October 12, 1980
Reading: Philippians 2: 1 - 12
"Humility is hard to handle; I mean just to understand, let alone to practice. For example, some people seem, in their mind's eye, to see a sort of ladder of humility, with themselves close to the top rung. Jesus said, 'He who humbles himself will be exalted.' But Nietzsche, watching Christians, said, 'He who humbles himself wills to be exalted.' Nietzsche linked the humility of Christians to lack of spirit, to self-abasement. Others associate humility with masochism. Surely you have seen them, these Christian masochists, who can't wait to turn themselves into doormats, eagerly awaiting the hobnail boots of the sadists. Of course, the smart sadist won't oblige them. The smart sadist knows that the smart thing to do to a masochist is nothing!
"So, amidst all this confusion, what are we to say about humility? What does St. Paul mean: 'have this mind among yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus who humbled himself'?
"The other day on television I watched a well-known TV preacher inveighing against sex education in the schools. He was part of a panel and, seizing the initiative, he turned to a fellow panelist, clearly not of his persuasion, and asked bluntly, 'Are you for premarital sex?' Taken aback, the panelist began a 'no but,' or 'yes but' kind of qualified answer when the preacher cut him off. 'I am glad to say I am not, sir, and glad that you are not the teacher of my children.'
"I regretted that the panelist lost the initiative to the preacher. He might have answered, 'Mr. Preacher, didn't your own Lord and Savior prefer adulterers and prostitutes to their judges?'
:Thoreau said, 'There are a thousand hacking at the branches of the tree of evil to one who is striking at the root.' The root of evil is not lack of chastity but lack of charity. The root of evil has little to do with whether or not we are law-abiding, and everything to do with whether or not we are love-abiding. Chastity is a matter of the law. Love is a matter of grace. This is not to say that chastity isn't right for certain people at certain times, and maybe for their entire lives. But it is to say that love is indispensable at all times, that grace transcends the law. Why did Jesus prefer prostitutes and adulterers to their judges? He couldn't stand spiritual arrogance.
"Why did he prefer the prodigal son to the one who stayed at home? He couldn't stand spiritual arrogance. Why did he prefer the tax collector to the Pharisee? Again, a matter of spiritual arrogance. Hans Küng described the God of our Lord as a God 'who seemed to have abandoned his own law, a God not of the devout observers of the law, but of the lawbreakers, and even we might say with very slight exaggeration a God not of the God-fearing but of the godless.'
"We forget how truly scandalous is the teaching of Jesus for our time, as well as for that time. And so we miss the much needed consolation found in his reassuring descriptions of God as a woman, or shepherd, rejoicing at finding what is lost; as a magnanimous king, a generous lender, a gracious judge who forgives sins on the spot.
"I say all this because humility comes from the Latin 'humus,' which means 'earth.' I think Christians should be more earthy not only earthly, but earthy. Certain it is that we are earthbound. Those who think differently, who think we should head straight for heaven forget that on our way up we shall pass, on his way down, the Son of God himself. If Heaven comes to earth, why on earth should anyone head for Heaven? Isn't that spiritual arrogance? Isn't that saying with the Pharisee, 'I thank God I am not as other people are'?
"Besides, none of us can really rise that high. The moral profile of any human being resembles the silhouette of a giraffe: lofty up front, perhaps, but dragging a bit behind! So humility has something to do with being earthly, and even earthy.
"What else can we say? I said at the outset that humility is often associated with feeling guilty. Actually, guilt is more related to pride than to humility. In fact, guilt may be the last stronghold of pride. For guilt represents my opinion of myself, whereas forgiveness represents yours, or God's. I can make excuses for myself, but I cannot forgive myself; not if we can only forgive what we cannot condone. You can forgive me, and God can forgive me, but I cannot forgive myself. And it just may be that I am too proud to allow you or God to do for me what I cannot do for myself. Sometimes it is more blessed to receive than to give. At least it takes more humility. So, to be humble means to be earthy, and also to accept our forgiveness, remembering that our value is a gift, not an achievement.
"One more suggestion. To be humble means that you are so busy thinking about others that you actually forget yourself. In other words, to be humble means to be loving, which sounds straightforward enough, but it isn't. In the first place, to love others you have to love yourself. Love is the gift of oneself, and how will you make a gift of that which you hate? (We are back to our last point about forgiveness.) Moreover, to love means to become vulnerable, to take risks. I wonder how many of us, for the sake of others, are willing to lose money. Quite a few I would imagine. But, let us ask how many of us, for the sake of others, are willing to lose our good reputation? Fewer, I would imagine. For even though we know that what counts is not how we look in the eyes of others, but how we look in the eyes of God and his angels, nonetheless, that knowledge emotionally is difficult to appropriate. And now suppose, for the sake of the world, we Americans were asked to give up our military supremacy. Would we give up power for love? W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: 'How extraordinary,' and what a tribute to ignorance and religious hypocrisy, is the fact that in the minds of most people, even those of liberals, only murder makes men. The slave pleaded, he was humble, he protected the women of the South; and the world ignored him. The slave killed white men, and behold, he was a man.'
"People today think the Soviet Union is a great power because it bristles with nuclear weapons. Well, I tell you the Soviet Union is not a great power; only a very large country. And I am afraid I often feel the same way about my own country, particularly when I think most Americans don't so much fear Communists as they fear appearing soft on Communists. (If true, that's pathetic.) In any case, I think it fair to say that neither the U.S. nor the USSR could properly be called humble. What then should Christian citizens do? Surely they should heed the words of Jeremiah, 'Learn not the way of nations'; and at the very least, they should not 'fall over one another to enlist in the Swiss guard of the power elite' (C. Wright Mills).
I cannot resist a fourth point, which I'll make briefly. Humility spells joy. It's fun to be earthy, it's joyful to be forgiven, and there is simply nothing like that sense of undeserved integrity which comes in moments of grace when we are truly able to love. But more: St. Paul wrote, 'Not I, but Christ who dwells within me,' and William Blake is reputed to have backed off from a finished and glorious picture, exclaiming, 'Not I, not I.' St. Paul, and Blake, both understood that whatever is of good is of God. It seems to me that to the degree you don't have to take credit for your talents, to that same degree you are truly free to enjoy them. I love to see somebody receive a compliment and hear her say 'Thank you' with all the gratitude and joy that comes with not having to say, 'Oh, well, it's nothing really, nothing much.'
"So, dear parishioners, my word for the week ahead is, 'Be humble: i.e., earthy, forgiven, loving, and full of joy.' "