1 Kings 17:1-24
Matthew 23: 1-12
On Wednesday morning of last week I attended an on-line respite through the PCUSA Board of Pensions. Basically what that means is that I attended a three hour webinar for clergy that was focused on how we take care of ourselves so we can continue our ministry during this time. We began with a short worship service and then we had a panel of five speakers who were going to lead us in reflection and education for the next couple of hours. As we began the panel led part of the respite, the host began by spending 10 minutes “introducing” the panelists. But “introducing” what I mean is that she spent ten minutes explaining to us the credentials of each of the speakers. Half-way through this list of credentials, I admit I tuned out. It didn’t really matter to me, but I am certain that had she failed to explain each person’s resume fully, each of those panelists might have felt they were not given the introduction that was their due. Then the first panelist began to speak, and, even with the introduction given by the host, he still felt it was necessary to give us another full 10 minute self-introduction, telling us where he’d worked, for how long, what he accomplished at each job, etc.
This was the day after I had begun working on today’s sermon. The passage from Matthew is really about humility. As we read from the gospel of Matthew today, Jesus said, “But you shouldn’t be called Rabbi, because you have one teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters. Don’t call anybody on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is heavenly. Don’t be called teacher, because Christ is your one teacher.”
And so, as I listened to these long introductions outlining the credentials of each of these speakers, I found myself thinking two things. First, is it any wonder that humility is so difficult? Here we are the church that follows Jesus, the Jesus who told us clearly that our credentials don’t matter – that the first will, in fact, be last, so that our credentials are a hindranceif anything, and should never be a source of pride. But it is in this church, as the body of Christ that we still begin our work, our meetings, our presentations with introducing (ie bragging, proud-fully announcing) all the credentials of each person, as if that is what matters, and is what gives each of the speakers the right to lead, that is what gives them value as speakers. Given that this is the model we have in our churches, how are we supposed to practice humility? Really and truly? Second, I wondered what it would be like if we had skipped this part all together. What if instead of giving the credentials and the “reason why we should listen to you” at the beginning, we instead gave those at the end or didn’t give them at all? Would people be less willing to listen without those introductions? Would people give less credence to what they were hearing if they didn’t know the amazing credentials of those speaking?
In the Presbyterian church we say that we believe that every person is called, EVERY person. We emphasize that no call is “better” or higher or more important than another. Pastors are not more holy than other people. We are not more “called” or more “chosen” by God. We simply have a different call, a specific call to ministry. Paul goes into great detail in the book of Corinthians about the fact that we all have gifts and that it is often those gifts we value the least that are the most important. As 1stCorinthians 12 says, “Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted. If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? But as it is, there are many parts but one body. So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” Instead, the parts of the body that people think are the weakest are the most necessary. The parts of the body that we think are less honorable are the ones we honor the most. The private parts of our body that aren’t presentable are the ones that are given the most dignity. The parts of our body that are presentable don’t need this. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the part with less honor so that there won’t be division in the body and so the parts might have mutual concern for each other.” But we certainly don’t treat people that way, do we? We want to know if someone is a foot or a head. And if they are a foot, we don’t think they have the right qualifications to talk to us about their experience or how it might relate to our lives, our experiences, our situations.
By the way, this is a cultural phenomenon. I remember being in Central America and being at a gathering where an 11 year old boy was orating, lecturing all of those around him about the situation they were experiencing in Nicaragua. Those around him were listening, all of them, enraptured. It didn’t matter that he was a kid, that he probably did not have a great education, living in a very rural and remote area. They listened because he spoke truth, not because of any qualifications.
Again, today’s passage in Matthew is about humility. “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who lift themselves up will be brought low.” This is about recognizing that our pride is greatly misplaced as far as God is concerned. As Micah 6:8 says it, “What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.” In many ways all three of these are the same thing, and we will talk about that more.
But what is humility, really? There is a general belief that humility means saying things like, “well, I’m not really good at that.” Or “I’m not really THAT good at x”. This is a deep misunderstanding about humility. Humility is not about denying your gifts. It recognizes, instead, that all gifts are exactly that – gifts. We are not “better” people because we’ve been born into a family that raised us with education and health care. We are not innately “better” because we had the means to grow our talents, to learn skills, to put them into practice. We are not “better” because God gave us talents or gifts. God didn’t sit up there somewhere in judgment and say, “Well, this person deserves this talent” before we are even born. God didn’t sit somewhere and decide, on the other hand, “this person deserves to be born to a mother who could not get health care and who was on crack while she was pregnant.” Humility recognizes that we cannot take credit for the talents, the situation, the demographics, the culture into which we were born and raised. Instead, we are given these, as we are given everything, in order for us to be good stewards of what we have. We are to be stewards of our resources, caring for everyone around us with the money and time that we have. But we are also to be good stewards of our talents: using them for the good of others.
Humility also recognizes that not everything is about YOU. For those who attended with me the training on responding in love to those who are suffering from psychosis, in particular, you may remember that I asked the question about what we should do when a person in our lives alternates, because of their mental illness, between being sweet and kind and receptive to care and even seeking out help – and then in the matter of a week can flip into an abusive attacking truly mean behavior. I asked how to deal with that. Her response was, “well, you set limits when they are being attacking, and you stick to them.” I responded with something along the lines of “well, how long should you put up with the attacks?” And she again responded with, “you set limits around that – not responding to nasty emails, for example, and making it clear that you won’t be responding to nasty emails. But being loving and present when they are kind.” And I realized that what she was reminding me was that their behavior in those times is not about me. So I don’t have to take it personally, I shouldn’t take it personally at all. I don’t need to accept it, but I also should have the humility to recognize that that person is more than their abusive behavior and that I can still choose to be in relationship with them when they are not acting out in an unkind way. She reminded me that I should be able to separate myself from the attacks enough to remember that this behavior isn’t about me. I should have the humility to put myself aside, to not have “ego” investment in those interactions. It is still loving to set and keep a boundary – it does not help them to be allowed to act in this way. But that doesn’t mean total rejection of them based on this “acting out” behavior. This takes a great deal of humility: to remember that not everything, even when it seems that it is aimed at you, is about you.
Third, humility involves being willing to be self-reflective and to acknowledge that you could be wrong, that we could be wrong, that I could be wrong – about anything and everything. That is hard for us to do, isn’t it? Each of us thinks that we are right, especially about the things that matter most to us. But it is a call and an act of humility to step back and consider the possibility that you could be wrong even about things you feel absolutely certain about. In our actions, in our thinking, in our interaction – all of us could be wrong. And that acknowledgement is an important part of humility.
In the Old Testament story we heard today, the widow was certain that she and her son were going to die and that they only had enough flour for one last meal before they would die. She had the humility, though, to listen to Elijah and do what he told her to do when he asked her to give the last of the food she had to him instead of to her son. She had the humility to consider that even though she felt certain that death was at her door, that maybe there was another possibility for her. What strength of humility!
Finally, then, humility is remembering that no matter what we’ve earned, no matter what credentials we have, what talents we have, what resources we have, in the big picture it probably doesn’t ultimately matter. Taking this a step further, no matter what we do, no matter what humanity does – even if we destroy ourselves and for all intents and purposes the earth, life will probably go on. It may look different than before, but the changing seasons remind us that ultimately not one of us is in control, and not one of us has as much power as it sometimes feels that we do. I think this realization can be both humbling and freeing. It is humbling to remember that everything we are stressed or struggling or upset about ultimately probably is not that important. But it is also freeing because then we can just do what is before us to be done without carrying the weight of the world on our own two shoulders. I realize this is a dangerous thing to say. We are still called to be careful, mindful, and loving in all things. But the point I’m trying to make is that God will be God no matter what we do.
The thing is, who we are is much more about our choices than it is about what talents or gifts or resources we have. What do we do with what we are given? How do we use our talents and resources? Jesus told Peter that if he loved Jesus he was to feed Jesus’ sheep. That is how we show our love of God, by giving back, not by “being successful” in the world’s eyes. Humility is recognizing this: that our greatest, most successful gifts, do not make us better than other people. It is our choices for love, choices to put ourselves and our egos aside, choices to serve and care for one another out of love for the other that matter the most. If anything does make a difference, it is our actions for good, it is our kindnesses. And we can’t ultimately take credit for that. Again, our gifts come from God. Humility calls us to act as if everything depends on us, with the recognition and prayers that know that really everything depends on God. And no matter what we do, God will continue to be God.
On this, All Saints Day we think about those who have gone before. We think about those we have loved, those who have made us who we are. And as we think about those people, my guess is that you will find, as I find, that the people whose memories are dearest to me are those who were the most kind, gentle, giving and humble during their lives, who gave from their poverty, rather than from their riches. We celebrate the saints today and so I invite you to think of those who are humbly doing the work of God. I found myself thinking this week about the helpers, the saints that I have become aware of. For example, there is a man in India who has set himself the goal of planting a million trees because he believes that the suffering in India is caused by the climate change that is wiping out the food and water sources for the people. He is doing it not for the recognition, he is doing it because it is the right thing to do. The people choosing to wear masks who are doing so knowing they protect those around themselves by doing so, much more than they ever protect ourselves. Those making masks who jumped in to help in whatever way they could. The college students who figured out a way to save both farms and hungry people by connecting the farms that had been selling to organizations that were no longer in service among COVID crisis, to food pantries that were seeing a huge surging in need. Jill who gives rides on a regular basis to those who live next door because they need them. Period. We don’t share these stories in our news nearly often enough. But these are stories of humility: of people choosing to use their gifts for others, rather than for themselves, of people putting aside their egos to be helpers.
As I said before, doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God – they are all connected. When we can put aside our “credentials”, when we can put aside our egos, when we can choose to not lift up some people over others but to see all as the equally loved and valued children of God that we all are, when we can then do the work of loving and serving, especially those most in need, we are being the servants God calls us to be, we are walking with humility with our God. That’s the very best we can do. For the sakes of all people. Thanks be to God. Amen.