The Call to Humility
In a High-Five Culture
St/ John the Baptist Episcopal Church
November 8, 2015
Mark 12: 38-44
Columnist David Brooks was listening to a radio broadcast in his car that was played on the day that World War II ended. A passage was read from war correspondent Ernie Pyle: “We won this war because our men are brave and because of Russia, England and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature’s materials. We did not win it because we are better than all other people. I hope that in victory we are more gracious than proud.”
Then Brooks said, he went into his house and turned on a football game on television. A quarterback threw a short pass to a wide receiver who was tackled almost immediately for a two-yard gain. He goes on, “Then the offensive player did what all professional athletes do these days in moments of personal accomplishment. He did a self-puffing dance as the camera lingered. It occurred to me that I had just watched more self-celebration over a two yard gain than I had heard after the Allies won World War II.”
Pride – or maybe we now call it healthy self-esteem — is rampant. While pride in accomplishment or in traditions or family is understandable, sometimes the self is elevated over everything else.
Brooks again: “When you look from today back to 1945 you are looking…across a sort of narcissism line. Humility—the sense that nobody is that different from anyone else, — was a bigger part of the culture then. But humility has come under attack in the ensuing decades.”
Maybe Muhammad Ali started it with “I am the greatest” or L’Oreal’s commercial “Because I’m worth it”. But today misplaced pride extends all the way from high school and professional sports where the Number 1! Number 1—is right in your face, to television reality shows (“I’m going to win this thing because I have what it takes and they don’t”) to the person who will only talk about themselves through a two-hour dinner or to politics where the spirit of compromise for the greater good so often takes a back seat to damaging one’s opponents.
I’m partial to a cartoon of two students coming out of the SAT tests when one says, “Dude! There wasn’t like one question on my self-esteem!”
One of the most stunning fictional examples of pride, arrogance, or entitlement is from the movie “The Freshman.” Much of the story takes place on a remote island, accessible only by private plane and known about only by the very rich and the most jaded. On this island is a restaurant where on the menu is only the meat of endangered species.
I have difficulty with entitlement, so one of the things that matters most to me is humility in the true sense of the word: rooted in humus, in the earth. To be humble is to be grounded and to acknowledge the interconnectedness and interdependence of all creation.
Enter today’s Gospel about the poor widow and the Pharisees, certainly a study in contrasts.
In this lesson from Mark, it’s interesting that Jesus makes no positive or negative statement about the widow. He simply notes that that while others have contributed to the Temple treasury “out of their abundance, she puts in everything she has, all she had to live on.” What draws Jesus to her? Perhaps it is vulnerability, desperation, since his own death is imminent, when he will give all he has.
He doesn’t say if the widow’s action is a good thing or not, in fact, we could argue that it was reckless to use “all she has” in this way.
Jesus does make a judgment about the scribes, however, about their arrogance and entitlement, their long prayers and the fact “they devour widows’ houses.” The Scribes use their power for their own selfish purposes. The widow has almost no power and gives away what she has – even to a partially-corrupt Temple establishment. We really don’t know what motivates her but it interests Jesus.
Elsewhere in Mark, referring to the Pharisees again, Jesus has strong words: “Some tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and place them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”
So there it is: a call to humility in our high-five nation.
False humility can be frustrating:
“Good job, Jan.”
“Oh, it wasn’t that good…”
“ No, really…”
“Oh I don’t know…”
“It was good, really. REALLY.”
Understanding humility and the reality of interdependence is maybe easier on a corporate scale. What would Jesus think of the staggering burdens that the forces of greed have placed on the shoulders of those least able to carry them—and of the leaders who allow this to continue? What would he think of the selfishness we all display in big and small ways and how easily we drift into thinking that we are “self-made” people?
A while ago Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke about the issue in words that have will endure as a classic description of interdependence:
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — well for you!
But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.
Now look, you built a factory or had a great idea and it turned into something terrific, God bless. Keep a big hunk of it.
But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay it forward for the next kid who comes along.”
These are not only words for the corporate giant, but for each of us, reminding us that we didn’t build our lives and our bank accounts, our networks of friends and our fine families by ourselves. Paying it forward, being accountable to each other, to the future and to God is to embrace what Jesus means by humility.
So how do we do that in an authentic way and on a personal level in a world where the importance of self-esteem can dwarf all other values? Three suggestions….
First, almost any action point in a sermon includes two words: pay attention. Pay attention to the natural world that inspires awe without argument. A raging hurricane can do this, of course, or a sunset that bathes the world in beauty. But also consider what we don’t see or hear. The British writer George Elliot: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
Another thing that fosters humility, I think, is going to church. I don’t mean once a month; I mean every week. We do this because like the poor widow, we know we can’t go it alone.
Church demands that we think about the Big Questions. They’re in our Scriptures every week and when something big happens in our lives, we have at least a passing acquaintance with them, and we’re not standing frantically in the emergency room, trying to figure out what we believe – from scratch.
In church, we hear the stories read that have sustained people for thousands of years. The humility comes in accepting they can still have relevance for us in our high-tech world.
In church we pray the prayers reminding us of what we have done and who we want to be. We ask forgiveness, always humbling.
We break the bread, we drink the wine–and the bread and wine are as tangible and real as the gifts they promise — and we are so hungry for meaning, for direction, for peace. Simone Weill says that it is not blasphemy to say that God does not exist but it is blasphemy to say that the hunger for God is not real. And maybe also to think that we can go it alone, without a community and a tradition for support.
Finally, I want to talk about what is the most awe-inspiring film ever made, in my opinion. It is nine-minutes long, made in the Fifties by the designers Charles and Ray Eames. I look at it every week since it’s now on uTube, more if it’s a bad week.
It begins with a view of two picnickners on the shore of Lake Michigan with a close-up of a man asleep on a blanket. Then the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the lakeshore, the lake, the city of Chicago, the continent. Then by a power of ten we move outward into space, a hundred million light years every second. We pass the sun and the moon, the stars, and then the planets, Mars, Venus, Mercury.… Then on to other solar systems and finally arriving at the outermost known point in the galaxy.
The realization of how small we each are is overwhelming.
Then, by a power of ten the camera moves back in, past the outer planets, back into our solar system, passing the sun and the moon. And finally we see the small, green ball spinning in space that is Planet Earth. And we realize that on that ball, just one of thousands of bodies in the crowded heavens, is everyone and everything that we love and hold dear, our families and friends and art and human history and morning glories and polar bear and elm trees and music. How ordinary Earth looks among the other planets….
And then moving in closer by a power of ten we see our country and then Chicago and then Lake Michigan and then the picknicers on the blanket. Then the genius of the film begins as we see go inside the man’s hand. We see the muscles, the veins, and we hear the blood pumping and see the eerie inside of the cells, looking like a world onto themselves. Finally we reach the double helix, the home of the DNA, the innermost point of the atom.
And the films ends.
All of that out there.
All of that in here.
And we exist at the intersection of it all, not even a visual pinprick on the cosmic landscape, yet as a miraculous creation, a work of art, a scientific wonder, the very image of God. This is the humbling context – within and without — for your wondrous, unique life.
Know now that as you bring forth your pledge today, God sees you as Jesus saw the poor widow and smiles on the promise you are making, given out of your blessed abundance. Amen.