In the name of God, creator, redeemer, sanctifier. Amen.
Some years ago, when our son was in middle school and we ate dinner together almost every night, he brought up a subject that had been bothering him. There was a boy in his class who was very smart. That boy bragged all the time about how many books he had read, and what a good grade he got on the last test, and how high he could jump, and that he had the best bike in the schoolyard bike rack. In short, he was annoying and our son was having a hard time being around him because that kid lorded over him. We talked about it, about why that boy, who really was smart and was also a good athlete, needed to tell everybody about it, and about how he always needed to be better than everybody else. In the dinner table conversation, we found ourselves in a place of sympathy for that boy’s deep needs and insecurities, (don’t you think?) and also acknowledged that that boy wouldn’t be the most fun person to have to be around all day long.
Later on this morphed into a conversation about humility, and about the way to use it to make a statement about your sense of yourself. Not false humility, the kind that makes a show of being deferential and obsequious, the kind that drips with insincerity and smugness. No, genuine humility that comes from inner conviction.
Our son, for his part was a very good chess player from a young age. We counseled him not to brag about it, but when asked, to simply say, “Yes, I know how to move the pieces.” Are you any good? “I’m OK, I like to play.” And then he would match up with an older, bigger kid who had the swagger, and our son would thrash him. Quietly, unassumingly, no gloating, no smirking. Just a humble sense of his own capabilities and the offer of proof that chess was his game. The word got around, but not because our son spread it. That was for others to do.
Humility, we know from the Bible stories we’ve heard for years, is a quality that is highly valued among believers. Our scriptures advise – Take the last place (for now), don’t push yourself forward, forgive as you have been forgiven, don’t be like the publican who makes a great, loud show of his prayers but whose spirit is dead inside, do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit.
St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians today, talks about our humility and the humility that was a mantle around Jesus’ shoulders. Though he was born from the life of the divine, Jesus put on human flesh and walked, worked, lived, died and was raised among us. He took all the ragging and the hostility and the challenges thrown at him with a great measure of restraint, don’t you think? Rather than confront his opposition directly, often Jesus waited, biding his time, because he had lessons to teach and words to say, places to go and things yet to do.
So when Jesus was challenged by the chief priests and elders about who he thought he was (after all), Jesus responded to their question with another question. I have to say, that was a wonderful device he often used, because it turned the axis of power completely around. The chief priests and elders knew perfectly well that it was their job to discern between false and true prophets and here, when questioned in public about the source of authority for John the Baptist, they say they do not know. They refused to answer. How self-humiliating for them.
In many ways they fell into the trap they had set for themselves when they wondered who Jesus was. They did not know, as we do now, that Jesus came from God and was going to God, They did not know, as we do now, that his kingdom was not of this world and therefore made a greater set of problems for them than they ever imagined. They did not know as we do now that Jesus’ power and authority came from God, and therefore were something to be reckoned with indeed.
But Jesus knew, and he had constant choices to make. In the life he lived, he embodied the humility we sing about in a hymn on Maundy Thursday. “Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve, the neighbors we have from you. Kneels at the feet of his friends, silently washes their feet, master who acts as a slave to them.” This is the Lord we serve, and the one we follow, and we have choices to make, too. We can be quiet, docile, timid, retiring servants who are expecting a beating for doing something wrong and are glad for every crumb that falls from the master’s table.
Or we can be always learning to carry the banner of Jesus with pride and humility, to hear his words, “Even when you are a mess, you are my beloved.” We are learning, we are striving, as anyone in any kind of recovery will tell you, to take Jesus’ words to heart and stand up for ourselves, to work for our own good physical and mental health, and to offer ourselves the kind of compassion we offer to others. It is possible to be humble and confident at the same time.
Yes, we stand up as followers of the Risen Lord, who has made us his own and bestowed upon us the authority of the baptized. We are here to proclaim Christ’s central place in our own lives, and to share that goodness and light with other people and all of creation. We are here to offer our gifts and talents to a world that needs them. We are here to work for justice and equality for all people, to say quite clearly that “All Lives Matter only when Black Lives Matter.” We are here to protect and defend the earth and to use our resources to save it for generations yet to come. When we think about it, we each have a superpower, one that has been won for us in countless hard-fought-fights, and so we must exercise that superpower and vote in this next election. We live in community, and so as tedious, wearying and frustrating as they are, we must abide by the COVID restrictions for the good of everyone, rich and poor, old and young. We are here to remember who and whose we are, and to be those persons we have been called upon to be.
And at the same time, we are here to remember that in all our greatness and all our responsibilities, we are really quite a small part of the total picture. Look to the night sky and consider the billions of stars far out in the universe. Stand on a high-point in New Hampshire and look at the trees and the mountains as far as you can see and know we are very small by comparison. Visit the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and gaze at the ceiling 13 stores above you and sense the greatness and grandeur of God that the architects wanted to convey. Hold a teaspoon of garden soil in your hand and think about the billion microbes that are teeming within that small clump of earth. Amid all of that, who and what are we?
We are gifted and skilled, flawed and hurting, healing and blessed. We are justifiably proud and we are justifiably humbled. We have authority and we are under authority, all of us. We are interconnected with all of life, and at the root of it all, we are God’s people, under the authority of the one who has made us and called us each by name. For the Christian, that authority is Jesus Christ our Lord, at whose name every knee shall bow and every tongue confess. So we walk on today, with tasks to do and a great many concerns to be concerned with, and we know that God is with us as he has promised. We haven’t earned our place beside him, but by his grace we are invited to be there anyway. May we go with Him, and He with us, and as the prophet said, “may we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God”. Amen.