The Power of Humility – Proper 31
(1Thessalonians 2.9-13; Matthew 23.1-12)
Just 7 short weeks ago I was installed as Provost with all the ceremony this Cathedral could muster. Both before and since that wonderful occasion, I have received many warm messages of congratulation on my promotion. My family and I have moved into the wonderful Provost’s house provided, just a short walk from the West Door, giving me a magnificent view as I walk to work. We have been enjoying our spacious living quarters. And in those 7 weeks I’ve enjoyed the thrill of a packed cathedral as Mothers Union members gathered from across the UK for their annual convention, this year in Edinburgh; I’ve been stirred by the magnificence of our choir; I’ve enjoyed beginning to get to know talented and dedicated colleagues.
At St Martin’s, my previous charge, someone came in to offer a bit of admin support for 2 hours a week; here we’re blessed with 2 secretaries staffing the office. At St Martin’s if a bulb blew it was usually me up the ladder changing it; here there are vergers. So even as these 7 weeks have flown by, there have been many moments to appreciate that this is all rather wonderful; the temptation to feel that I have arrived.
And then I read today’s gospel, to be reminded once again of our Gospel’s ability to challenge and disturb, as well as comfort and inspire: All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. And I am left wondering, as Jesus should cause us to ponder, if I am walking in the footsteps of him who humbled himself, taking the form of a slave. In this magnificent building, with all the wonderful resources at our disposal, what has humility to do with it?
Despite the personal reflections with which I began, it would be somewhat ironic if a sermon on humility became all about me. So let me widen the lens somewhat, for in our age of aggressive self-promotion, and the exaltation of personal autonomy as a self-evident good above all others, we need to hear and respond to our gospel challenge of the power of humility.
All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. Jesus’ words come at the end of a passage critiquing the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the religious leaders. Humility counters the tendency to think it is what we say, and not what we do that matters; that it is the outer show, and what sets us apart from others, that bolsters our sense of self and who we are – the broad phylacteries and long fringes have their contemporary equivalents I’m sure; as well as those who love the best seats and to be greeted with respect. Jesus’ overriding concern is with self-righteousness, basing our confidence in that setting of ourselves apart and above others, rather than in our relationship with God and neighbour. And humility is the antidote to that. For rather than it being the abnegation of self, humility is the desire to be in relationship, rather than glory in self-sufficiency, it is about beginning with an acknowledgement of need –our need of God, but also our need of others.
H. Richard Niebuhr: ‘The humility of Christ is not the moderation of keeping one’s exact place in the scale of being, but rather that of absolute dependence on God and absolute trust in him, with the consequent ability to move mountains.’
Humility, in this understanding, is not a shrinking, false modesty, but a recognition that God and community are prior – are the realities on which we stand and build. Humility is the movement from desire for self-in-opposition-to-others, to desire for self-in-through-and-with-others. Humility does not therefore destroy selfhood but is the necessary underpinning for us to come into our own unique being. Humility is not about the neglect of self, a life-denying martyr complex, but about living the truth that we come to fulfilment in, through and with others. Humility is what connects love of God, our dependence on God, with love of neighbour, a recognition that we are nothing without one another.
So Christianity needs to rediscover the power of humility. And what is true for each of us, for me and for you, is also true for this Cathedral. That it exists not for itself, not for the magnificence of the building, or the beauty of the choir, but so that these things may re-connect us with God, and with our neighbours; sent out in appreciation that we come to be in and through and with others.
Dorothee Soelle: Jesus’ attitude toward life was that it cannot be possessed, hoarded, safeguarded. What we can do with life is share it, pass it along, get it as a gift and give it on.
And we embody that truth in every act of communion – as we give thanks, acknowledge our dependence on God and then are formed with others, by the action of the Holy Spirit, into the Body of Christ in this place, to be sent out for the life of the world. For me that presents the challenge of helping to think about how all the resources of this place can draw people in to trusting in God and becoming more deeply connected to one another; it is thinking about how that wonderful house can be a place of hospitality and generous living; but for all of us it is about being drawn into that mind and practise of Christ, who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but humbled himself. Amen.