(A sermon preached on Proverbs 25:6-7 and Luke 14:1, 7-14 at All Saints' Littleton & St. Matthew's Chapel, Sugar Hill, NH on 8/29/2010)
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)
Humility has traditionally been lifted up as the greatest of all virtues. Scriptures abound praising the virtue of humility: scriptures from our tradition and from numerous others.
I thought it would be wise then, to find out as much as I could about humility...so I can help us all get on board with being more humble.
Of course, I’m joking, but I do mean to suggest how elusive humility is...
In Webster’s online thesaurus, I found a good definition:
Humility: the absence of any feelings of being better than others
humility,the peace activist accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of all who have worked to end the violence>
But I was shocked by most of the synonyms and so called “related words”:
Demureness, lowliness, meekness, compliance, deference, resignedness, submissiveness; naïveté, simpleness; bashfulness, shyness, timidness.
It almost seems like there’s a serious backlash towards humility: that practicing this virtue is something that is not just undervalued in our culture, but even despised.
Perhaps this is in part because these words have been historically associated with the “proper” way for women to act in many societies.
Certainly humility has been used in a negative way to subject and put down, but this does not seem to be the basis of the word in its value as a virtue or it’s use in the lectionary this morning.
So let’s move on to what might be our shortest lectionary reading, (Proverbs 25:6-7):
Do not put yourself forward in the king's presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, "Come up here," than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.
The Proverb is advice on how to keep from being humbled: put down in the presence of others.
Being humbled in this way is humiliating, embarrassing, shameful, and often anger producing.
But being “humbled” by someone (or something) in this way rarely teaches us anything about humility.
I’ll move now to the Gospel: Jesus is dining with the Pharisees, and he witnesses the political power games being played around the table. Everyone is angling for the best seats: the position of honor.
Think first class on an airplane...box seats at the theater...the picture window of a restaurant....anywhere but the front few rows of church....
So Jesus’ sharp mind thinks of the Proverb saying, and twists it a bit to fit the occasion. I imagined that Jesus had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he said this:
"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you."
I can just see the comedy of the Pharisees fighting over the lower places at the table, fueled by the secret desire to be put in the place of honor in front of everyone.
But seriously, how often does this happen? When have you heard of someone with say and authority coming around and saying: “Oh, this place won’t do for you, it’s not enough! Come up here to the place of honor. Take notice everyone!!! By the way, you deserve a raise....”
Following Jesus’ advice is clearly not a path by which to get you noticed by the boss, be it God or otherwise.
But is there more to Jesus’ words than irony? Could it still be that his words pointed to a path of humility?
I once asked a friend, health and spirituality writer Caren Goldman, about humility, citing the Gospel story.
She wrote back:
“Can one wake up and say: "I think I'll be humble today" and really be someone who is "humble?" Or is true humility something that is a result of being, instead of consciously doing?”
I think she’s right. Think about it this way: we seldom even talk about being humble, much less choose to become humble, in part because talking about being humble, is, ironically, usually not a humble thing to do. We know humility when we see it, we know it’s good to be humble, but it’s hard to even engage humility without seeming self-serving, which is DEFINATELY not being humble.
The pursuit of humility is almost always ego driven. Your motivations make it near impossible. Even if you’re successful for a moment, you likely to find yourself saying inwardly, "Wow: I'm being humble. I wonder if anyone noticed.” Or even, “Hey, I’m good at being humble. In fact, I'm MUCH more humble than your average person. Maybe I should teach a class on humility.” (adapted from Sarah Dylan Brauer)
These examples are humorous but potentially dangerous ways of falling into pride while attempting to be humble. But there is an equally dangerous path: attempting to be humble by always self-sacrificing. That line of thinking sets you up into believing that you can humble yourself into God’s good graces: that somehow by always punishing and denying yourself you’ll somehow please God, which is not only painful, but is ultimately an ego driven way of life as well.
Real humility is very rare: the people remembered for it are few and far between.
Mother Teresa is a universal example of great example of someone who truly lived with great humility.
I’ve read that Mother Teresa worked daily at being gentle and loving people amidst her faithful work. From what I can tell, she struggled at times, but I also believe that she was special in her gift of humility.
Witnessing her humility calls me to new consciousness and accountability for my own actions.
But, the truth is, I can’t simply choose to be humble like her: my best attempts would still be ego driven.
My friend Caren went on to suggest, “Perhaps the best we can do is what Jesus ultimately asks in this and other stories: what happens when we move beyond ego?”
I think she’s right again. Jesus seems to understand that the ego drives us to make choices that may not be in our best interest spiritually or otherwise.
It also seems clear that our ego makes it really difficult to walk a path of humility.
So perhaps this is what Jesus is up to in this morning’s reading. Instead of saying, “be humble,” he suggests a sincere path where one can experience humility.
Let’s imagine one of the people sitting at the table heard Jesus' story and took it seriously. Imagine one guy, I’ll call him Roger, who had been fighting to get somewhere for quite sometime. Roger had been trying to make something of himself for numerous reasons: success, money, self-worth. and to move up in his circles. But he was weary of fighting: and was feeling empty, underappreciated, forgotten, and alone. Roger hears Jesus’ parable and decides to give it a try. At meetings, he takes the open seat nobody really wants. In the lunchroom, he sits down at a table without any “high powered people” at it. He becomes more generous with his thoughts and observations, and doesn’t worry and get angry when someone else uses them or even tries to take credit for them.
He doesn’t suddenly get promoted, and he doesn’t get called out and honored in front of others. And yet Roger starts to change: his inner stress is somehow lessened, and his tendency to suddenly get angry with others over little stuff mostly vanishes. Roger discovers new joys in the everyday, where all he used to do was worry about being good enough, and never truly feeling like he was.
One day, it happens. Roger’s going about his day, and someone, out of the blue, says to him: “Roger, I’m so glad you’re here. Not only do you get your work done, but you seem to enjoy what you’re doing. Your joy is wonderfully contagious. Thanks for making my day better.”
The swell in Roger’s heart is a strange mixture: a touch of pride, a heap of gratitude, and an overall sense that he doesn’t really deserve that much kindness, or at least not anymore than the next person.
And, lo and behold, Roger has experienced humility.
What practices might ultimately put you in a place where you can experience and be transformed by true humility?
Kinder, gentler driving habits? Resisting the urge of using biting sarcasm? Listening more closely to someone even if you think you already know what they’re talking about?
There might be lots of little things that each one of us can do to better place ourselves in situations where humility shines, in others and in ourselves.
But I want to draw your attention to one last thing.
The most powerful example I can think of concerning humility is Mary saying yes to God.
Don’t assume that opportunities to move towards humility are limited to stepping back or moving aside. It takes an incredible amount of humility to allow yourself to be open to change.
The greatest leaders say yes to God by taking a chance in walking a new path. They open themselves up to criticism: allowing themselves to be scrutinized and picked apart, and despite all of the attention that is focused on them, they remained awed to be part of something bigger than themselves, and grateful just to be so blessed.
For Christians, saying yes to God means that it is your ego that steps aside, and doing so allows Jesus to sweep you into the whirlwind that is God’s Spirit. And it’s from within this Sprit that we truly experience humility.
So, this is the question this morning: What is God calling you to say yes to?
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.