Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Strength of Humility

15th Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 17 (Year C)
Proverbs 25.6-7; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16; Luke 14.1, 7-14
Sunday, August 28, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

What would Emily Post or Miss Manners say? Hosting a dinner party without a seating chart and place cards? It can only lead to chaos – people elbowing their way to the seats of greatest honor. Shameful!

With all due respect to our mavens of etiquette, that wasn’t how things were done back in Jesus’ day. At feasts and banquets, the male guests would recline on couches. And there was a hierarchy to the placement of the couches. The center couch – the equivalent of the head table – was the place of highest honor. The perceived level of honor decreased as you got farther away from the center couch. Being seated in a place of honor was based on wealth or power. And it was somewhat fluid. If a more prominent guest arrived (fashionably) late, someone of lower rank would be moved to a place of lesser honor to make room for the more prestigious guest.

At the particular party Jesus is attending in our Gospel reading, he observes that some of the guests are jockeying for positions of honor. The implication is that these guests thought themselves of higher prestige, worthy of greater honor, than they may actually deserve. They were, as my mother would say, getting a little too big for their britches. Jesus offers his observations of the social situation in the form of a parable. He says that if you take a seat of honor that is not rightfully yours, you face embarrassment when the host removes you in favor of a more honored guest. Instead, it is better to take a seat in the lowest position. Then the host, upon observing where you are sitting, may move you to a higher position, thereby exalting you in the eyes of all present.

Of course, Jesus was not actually commenting on dinner party etiquette or the merits of seating charts and place cards. Nor was he offering a strategy for eliciting honor and praise from the host and the invited guests. He uses the situation as an opportunity to teach a lesson about humility. The bottom line is that Jesus is suggesting it is preferable to live humbly than to intentionally seek exaltation from others.

When it comes to humility, the Church and secular society have differing views, which can put us in a difficult position to sort it all out. Various passages of Scripture commend the virtues of humility either directly (Proverbs 15.33, 18.12, 22.4; Sirach 1.27, 3.17; Colossians 3.12; 1 Peter 5.5) or indirectly. Based on what the Bible says about humility, we in the Church view it as a good thing (kinda sorta). But this tends to be tempered by secular views regarding humility. Our contemporary society tends to view humility as not necessarily a good thing, particularly when it comes to such arenas as business and politics. Where it is viewed as equated with lowliness, meekness, even weakness and powerlessness. Generally speaking. Because, of course, it’s all contextual. So what are we supposed to make of Jesus’ injunction to live a life of humility? Particularly in our own day and culture.

It helps to understand that, from Jesus’ perspective, humility has a far deeper, more nuanced meaning than we attribute to it in secular society. Humility actually means having strength in a different way, in a spiritual way, in a holy way. Humility is a fundamental part of what God intended in the creation of humanity. Notice that “humanity” and “humility” sound very similar. This is because both words are derived from the same word – from humus, the Latin word for dirt. This means that in the minds of the ancients, there is a connection between humanity and humility.

Let’s start with humanity. Genesis tells us “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen 2.7). We have two significant things going on here. First, the basic form of humanity is out of dirt. Humans are made of the common, everyday stuff that the rest of the world is made from. And second, humans are animated by the breath of God – ruach, which is the same word for Spirit. A dirt form is animated by the Spirit of God to become human. That which provides life to the dirt form is from God, is of God. That breath of God in the Spirit becomes a fundamental part of who we are and continues to dwell in us. Humanity, therefore, consists of the stuff of worldly creation – dirt – as well as the divine – the breath or Spirit of God. In fact, before the creation of the first man, we are told that God declared, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen 1.26).

It is this incorporation of the Spirit with the earthiness to form humankind that is of critical importance. It is what give sacredness to the humus of which we are made. Being made in the image and likeness of God through the breathed-in Spirit is what give us our unique qualities as human beings. Just as God is Creator of all that is, we too have that same creative spark within us. It is this spark that provides each of us with the gifts and talents that allow us to exercise our creative potential. It is this spark that makes each of us the unique individuals that we are. Not something that we ourselves do, but something that we are given.

And then there’s the place of humility. As we noted, “humility” is also derived from humus, dirt. Off the bat, if we are starting with dirt, we might see how it’s easy to have a lowly and negative impression of humility. But that’s not the case from God’s perspective. It’s far more sacred than that. Humility is really the recognition of our dirt-ness, of our own earthiness, of our creation from the earth. It is a matter of recognizing where we come from. Of who made us and how. Humility is about getting in touch with our very foundation, the very stuff of which we are made. With the physical beings that we are, incorporating the humus from which God made us. And with the spiritual beings that we are, incorporating ruach by which God breathed life into us.

Graham Standish, a Presbyterian minister, in writing on humility in the context of church leadership, casts a new light on this connection between humanity and humility when he writes, “From the perspective of Genesis, humility isn’t weakness. It is awareness and appreciation of the fact that we are made of earth and Spirit, and that it is the Spirit part of us that gives us our creativity, our abilities, our insights, and our skills . . . The humble person sees her abilities as a gift from God, not as evidence of personal greatness” (Humble Leadership, 13-14).

This is fundamental to our relationship with God. For sin – separation from God – is only reinforced when we believe and live out of the perspective that our uniqueness is due to our own efforts independent of God. When we fail to recognize that what makes us unique and what gives us value is precisely the qualities and gifts we have been given by God. Humility is the starting point for our appreciation of just what God has given us so that we can begin to more fully use those gifts for the purposes they were given.

Another way to look at this is that humility provides us with a grounded-ness in who we are – of what we are made of and who made us. It provides a grounded-ness in how we are to approach our very humanity. In relation to God, in relation to ourselves, and in relation to the broader society. In this grounded-ness we are given the opportunity for a radical openness to God, to ourselves, and to others. We are open to being guided by the Spirit to do what God desires for us and for the use of the gifts we have been given. This means a shift in the direction of our concerns. Our society is driven by concern for security and survival, by position and prestige; by looking out for ourselves at the expense of God and the welfare of others. Humility, on the other hand, means having the courage to be open to God, to follow where he leads – resistant to ways of culture and convention. It means freeing ourselves from those limited concerns and broadening our perspective to be concerned with the whole of creation of which we are made and an integral part. Humility, therefore, allows us to become focused on God and others rather than being self-focused.

This grounded-ness that is humility allows us to be open to be guided by the Spirit to do what God desires for us and for the use of the gifts he has given us. Not for our own benefit, but the for the benefit of all humanity, for all creation. For we were made from the stuff of creation to be a part of creation for the benefit of creation. In this, humility is not about denying our self-worth, as is commonly thought. Rather, we redefine the locus of our self-worth. Humility recognizes the true source of our self-worth – that it comes from being created by God in the image and likeness of God. That it comes from being beloved of God. That it comes from being in partnership with God in the creative work of his kingdom.

At its essence, humility is really about faithfully living into who God created us to be. Recognizing the source of our life and of our gifts and talents. And even more importantly, having the courage to use those gifts and talents not for our own glory, but rather for the glory of God and in the service of God’s kingdom. For when we do, we find that we are exalted by God and blessed in unexpected ways.

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