Some years ago I was sharing a conversation with my spiritual director, who was a seasoned Jesuit priest. He had risen in the ranks of leadership over the decades and, to me, was a treasury of wisdom. Reflecting on his own years in the Society of Jesus, he said to me: “Be very kind to people on your way up, because you’re going to meet these same people on your way down.” There is a word for this, a word on which we should be on good speaking terms. That word is “humility.” The English word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis: “lowly,” or “near the ground.” Humility is the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond the minions who otherwise surround us. The English words “humility” and “humus” are cousins, “humus” being the organic component of soil. Humus is what makes soil rich. Humus is formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material in the ground. Humility is composted from leading a well-cultivated life. I’ll come back to that.
Jesus navigated life with humility. The ancient prophecies that had anticipated the coming Messiah predicted the Messiah’s humility: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey….”[i]Jesus himself takes up this theme of humility when he speaks of how we should enter this kingdom of God. He says to enter “as a little child.[ii] And Jesus gives the warning, “Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”[iii]Jesus was critical of those who trumpet and parade their piety, their purity, their generosity, their grandiosity, their accomplishments from the grandstand. Rather Jesus commends us to live out our lives in a very unostentatious, uncalculated way, not even letting our left hand knowing what our right hand is doing. This is the grace of humility.
Luke 14:1, 7-11
This story is reminiscent of another Gospel story, when Jesus found his disciples arguing about which of them would be greatest in the kingdom of God (see Luke 9:46-48 or Mark 9:33-37). He realized that they had not yet understood the import of his message: that what is valued and sought after in the world is not what is most prized in the kingdom of God. On that occasion he taught them, saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35). The aim of life in the kingdom was not self-exaltation, but self-offering, the laying down of one’s life in service to God and to one’s neighbor.
Here we see a similar situation – not among Jesus’ disciples, but among the dinner guests at a Pharisee’s house. Jesus notices them seeking the places of honor, motivated no doubt by the desire to be noticed and deemed important by the other guests. He tells them that when they attend such a banquet, they should deliberately choose the lowest place, because “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (v.11).
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
“We are useless slaves; we have done no more than our duty.”
“Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds awake when he comes.”
“Well done, good and trustworthy slave. Enter into the joy of your master.”
“Anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave.”
This sermon is part of a Lenten preaching series on “Growing a Rule of Life.”
Rules of Life & the Rhythms of Nature – Br. James Koester
Our Relationship with God – Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Our Relationship with Self – Br. Mark Brown
Our Relationship with Others – Br. David Vryhof
Our Relationship with Creation – Br. Keith Nelson
Living in Rhythm and Balance – Br. Luke Ditewig
Growing a Rule of Life: To subscribe to a daily morning email with a short video and download a PDF of the accompanying workbook enter your name and email.
More information here: SSJE.org/growrule
Genesis 2:4b-8; 15-19; Psalm 8; Mark 1:9-13
In a small wooden box in my cell here at the monastery, I keep a few simple mementos: physical objects I can hold in my hand, objects that anchor or center me in the remembrance that I am beloved of God. The simplest and most treasured of all is a cow bone from the desert near Moab, Utah. My best friend and I went camping in Utah a few months before I came to the monastery as a postulant. The trip was a pilgrimage into a landscape wonderfully strange to us both. In the desert, we hoped to taste something of God’s vast, untamed power, just as Jesus did, and just as generations of saints have done from the ancient Israelites to the desert fathers and mothers of Egypt. Perhaps because our eyes and ears were opened by this intention, this expectation to meet this desert God and to travel as fellow pilgrims into our own inner wilderness, God came to meet us everywhere we turned. Every horizon held our gaze and enlarged it, beckoning us beyond that vanishing point where endless blue sky and rippling red stone merged. As we hiked about this desert paradise we wept or fell silent or laughed in wonder, as unselfconsciously as the shooting stars or lightning that flashed in the night sky or the rainbows that shimmered in the rare desert rain. Each moment, we could have echoed the sentiment of author Annie Dillard as she wrote from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains: “I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.” [i]
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Cor. 5:20 b-6:10
Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21
In my first semester in college I took a drawing class. Though I had been drawing for most of my life, the course refined my ability to see the world afresh. Toward the end of the course, we did some intensive exercises and an assigned piece using charcoal – and in charcoal, I discovered my nemesis! Fine lines executed with slow precision or tiny details requiring the sharpest of pencils– these were the challenges I relished, because these were my skills. Faced with thick chunks or brittle wands of soft, smudgy, ill-behaved charcoal, I felt dismay and fear. During a timed charcoal drawing exercise, we were asked to draw a rapid series of abstract shapes without repeating the same shape twice. Each time my professor passed my drawing desk, his arm slowly reached across the entire width of my paper, and his thick hand obliterated my work. By the ninth or tenth time, my face now sweating and fingers black, I blurted, “Can you tell me what I’m doing that’s wrong or what I’m not doing that’s right?” He replied, firmly but gently, “It’s not so much about wrong or right, Keith, but about seeing afresh. You’re not seeing.” In truth, I had been repeating minor variations on the same shapes and forms I had mastered previously using sharp, precise graphite. I was humbled to realize I had missed the point of the exercise. I began to learn that the habit of art requires the humility to create ugly work for the sake of clearer vision.
The first time I was asked to write a sermon on Today’s Gospel reading was almost 60 years ago in a homiletics class when I was in seminary. I thought I was being smart when I suggested the sermon title, “Do it yourself Exaltation.” I don’t remember what else I may have said, but it was something to the effect this was most likely not what Jesus meant when he said to the guests at the house of that Pharisee, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Lk. 14:11)
Jesus had noticed that the guests at that Pharisee’s house flocked to the seats of honor, jostling one another for the best places. He must have felt that such behavior called for some sort of comment. It was certainly not the sort of behavior that well-mannered people should show in the house of a leader of the Pharisees. It was not the sort of behavior that one expected to see invited guests exhibiting in anyone’s house. So Jesus spoke to them in the manner of a parable. He chose to speak as if he was talking about a wedding banquet, a type of parable.
Contemplative Humility: A Meditation on Psalm 131
O LORD, I am not proud;
I have no haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters,
or with things that are too hard for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother’s breast;
my soul is quieted within me.
O Israel, wait upon the LORD,
from this time forth for evermore.
Apart from their grouping under a shared, descriptive superscription, “Song of Ascents,” the psalms numbered 120-134 seem a motley crew at first glance, unconnected, even fractious: some are individual laments, others collective thanksgivings; some laud the joys of domesticity while others the glories of the assembly at worship; communal doxologies contrast with a single penitent’s cry for divine mercy; personal pleas for deliverance from enemies are juxtaposed with hymns of gratitude for national protection.
Yet the designation “Song of Ascents” indicates their commonality and interrelationship, for all are psalms of pilgrimage – toward and into God. And as such they are hymns for an upward journey experienced on two levels simultaneously, the outer and visible, and the inner and unseen. Outer and visible, since pilgrims traveling on foot to Jerusalem, whether coming from north or south, east or west, must physically ascend through hill country. For though not itself one of earth’s great peaks, Mount Zion presents a sometimes arduous climb, whether approaching via Roman road or overland. But also inner and unseen, for pilgrimage entails a moment-by-moment commitment to rise to the new life which is God’s gift to us in Christ. The temple to which we make ascent is the Lord’s own crucified and risen body, of which we are members.
The “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” of which Paul speaks is made in humility in walking through life, day to day: feet treading the ground of reality, of paradox, upward ascent implying true groundedness. Humility stilling the soul (the word humility derives from humus, the soil, earth, and clay from which we come). Speaking of fears, trials, losses and hopes, dreams and lasting meaning. Making the ascent to God’s dwelling place in pilgrimage, we learn that it is very much within, trusting in humility as a child on its mother’s breast, nurtured, caressed, kissed, sung to, suckled.
Psalm 131 comes as an oasis on the way, a place of respite for the journey, a reminder of the Holy One who has preserved us in life to this very moment, and who promises life yet more abundant, even beyond our wildest imagination, when the pilgrimage ceases. This hymn of humility invites us to revel in remembrance of God’s love, which first brought us into being and which at this moment as always delights in our companionship.
“O Lord, I am not proud; I have no haughty looks,” we pray, first confessing our forgetfulness in acknowledging ourselves as entirely dependent on God alone, a vital truth which we often refuse through our illusion of self-sufficiency.
“I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me,” the Spirit prays from deep within. And though we have occupied and still do so occupy ourselves with reactive, unconsidered words or actions, the Source of all being invites us to rest from our striving and wait patiently upon Love.
“But I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me.” Here in the midst of pilgrimage we come upon an image of God unique in the scriptures: God as the nursing, nurturing mother; God gently rocking and calming the weary and hungry child who seeks the security of unconditional love. We pray to return to the child-like dependence, even vulnerability, by which alone we enter the kingdom and the security of God’s embrace.
And so our journey in prayer comes full circle: “O Israel, wait upon the Lord, from this time forth for evermore.” We travel on in humility, joined to the community of God’s chosen, and knowing even now of our union with the One to whom we ascend. The stance of waiting is pregnant with expectation, the hopeful assurance of seeing things which are now hidden from our sight. It is to trust in God’s unfailing generosity, which ever provides not what we think we need, but what we actually need – in the right degree and at the right time. The unexpected is made visible to the contemplative heart, which watches and waits on God in all circumstances.
You might wonder how, without exploiting his divinity, Jesus was able to be so forthright with such a group of lawyers and Pharisees.