Monday, April 3, 2017

It’s Hard to be Humble

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached March 26, 2017
At Urban Abbey

Matthew 18:1-5 

Jesus asks the disciples to become like children, this is not the first time children have served as an object lesson for his stumbling, bumbling disciples. This moment harkens back to another time when the disciples were having just as much trouble understanding what the whole Jesus  movement was about....the time when Jesus rebuked the disciples for keeping children at bay  and says, “Let the little children come unto me.” (In proper King James English, of course). We have seen the photos or perhaps been in a church parlor or library with a framed yellowing print of Jesus surrounded by a group of delightful children. They are listening, they are attentive, no one is crying, everyone seems cool and into sharing. There are no stains from lunch, no one has their finger in their nose ready to wipe the booger on Jesus....which is a reality I have seen when you find yourself surrounded by toddlers. Jesus wants us to become like children, and while I’m not sure it has much to do with boogers, I am sure it has something to do with vulnerability and a lack of control. Jesus points to children because, once again, his disciples have forgotten the point of living like Jesus. Becoming like children means losing control. It means losing any status you might have in the regular order of the world. It means not having authority, limited choices and real vulnerability.

Early Christians approached this with a notion of transformation with love and humility. Love was the goal, the outcome that ordered all things. To love as God loves was the goal and humility was the vehicle. It was, for early monastics, the path that paved the way to love as God loved. It was the key of total transformation and it was a tough road to travel. And while we can understand perhaps love, or get closer to it, I’m not totally sure we can get close to the sense of humility that Jesus was inviting. 

When I was in Seminary, one of my friends had a party. She invited our classmates, her friends from church, and artist friends to her amazing home in Dallas. During the party, I saw a guy walk in with a bright red t-shirt and the state of Nebraska across his chest. I walked toward the door, not believing my eyes...did that say Humboldt Nebraska? Arriving in front of him, I smiled and with considerable enthusiasm, I asked, “ARE YOU from HUMBOLDT, Nebraska?” He looked confused, I looked back at his shirt, and it actually said, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re from Nebraska.” I quickly said, “I’m sorry. I misread your shirt. I’m from Plattsmouth, just south of Omaha, where are you from?” He looked confused again and then looked at his shirt and looking back at me he said, “Oh I’m not from Nebraska. I just thought this shirt was totally ironic.” I had about 50 follow up question; like, was he one of the many Texans who assumed we didn’t have running water, street lights, and shopping malls or did he really think everyone from Nebraska was a model of humility, thus rendering the shirt “totally ironic?” I didn’t really want to ask so I just said, “Oh, ok....Thanks I’m going to get something to eat.” 

It didn’t feel good that he would think Nebraska was humble. We don’t handle humility very well. Basic definitions from various dictionaries offer descriptors like, lack of pride, lack of self- worth, a low view of one’s own importance, low self-esteem or not valuing self highly. The synonyms can link you into words like shy or unassertive or unsure. This sense of humility is so far from the model Jesus and his followers embodied. Jesus wasn’t shy when he fed 5,000 people on a hillside. He gave clear directions and didn’t beat around the bush asking the disciples to take action. He didn’t have a low self-esteem or self-worth, he was confident as he took on the religious leaders of his day. He was assertive from start to finish, he was clear on his intentions, even unwilling to make an explanation to Roman officials that could have saved  his life. The early church took the model of Jesus to heart, and this goal of love was filled by humility, but it was not a humility born out of one’s lack of value. Rather, it gave them the courage to be truly humble. It was, and is, humility of deep value, made in the image of God as a follower of Christ. 

Humility has two key aspects: one is repentance and the other is avoiding judgement.  Repentance is an opportunity, and it is something we hate doing. We hate hearing about mistakes or missteps, and it is hard to receive instruction or guidance that can help us grow. It can make us feel small, and if we have placed our value in that ability to do everything just right, well, it can be a blow to our self-worth. Perhaps you feel the sting when someone makes a suggestion or names a concern? I know I do. I struggle when people correct or challenge, even when it is done with love. It becomes easy to want to deflect or explain or undo something.  Early monastics looked to this as an opportunity to live ever more closely to God’s love. They didn’t resent a correction, challenge or concern - it was a chance to grow. Repentance, seeing forgiveness, was a grace. Any they could hear what they had done wrong or name their mistakes because they were so loved and so valued it was safe to learn, change, repent, be forgiven and grow. Their value wasn’t based on doing everything right or the appearance of doing everything right; their value was in God’s deep love. 

Just as humility frees Christians from the risk of embarrassment or a bruised ego, the other side of humility is refraining from judgement. Refraining from judgement is hard - it was hard then, and it is hard now. This is why the Abbots and Abbesses challenged people bringing a concern about another to notice the brokenness that judgment could create. As a part of this humility, right and wrong behaviors could not be listed or made easily into a code. Love is more complicated than black and white choices. Living in real love is more complicated and more discerning, which means judging another is impossible. 

Origen of Alexandria named this journey with a powerful metaphor. He invited us to think of our journey as sailing a ship. It requires our thought, our learning, our care, our intention and our effort to navigate through the sea, but we do not do it alone. God’s grace powers our craft, and love is the wind that fills our sails. We are asked to be open to it, to navigate with it. The power of our humility is in the love of God, the knowledge that we are of worth and value, which allows us to be truly vulnerable and brave in our journey. May we have the courage to be open, to seek forgiveness and transformation as a gift for our journey. May we have the courage to navigate the seas of struggle and hope all around us and may we grow into those with humble hearts who love as God loves. 

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QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION

What does it mean to be humble? What does it look like when you see it? What does it look like when it is missing? What is one positive example of humility...someone you know? What do you love about interacting with them? 

How do you feel when you hear the word repent? Do you feel like there are any times and places where you have asked for forgiveness or offered it to yourself or others? 

What does the word judgment mean for you? How do you feel about it when it is directed towards you? Can you name a time when you have judged others and what that was about for you? What would it mean to refrain from judgement?