Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I lived in Texas for seven years, and while that wasn’t long enough for country and western music to become my favorite music, it was long enough for it to grow on me. Country and western songs don’t shy away from honest but messy emotions, or less-than-tidy lives. Believe it or not, it was this morning’s Matthew passage that started me thinking about country and western songs.
Jesus takes on the Pharisees for praying publicly, using phylacteries and fringes. A phylactery is a small box with a leather strap that contains words of scripture central to the Jewish faith. Orthodox Jewish men still use phylacteries in prayer today. Fringes are the long fringes at the corners of prayer shawls, also still used by Jews all over the world. There’s nothing at all wrong with using these traditional prayer tools, but apparently these particular Pharisees are doing it for show. This can happen in any religion, of course, whenever people, like these Pharisees, try to look all tidy and pious when their real lives look more like a country and western song. Jesus is saying that the Pharisees judge others by a standard they are not willing to meet themselves. So when Jesus closes with, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted,” it reminded me of an actual country and western song, perhaps the theme song of these Pharisees: “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.”
Humility is a difficult topic because many people associate it with humiliation, which is completely different, and not a good thing. Maybe Americans especially connect being humble with being a wimp, and God knows we Americans don’t want anyone to think of us as wimps. Jesus isn’t promoting humiliation, or becoming wimps. He’s talking about our very human tendency to want to think of ourselves as better than someone else.
Oh, how we humans love to rank each other! Choosing teams on the playground, cliques in high school, who gets into what college, your income, your neighborhood; we use all of these and more to convince ourselves we’re better than someone else. There are also the more insidiously systemic ways people rank each other: racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, all the “isms” that we use to tell ourselves we are superior, or more valuable, or deserve more rights than others, or even that we don’t need care what happens to those other people.
There’s something we forget, though, when we’re ranking ourselves. We always pass our own tests. For example, I grew up with the good grammar police. There was a time when my mother relished noticing other people’s bad grammar on TV. Then my mother had a revelation. She realized that you always end up looking good when you judge other people according to your successes. She’d never have critiqued the people on TV for something that she did poorly. As my mother put it at the time, we all pass our own tests. She never stopped correcting our grammar, but she became more charitable toward others who mangled the King’s English.
Most of us fall into this trap at one time or another. We want to feel good about ourselves and so we congratulate ourselves for those things we’ve done well. It’s okay to be grateful that we have certain gifts, and it’s our responsibility, even our calling to use our gifts well. What concerns Jesus is when we think we’re actually more valuable human beings. When we look down on people. This ranking inclination of ours seems almost irresistible, but Jesus says not only is it possible to resist it, it’s rewarding to resist it. Resisting will be what “exalts” us. It will be what gives us joy.
During Lent here at Calvary, we’re exploring the Eight Pillars of Joy listed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama in The Book of Joy. We’re looking at what Scripture has to tell us about turning our mourning into dancing, to quote Psalm 30, not just between Ash Wednesday and Easter, but in the life of faith. The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama list humility as one of the pillars of joy. How does this work? Well, for starters, think about what it feels like to be jockeying for position all the time, to be doing a non-stop, keeping-up-appearances hustle. There is no joy in that.
And think about what it’s like to be around people who are arrogant, who think they’re better than you or put other people down. It isn’t fun, is it? Someone might say, “Oh, well; he’s just insecure,” and it turns out this is true. Needing to feel that we’re bigger than others comes from a nagging fear that we’re smaller. Psychological research shows that perfectionism, arrogance, and narcissism all are ways we armor up against the fear or shame that we’re not good enough. Neither the fear nor the armor brings joy. Instead, they keep us doing that trying-to-look-good hustle; they put people off; and they disconnect us from others.
Brené Brown tells a story about going to a holiday music program at her son’s preschool. “You know the scene – twenty-five children singing with fifty-plus parents, grandparents, and siblings in the audience wielding thirty-nine video cameras. The parents were holding up cameras in the air and … snapping pictures while they scrambled to make sure that their kids knew they were there and on time.”
One three-year-old girl cried her way through the program because she couldn’t see her mom from the stage. As it turned out, her mother was stuck in traffic and missed the whole performance. By the time her mom arrived, Brown was kneeling by the classroom door telling her son good-bye. From this vantage point, she watched the little girl’s mother burst through the door, and immediately start scanning the room to find her daughter. Just as Brown was getting ready to stand up and point her toward the back of the classroom where a teacher was comforting her daughter, another mother walked by them, looked straight at this stressed mom, shook her head, and rolled her eyes.
Brown stood up, took a deep breath, and tried to reason with the part of herself that wanted to chase after the better-than-you eye-rolling mom and kick her perfectly punctual … behind. Just then two more moms walked up to this now tearful mother. One of the mothers put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and said, “We’ve all been there. I missed the last one. I wasn’t just late. I completely forgot.” Brown watched as the woman’s face softened, and she wiped away a tear. The second woman looked at her and said, “My son was the only one who wasn’t wearing pajamas on PJ Day – he still tells me it was the most rotten day ever. It will be okay. We are all in the same boat.”
By the time this mother made it to the back of the room where the teacher was still comforting her daughter, she looked calm. Something that probably came in handy when her daughter lunged for her from about six feet away.
The eye-rolling mother judged the late mother on punctuality. The eye-rolling mother gets an A+ in punctuality, but there are other qualities she’s not even thinking about that just might be more important. Compassion, for instance. Courage. Vulnerability. And humility. The moms who stopped and shared their stories of imperfection were practicing all of these. They took the time to stop and say, “Here’s my story. You’re not alone.” They didn’t have to stop and share; they easily could have joined the perfect-parent parade and marched right by her.
Humility means, “We’ve all been there. You are not alone. We’re all doing the best we can. No one is perfect.” Humility and humble come from the same root as human and humus. Humus means soil, earth, dirt. Now, being humble doesn’t mean treating yourself like dirt. It just means being brought back to earth. It means being a human being; understanding and appreciating our common, messy humanity. So when Jesus challenges the Pharisees, he’s not threatening them with punishment. He’s talking about logical consequences. The consequence of thinking you’re better than others is disconnection and more shame. The consequence of humility and compassion for our common humanity is connection, belonging, and therefore, joy – in other words, to be exalted.
How might we practice humility during Lent? Maybe we could start by paying attention to our own tests: How are we judging others based on a test we know we pass? Our Christian tradition tells us we’re all created by God; all equally precious to God; all needed by God. Archbishop Tutu explains that when we realize this, “… then we don’t have to feel better or worse than others.” We are all essential. No one can fulfill your role in God’s plans but you. Even if you aren’t the best at something, you just may be the one who is needed, or even simply the one who is there.
Further, our Christian tradition insists that we are supposed to need each other. A good humility practice is recognizing and remembering that none of us, on our own, can solve everything. The current coronavirus epidemic is a good reminder of this. Sonoma Rabbi Irwin Keller chuckles that the abbreviation for the name of the virus is COVID-19, because, in Hebrew, koved means heaviness, weightiness. He says he feels the heaviness of the responsibility ahead of us: the responsibility not to panic, the responsibility to learn and to help each other learn the ways to stay healthy.
Then again, he points out that in Yiddish, koved means honor, respect. Keller says he feels called to honor the Creation in which we live, in which uncountable species compete for space and survival, including the tiniest ones, who can sometimes take down the mightiest among us. That’s certainly humbling. And yet, Keller is inspired to offer koved, respect, to the wonder of us, the wonder of humanity. We are frail and vulnerable, “and as a result we sing and we make beauty out of our frailty and we build community to be stronger together than we are on our own.” It’s hard for me not to feel awe, not to feel humbled by how we’ve evolved to be at our best, our most noble, our most effective, when we remember we’re all in this together. This very recognition, writes the Dali Lama, is the antidote to the fear and anxiety we feel when we focus too much on ourselves. “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”
My friends, we are all in this together. We’ve all been there. We all make mistakes. Everyone has hurt someone; everyone has been hurt. Everyone is in some way broken. Everyone’s life – really, everyone’s life, at one time or another, looks like a country and western song. And we’ll get through this current messy episode, too, if we wash our hands like our mothers told us to do, stay home if we need to, give up shaking hands for a while, and find other ingenious ways of being fully human: caring, creative, innovative, amusing and helpful. That’s what our species does best, and meeting this virus is cause to remember that.
Mother Teresa said, “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” What you are is a beloved child of God. So is everyone else. As someone put it, “We’re all just walking each other home.”
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2020 all rights reserved.