Be Humble

by | Oct 15, 2022

Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God–since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it. Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.”
Genesis 33:1-12

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned…
Romans 12:3, 9-18

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
John 13:3-17

Good morning, St. Barnabas. I thank God for the gift of worshiping with you in this beautiful sanctuary and with those joining us via Zoom. Special thanks to your rector, the Rev. Franklin-Vaughn for her warm welcome, and for her good ministry among you.

I’m honored to offer this sermon, the third in a preaching series here at St. Barnabas, across the diocese, and in churches around the country, based on the classical biblical text from the prophet Micah:

God has told you, o mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

In this series, we’re asking ourselves, as followers of Jesus, how we can be just, kind and humble in all of our interactions. We are asking this with particular intention in these last weeks before the midterm elections. For October is arguably the month when, as a nation, we are our most polarized. It is certainly a time when we are exposed to near round the clock news coverage of tightly contested elections, with billions of dollars worth in political advertising designed to inflame our differences, exploit our worst fears, discredit those with whom we disagree, and simplify the complex problems we face that require a unified nation to address.

The idea behind the Micah 6:8 pledge is for Christians to do whatever we can to narrow the gap between us and to tone down the rhetoric of both personal and public discourse.

Imagine how the world would be different if Christians across this country committed ourselves to be just, kind and humble in all our relationships? What would happen if all Christians added our voices and our resources to efforts that make for a better world, a more just world, and did so with kindness and humility, especially with those who do not share our point of view?

I’ve given you all who are present in church the Micah 6:8 pledge (and will leave extras for others who would like to have one). Will you read it with me?

I pledge to strive to follow Micah 6:8 in all aspects of my life:

    • To act justly and pursue justice by standing with and speaking out for those who are vulnerable, mistreated, in need or exploited;
    • To practice kindness and mercy in every interaction, even with those with whom I disagree;
    • To act with humility, surrendering my will to God’s will, acknowledging that I may not always be right and should listen more and speak less.
    • Today’s theme is the third of Micah’s exhortations–to act with humility, to walk humbly with God and one another.

I’d like to begin by making the distinction between humility and humiliation.

Here’s an example of humiliation taken from a recent article in The Washington Post about an exchange between two political party volunteers at the Frederick County Fair.

Perhaps it was the aroma of smoked turkey legs and warm cinnamon rolls, or the pleasant coolness that stole across the fairgrounds as the sun began to set behind the Magic Maze. Whatever the reason, a woman, (whom I will call Susan), was in a fine enough mood on a September evening to make a friendly overture to a man she considers her enemy.

“You want to come to the Republican side?” she called out cheerfully to a 70-year-old Democratic activist (whom I will call Joe) clad in blue, who strode by the Republican party’s headquarters at the Great Frederick Fair.

“Only when I’m crazy,” he replied without stopping.

Susan’s face darkened.

The Republicans of Frederick County do not like it when people call them nuts. And it has not escaped their attention that people aren’t hesitant these days to do so.1

What strikes you about this interaction between two political activists making their case at a county fair?

What could have been a reasonably friendly exchange, or even a robust debate about the issues at stake in the upcoming election, was immediately shut down by a comment seemingly meant to humiliate. Now perhaps there’s a backstory. Perhaps Joe has been humiliated by someone on the opposing side of the partisan divide; maybe he was in a hurry and stressed and said the first thing that came to his mind; or perhaps he genuinely believes that everyone who votes Republican this November is insane.

Whatever his motivation, his rebuke to someone who reached out to him in a moment of light-hearted banter was insultingly dismissed. Notice that he didn’t stop to engage. He made his flip response and kept on walking. It reminds me of what I’m tempted to do when I’m in my car, typically late for wherever it is I’m going, and I am slowed down by another’s person’s driving. I don’t always respond to that person as a person. I just honk my horn, yell out my window, or say unkind things under my breath, without taking into account the full humanity and dignity of the other person. I simply make my judgment and move one. And even if no one else hears what I say, my unkind response coarsens me inside, and I get better at being mean, feeling perfectly justified in doing so.

Let me ask, have you been on the other side of such blatant unkindness, in word or deed, the intent of which was to shame you for what you did, or the positions you hold, or worst of all, simply for who you are? If so, what did that do to you?

To humiliate someone, according to one dictionary, is “to make (someone) feel ashamed and foolish by injuring their dignity and self-respect, especially publicly,” or “to cause someone to a painful loss of pride, self-respect, or dignity.”2

Humility, in contrast, is defined as “freedom from pride or arrogance” or “having a modest or low view of one’s own importance.”3 Humility is sometimes considered a weakness, for it seems to downplay our gifts and give permission for others to trample upon us. But, in fact, genuine humility is testimony to strength of character and wisdom. For when we are humble, we have both a reasonable assessment of ourselves–neither grandiose nor self-deprecating–and less need to bring others down in order to feel good about ourselves. When we’re practicing humility in our relationships, as Micah’s says, we are walking with another. We are walking humbly with God, with other people.

Now some people are born genuinely humble, with an innate appreciation of their place in the human family and are genuinely curious about and kind to other people. For most of us, however, humility is something we learn through the harder lessons in life–when we are humbled by our failings or vulnerabilities. We can also be humbled by undeserved grace, forgiveness, and the loving kindness of another.

The first story we heard from Scripture this morning, and that you have printed in your bulletin, is a classic one of genuine humility.

The scene we have before us is the reunion and reconciliation between two estranged brothers–Jacob and Esau. You may remember their story, as told in the book of Genesis. From birth (they were twins), they had been fierce competitors for their father Isaac’s affection, and due to his conniving and their mother’s favoritism, Jacob always managed to come out ahead. More than once Jacob stole precious things that belonged to Esau–and I’m not talking about possessions, but his birthright and their father’s blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau. The tension between them got so bad that their mother advised Jacob to move to another country to escape his brother’s wrath, which he did.

Fast forward many years when life eventually catches up with Jacob in that new country, and he is compelled to flee again, with all his household and possessions in tow. With some fear and trepidation, he turns his face toward home, knowing that his brother’s wrath awaits him there.

Along the way, Jacob has the most transformative spiritual experience of his life. Again, we may remember this story, which tells of Jacob sleeping alone by a riverbank, a stranger accosts him, and the two men wrestle all night. At early dawn, the man suggests that they stop fighting, but Jacob, in his pain and exhaustion, says, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” For Jacob realizes that this is not just a man, but an angel sent from God. And Jacob receives the angel’s blessing–his own blessing, not the one he stole from his brother. He is also wounded by this encounter, and will forever walk with a limp.

Truly humbled by this experience, Jacob realizes that he must make peace with his brother Esau. Still fearing Esau’s anger, he decides, in a lavish gesture of restitution, to give Esau nearly all of his household wealth and place himself under his authority.

But in the intervening years Esau’s heart has softened. When he sees Jacob coming from a distance, he runs to him, throws his arms around him and welcomes him home (in language reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son). When Jacob makes his offering, Esau protests that he wants nothing from Jacob, that having him back is gift enough. But Jacob, as you heard, insists. “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.” Both men had been humbled by life, and in humility, reached out to the other with openness. One was in need of forgiveness that the other was able to offer, and they could walk humbly with one another.

As with the two reconciled brothers, when we walk with humility, there is space for others to walk alongside us, no matter who they are. In humility, as the Apostle Paul writes beautifully in the passage we heard this morning, we are more ready to listen than to speak; more ready to ask questions than to argue our point. When we are humbled, we are more likely to extend compassion and empathy to others. “Those who practice humility are more likely to consider others’ beliefs and opinions,” writes social researcher Tiara Blain. “Humility offers the opportunity to become less self-involved and more attuned with the feelings of others.”4

But to be clear, being humble does not mean that we abandon what we believe to be true, avoid challenging conversations, or abdicate our place in the arenas in which important issues and contentious issues are decided. As the passage from Micah and other mandates from Scriptures make clear, that we show up where we are needed, where justice and fairness are lacking, where people are being hurt or abused, is part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

This week I received an invitation for the Diocese to co-sponsor an event at Georgetown University at which our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is a keynote speaker. The event is called: How White Christian Nationalism Threatens Our Democracy. To be honest, I would have said no were not our Presiding Bishop part of the event, because it’s such a painful and yes–divisive–topic. Some are likely to say, as they have told me in the past, that engaging in such events is counter to building up an inclusive community in our churches where all are welcome, and that as a church leader I should stay away from politics.

But Michael Curry’s courage inspires me to step into a very painful space, and learn all that I can. I believe that the danger of White Christian Nationalism is real, and that some so-called Christian views in this country are not, in fact, consistent with Jesus’ teachings and witness. Those who hold those views are, at the moment, very loud–so loud, in fact, that it can seem to outsiders as if theirs was the prominent Christian view. If other Christians don’t speak up, it is, and that is worrisome.

So the diocese is co-sponsoring the event, which you can participate in, either in person or online for free. (Here is the registration link).

What Micah’s words on kindness and humility say to us is that how we show up matters, too–how we engage, how we speak to one another, how we listen and acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers and we have things to learn from those who see the world differently. For as the Christian author Andy Stanley writes in his book, Not In It to Win It, it’s “in the messy middle where problems are solved, rather than capitulating to divisive broad-brush political talking points.” That’s true in our families; in our churches, in our neighborhoods, and in our country.

We can’t control or predict the reactions of other people when we move toward them in a spirit of openness. The woman from the Frederick County Fair took a risk of kindness with someone from the other political party and was rebuked. That can happen to us too; we can be attacked with the meanspiritedness that sadly passes for public discourse. But Jesus would say to us, take the risk anyway. Treat all people with love and kindness. Be willing to listen and learn, but speak the truth as you see it and stand up for what you believe.

So I leave you with a few questions to ponder in the quiet of your heart or in conversation with one another: Rest assured that every question I am asking you, I am asking myself:

  • Where in your life, and in mine, is God calling us to act and speak with greater humility?
  • To dig a bit further, where in your life have you experienced humiliation, and how have those experiences shaped your sense of yourself and your worldview? Might Jesus be inviting you now to release the shame and perhaps anger caused by those experiences, in recognition of your worth and dignity as a child of God?
  • Finally, consider, when you have experienced being humbled, in the best sense of that word, by your own vulnerabilities or failures, and the loving-kindness of another?

I’d love to pray for us:
Lord, you know us through and through, and how much we all stand in the need of your grace and love. We know the pain of humiliation. We have also humiliated others. Please forgive us. Help us to learn true humility, to see our place amidst and alongside other equally wounded, equally beloved human beings, so that we might bring our full selves into the spaces where we are most needed and be part of the solutions we need to make this world a better place for all. In Jesus name, Amen.

1“Trump, election denial, QAnon and Dan Cox: In Maryland, the GOP marginalizes itself”, The Washington Post, October 7, 2022 humiliate humility
4“Why is it important to stay humble?”, Very Well Mind, April 13, 2022