Humility Is Like Underwear...
...it’s essential, but if others see it, then you’re probably not doing it right. When I was a child, I sat in church with my grandparents. I have many fond memories of church: the songs and prayers, my grandmother’s perfect nap-sized lap, my grandfather constantly singing one or two beats behind the rest of the congregation. But the one thing I don’t remember at all is the sermons. Given what I now do with my Sunday mornings, that’s more than a little ironic, I suppose…
There is one exception to all that. I remember a sermon on humility. Actually, I don’t remember anything at all about the sermon. What I remember is that I thought about that sermon for months. It bothered me, tying my little brain in knots! I was supposed to be humble. So I concentrated hard at it. And as soon as I was convinced I had it, I knew that it had slipped through my fingers.
Humility is elusive. As soon as you think you’ve got it, that’s the moment when it’s gone.
And that’s the place where we find Jesus critiquing the Pharisees yet again in our New Testament lesson this morning. The translation we used from The Message is helpful, because it brings out what we often miss, which is that the Pharisees were actually quite commendable when it came to teaching the law. Jesus says, “You won’t go wrong in following their teaching on Moses.” It’s when it comes to living out that teaching that they missed the mark.
The Pharisees were arrogant. They loved flattery. They expected the pageantry, pomp, and circumstance of religion as though they had earned a seat up front in the VIP section. They were, in a word, self-righteous.
Well, thank God that in the 2000 years since, religion has been thoroughly rid of all arrogance and hypocrisy!
If only that were so…
Several years ago, two of our Preschool parents had a run-in with each other in the hallway here. I came to know about it because one of them came to me troubled by the conversation. It had all started because she had noticed another parent doing something that was inappropriate, even unethical. So she had confronted her, suggesting that she might consider offering an apology. “I don’t need to apologize!” she said, “I’m a Christian!”
We have all had experiences of that noxious mix of religious certainty and moral superiority. And at times, we have probably been the purveyors of it. These are the moments that led Mahatma Gandhi to say famously, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Humility is mysterious. As soon as you think you’ve got it, it disappears right before your eyes.
So what do we do? Jesus requires humility of us. And yet, the harder we work at it, the less we have of it. It’s almost enough to make us give up…which, paradoxically, may ultimately point us in the right direction.
The lectionary pairs Jesus’ teaching on humility with this story of his namesake, Joshua. The mantle of leadership has been passed from Moses, as the time in the wilderness has drawn to a close. Joshua now stands in front of the people on the banks of the Jordan River, reminding the people of God’s promises that lie before them.
And since two generations have come and gone since the Exodus from Egypt, it seems another miraculous parting of the waters is called for. While not nearly as impressive as the parting of the Red Sea, the parting of the River Jordan, no doubt, made an impression. Walls of water stood on each side as the priests led the way carrying the tablets of the Ten Commandments and the people followed behind.
Humility is like water. It’s impossible to grab hold of, but it knows when to get out of God’s way.
Even so, the story of Joshua may itself sow the seeds that lead to the kind of religious self-righteousness Jesus is so eager to critique. From this crossing, the Israelites go on to inhabit the land of Canaan, despite the fact that the Canaanites were already doing a pretty good job of inhabiting it themselves. The story can easily give way to the temptation to claim that “our God is better than your God.” And from there, it is not a long leap to knowing that our God is so awesome that we never need to apologize!
That completely misses the point, of course. And there are lessons in humility that the waters of the Jordan River have to teach us. It’s no accident, I believe, that it was also the site of Jesus’ baptism. The same waters that knew how to make way when God was at work also knew how to be right there when God was embodied in Christ.
A little geography:
There are three important bodies of water in the Holy Land. There is the River Jordan along the East, running north to south, the Sea of Galilee situated in the north, and the Dead Sea in the south. Several rivers enter the Sea of Galilee at its northernmost point. At the southern end, the waters flow out and into the Jordan River. From there, the water travels south until it winds up finally in the stagnant waters of the Dead Sea.
The Sea of Galilee teems with life. This is where Jesus found many of the disciples making their living as fishermen. The Dead Sea, on the other hand, is just that – dead. The salt content is so strong that nothing can live there. What’s the difference? One, the water flows through; the other receives the water without letting any out.
At the risk of giving water the capacity to think and feel, it is almost as though the Sea of Galilee knows enough to let the waters of baptism keep right on flowing. The Dead Sea seems to think that it can hoard it. And that makes the difference between life and death.
Humility is, above all, sacred. It is the awareness that all we receive from God is a gift. If we choose to hoard, we completely miss the point, and humility abandons us. Even more than that, if we hold onto those gifts and refuse to let them go, we risk being spiritually dead.
It’s when we recognize that gifts are gifts that we can flourish by letting them flow right through us. It’s not something we can earn. You earn awards, not gifts. It’s when we confuse them that we become like the Pharisees, demanding the best seat in the house for all of our hard work and dedication.
So what does humility look like? That’s the thing – it looks so natural that we probably wouldn’t even know it when we saw it. What it looks like is the flow of gifts from God to us and on to the lives we touch all around us.
Since we’re beginning our Stewardship Campaign today, there is the temptation to insist that financial generosity is the surest sign of this natural flow of humility. But there is also the temptation to say that it’s not about money at all. And that leads us to “soften the blow,” using euphemistic language of “time, talents, treasure.” Friends, it’s all of the above.
Are we humble? If we think so, then almost certainly not. But if we’re not sure, then we might just be halfway there. Can we trust God to take us the rest of the way?