Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Marks of Humility

Sermon for Proper 17, Year C
Jeremiah 2:4-14; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Former heavy-weight boxer James “Quick” Tillis is a cowboy from Oklahoma who made Chicago his home back in the early 1980s. He still remembers his first day in the Windy City after his arrival from Tulsa. “I got off the bus with two cardboard suitcases under my arms in downtown Chicago and stopped in front of the Sears Tower. I put my suitcases down, and I looked up at the Tower and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to conquer Chicago.’ When I looked down, the suitcases were gone.”

Sometimes when we think more highly of ourselves than we should, we lose a part of ourselves.

The Christian tradition affirms that the antidote to pride is the virtue of humility. And that humility is necessary for making progress in the Christian life. So it’s a bit disconcerting that humility has acquired a bad rap over the years. Too often, when we think of a humble person, we think of somebody who won’t stand up for themselves. We think of someone who’s willing to put up with manipulation and abuse without complaining. There’s a tendency associate humility with being weak and passive, as though humble persons are always being nice and agreeable even when others are kicking them in the teeth.

But nothing could be farther from the truth.

After all, the same Jesus who embodies all of the virtues we’re called to emulate – including humility – denounced the Pharisees to their faces as hypocrites and forcefully drove the moneychangers out of the Temple. We can hardly accuse Jesus of being a doormat for the world to wipe its feet on.

So what exactly is humility? Today’s gospel reading gives us a place to start.

At a dinner party thrown by some not-so-humble Pharisees, Jesus gives an illustration of humility. He says that if an undistinguished guest arrives early at a feast and takes the best seat in the house, and then an important person shows up, the host will ask the undistinguished guest to give up his seat to the important person. Losing his seat in front of everybody will make that guest feel as embarrassed as the heavy-weight boxer whose luggage was stolen from right under his nose.

The whole situation can be avoided, Jesus says, if you choose the lowest place. That way, if something happens, you have only one way to go and that’s up. Instead of shaming his listeners by saying, “You should be more humble!”, Jesus appeals to their sense of dignity and their desire to be respected and honored. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “It pays to be humble.” And why? It’s really not about getting a better seat at a dinner party, but rather about making it easier to cultivate intimacy with God. And intimacy with God gives us a self-worth and a purpose that nothing and no one can ever take away.

This morning I want to focus on four things we can say about the virtue of humility.

First, humility is about perceiving the truth. And the most basic truth of all is one that seems so obvious, and yet also one that we forget almost every single day: God is God and we aren’t. God is the Creator and we are the creatures. As the scripture says, we human beings are dust, and to dust we shall return (cf. Genesis 3:19). So it’s no accident that the word “humility” is related to the word “humus,” meaning “ground,” “soil,” and “earth.” Rightly grasping the truth about God and ourselves, humility brings us down to earth. Humble persons are well-grounded. They don’t see themselves as too important and they don’t take themselves too seriously.

With his sense of humor Winston Churchill is a good example. Once Churchill was asked, “Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?” “It’s quite flattering,” Churchill replied. “But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.”

A second point about humility is that it serves as a Golden Mean between the extremes of self-exaltation and self-denigration. It’s obvious that humility is incompatible with arrogance. But humility is also not the same thing as humiliation. Humble persons don’t think of themselves as worthless. So humility doesn’t turn up its nose at owning and celebrating gifts and talents. Humility is balanced. Humble persons rightly see and appreciate both their weaknesses and their strengths.

In the third place, humility entails freedom from bondage to self. William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, once put it this way: “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself one way or the other at all.”

There are few prisons worse than preoccupation with self. “How do I look?” “Am I doing this right?” “What do other people think of me?” “Is anybody listening to me preach?” It’s an endless, vicious circle of self-centeredness that exacerbates self-doubt and buttresses low self-esteem. Humble persons, by contrast, are free from these obsessions. They have nothing to prove. They are content with who and what they are. They simply do their best and leave the outcome in God’s hands.

And finally, humility opens our hearts to practice the radical hospitality of Jesus. Just imagine what it would be like to really put into practice Jesus’ teaching at the end of today’s Gospel reading. What if, instead of inviting friends of the same social and economic standing to dinner parties, we really did invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to feast at our tables? What if we were willing to take the risk of opening – not just our church – but our homes to the marginalized and the outcast of our city? What would that be like?

Well, if we can trust Jesus it would be like a little bit of the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven. But that’s only possible when we practice humility – the humility we see in Jesus, the one who, by emptying himself of all claims to divine privilege, had nothing to prove to anybody else, and was therefore free to serve a suffering humanity.

The virtue of humility gives us the gifts of seeing the truth, avoiding extremes, knowing real freedom, and practicing kingdom hospitality. Humility helps us to not take ourselves too seriously so that we can focus on the things of God – things like serving the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. It makes our hearts and minds more and more receptive to being shaped in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve. And it instills a deeply rooted conviction that our ultimate security is found in a God most clearly revealed in the self-sacrificial love and joy of Jesus.

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Michalis said...
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