accountable to each other, to the future and to God may mean, among other things, embracing the virtue of humility.

It takes considerable humility, I think, to undertake a spiritual journey in community, and to do that by regularly coming to a church.

It is an act of humility because it acknowledges that we need an identity bigger than ourselves and that provided by our culture, an identity that reaches back to people whose enduring vision of God is our reference point for our own journey. The writer Simone Weil said that the only blasphemy is not in doubting that God exists, but in making believe that the hunger is not real.”  Every one of us here knows the hunger for God is very real indeed.

Coming to church is an act of humility because it acknowledges that we ourselves are not enough, and that we have something to offer each other at the big moments of our lives and during the barren, lonely, hopeless stretches as well.

Maybe we come to church to look for God and find that all along it has been God who has been looking for us.

We come to church dragging our ragtag belief system trailing behind us, because we know that belief is certainly not a requirement for being here, nor is unquestioning assent to a creed or set of doctrines.  Instead we come here to be in conversation with these things, and with each other as we forge a faith.

Some of your friends may think you are naive for coming to church.  They may say that they don’t like the idea of a God that leaves the world in a mess and allows abuse of children.  Or they say that other demands – work, exercise, sports, catching up, are far more pressing.  Others insist they’re spiritual but not religious.

UCC minister Lillian Daniel takes this on: “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”

         It takes a degree of humility to do this work in this way.  Historian Joseph Campbell says that the reason for practicing a specific religious tradition is that it an be “a shortcut into the mystery.”

For over a hundred years, people have come to this church on the corner of Kent and Portland. They have come with knees knocking to mumble their marriage vows at this altar, they have carried their babies here to be baptized — new parents who can scarcely contain their astonishment at the gift they hold in their arms.  They have come here with their dead and all the unfinished issues of love, guilt, sadness and relief that are a part of profound loss. They have come and sat here, week after week on Sundays, because they need to kneel and sing, to pray and to be fed at the table, to be reassured that their one life is important to the Creator of the Universe.  They have marveled at the detail in the wood carving, thrilled to the thundering organ, and took what they could from the preacher in this pulpit, trying their best to give voice to the great mysteries that can’t be contained in words.  They have gone out through these doors to the neighborhood and the community and their own lives, reaching out to what Jesus called “the least of these,” because that is what we do as people who follow Christ and as members of the human race.

Now is our time to be here.  Look around ….. In so many ways, what those who those who have come here before have bequeathed us is overwhelming and it is humbling.  And it is ours now to love and to care for and to use.

In nearly thirty years of ordained ministry, I have been privileged to preach at many funerals.  And at each one of them, I read one of my favorite quotation.  It is from the novel How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn.  It’s about a family of coal miners in Wales in the late 1800’s.  It is about us at St. John’s today.  The narrator says:

“I saw behind me those who had gone, and before me, those who are to come.  I looked back and saw my father and his father, and all our fathers, and in front to see my son, and his sons and the sons upon sons behind.

And their eyes were my eyes

As they felt, so I had felt, and were to feel, as then, so now, as tomorrow and forever. 

Then I was not afraid, for I was in a long line that had no beginning and no end, and the hand of his father grasped my father’s hand, and his hand was in my hand, and my unborn son took my right hand, and his hand was a in my hand, and my unborn hand took my right hand, and all up and down the line that stretched from Time That Was, to Time That Is, and is not yet, raised their hands to show the link, and we found that we were one, born of Woman, Son of Man had in the Image fashioned in the Womb by the Will of God, the Eternal Father.

I was of them, they were of me and in me, and I in all of them.”

This is our time, our few inches on the yardstick of history, to carry on with strength and humility that is rooted in gratitude and the countless ways God continues to love us.                                                                      Amen.

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