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Sunday, October 27, 2019


Pentecost XX - Proper 25 C
October 27, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

This is a sermon about humility. Which is a very difficult conversation to have in the church. It’s almost as difficult as talking about money but not as difficult as talking about sex – well, as long as it’s someone else’s sex life we’re talking about. 

The difficulty in talking about humility is in the very last part of the very last sentence, “…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

So, it would seem that if you WANT to be exalted you have to humble yourself, but if you exalt yourself you will be knocked off your high horse and humbled – or even, perhaps, humiliated.

 The word humility of course, comes from the Latin humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which may be translated as "humble", but also as "grounded", or "from the earth". 

When someone displays the distasteful characteristic of arrogance, the antidote is always to call that person to humility. That’s what we witness in the Pharisee of this parable of Jesus as reported in Luke’s gospel (18:9-14). But, what if the person’s characteristic is the opposite of arrogance? What if the person is someone who gives a new definition to “low self-esteem?” 

I once worked with a nurse who, every time she bumped into something said, out loud, “I’m sorry.” This was a woman who was an amazing nurse. Skilled. Experienced. Compassionate. An excellent clinician and diagnostician. 

I stopped her once, after she had apologized to a chair, and gently asked her, “Did . . . did you just apologize to that chair?” 

She became a bit flustered and admitted, sheepishly, “Why, yes, yes I suppose I did.” 

“Do you realize that you always apologize to every inanimate object you happen to bump into?” I asked her.

Her face blushed as she said, “My mother always told me that I was a clumsy oaf. She used to make me walk with a book on top of my head with an apple on top of the book. I could never make it across the room without either dropping the apple or the book. She even took me to ballet lessons so I’d learn some grace, but it didn’t work. I’m just a clumsy oaf, and . . .” she added just below her voice, “stupid. That’s what mother always said,” shaking her head, “clumsy and stupid.”

“But you’re not,” I said. “You’re neither clumsy nor stupid. You’re a brilliant nurse who moves with the skill and grace of an angel at the bedside, tending to your patients and their families.”

At which point, my friend started to cry. “No one has ever said that to me before,” she sniffed. 

“Then I’m going to say it to you every time I see you,” I said.

I wrote the words down on a piece of paper and said, “I want you to tape this to your bathroom mirror and read it every morning. 

Say it out loud, ‘I am a brilliant nurse who has the skill and grace of an angel as I tend to my patients and their families.’”

She blushed again but looked me straight in the eye as I handed her the paper and said, “I will do that. I will say this out loud to myself every morning. Thank you.”

Funny thing. Three months later she was still occasionally bumping into things, but she no longer apologized to inanimate objects. She had more confidence and provided excellent patient care. 

Sometimes, exalting yourself IS an act of humility, especially if you have had your self-worth and self-esteem bullied out of you by well-intentioned people.

The important thing to remember is that, while arrogance is as troublesome and concerning as low self-esteem, they are flip sides of the same coin. I think it helps to remember that humility means “grounded” or “from the earth”.

The word ‘humility’ helps us to remember that we are human – we are from the earth and connected to the earth and to the earth we shall return. For me, humility is a reminder that I am human, a mere mortal, which means I am not defined by my worst characteristic. Neither am I defined by my best characteristic. Rather, I am the sum total of all my parts. Good and bad. Warts and all.

I see the prayers of the Pharisee and those of the Tax Collector as being equal. Oh sure, I’m annoyed by the Pharisee’s prayers but only because he didn’t balance it out with his flaws. I have pity on the Tax Collector because he knew only too well his flaws. 

As a Tax Collector, he knew the hatred and the revulsion of the people – a Jew doing the work of the Roman Oppressor. Which leads me to ask what he was doing to change his lot except to ask God for mercy only to go out and do it all over again.

Humility isn’t a contest to see who is the most humble. I am reminded of that old story of a priest who came into the church, knelt before the altar, beat his breast and said, “Have mercy on me Lord, for I am a wretched sinner.”   

A few minutes later, another priest came into the church and saw the priest at the altar, beating his breast and joined him on his knees at the altar rail, crying out even louder, “Have mercy on my Lord, for I am a wretched sinner.”

Just then, the sexton came into the church. He saw the two priests kneeling at the altar and decided to join them, beating his breast and crying out for mercy. One priest turned to the other and said, “Well, great! Now EVERYONE will want to be exalted!”

Author Rachel Held Evans wrote this in her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood
“Some rabbis say that, at birth, we are each tied to God with a string, and that every time we sin, the string breaks. To those who repent of their sins, especially in the days of Rosh Hashanah, God sends the angel Gabriel to make knots in the string, so that the humble and contrite are once again tied to God. Because each one of us fails, because we all lose our way on the path to righteousness from time to time, our strings are full of knots. But, the rabbis like to say a string with many knots is shorter than one without knots. So the person with many sins but a humble heart is closer to God.”
No, the Rabbi isn’t saying that we should, therefore, go out and sin so that we can be closer to God. 

For me, the Rabbi’s story is one that amplifies the message of Rabbi Jesus in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. 

Humility is telling the truth about ourselves, and sometimes, it’s harder to admit our attributes than it is to admit our faults. The person with many sins but a humble heart is close to God. And, the person with many attributes but a humble heart is also close to God. 

Humility is not about how good or bad we are. Humility is about having a humble heart and telling the truth about ourselves.  One of the aphorisms of the12 Step Program is “If you see more than three people in one day who cause you to say, ‘Jerk!’ it’s time to look in the mirror.”

Humility calls us to acknowledge that we are all sinners, yes, but not one of us is beyond the redemption of God. Humility is reaching way down into the depths of our souls and putting our hands and fingers into the rich soil, the fertile earth of our humanity. 

The religious paradox is that staying connected to the earthiness of our humanity helps us to grow wings to fly closer to God. Sometimes, you have to reach way down in order to touch a star.

I am convinced that the church which does not offer a quick fix or an instant cure, the church which offers the unspeakable joy of the miracle of death and resurrection, the church that is a vehicle of the grace to do the hard work of reconciliation is the church that will grow and flourish and thrive because it is closer to the Gospel truth than those who sell or market the Gospel with happy, shiny, put together people as proof that “hey, this Jesus stuff works!” (to paraphrase Rachel)

Rachel also wrote: 
“This is what God's kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there's always room for more.”
As Brené Brown puts it, “I went to church thinking it would be like an epidural, that it would take the pain away . . . But church isn’t like an epidural; it’s like a midwife . . . I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort, but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.”

That’s what humility looks like. Or, as D.T. Niles once wrote in the New York Times, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”

Rachel Held Evans died this past May of an allergic reaction to a medication for an infection. She was 38 years old, the mother of two small children and the spouse of a devoted husband. 

At her funeral, fellow author and friend Nadia Boltz-Webber gave this benediction, which summed up Rachel’s understanding of the Gospel.

I give it to you now as an example of the best sort of humility. I believe Jesus blesses it when we tell the truth about the fullness of being human because that is the way God created us.

The Benediction from Rachel Held Evans’ funeral:
Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt. Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion. Blessed are the poor in spirit. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are those whom no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex workers and the night-shift street sweepers. The closeted. The teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried. Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.” Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.

I imagine Jesus standing here blessing us because that is our Lord’s nature. This Jesus cried at his friend’s tomb, turned the other cheek, and forgave those who hung him on a cross. He was God’s Beatitude— God’s blessing to the weak in a world that admires only the strong.

Jesus invites us into a story bigger than ourselves and our imaginations, yet we all get to tell that story with the scandalous particularity of this moment and this place. We are storytelling creatures because we are fashioned in the image of a storytelling God. May we never neglect that gift. May we never lose our love for telling the story. Amen 
And, let the church in all humility say, “Amen.”

1 comment:

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