10/27/13, Humility

Exodus 35:12-14, 16-18, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18, Luke 18:9-14

His name was Scott. He had come to town as a student at the local community college. His hair was dreadlocked and tied back with a bandana. He wore a tie-dyed T-shirt, jeans with holes and no shoes. Scott was kind of an esoteric character – bright but disturbingly different.

Across the street from the college campus was a conservative church full of well dressed people. Although they said they wanted to develop a ministry to the students, they weren’t sure how to go about it.

One day Scott decided to go there. He walked in late wearing no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair. The service had already started, but Scott started down the aisle looking for a seat.  Scott got closer and closer and closer to the front, and when he realized there were no seats, he just squatted down right on the carpet.

By now the people were rather uptight.  The tension in the air was thick.

About this time, an elderly deacon began slowly making his way toward Scott.  A godly man, very elegant, very dignified, and very courtly, he walked with a cane. As he started toward this boy, everyone anticipated the corrective action he was about to take, and no one blamed him. How can you expect a man of his age and of his background to tolerate the impropriety of this college kid on the floor?
It took a long time for the man to reach the boy. The church was utterly silent except for the clicking of the man's cane. All eyes were focused on him. The minister was immobilized, holding off on preaching the sermon until the deacon did what he would have to do.

The elderly man dropped his cane on the floor. With great difficulty, he lowered himself and sat down next to Scott and worshiped with him so he wouldn’t be alone. Everyone choked up with emotion.

When the minister gained control, he said, "What I'm about to preach, you will never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget."

I am imagining that a similar impact was felt by the disciples in the moments that Jesus wrapped a towel around his waist and knelt to wash the disciples’ feet.  What a moment in time: the Master Teacher, the exemplare in prayer, the spiritual leader of these bumbling Jews makes himself the servant of all.

 Several weeks ago we read a passage from the Gospel of Luke where the disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!’  In reply, Jesus told the disciples that an increase in faith is dependent on our own choice to ACT in ways that demonstrate faith.  “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree,’ Uproot yourself and plant yourself in the sea’ and it would obey you.” To begin with, only a small investment of faith is necessary, but to build faith does require that we take action. So we have been noticing in subsequent readings that Jesus teaches about specific actions and attitudes that we can choose to practice.  It is in the simple living out of these actions and attitudes that we will find our faith growing.

 The first practice we noted was GRATITUDE.  Last week we observed that PERSEVERANCE increases faith.  This week, Jesus tells his disciples a parable about humility that demonstrates true faith.

 In Jesus’ parable, the two characters are a Pharisee and a tax collector.  In the society and culture of  first century Judaism, Pharisees represented the most dedicated religious  folk while tax collectors, who worked for the Roman government,  were despised as traitors to their own people.  Jewish people considered it pious to thank God for one’s righteousness rather than taking personal credit for it.  So in Jesus’ parable, the Pharisee was simply demonstrating the norm for acceptable prayer. Beating one’s breast was a sign of repentance for sin. It was appropriate for the tax collector to do this.   However, repentance was always expressed most fully when the wrong was righted by restitution.  Since the tax collector’s prayer for mercy involved no mention of restitution, many of Jesus’ contemporaries would have judged it unworthy as a prayer of repentance.

Once again, a parable told by Jesus turned conventional wisdom of the time on its head.  Jesus’ final comment – those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while those who humble themselves will be exalted- was a critique of current religious practice.  Jesus was saying that it is not righteousness in comparison to the sins of others that finds acceptance with God. Rather, it is honest acknowledgment of who one is in relationship to God.  The truly humble person finds himself elevated by God’s grace, not by her own righteousness. 

So then, what is true humility? Is it thinking less of yourself? Is it hiding your abilities or refusing to develop them in order to appear a nothing?  Is it trying to sound less prideful than you actually are?  The dictionary defines humility as having a “low view of one’s own importance.” But humilitas, the Latin root of the word, means “to lower yourself.” True humility isn’t about denigrating yourself and your abilities but it IS about lowering your sense of self-importance for the sake of serving others. As the British writer C.S. Lewis once put it, “Humility isn’t about thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” One man who writes about leadership skills defines humility as “the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.”  It’s not about making a doormat of yourself, but choosing to lower your own position in order to defer to another. 

Today Jesus invites us to daily acts of faith that practice humility. Everyday we have opportunities to yield our self-importance for the sake of serving others. 

Humility is exactly what the aged, dignified deacon offered in service to the young college student.  He literally lowered himself to the carpet in order to become a companion to the young man in his search for connection to God.  Let us go and do likewise.

 By Sandi DeMaster