what would marian anderson say to us about humility...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes from Sunday, January 29, 2017 on the occasion of
our annual meeting and my last Sunday as a full-time pastor.


Today is our time for blessing: blessing one another, welcoming the Lord’s blessing in each of our unique lives, blessing the broken but beautiful world we live in, and blessing this moment in time with a commitment to humility. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said. “Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are you when you are at the end of your rope, blessed are you when your heart is broken… for when there is less of you, there is more of God and God’s kingdom.” (Matthew 5)

Blessings saturate our scriptures today, but we may need a little help honoring this truth for our era. So let me call to your attention the way Ernest Kurtz speaks about blessings and humility in his little book: A Spirituality of Imperfection. It is one of my favorites. Using the 12 Steps of AA as a lens through which to organize his thinking, Kurtz writes: “To be humble is to learn to live with and even rejoice in reality.” (p. 190) Humility rejects perfectionism and challenges all-or-nothing thinking. Like St. Paul told us from inside a prison cell, humility empowers us to “rejoice in the Lord always.” Not just when we feel like it or when it is convenient; not simply when we’re well fed and rested or when we know someone in authority Is looking – but always. To embrace the blessings of Christian humility is to learn to live with and even rejoice in reality. Leonard Cohen put it so poetically when he sang: “There is a crack, a crack, in everything: that’s how the light gets in.”

Like the Bible, he knew that the world is broken – our politics are broken – some of our finances are broken – and many of our hearts are broken, too. That is how we were made back in the beginning. And when we slow down long enough to recognize reality, we see that everything is broken and this can make us want to laugh or cry. I know that there have been times when all I could do was howl in outrage and agony. And there’s nothing wrong, weak or shameful about our tears. Jesus wept, right? Tears can be a sacred body prayer when we only have sighs to deep for human words. “To everything there is a season,” said the sage of the Old Testament, “a time to weep and a time to laugh… a time to mourn and a time to dance… a time for silence and a time to speak.” When the tears are over, however, humility – rejoicing in the blessing of reality – asks us to learn how to laugh, too –mostly laugh at ourselves tenderly. It is a spiritual paradox – a theological conundrum – even a part of the sacred dialectic that becoming a person of balance, integrity and compassion is fundamentally about knowing when to laugh at our brokenness rather than fight ourselves and the way the Lord created us.

This morning, therefore, on the occasion of our annual meeting that follows today’s worship – as well as my last Sunday as a full-time preacher of Christ’s gospel after 35 years – I feel called to speak with you about laughter and brokenness, blessings and serving God in a new way at First Church that pushes us out into the community. This will be my take on the foolishness of the Cross through the lens of the 10 foot rule – a reflection on why it matters that the words human, humor and humility all have their origins in the word humus .

To be human and humble starts with earthiness – being grounded – for that’s what humus means in both science and Scripture. Humus is defined in the dictionary as “a brown or black substance resulting from the partial decay of plant and animal matter.” And what does the Lord our God create man and woman out of in the oldest Hebrew story of our origins but… humus!? Genesis Two is wonderfully gritty: in the beginning, God formed from the dust of the ground human beings and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life. In this the mud man and woman became living beings – adam ha admah – people of humus filled with nephesh chayyah: the breath of life given by God. Our ancestors in faith understood that humanity is always a mixture of dirt and dung filled with the Holy Spirit. To appreciate this unique combination, let alone honor it, we’re asked to learn to laugh at ourselves. For if we’re honest, we’re a real piece of work: from dust we came and to dust we shall return and at the very same time we are created just a little lower than the angels both at the same time.

One of my favorite stories from the Jewish tradition tells of the rabbi who in a moment of religious passion rushed into the Sanctuary, fell to his knees before the ark, began to beat his breast and cried out, “I am nobody, Lord, I am nobody!” The cantor of the synagogue, impressed by this example of humility, joined the rabbi on his knees saying, “I am nobody. I am nobody!” Watching from the corner, the custodian couldn’t restrain himself either; so he rushed forward to join the other two on their knees, crying out, “I am nobody, Lord, nobody!” At which point the rabbi nudges the cantor with his elbow, points at the custodian on the floor and says, “Look who thinks he’s nobody!”

Humility is about honesty and earthiness. When we can laugh at ourselves, celebrating both the humus and the Holy Spirit, we’re close to what the ancient prophets taught about the purpose in life. The heart of God’s righteous requirement, prophesied Micah, is all about doing justice, sharing compassion and walking with humility in the presence of God’s reality. And do you know when I knew that God still had plans for First Church in this community – that God had not yet finished with us yet?

Ten years ago when I was candidating to be your pastor and you spontaneous doubled over in a wave of laughter when I told you the story about the minister, the priest and the rabbi who bet one another they could convert a black bear to their religious tradition. Remember that? If you had simply tittered, or acted like the frozen chosen, I would have known you were toast! There is a link, you see, between humor, humility and the movement of the holy spirit in our human hearts. The willingness and ability to laugh at ourselves is proof that the Spirit is at work bringing blessing to our lives even when we don’t realize it. We are not in control. The Spirit blows where it will – and if we’re receptive it will bring us joy and our laughter will be spontaneous. That’s the first blessing I want to remind you about today; and the second has to do with the way our own humility can empower us to connect our brokenness with the wounds of the world.

You know, when I first arrived here, besides the laughter, we were kind of stiff about some things. No one had ever felt they could wear jeans to Sunday worship before. Every single door in this place was bolted and locked. And we had serious arguments about what color to paint the hallway. Now here’s the thing about the old ways: if they help us serve God’s love, tradition is beautiful. But when it becomes calcified, tradition becomes tradionalism – and that becomes a prison. When this congregation was at the center of community life – the FIRST church – filled with the elite and powerful, those old traditions probably served us well. Not so much any-more, right? Now circumstances beyond our control have pushed us to the periphery of power in Pittsfield so that we might become partners not only in the preservation of our building, but in the renewal of our town – no longer as movers and shakers – but in a way that is more humble.

That’s how I understand St. Paul when he speaks to us of the foolishness of the Cross. “God decided to use what looks like foolishness – brokenness and powerlessness – to save the world. Some trust their knowledge, others use their influence and wealth, but we look to the Cross as the power of God even when this seems like folly to the world. We know, through Jesus Christ, that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God on the Cross is stronger than all human strength.” (I Corinthians 1: 18-25) Please recall that Paul didn’t learn this in school, business or on vacation; this wisdom came through the failure of his arrogance that drove him to his knees. Like each of us, Paul came to trust God’s revelation on the Cross only when he ran out of power, influence, wisdom and pride. “God chose what is weak in the world, despised in the world, low and on the periphery of the world… to bring about healing, hope and right relations between people.”

And that’s where I see our second blessing in 2017 – from the side-lines, not the center– standing without significant influence in order that we might serve as authentic allies with others working for the common good. I think we have been humbled so that we might live as Christ’s disciples in our shared brokenness. People who practice more listening than speaking – women and men of hospitality rather than titles – adults who live more like children of God than CEOs, administrators, financial advisors, engineers, educators and all the rest. After last summer’s cottage meetings, you clearly stated that you wanted to remain in this beautiful place to worship and to celebrate being a radically Open and Affirming congregation. You also recognized that we could no longer afford to do this like we used to. And I believe that you were right in both areas – we can no longer afford to do things the way we used to – but not simply because money is tight. We don’t worship a balanced budget – that’s idolatry. No we’ve been called to exchange old fears and habits for the blessings of being a more humble church guided by the foolishness of the Cross.

At least that’s how I see it as your pastor – even your part-time pastor. It is my task to do something unique in our life together. I am called to study God’s word given to us in Jesus Christ, listen for God’s spirit shared with us in community and attempt to give these blessings shape and form so that we can act upon them. Our tradition calls this mission interpretation and claiming a vision for God’s people because without a vision… what? God’s people perish! Here’s the way I see it in 2017: The time has come to lay aside all anxiety. We are no longer a large and influential church for God has now called us into a season of greater humility. This is a blessing. Our legacy in privilege and power has come to an end so that we might mature in servanthood and solidarity. This renewed calling frees us to practice radical hospitality in a harsh and fearful culture. Without old fears, we can support the grass roots renewal of Pittsfield with our time, talent and treasure in creative ways. And celebrate God’s grace in worship so that we might live as partners with God’s compassion in our Pittsfield.

This is where the 10 foot rule becomes instructive: it actually shapes what Matthew’s gospel is telling us. The Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount are not general words of piety filled with abstractions; rather they are blessings born of solidarity with the real lives of God’s people in history. One scholar suggested that if we generalize these blessings without understanding their historical context for Jewish Christians gathering in fear after fleeing the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem and the war Rome waged on ancient Israel between 66-70 CE, we sanitize the upside-down wisdom of Jesus Christ, stripping his blessings of their true significance and rendering them impotent and sentimental when they are anything but harmless.

So here’s the real deal – and why it matters to us – on this day of blessings. Matthew is interpreting the ministry of Jesus to a first century community of Jewish Christians who not only know but cherish the Old Testament. Matthew’s goal was to inspire his people to keep the gospel real even in the midst of oppression, fear and disappointment. It is not accidental that Matthew opens his story with a genealogy connecting Jesus to King David – son of Abraham – nor is it a fluke that other beloved Old Testament stories are reinterpreted in a new light. And the key story that sets the stage for the Sermon on the Mount is Rachel weeping and wailing for her slain children. New Testament professor, Richard Swanson, puts it like this: 

Rachel was brought into the story from the deep memory of the Jewish people who knew she mourned the exiles being force-marched into oblivion. Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 587 BCE.The Temple had once given the people a sense that life was stable, safe, and predictable. They had lived through Assyria destroying 10/12s of Israel just a generation earlier, so they clung to God’s promises to Sarah and Abraham and David and the Temple… only to be scattered and thrown to the wind by Babylon. Matthew takes this story of Rachel from 500 years before Jesus to focus attention on another act of destruction: King Herod’s likely murder of innocent Jewish toddlers under the age of two. What Matthew’s people were experiencing, you see, was not grief in general; it was grief still fresh and raw as the corpses of little children littering the storytelling stage of this community and this memory is vividly alive. (Richard Swanson, Working Preacher.)

It is these mourners – these broken hearted, humbled and bereft refugees of the first century who are only ten feet away from Matthew – who Matthew is trying to comfort. And we must be clear what this comfort meant for: “it is NOT the comfort of hand-holding in impotence. The New Testament Greek word for comfort, paraklethesontai, calls a mourner out of the immobility of grief and into action.” (Swanson) Specifically, this comfort calls a mourner to speak the truth about an injustice in their live out loud like a witness would in court – a witness who had experienced the horror of seeing innocent children murdered for crass political power. Now, these voices could not undo the evil. Yet something restorative takes place whenever broken people find their voice and speak that truth in public. It both interrupts the inner cycle of shame and creates a climate where others are encouraged to embrace us, help us carry our burdens, and become partners with us in sharing the agony of the Cross. In a word, their voices unlock our solidarity and compassion. And lest there be no ambiguity, Jesus goes on to tell us that those who are poor in spirit – literally those whose breath has been broken within them by sobbing – that’s what the word pneuma translated here as spirit can also mean – breath.

Those sobbing with broken hearts and jagged breath are promised the healing of God’s kingdom come to earth as it is already done in heaven. Do you see how very specific these blessings are, Christian friends, do you see the relevance of the 10 foot rule in this embodied humility? Well, it doesn’t stop there but applies to those who are persecuted because they hunger and thirst for righteousness, too. Do you know that the word persecuted – dioke in Greek – means those who are hunted? They are being hunted for cherishing the way of Torah – doing justice, sharing compassion and nurturing humility with God – hunted, in a word, for being Jews in the heart of the Roman Empire.

Now, if you are anything like me – if you watch even one newscast a week or casually glance at a newspaper even once a month – you can’t help but notice that all around us are people who sense that they are now the hunted: because of their faith, because of their race, because of who they love. Back in the fall when Jewish Family Services held a meeting at the Athenaeum about welcoming 50 Syrian refugees into Pittsfield, some rose up in anger and fear wanting to lock the doors of love in our town to those who worshipped Allah. Look, it wasn’t all that long ago that Jews were hunted down in Europe – or excluded from towns like the one I grew up in back in Connecticut – and now we want to do it again to Muslims? Such sentiments have traction in France, Poland and much of Europe these days. And now there’s serious talk about building a wall at the Mexican border, registering Muslims, outlawing righteous, nonviolent protest in five US states and turning back the clock of compassion on LGBTQ marriage equality! Have I been clear that the blessings Jesus spoke of once were never abstract pieties, but always shared acts of compassion for very specific people who felt hunted? Nothing has changed today.

Authentic Christian humility must always bring healing and hope to specific wounds. We must always carry and share the burdens of our sisters and brothers in solidarity.

That is why I do not believe it is a coincidence that God has brought us to the possibility of partnering with Pitts-field in humility at this moment in our history. In our weakness, God makes us ALL strong. Once we were leaders; now we can be allies in the foolishness of the Cross. Once we were at the center, today we must be out on the streets joining others carrying our neighbors’ burdens as if they were the Cross of our Lord. And the more we practice and learn from Mother Humility, the greater the blessings. Some of you know that FDR’s grandson, James Roosevelt, was in our Sanctuary three weeks ago – and he was in awe of this place. He said, “Do you know my grandmother once spoke here – and that Marion Anderson sang in your parlor, too?”

Two or three other people went out of their way last week to repeat that story to me – and it got me thinking about what the great African American opera singer, Marian Anderson might want to say to us about humor, humanity and humility before our annual meeting. That's when I came across a story that Ms. Anderson’s manager, Sol Hurok, used to tell.

He often said that Marian Anderson had not simply grown great, she'd grown great simply. "A few years ago” he said, “a reporter interviewed Marian and asked her to name the greatest moment in her life. I was in her dressing room at the time and was curious to hear the answer. I knew she had many big moments to choose from. There was the night Toscanini told her that hers was the finest voice of the century. There was the private concert she gave at the White House for the Roosevelts and the King and Queen of England. She had received a $10,000 Bok Award as the person who had done the most for her home town of Philadelphia. And to top it all, there was an Easter Sunday in Washington when she stood beneath the Lincoln statue and sang for a crowd of 75,000 people including Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices, and most members of Congress. Which of those big moments would she choose? None of them," said Hurok. "Miss Anderson told the reporter that the greatest moment of her life was the day she went home and told her mother she would no longer have to take in washing anymore."

God chose what is weak in the world, despised in the world, low and on the periphery of the world… to bring about healing, hope and right relations between people.” This is the blessing of the foolishness of the Cross and God is calling us to affirm it and rejoice in its reality. O Lord, may we have ears to hear.


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