He has told you, O, mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning. This is the third week of our preaching series focusing on these words from the prophet Micah. We have joined with other parishes in the Diocese of Washington and with numerous churches of various denominations from across the country to remind ourselves during this political season of some of the basic behaviors that God demands of us. In the lead up to the November elections when our nation is so polarized and divided, this series of sermons is intended to help us find new ways of being together, new ways of relating to one another that respect our differences and honor our sacredness, because we are all the beloved children of God.
Two weeks ago, Bishop Gene Robinson started us off reminding us that to do the work of justice is essential to our lives as Christians. It isn’t enough to talk about justice. God calls us to do the work of justice, to get our hands dirty, causing good trouble as John Lewis reminded us. Because being kind and being humble don’t mean very much if we’re not willing to stand up for what is right. Last week, Bishop Mariann reminded us that strong disagreements in our country are not the problem. Rather strong disagreements and the expression of strongly held beliefs are a blessing of our democracy. It isn’t the fact that we disagree that causes problems. It’s how we disagree. We can stand up for our most strongly held beliefs, but we must do so with kindness and respect, rather than petty cruelty. Always working to narrow the gaps between us and to tone down the rhetoric. As she said, “The seeds of social polarization lie beneath every community on the planet, and if we’re honest, they lie within ourselves.”
This week I’m going to focus on humility, which some have called a kind of master virtue that is critical to justice and kindness. Because humility keeps the work of justice from becoming authoritarian. And kindness and humility enables our acts of kindness from being purely self-serving. So what is humility? What does it mean to be humble? Some people think that being humble means being docile or mild or even subservient.
Ted Turner echoing Nietzsche, once famously said that “Christians are wimps.” And I think many people believe that the good humble Christian is always meek and mild and deferential. But that is not what it means to be humble. In fact, it seems to me the word humility is often quite misunderstood. CS Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, wrote, “Do not imagine that if you met a really humble person that he will be what most people call humble nowadays. He will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person who was always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.” Lewis went on to say, “Humility is not thinking less of ourselves but thinking of ourselves less.” Did you know that the word humble comes from the Latin word hummus, meaning ground or soil? Now, Genesis tells us that we are made from the very ground itself, from the dust of the earth. But Genesis also tells us that we are priceless because we are also made in the image of God.
In this sense, the humble person is the person who knows how special and how valuable they are because they are created in God’s image. And at the same time, the humble person never forgets the truth of what we are, of what we remind ourselves every Ash Wednesday, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. In our powerful passage from Romans that we just read, Paul makes it clear that humility is required to be able to let love be genuine. It’s required to hate what is evil, to hold fast to what is good, to love one another with mutual affection, to outdo one another in showing honor. Without humility, we cannot rejoice in hope, or be patient in suffering or persevere in prayer. You can see how humility is so important to Paul in this passage. Just look how he starts the passage and how he ends it.
Right from the beginning Paul says, “For by the grace given to me, I say to everyone among you, do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” And then near the end of that passage, he reminds us once again, “Do not claim to be wiser than you are.” As someone once said, “Humility is spiritual sanity”. I’ll say that again. Humility is spiritual sanity. Because it’s constant refrain is “God is God and I am not.”
The Reverend Mark Trotter tells a wonderful story about Dorothy Day, the famous Catholic social worker and 20th century saint who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, and Robert Coles, a physician and author, who wrote a book about Dorothy Day. It seems that when Coles was a medical school medical student at Harvard, he volunteered to help at the Catholic worker. He was a Harvard graduate, he was in medical school, he was going to be a psychiatrist, and he was very proud of himself. He was also proud that as a person with all these credentials, he was volunteering to help the poor.
When he arrived at the premises of the Catholic Worker, he asked to see Dorothy Day, he was told that she was in the kitchen. He went to the kitchen, saw her sitting at a table talking to someone. Now Coles had enough medical training to recognize that the man she was talking to was an addict of some kind. He was disheveled, he was obviously homeless, perhaps living on the street. She was sitting there at the table with him, listening intently to what he had to say, giving him her full attention. When she finished the conversation, she stood up. That is when she noticed Coles standing nearby. She asked him, “Do you want to speak to one of us?” Coles was astounded by this response. I mean, Dorothy Day was famous. This man with her was nobody, even a derelict. “Do you want to speak to one of us?” She asked him. Coles had never seen anything like that before. Humility that can identify with another person so completely as to remove all distinctions between them. Trotter went on to say that it cut through all of the boundaries, all of the categories that society sets up to separate us one from another, because they were just two people, brother and sister. The sister concerned about the brother. Coles said that exchange changed his life. He said he learned more in that one moment that he did than he did in four years at Harvard.
Trotter concluded that Coles saw in one moment what it means to humble yourself as our Lord did. “For he who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” And here’s the thing, can we be humble enough to stand up for what we believe, while at the same time being willing to see the full and precious humanity of the person with whom we disagree? Do we try to identify with the person with whom we disagree, or do we reduce them to some stereotype? Worse, do we write them off as people not worth talking to?
Did you know that in a recent survey done by the Pew Research Center that close to half of all United States adults acknowledge that they have stopped discussing political and election news with someone in their lives? In fact, six in 10 self-identified liberal Democrats, six in 10, 60% of them, say that they have stopped talking politics with someone because of something they said. While among self-identified conservative Republicans, only 45% report that they have dropped someone from their conversations about political news.
For those among us who consider ourselves liberals or progressives, have we in our pride become illiberal liberals? Perhaps we should acknowledge that we may not always be right and then speak less and listen more. Friends, as Bishop Mariann reminded us last week, the media, and our culture in general, love to see the world as a series of dualities: left and right, Republican and Democrat, light and dark, right and wrong. It makes for a good story. But this kind of moral splitting, where we divide the world into good and bad, generally placing ourselves in the first group, is a false and incomplete way of looking at the world. Life is much more complicated than simple dualities. And we need to the humility to see that each of us is a complicated mix of light and dark. Alexander Solzhenitsyn once famously wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties, but right through the human heart and through all human hearts.”
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. Or as Martin Luther King once said, “There is something of the best in the worst of us and something of the worst in the best of us.” “He has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
In closing, brothers and sisters, remember that Micah 6:8 provides not only a picture of what God requires of us, but it provides us also a roadmap toward building the kingdom of heaven here on earth. Because there can be no kingdom without justice, and there can be no justice without kindness. Moreover, without humility to see our own weaknesses and acknowledge our own failings, we can never surrender our will to God’s will. And without humility, there can be no kingdom building at all. Amen.