Please pray with me for a moment. Gracious God help us to know your gift of humility. Help us to find your grand grace in the smallest moments of your creation. Guide us to share your world more easily, to know our small place, and yet to live it with large courage and the true strength that comes only from you. Amen.
While in college I worked at a Scout camp on a cold, clear lake in northern Wisconsin. I vividly recall those early morning swimming lessons when on the first day of camp the shivering, skinny ten year-olds would stand on the edge of the dock. Novice swimmers all, full of anxiety and doubt. Their teeth were chattering and they were wound up as tight as they could be, their breaths short and their hearts beating fast.
There were two senior swimming instructors who had very different styles. One would boldly shout at his class of boys to jump into the water all at once. In their wound up state of anxiety many of them would just sink and come bouncing up, grasping for air and then flay around, exhausted, certain of their near death, struggling to grab hold of the dock.
The other instructor, who was teaching with his class on the far side of the swimming area didn’t shout at all. He got into the lake himself and invited his scouts one at a time to climb slowly down into the water, where with the lightest touch and a strong, quiet humility he would just support each scout just slightly. He would look calmly into their fearful eyes and humbly sustain them with his own confidence. And in just a few moments they would unclench their teeth, relax their muscles, take a few calm breaths, begin to float and then paddle and then stroke and breathe and swim. The quiet humility, the light touch of support of that gifted teacher with large, warm hands in cold water, showed those scouts their own natural buoyancy.
I tell you of this swimming lesson because I want to talk with you about the gift of humility and its capacity to shape our lives and those around us and give us access to know the buoyancy of God, that peace of being held up to make our way to a deeper, richer, sustained life of faith. It may seem odd to find humility anywhere in a Scout camp full of noisy, boastful testosterone, but it was there, just as it is here, and it is an essential touchstone in our understanding of how God is calling us to be, of where God is calling us to be. I think of it as a country we return to in those moments when we forget ourselves and find our proper place with each other and our God.
Today’s short lessons from Luke are part of a series of personal messages that Jesus gives directly to the disciples. Remember where we are in the larger story: Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem; the end is near for his day-to-day ministry in the midst of the disciples’ lives.
And with a loving directness Jesus instructs his brothers. Some scholars refer to these as warnings, a word we might not like because of its finger-wagging implication, but which is useful in our understanding the what’s at stake. These four warnings include first a caution against leading others astray, causing them to stumble, an exhortation to forgive the failings of others, a colorful description of the power of faith, and a reminder to not over-value one’s own achievements.
The last warning is particular to the Gospel of Luke, and it is part of that Lukan aspiration that we know that God is not obliged to be on our side, rather we are invited to live humbly on his. The common theme in each of these messages from Jesus is humility, a humility of such dimension that it will take him all the way to the cross.
The word humility comes from the Latin word humilitas, whose root is humus or earth. In that sense, it implies a simple, basic, even organic character. Nothing lofty or exalted, but fundamental and essential. And the words human and humane also have the same root, so we are connected to this virtue at the core of our identity.
Humility is considered a value in many faith traditions. We are taught that what makes humility so powerful is the marvelous thing it does to us: it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God.
In Buddhism, humility is understood as an emptying of the vexations of life and the illusions of self-deception.
In our Christian tradition, humility is even more basic, and is understood as an essential piece of accepting the invitation from God to set aside our own aspirations, our own designs, in order to know God’s hopes for us. To turn down the noise of our own radio broadcast signal in order that we might better hear God and God’s people in our midst. And to hear God in ourselves.
Joan Chittister, the Anglican writer, says “Humility treads tenderly upon the life around it. When we know our place in the universe, we can afford to value the place of others. We need them in fact to make up what is wanting in us. We stand in the face of others without having to take up all the space. There is room, humility knows, for all of us in life. She writes, we are each an ember of the mind of God and we are each sent to illumine the other through the dark places of life to sanctuaries of truth and peace where God can be God for us because we have relieved ourselves of the ordeal of being god ourselves. We can simply unfold and become.” (see note 1)
Simply unfold and become, like those scouts who, with the humble support of the quiet instructor, could unknot their guts, unfold their limbs, and learn to float and swim.
And swim strongly, for humility is not humiliation. You do not need to be a fan of our Nationals baseball team, with the humbling pain that now involves, to know humility. Humility is not about subjugation or debasement. Humility is not about being fearful or feeble. Humility may include some quiet time, but it is not about silence.
Our lesson from Paul’s letter to Timothy is paired with our gospel today to point to this. He writes, “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and love.” Another translation has it, “God does not give us a spirit of timidity.”
The humility that Jesus lived and points his disciples to is an audacious life. This humility includes a dignity and a stature. There is no spinelessness. It involves having a healthy ego and self-respect and honoring one’s own experience and being in touch with the gifts you have been given. It can often involve great, audacious courage. But it involves a fundamental shift in the use of those gifts from our own small purposes to the large purposes of God and interests and needs of God’s people. This is an invitation for our individual lives and for our lives in relationship with one another. And this same courage is known in community, here in our Cathedral life and in our life as a people.
Early Christians understood that genuine humility opened a pathway to knowing God and to knowing Christ in each other. Humility was seen as removing obstacles to this faith. In our tradition, humility is seen as a joyful gift from God. George Herbert, the great Anglican poet, calls it “the joy of the openness of a discerning heart.”
Discerning because humility is about listening. Listening to someone, not merely listening for something to respond to. Humility is something that is done; it is an active engagement, not a silent waiting. It is a way of being together. Of being honest, of being in relationship where nothing important goes unsaid or unheard. There is a wholeness and a healthiness to humility. Humility is not just a small place, it is also a huge arena and we are invited onto the field.
But humility is not our strong suit. So often, as individuals, as priests certainly, and as a people we seem to be like the disciples. We want greatness, even greatness in our goodness. We often listen only for the gap in which to insert our views. We are ready to boast, “mission accomplished” long before doing the work of building real peace. We are quick to see it all as a race to be won. And we are so slow to see that the dignity of the planet is put at profound risk by our own arrogant patterns and habits. Humility is not our strong suit.
Yet, when we see and experience holy humility it changes our lives. This last week I’ve been pestering colleagues and family and some of you to tell me in whom they’ve seen the sort of humility Jesus exemplifies and points us toward. I’ve heard stories about a single mother’s commitment to her six children, and a teacher’s sacrifices for her students, and a doctor’s gentle listening for the real cause of pain, and even a priest’s modesty in turning a life around. I have heard about St. Francis and his turning away from wealth to the hopes of those most at risk.
I’ve heard about Gandhi bringing down an empire by wearing homespun cotton while serving tea to his opponents. And I’ve heard about the monks in Burma facing machine guns, and of Mother Teresa walking the slums while doubting her own faith. And about countless acts of acknowledging the other, of graciousness, of thankfulness, of seeking and offering forgiveness, of being in the suffering of others, of knowing our place.
In these stories and experiences we see that humility is something we know a lot about. We know that it is about relationship. It is about making space for the other so love can flourish. The humility we see in each of those stories is about being strong and clear and motivated and seeking…together. Seeking not self, but the other. When we act out of humility, God works through us. Our purposes and God’s purposes can be aligned.
This is indeed about finding our own firm place in that country called humility, about living in the right scale. We Americans like big things. Big projects and grand ambitions. We don’t relate so well to the symbol of the mustard seed, that idea that with the smallest, truthful, humble faith anything is possible. Yet, we know it rings true.
The poet Mary Oliver is gifted at finding her place and big sacred things in the small and ordinary of creation. I want to close with few words from her poem about the power of a simple ray of morning light through her window. She writes,
Hello, you who make the morning
And spread into the windows of even the
Miserable and crotchety.
Best preacher that ever was,
To keep us from ever-darkness,
To ease us with warm touching,
To hold us in the great hands of light—
Good morning, good morning, good morning
Watch now how I can start the day
In happiness, in kindness. (see note 2)
1. Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages by Joan Chittister, Crossroad 1996
2. Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press 2004