Restoring a sense of humility in our day
When Emily asked if I could preach today I did not realize that I had already begun preparing for this homily – until I read the Gospel for the day! For my birthday earlier this summer Peg gave me New York Times columnist, David Brooks’, latest book, The Road to Character, which zeros in on the lesson of today’s parable, humility, with its familiar aphorism: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
With its seeds in Greek, Roman, and oriental cultures as well as the Hebrew community where Jesus picked it up, this traditional virtue, humility, seems to have disappeared from the landscape of our lives today. It appears to have been replaced by ‘trust yourself’ and ‘you are special’ messages, ‘winning at all costs’ mentality, and now the selfie generation.
David Brooks tells about his sudden awareness of this shift. One day, while driving home he was listening to a program called Command Performance on NPR. The episode being broadcast was the day after VJ Day, August 15, 1945. The program featured Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Bette Davis and other celebrities. What struck David was that here in the midst of one of the greatest military victories in human history, the tone was subdued in this broadcast, no chest thumping, but more self-effacement and humility. Rise Stevens sang Ave Maria and the host, Bing Crosby, came on to say, “Today, though, our deep-down feeling is one of humility.” Sure there was confetti and kissing in Times Square. But there was a real mixture of joy and solemnity. David sat in his driveway listening to the end of the program, mesmerized.
When he went inside he turned on a football game. I quote: “A quarterback threw a short pass to a wide-receiver, who was tackled almost immediately for a two-yard gain. The defensive player did what all professional athletes do these days in moments of personal achievement. He did a self-puffing victory dance, as the camera lingered. It occurred to me,” David continues, “that I had just watched more self-celebration after a two-yard gain than I heard after the United States won World War II.”
What on earth has happened? David did some research and found a study in which psychologists asked 10,000 adolescents this question in the late 1940s and again in 1989: Do you consider yourself a very important person? In the early study 12% said yes. Forty years later, the answer of another 10,000 adolescents was yes, 80% of boys, and 77% of girls. Or take the subject of fame. A 1976 study showed fame ranking very low as a life’s ambition, 15 out of 16 items. By 2007 51% of young people reported that being famous was one of their top goals.
Then David looked at some Girl Scout handbooks and found an earlier copy which preached an ethic of self-sacrifice. A more recent copy tells girls to pay more attention to themselves: “Put yourself in the center stage of your thoughts to gain perspective on your own ways of feeling, thinking and acting.”
Now a confession: Humility is not my strong suit. My own ego has always been a challenge. My parent’s pride, especially in my academic achievements and scholarships, did not help. My place in the family, coming after a developmentally disabled older sister did not help, nor that I was the first son in a traditional German American home. All these things and a confident and loquacious personality conspired to challenge me.
I remember clearly latching on to a verse from the Psalms in my Sunday School days, which was of some help: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of the Lord….”
Years later after being elected to the General Conference of The United Methodist Church and being nominated for bishop in a delegation meeting, the old ambition demons were set loose. A near heart attack and open heart bypass surgery came to my aid that time. And some clear limits initiated by my dear wife! Humility is still not my strong suit.
In today’s parable Jesus was at the home of a leader of the Pharisees as other guests arrived for the dinner. He noticed how people acted, especially how they managed to place themselves at or near the head table. Here was a perfect teachable moment and Jesus did not hesitate. He immediately launched into a story about a wedding banquet and how to seat oneself at the tables, concluding with the well-known injunction : “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” It was a barely camouflaged analogy to what he was seeing among the guests.
That is not the end, however. Jesus then turns to the host and virtually instructs him that for his next dinner banquet he should not invite his friends, relatives and rich neighbors – some of the very people who are right there listening to Jesus – but rather invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. He tells the Pharisee host, if you do this you will be blessed. And that is still not enough. When a dinner guest blurts out, “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God”, Jesus tells another parable, an even more elaborate story of a great dinner. You can read that after your lunch. Luke 14:verse 15 and following.
Jesus did not just talk about humility either. This attitude was central to who he was. He also ate with tax collectors and sinners. He talked with women of the streets. He touched lepers. He identified with the poor. Jesus’ humility culminates in the humiliation and suffering of the Crucifixion, as Paul testifies in his letter to the Philippians:
Have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name….
“He humbled himself.” How on earth do we humble ourselves in this selfie culture?
Let’s begin with some models of humility. One thinks of the desert monks, or Albert Schweitzer who humbled himself before the smallest creatures and critters on earth, or Mother Theresa, soon to be named a saint, who served among “the poorest of the poor,” or some of the greatest artists such as Michelangelo who always created an intentional flaw in each work of art to acknowledge their humility before the Creator God.
Or General George Marshall, at President Roosevelt’s side throughout the war, and then Secretary of State and author of the Marshall Plan. This account is in David’s book. As Marshall lay dying, age 79, messages came from all over the world, from General Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle, Mao se-tung, Joseph Stalin, Marshall Tito. Visiting at his bedside were former President Harry Truman and even 84 year old Winston Churchill, from England. Marshall was a towering figure of the day. Take a listen to his funeral plans: “Bury me simply, like any ordinary officer of the U.S. Army who has served his country honorably. No fuss. No elaborate ceremonials. Keep the service short, confine the guest list to the family. And above all, do it quietly.”
My most memorable lesson in humility occurred when I entered a chartered airplane at O’Hare Airport for the flight to Atlanta and Dr. King’s funeral in April, 1968. The plane was overbooked and I was asked to leave. My traveling mate, Jim Barnes, Lay Leader at the church I was serving on Chicago’s south side, who already had a seat, stood up, and insisted to the stewardess that I, his pastor, be allowed to take his place, and with that he immediately left the airplane. I’ve never been so humbled as on that sad day.
Humility is truly a gift of grace. It is an ability to say, “I’ve screwed up” “I’ve sinned” “I need help.” It is self-awareness of our humanity, of our limitations, of our interdependence with others and with all creation. Humility is an attitude of openness, vulnerability, surrender, of outstretched arms ready both to receive and to give. Humility is recognition that each of us is a stumbler, to borrow a word from David Brooks, but as we grow, as we unite with God as companion, we stumble less. Humility helps remind us that we are not the center of the universe, we are not superior to anyone else. True humility allows no room for racist, sexist, homophobic or nationalistic attitudes or any other bigotry.
But today, sadly, humility is portrayed as weakness, and it is clearly ridiculed by certain candidates in the current election campaign. On the contrary, humility has within it a deep spiritual strength, an uncommon acceptance of life. I recall so vividly that day, 50 years ago August 5th, in Marquette Park on the South Side, when we were marching with Dr. King for fair housing and an open city. To be surrounded by hundreds of angry local residents lobbing missiles of hatred at us over the heads of a line of Chicago police officers, missiles in the form of jeers and bottles and bricks, this was a humbling experience. It was, in a sense, the way of the cross, to be totally non-violent, at least trying to be, accepting of the hostility, expressing love in the face of hate. Some of you might recall feeling a similar, if less intense, humility in the midst our diocesan-led Crosswalk against violence here in Chicago a few years ago. Are there persons here who were on that Crosswalk?
Humility is an attitude of openness to God. In the words of an old hymn, “Pass me not, O gentle Savior, hear my humble cry; while on others thou art calling, do not pass me by.” Humbling ourselves asks God to accompany us in life’s journey, to embrace us, to share our joys and sorrows and angers. As the Apostle Peter writes to the elders, that’s you, Emily, and me: “Clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another.” And Paul, to all of us: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience….. And above all clothe yourselves with love.”
When we open our hearts humbly to ourselves, to others and to God we are preparing the way for a life of joy, reverence, interdependence, and true non-violence, the way of peace and Shalom. So, I dare you all, myself included, “wrap yourself in humility.” If this is a message you can affirm, join me in saying “Amen.”
Rev. Martin Deppe
All Saints Episcopal Church, Chicago
August 28, 2016