NOTE: Throughout February and March, our congregation will be preparing to celebrate our 250th anniversary. I will be reflecting on our history in the light of three contemporary commitments to humility, hospitality and hope. This is the first in a series and takes place before we meet for our annual meeting on February 2, 2014.
Today we gather to celebrate a unique way of being Christ’s faithful servants together. More than a mere business assembly or bureaucratic necessity, the occasion of our annual meeting is actually a time to return thanks to God and renew our sacred vows in a manner not unlike that once advocated by the prophet Micah. For 250 years, this congregation has wrestled with the call of the ancient prophet who once asked Israel: What does the Lord require of you? And like our spiritual forbearers, generation after generation finds us returning to the prophetic reply: the Lord calls us to do justice, to love mercy and to walk in humility with our God.
· You see, in the Congregational Way we are a pilgrim people of prayer dedicated to loving God and caring for one another with compassion because we have discerned that doing one without the other is dangerous. Without a commitment to a love and power greater than ourselves, we know that human beings can become cruel and mean-spirited; yet without an allegiance to one another in community, we’ve seen our religions descend into self-absorbed navel gazing, superstition and scape-goating.
· That is why our tradition keeps returning to the paradoxical promise of the prophet who taught us that what the Lord requires in every generation is to do justice in the real world, love and practice mercy and compassion in the midst of imperfect people who are just as beautiful and wounded as ourselves and walk in the way of the Lord with humility. President Obama, who comes out of our own Congregational tradition, put it like this in his recent interview in The New Yorker when asked about how he frames making decisions that will impact millions of lives:
I have strengths and weaknesses, like every President and every person… I am comfortable with complexity and I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am the product of original sin. And every morning and every night I’m taking measure of my actions against the options and possibilities available to me, understanding that there are going to be mistakes that I make and my team makes and that America makes; understanding that there are going to limits to the good we can do and the bad that we can prevent and that there’s going to tragedy out there, too… I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past, but we also inherit the beauty and the joy and the goodness of our forebears, too.
In other words, as people of faith we live and move and act in this world – doing justice and loving compassion – but always through the lens of humility. And that’s what I want to call your attention to this morning as we prepare for our annual meeting: humility.
· It is the foundation upon which the best of our tradition is constructed. It is the essential spiritual commitment for anyone engaged in the work of social justice. And it is God’s gift to people like you and me that serves as sacred safeguard against becoming windbags and bullies. As the ancient masters used to say: Humility is a teacher – it is learned by practice – and if you cannot practice it, you cannot learn it.
Some of you know that last week I took an unplanned week of vacation to visit a friend who is moving closer to death back in Tucson, AZ. Given the arctic air that engulfed most of America it was an excellent time to be away in the sunny Southwest. But before we could escape the cold – or even return to it again – we had to endure flight cancellations, delays, frozen water pipes on the planes and all the rest. And the only reason I mention this is that it gave me a lot of time to think – and pray – about today and our upcoming year in ministry.
· We have some important work to do together this year: work that involves building bridges with new allies throughout this community – work that asks us to serve as partners rather than leaders – work that helps repair some of the wounds of racism and bigotry that we ourselves once brought to birth hundreds of years ago when our ancestors acted more like plantation owners than servants of the Lord – work that will stretch and challenge us beyond our wildest imagination.
· And the only way we will be able to rise to the occasion is if we are saturated in humility. I’ve come to think that over the next few years our work might best be described as a journey into humility, hospitality and hope. And while I’ll be talking about each of these commitments over the next few weeks as we prepare for our 250th anniversary celebration, I am more and more convinced that our works of justice and compassion will fail unless we revisit and renew our dedication to what it means to walk with the Lord in humility.
Let’s be honest: humility is NOT a virtue in popular culture. “The ancient, favorable sense of the word – connoting mildness, modesty, patience of spirit and the willingness to remove oneself from the center of the universe – has been eroded in the modern era by unfavorable interpretations in which “lowly” calls to mind servility and self-abasement, “meek” is equated with cowardly submissiveness and “mildness” is interpreted as blandness – plain vanilla ice cream in a freezer crowded with Chocolate Raspberry Truffle and Swiss Almond Pralines.” (Ernest Kurtz, Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 186)
But here’s the truth about humility –etymologically and biblically – humility is all about being earthy, real and balanced. Did you know that the words humility, humor and human all have the same root? They come “from the Indo-European ghom that is best translated into English as… humus.”
· And who knows what humus is? According to the dictionary, “humus is a brown or black substance resulting from the partial decay of plant and animal matter.” It is the garbage that makes our soil fertile and the junk that enriches our lives. It is what we throw away and often overlook but is mixed-up into the very source of life.
· To practice authentic humility, you see, is to be fully human; filled with a sense of humor about ourselves and a sense of balance about our own goodness and sin.
That’s what Jesus was telling us in the first Beatitude. Traditionally we read it as “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And while that is correct, it isn’t earthy enough. I prefer Peterson’s reworking: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope because with less of you there is more of God and his rule.” Humility is about trusting God more than self – it is about getting rid of some of our junk so there’s more space for grace – and most of us don’t come by such trust automatically.
And the reason why we don’t make space for grace is because we think we are special... We might be special losers or special winners – we might believe our pain is unique and nobody understands us – or we might believe that we really do have a monopoly upon wisdom and no one else is as smart, beautiful, handsome, thrifty, brave, clean or reverent as we ourselves. But the fact of the matter is we are NOT special, not really. We are all just a funky combination of wisdom and ignorance, hope and despair, wounds and gifts, sinner and saint.
· And most of us learn this only by being knocked down a peg or two, right? It could be an addiction, it could be a divorce. Sometimes it takes being fired or waking up to discover ourselves alone and unloved.
· All too often, you see, there is a strange and even mystical relationship between walking in the humility of the Lord and being humiliated. We hate to know that in our essence we are just like everybody else – created out of the dust and dirt of the earth, the humus, as the Bible tells us – all of us, every one.
And so we keep stumbling and failing, hurting one another and ourselves until we’re ready to practice humility: what’s more, we can’t really DO justice or LOVE compassion until we are humbled. Without being emptied of our hubris, we’re just too full of ourselves and there’s no space for God’s grace. And without grace, there is just no joy in our living. One of my favorite stories from the realm of mystical Islam puts it like this: Mullah Nasrudin was sitting in a tea shop when a friend came in excitedly to speak with him.
"I'm about to get married, Mulla," his friend stated, "and I'm very excited. So tell me have you ever thought of marriage yourself?" Nasrudin replied, "I did think of getting married. In my youth in fact I very much wanted to do so. I waited to find for myself the perfect woman. I traveled everywhere looking for her, first to Damascus. There I met a beautiful woman who was gracious, kind and deeply spiritual, but she had no worldly knowledge. So I left and went to Bagdad where I met a woman who as both spiritual and worldly, so beautiful in many ways, but we did not communicate well. Finally I went to Cairo and there after much searching I found her. She was spiritually deep, graceful and beautiful in every respect: at home, in the world and at home in the realms beyond it. In her I felt I had found the perfect woman." At which point Nasrudin stated to sip his tea again. Perplexed his friend asked: "Did you not then marry her, Mulla?" "Alas," said Nasrudin shaking his head, "no, for it seems as if she waiting for the perfect man."
Over the course of our history as a congregation, the prophet Micah’s admonition to humility keeps popping up. It appears in sermons, mission statements and a variety of our covenants. Sometimes we have listened well – and the whole of Pittsfield has been blessed. But there have been other times when like ancient Israel we’ve said the right words and offered up our various extravagant sacrifices, but have not done so with humility and justice and compassion have been sacrificed to pride, status and stubbornness.
That’s why I think a careful reading of this text is in order as part of our 250th anniversary. Because if we are paying attention, we might discover that God’s invitation to do justice and love mercy comes out of the Lord’s own practice of humility. In this passage God is not angry with Israel’s arrogance or vengeful about their sins: God is heart-broken. And like a grieving mother or father before a cocky but cherished adolescent, God begins a dialogue with Israel. Did you hear that? A dialogue not a sermon or a lecture – a conversation – and it is based upon the people’s complaints about God’s expectations about the way compassionate people should live in the real world.
· Throughout chapter six of Micah God LISTENS to the complaints and concerns of the people. God doesn’t dismiss their problems or confusion, but takes them in and honors them even when they are offensive. And then the Lord offers a clear reply about why the children of Israel ought to be appreciative even when their lives have been hard.
· That is God revisits the high points of Israel’s history – the saving acts of the Lord – beginning with their exodus from slavery and climaxing with their entry into the Promised Land. Remember your REAL history God says to the people – recall the depth of my love and the breadth of my justice – and your only response can be… humility.
And just so that there can be no ambiguity, God goes on to tell the people that humility takes the shape of compassion between individuals and right relations and justice in society. Look at our history together says the Lord and KNOW that it is grounded in making flesh the gracious and life-giving practice of humility. Today we are in a place where we need to not only remember this truth, but recommit to it, too. “You are blessed when you’re at the end of your rope because with less of you there is more of God and his rule.” Lord, may it be true for us this day by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.