Worth And Humility
Sunday, 28 August 2016
But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher' (Luke 14:10)
Did you watch the Olympics? Just after Andy Murray had won the gold medal for the second time and a BBC reporter asked how it felt to be the first person to achieve this. Murray could, perhaps, have been forgiven if, flushed with success and the roars of the crowd still ringing in his ears and the flags waving if he’d just lapped that up. Instead he quietly said, “Actually I think Venus and Serena have both done it.” That’s humility. Andy Murray is a great tennis player and I’m sure he knows the extent of his success, but that didn’t mean he was going to put himself in a place of honour by forgetting the success of others.
In our gospel passage Jesus teaches about humility. We don’t live in a society that promotes humility. We live in a society where we’re encouraged to put ourself first - to succeed at all costs. We measure success in terms of income and wealth; in terms of fame and recognition to the point that people roll up to “reality” television programmes where they’re likely to be humiliated simply to get their faces on the telly because that grants them some kind of status in the eyes of their peers. We live in a society - a world - where some sportsmen will risk disgrace or damage to their bodies by taking drugs to enhance their performance, because it will allow them to mount that podium three inches higher than someone else.
Humility is a much under-estimated virtue. As Christians should perhaps above anyone else recognise it and embrace it. We are that body of people that believe that God - the power behind all that is and the maker of all that has been and all that will ever be - came into his creation. He shared the life of a human being. And when he did that human being was not one of high status. He wasn’t a king or the scion of some noble family. He wasn’t wealthy or powerful. He lived among the poor and he taught the broken. He walked among the sick and those who counted for little in the eyes of those who walked the corridors of power. He took his place among those who - if they were going to be invited to any feast - would be seated in the lowest places.
Jesus teaches about humility when he advises us to take the lowest place. But we also need to look at the next bit: “so that when your host comes he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”. We also need to be clear about what humility is and what it isn’t.
Humility is not self-flagellation. You and I, we are sinners. Humility means accepting that. It means that when we come to God in prayer we are honest with God about that. We’re human beings and we all experience temptation and sometimes we fall for it. We say things we regret that hurt people. We do things in the heat of the moment that we know are wrong. And our thoughts… well. Sometimes, though, I wonder if the church has got the balance right on this. When I first started attending church the Minister was till using the 1940 prayer book and there are words that I still remember: “We have sinned. We have grievously sinned and there is no good in us.” Really? Is that what we honestly think? Is that really humility? I’m reminded of a poem by James Thomson:
ONCE in a saintly passion
I cried with desperate grief,
"O Lord, my heart is black with guile,
Of sinners I am chief."
Then stooped my guardian angel
And whispered from behind,
"Vanity, my little man,
You're nothing of the kind.”
There is all the difference in the world between recognising our sins and wallowing in them. We are not miserable sinners and we are not worthless sinners. We are forgiven sinners. Any form of words or worship that leaves us thinking otherwise is wrong because it does not ring the gospel. Humility is this: recognising that insofar as we sin we are like all humanity. If we can be forgiven through the love of God in Jesus Christ, so can anyone else. If we can’t show the world the power of grace and forgiveness, who can.
Humility is not self-despising. See that phrase I mentioned a moment ago: “there is no good in us”. I have real problems with that. None of us is perfect - I get that. But there’s all the world of difference between that and “there is no good in us”. It makes us sound worthless. We are nothing of the kind. Whatever we think of our failings and our flaws - however unworthy we may think ourselves - God begs leave to differ. In God’s view you are worth his son going to the Cross. In God’s view you are worth his coming into the world for. You are his son or his daughter and he loves you beyond measure.
Humility is this: recognising that that insofar as we are imperfect we are like all humanity. There are segments of our society who are sometimes treated as worthless. The chronically unemployed are despised as workshy. The homeless are condemned as alcoholics and drug addicts. Whole communities are condemned as “sink estates”. If we who know the grace and love of God can’t show the world the power of love for those in need, who can?
Humility is not self-belittling. I am a human being. I exist in a tiny fraction of space that is my body. I’ve lived nearly 54 years and hopefully I’ll have a few more decades but that’s nothing compared to the great sweep of history. See things in those in terms and you can get to think, “What difference can I make?” The Dalai Llama once said, “If you think that being small means you make no difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito”. Our smallness gives us a choice. We can think we make no difference and see our purpose here on Earth as buying box-sets of DVDs and having coffee at Starbucks. Or we can think we make all the difference in the world to the people we meet every day: people who need to know that they matter and that they belong and that they are loved.
Humility isn’t about thinking you don’t matter. In Christian terms that’s nonsense. To God you matter far more than I have words to describe. Humility is realising that everybody matters. Humility isn’t about putting yourself in the lowest place because you’re unimportant - it’s recognising that everyone is important in the eyes of God. Humility is about embracing the Gospel of Jesus Christ - that God so loved the world that he gave his own son that we may not die but have eternal life.
In a couple of weeks time some men from this charge will be sleeping in a cardboard shelter to raise money to build houses for people in Nepal whose homes were destroyed by an earthquake. They will share - at least for a night - the place of the poorest people in the world. They will do it not because they think themselves terribly sinful or unworthy and certainly not because they think they make no difference. They will not do it because they think they don’t matter. They will do it for the same reasons that thousands of people walk over hot coals to raise money for charity or get into baths of cold beans or pour buckets of cold water over themselves for folk who are homeless or suffering from cancer. They do it because, I believe, there’s a voice that whispers in the heart of all humanity. It is God’s voice calling us to recognise that, in his love, everyone matters. It is God’s voice saying, “Friend, move higher”.
Lord teach us humility - a humility that is not weak or insipid, but one that inspires us to serve you in the world by making common cause with those the world despises