St. Michael and All Angels
October 30, 2011
It’s a good thing that we are committed to following the lectionary because it is tempting too many Sundays to skip over it to something more palatable. The gospel lesson this Sunday is one that I would love to skip. After all, a sermon on humility for adults is like a lecture for kids on the importance of eating your vegetables or the old “clean your plate, there are starving children in China”. Perhaps I’d like to skip it because I don’t really want to think about humility. I’d rather think about something more lofty.
I’m struck by how often what we want to think about or how we want to spend our time, may not be what is most needed. I just returned from a week in Nashville with young clergy from around the country who were gathering to complete a program that had one assignment…form a support group in your home town. They had two years to complete the task. They chose to be part of this program so they weren’t coerced in any way. My job that week was to talk with the participants and hear about their experiences. On the last day, I reported to the whole group what I had heard. Here is what I heard over and over from them… “it’s hard to form a group”, “everyone is busy”, “some people moved so we couldn’t get a group going”. All of those things are true. I hear them every day in the work that I do. Forming community is HARD WORK. People really are too busy to do it. Lives are always in transition so there isn’t the stability we need to be able to form the community we desire. What I found myself asking throughout the week was, “what’s underneath comments about being hard, busy, and people moving?” It was then that I began to hear some of the blocks to forming a group. It’s scary and we don’t ultimately know if we can trust one another. If we are really honest, we are ambivalent about intimacy with other clergy. We aren’t good at being hospitable with all the parts of ourselves. How can we show hospitality to others and invite them to form a group?
I love talking with my friend Rusty from St. Martin’s who always responds, “That’s real.” Somehow when he says that, I know he’s hearing me.
So here is my response to the people I met in Nashville. “That’s real. I honor that in you. And I think that God is calling us more deeply into the real so we can truly be followers.” Can we spend some time with what is most real in us so that we can more fully be those who have been made in God’s image and called into this precious world to offer our lives?
I wonder if Jesus was pointing out what is true in Matthew: the Pharisees were teaching people how to follow God and Jesus seemed to respect their teaching. He knew this was true…the Pharisees cared about the Law. They were worried about the cynicism in Israel and hoped to restore people to God. Their heart was in the right place, but somehow along the way, they began to act as though they were entitled to certain privileges. They seemed to believe they had an exclusive connection to God.
What if he’s inviting them and us into a deeper understanding of what is real? Don’t we often start with the right intentions? How many leaders, how many politicians, how many of us begin with a deep commitment to do the right thing and somewhere along the way things get a bit muddy?
I learned something interesting from a friend who is a Greek scholar (as in he reads stuff in Greek just for fun). He was reading a gardening book in Greek and found that the word hubris refers to when a plant is overgrown and it gets woody and needs to be cut off. What if pride for humans is about our being overgrown and reaching beyond what we’re supposed to be? Humility in this sense, means being close to the earth – maybe even clear to our roots. It means being exactly who you are supposed to be in order to produce fruit.
You know the verse in Micah that says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8) We love to love this verse. What isn’t there to love about justice, kindness, and walking with God. But what about the walking humbly with God? Orienting our whole life toward God is another matter. Humility is an invitation to be rooted in God so that we can be fruitful. It is about shifting our gaze from the goals we have set to the call God has for us.
It seems to me that rooting our lives in God really means being radically open to God. That isn’t a one time thing, but something we practice daily as we actively seek God in all that we do. Radical openness isn’t about just hearing from God, but bringing all of who we are to God and that is where things start to get tricky. When we look at the fullness of who we are, we want to start editing and hiding parts of ourselves. Perhaps this is the place where broad phylacteries and long fringes come in handy! Who can blame Adam and Eve for the fig leaves? Don’t we want to cover ourselves?
What if Jesus is telling us to set aside the “stuff” we put on to make ourselves presentable to God and the rest of the world and take a “long, loving look at the real.” Those are the words that Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt used to describe contemplation. What happens in that real place? It seems to be that place where we tenderly connect with the deepest part of our being and hopefully begin to experience compassion for ourselves. Certainly in that place, God is filling us with love.
Thomas Merton describes humility as being precisely the person you actually are before God. (New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 99)
It is in that place of the real that we fall into step with God and find that we don’t need to cover up with fancy words or fancy stories. It is here that we see ourselves through God’s eyes and together shift our gaze toward a world that needs us.
One of the gifts from my trip to Nashville was hearing Trevor Hudson speak. Trevor is a pastor in South Africa and a man of deep humility. He was so open and we immediately knew we were in the presence of a man who is both rooted and real. One of the things that Trevor said that I cannot shake was how important it is to remain amateurs. To be an amateur is to do something because I love doing it. Trevor believes that God says to us, “I hope you always remain an amateur.” It isn’t easy to do in a culture that wants everything to be professionalized. We professionalize ministry and leadership and public service. But we should never professionalize being a Christian. We do this because we love God and we desire to grow in love with a God who first loved us. As Kathleen Norris says, “there are no prodigies in the monastic life.” It seems as if the Pharisees had declared themselves no longer amateurs. Had they lost sight of their love for God and become enamored with their own power?
I feel a bit hypocritical saying this as I prepare to join the staff here in a month. But I need you to know that I am not joining the staff to be a professional Christian. It is my desire to grow in love with God every day and to have that love translate into my relationships with you and the world. I am looking for ways for us to come together and be real with one another. I want us to gather around our love for God and our desire to grow more deeply into the people God created us to be. I want us to take risks together as we seek to be God’s people in the world. It is my prayer that as we walk humbly with God, we will bring justice and kindness to the whole world.