Humble Thyself

The Seventeenth Sunday After Trinity

St. Luke 14:1-1

Humble Thyself

                When I was a deacon, it occurred to me one day that the people in the parish I was serving needed to know how smart I am.  I puzzled over how to turn on that light for them.  Finally, I settled on a course of action.

I decided to pick an argument with Mr. Harrington.  He teaches humanities in a private school.  When I was a kid – going to public school – all we knew about humanities was that it was something like the SPCA.

In our neighborhood, when you found a stray dog, you knew sure as you knew Mickey Mantle’s batting average that your dad wasn’t going to pay to feed him so you took him down to the humanities society shelter.

But now I know that humanities is something you’ve got to be really smart to learn.  Anybody who teaches it must be a big brain.  So when I won my argument with Mr. Harrington, everyone would see how smart I am.

But then I decided, no, instead of Mr. Harrington I’ll pick an argument with another parishioner, Dr. Bob.  He’s a Rice University guy with a Ph.D.  When I was a kid – going to public school – I was the oldest of three in a family in which no one had ever gone to college.

I mean the whole extended family.  My dad told me from the time I was gnawing on his ankles, “Boy, you’re goin’ to Rice.”  I came to think of Rice as my destiny.

So when the time came I headed over to Rice and said, “Here I am!”  And they said, “Great!  Do you want to cut the grass or mop the halls?”  So that didn’t go awfully well . . . but I’ve gotten smarter since then.  I knew when I won my argument with Dr. Bob everyone would know how smart I am.

But then I thought, no, all of Dr. Bob’s degrees are in history and political science.  I want to win an argument with a theologian.  So I decided I’d pick an argument with our rector, the Very Rev. Dr. Curtis I. Crenshaw.  He was also dean of our seminary.

When I was a kid – going to public school – we figured anybody with a title like that had to be bigger’n the pope . . . or even Joel Osteen.  When I won my argument with him they’d all have to admit how smart I am.

But then I thought, if you’re going to pick an argument with a theologian, why not go straight to the top?  I’ll start an argument with God.

And that, I suppose, is something like the thought process the Pharisees used in deciding to take on Jesus Christ.

It didn’t go so well for them.  I had a better chance of getting into Rice.

But they’re at it again today.  St. Luke gives us in chapter 14 the third occasion on which our Lord heals on the Sabbath.  The Pharisees are shocked – shocked, I tell you!  Exactly as they had planned to be.

On the Sabbath at the house of one of the chief Pharisees, Jesus heals a man with dropsy, or edema, a condition that causes one to retain water and swell.  We might conclude he was a throw-down sick guy, that the Pharisees had planted him there to lure Jesus into an illegal healing . . . but that would be speculation.

We know for certain that they were watching our Lord closely – trying to catch Him out.  Again.  And again we see His mastery of them.  He uses their arrogance in thinking they could bait Him, their condescension to a hillbilly rabbi from Galilee, to teach humility.

Let’s bear in mind that in his gospel St. Luke is giving an account of the Lord’s ministry to someone he addresses as “Most Excellent Theophilus.”  The name means “Lover of God,” but that’s all we know about him.  The evangelist is relating what Jesus did and laying out the case for why He did those things.

At the Lord’s first Sabbath healing, St. Luke recounts, the Pharisees were “furious.”  At the second, they were “humiliated.”  Along the way, St. Luke lets us know that Jesus had informed them that One “greater than Solomon” had come.

He is wiser than the wisest man who ever lived . . . and still they refuse to listen to the saving wisdom He brings but instead try to match wits with Him.

At the end of chapter 13, St. Luke reports Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, which “kills the prophets and stones the ones who are sent to her.”  Now in chapter 14, he presents more evidence of the Pharisees’ intransigence.  Another Sabbath healing.  More outrage.

They are both furious and humiliated once more, of course, but this time we learn that they fall silent.  If you had a farm animal that fell into a hole on the Sabbath, Jesus asks, would you not render the simple mercy of pulling it out?  He is saying, by implication, if you would help a dumb beast, why would you not help a man?

They have no answer.  But neither do they repent – change their thinking.  I see your point.  I can’t refute it.  But still I choose not to change my opinion to fit the facts; I’d rather burrow deeper into my own corrupted attitude in which I have lived so comfortably for so long.

Sound familiar?  To return to Solomon for a moment: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

For centuries, the Jewish leaders had stoned the prophets God sent to condemn their sin and preach repentance.  St. Luke has told us in his gospel of the arrival of John the Baptist, the final Old Testament prophet, who came preaching a baptism of repentance.  The enemies of God killed him as well.

Now appears the final Prophet, God’s own Son.  St. Luke and his fellow evangelists show us healing after healing to demonstrate the Lord’s great patience, to leave no doubt that He produced repeated signs and wonders as evidence of His mercy and power for any who would soften their hearts.

And the Pharisees turn a deaf ear to Him as well.  Soon they will shout, “Crucify!  Crucify!”

Surely you see, Theophilus, Lover of God, how desperately God ached in His great heart for His chosen people to return His love.  Surely you see, Christian, how great was the sacrifice of our Lord Christ for those who would bear His name.

Jesus tells the dinner party a story of a banquet.  The most important guests often arrived last.  If you should be at such a function, do not claim one of the best seats – those nearest the host – lest that host ask you to give way to someone greater than you who arrives late and you suffer shame.

Take a lesser seat and perhaps the host will bid you move up closer.

The leading cause of humiliation is lack of humility.

Our good news for today has to do with humility.  The bad news about the good news is that our Lord addressed it not only to a small gathering in a home in first-century Palestine but to us as well.  Jesus says to us today:

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Then and now, a proud sinner wants to spit up the medicine of humility the way I used to gag on my grandmother’s cod liver oil.  Just look at the Pharisees.

In the arrogance of their self-justification, their determination to redeem themselves by their observance of the silly statutes into which they had twisted God’s good commandments, they made themselves blind to the kingdom of God as it paraded before their eyes.

Throw away your empty ritual, purge the books of nonsense laws.  The One who will offer the final sacrifice, the One who fulfills the law of God . . . has come.  Perfect Grace walks among you on two legs and He is making all things new.

Healing is the very essence of the Sabbath.  Nothing could be more fitting than to restore men to perfect health for that is the state in which we will spend our eternal rest in the presence of the God of glory.

No dropsy, no disease or defect will we carry there.  Christ is lifting from us the palsy of our sin and making us clean and whole to dine at His table.

Arrogance has no place at that table.  Jesus, the washer of feet, has come bearing the gift of humility.  He bestows it through His Holy Spirit on those who will receive it.  Receive it!  You will not enter the eternal Sabbath without it.

The Pharisees embraced the Sabbath and shunned healing as they sought righteousness and rejected repentance, as they pursued knowledge and spurned godly wisdom, as they grabbed at glory for themselves and denied honor to others.  They were master builders of the kingdom of man and a wrecking crew running loose in the kingdom of God.

They prayed for a demagogue and when God sent not the one they wanted but the One they needed they executed the divine deliverer.

But He lives on in His Holy Spirit, who dwells in you, bidding you not to quench the Spirit but to reveal Christ to a lost and hurting world that is desolate without the healing gift of humility.  “The queen of the Christian graces,” it has been called.

God bestows the gift of prophecy on some, of teaching on some.  He favors some with talent to praise Him with glorious playing and singing, some with uncommon courage to take the witness into hostile places.  But He offers the gift of humility to all.

Unlike the Pharisees, those who receive this gift can produce an answer.  It begins with repentance.  Absent confession of sin there is no sorrow for sin and absent sorrow for sin there is no remission of sin.  On the seventh day, God entered into His Sabbath and threw open its gates to the creature He made as the crown of His creation.

Our prideful rebellion has cost us the fullness of it in this life but our Lord has come to restore it to those who will kneel before Him and accept His healing gift of humility.

Here’s a definition of humility: putting the interests of God and our fellow man ahead of our own.  No, wait a minute . . . that’s the Great Commandment.  To love God and love my neighbor as myself is to humble myself.

I will not pretend expertise in the field of humility – there’s a minefield for you – but I can claim some recent experience in it.  When I decided on a change of course well into middle age, I unwittingly set myself up for a baptism of humility.

In my previous incarnation I had traipsed through press boxes and locker rooms, never feeling ill-equipped for the challenges I encountered.  Even in dealing with general managers and owners of professional franchises it never occurred to me that I could not hold my own.

But when I began a transition into vocational ministry God placed in my path some men before whom I stood in awe.  I think of two in particular who set their courses early in life and prepared for God’s service at a level beyond my imagining.

They studied the classics alongside the Scriptures, learned languages, read the great books, interacted with the thought of the great thinkers.  They trained at a graduate level at the best schools for secular vocations that gave them a platform for their ministries and a means of support for their families.

I learned to check my opinions and pay close heed to theirs.  I developed enough wisdom to understand that when there are faster guns around I’d better keep mine in its holster.

One of these men founded an agency that is pushing the gospel into dangerous, faraway places.  The other founded a Christian college and honored me by asking me to teach Bible and New Testament Greek.

One of my students, named Sean, came to us having devoured the high school curriculum for home schoolers by age 14.  While he was taking Greek with me and Latin with another teacher as well as an intensive great books course and a full academic load, he and a friend began learning French, Spanish and Italian for fun.

I taught him biblical Greek for two years and then he wanted to read Homer in the original.  I had never studied Homeric Greek but I said we would tackle it together.  Halfway through our first semester I watched Sean barreling into the distance as I was struggling to get out of the starting blocks.  I blessed him and sent him off of an odyssey to find a better teacher, if he needed one.

If I wanted a vocation in His kingdom, God seemed to be telling me, I would need a bucketful of humility. And for a hard case like me, He would provide a few extra blessings.

In the first seminary I attended, I sat under the teaching of men three decades my junior.  Along the way, I heard it said that if you want to find a person in any field acutely aware of his ignorance, look for one with a Ph.D. in that discipline.  So far, I have achieved only a master’s level of ignorance – but even that is imposing.

I became a postulant for holy orders at age 61 and watched younger men race past me on the ordination track because I was required to put in my time in the denomination before I could sit for the deacon’s exam.  Sometimes grudgingly, I learned to give honor to those to whom honor is due.

Serving in that parish in which our seminary dean, Dr. Crenshaw was rector, I found myself in strong disagreement with him on two occasions.  I gave him my views and swallowed hard.  God had made him rector, not me.  Until the day I was ordained a priest I addressed him as “Fr. Crenshaw,” never by his first name.

I had come to see that he did not need to be exalted; I needed to be humbled.  That realization helped me to grasp that God does not need to receive my worship; I need to offer it.

By this time I was thinking, well, Lord, maybe I’m getting overqualified in humility . . . but He had a different view.  Still does.

On high, He beckons us into His Sabbath rest – if only we will accept His healing gift.

The God who commands us to forgive others if we desire His forgiveness tells us to exalt others if we yearn for exaltation into His glorious presence.  We can join the Pharisees in picking an argument with God or we can bow low before Him and offer thanks for His healing gift of humility.

It is only when we lose ourselves that we find ourselves – in Christ the Giver.

When I was a kid, going to public school, I thought it would be way cool to run the world.  Now I consider it a privilege to serve the One who made it.  Amen.


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On Her Knees

Fourth Sunday After Trinity

Lamentations 3:22-33, Psalm 91, Romans 8:18-23, St. Luke 6:36-42

On Her Knees

                Mary the Missionary never did fit in.  She was shy and socially awkward.  She never seemed to know what to say.  She stayed to herself a lot.  She was the only one on the team who was single.

The other missionaries reached out to her now and then, but of course they were busy with their families and their work and, truth to tell, it got to be a chore to have Mary over for dinner.  You had to carry the conversation for the entire evening.

Some of the others even wondered among themselves how she got to the mission field in the first place, what with all the psychological testing candidates had to undergo.  But there she was, in the no-fly zone of northern Iraq in the 1990s, with the rest of them.

They had come to minister to the Kurds, who were under the protection of American and British air patrols because Saddam Hussein, their president, wanted to kill them.  He had used poison gas to kill thousands in a place called Halabja and it was as grim a certainty as hatred for Jews that, given the chance, he would murder many more.

Mary’s missionary team had a leader who assigned responsibilities to each member.  The women on the team did things like teach Kurdish war widows to make patterns and sew children’s clothing for export so they could support their own children and themselves.

There was no shortage of widows. While Saddam was at war with them, the Kurdish tribes were at war with each other.

This was the land the Bible calls Babylon, and in the 3,000 or so years since Old Testament times . . . well, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  For many, to be a widow was to be an outcast, reduced to prostitution or begging to survive.

But there is this Babylon tucked in between the Tigris and the Euphrates and there is the Babylon of the heart.  Because of Mary, the question thrust itself into the missionary team like a hot poker: Was it the Kurds or the Americans living in spiritual Babylon?

To the Kurdish women, these Americans were an exotic species. They came from a magical kingdom where no one hungered and no one thirsted, where no one wrung her hands and wept over how to feed her children.

Or what she might have to do to provide for them.  These Americans might as well have floated in on a cloud of pixie dust.

Mary did her job, or so everyone on the team assumed.  If they’d been honest, they would have admitted they didn’t really know what Mary did.  The hours weren’t regular and no one punched a clock and Mary was almost invisible, anyway.  Maybe she had been here yesterday, or this morning, but who could be sure?  She was easy to misplace.

After a while, someone did notice that she didn’t seem to be around at all a couple of days a week, but nobody thought too much about it.  Along with her other shortcomings, she wasn’t picking up the local Kurdish dialect very quickly and the native women seemed happier when she wasn’t trying shyly to teach them skills using silly gestures.  No one really minded that she wasn’t there.

Finally, one of the Kurdish women from the town landed in the hospital – the nearest one was in a city an hour-and-a-half away – and two of the missionary women went over to visit.  And there they found Mary.

She was down on her knees, scrubbing toilets.

They asked why she was there, of course, and Mary seemed embarrassed, as though they had caught her playing hooky.  She said, well, she had come over several weeks before to visit one of their local women who had been kind to her and she had been appalled by what she saw.

The whole place reeked and the bathrooms were even worse and she just thought that since it seemed the team didn’t really need her she could make herself useful here.  For weeks, she had been making the round-trip twice a week on the creaky, stinking bus to mop and scrub and to do anything she could to make it the kind of hospital where a patient might actually get well.  Or at least not get sicker.

The two other missionaries were still mulling this information when they entered a ward to visit the Kurdish woman they had come to see.  She told them that everyone in the hospital was talking about Mary.

For Kurds, Americans are “kings and queens of the world” – their words, not mine.  To see one of them on her knees scrubbing toilets was like watching Saddam, with all his medals pinned to his chest, mucking out stalls.

Some of them regarded Mary with contempt – what sort of fool would stoop so far beneath her station? — but others wondered what could drive a queen to her knees before a filthy toilet in the service of people who were not her own.  It seemed a matter worth pondering.

I’ve never met Mary.  A missionary from her team told me about her.  After that day, her brothers and sisters in Christ did some pondering as well.  Was it not she rather than they who embodied the missionary spirit?  They asked themselves whether they had packed spiritual Babylon within them for the trip to physical Babylon.

She who had humbled herself in the sight of the Lord, the Lord had exalted in the eyes of her peers.

The prayer book assigns to us today a gospel lesson on Christlikeness.  It brings a picture of Mary to my mind.  She would not judge those who had judged her so uncharitably.  She would forgive those who might have seemed unworthy of her forgiveness.

Our passage in the sixth chapter of St. Luke’s gospel follows one on loving one’s enemies.  Our Lord is teaching on the very thing that sets the Christian apart from the world.  Humility is the wellhead of divine acceptance and forgiveness.

Our passage begins, “Therefore, be merciful just as your Father also is merciful.”  In our collect for today we prayed that God’s mercy would enable us to “pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.”

He who does not forgive knows not how much he has been forgiven – or he has not been forgiven because he has not sought God’s mercy.  A forgiving spirit is evidence that one has embraced God’s forgiveness.  As Jesus goes on to say in this chapter, “Each tree is known by its own fruit.”

Most of us kings and queens, of course, want to put limits on our mercy, something like the Irish boxer who experienced an awakening and became a preacher.  He was hard at work setting up his revival tent in a new town when a couple of local toughs happened upon the scene.

Ignorant of his previous calling, they tossed a few insults his way.  When the preacher wouldn’t take the bait, one of them took a swing and caught him on the side of the face.  The preacher shook off the blow, turned his head and offered his other cheek.  The bad boy obliged.

In a flash, the preacher whipped off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and declared, “The Good Lord gave me no further instructions.”  And they who had exalted themselves were humbled.

We must not press the point in too literal a direction.  God does not command us ordinarily to make punching bags of ourselves.  Getting pounded does nothing to sanctify either puncher or punchee.  The point is that we are to put the interests of others ahead of our own, even to the point of suffering for them when necessary.  That is, lest we forget, the example our Lord left us.

Refraining from judging does not mean we abandon courts of law or our own discernment in the way our brothers and sisters behave.  We must praise them — and rebuke them when necessary.  It does mean that we exercise restraint in what we think and say about others.

A common error is to observe the actions of others and make assumptions about their motives: He did this so he must have been mad at the world, or acting out his hostility toward someone else, or harboring a grudge against me.

In fact, we don’t know why he did what he did.  If we speculate and discuss our conclusions with others, we violate the ninth commandment.  We bear false witness.  Unless we investigate, we are tossing out guesses, often malicious ones, as to his motive.

We err, too, when we allow our own preferences to dictate our judgment, either of the conduct of others or of acceptable standards.  That fact that I do not care for your tats does not mean I should laugh you to scorn.  The fact that you do not like a certain hymn does not mean it should not be allowed in our worship.

Another slander in our Internet age is to forward unsubstantiated accusations against those with whose politics we disagree to advance our own prejudices.  I cannot count the times I have received a forwarded email only to go to a fact-checker and discover it is either a partial truth or a total fabrication.

We are entitled to our political opinions but not to mischaracterizing or maligning those with whom we disagree.

When we give as our Lord gave, of mercy, forgiveness, blessing, we receive back – pressed down, shaken together and running over into our bosom.  The analogy comes from the measuring of grain.

To pack it loosely was to short the buyer.  We are to give of these things in such abundance that the recipient must gather his garment into a sort of pouch to catch the overflow.

In some cases, we will meet with contempt and ridicule for our efforts, as did Mary the Missionary.  As did Jesus the Christ.

Both student and teacher must practice humility as well.  When the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a ditch.  Follow a Pharisee and become a Pharisee.  For this reason, the student must choose his teacher well.

J.C. Ryle, the 19th-century pastor and scholar, wrote, “The amount of evil unsound religious teaching has brought on the church in every age is incalculable. The loss of souls it has occasioned is fearful to contemplate.  A teacher who does not know the way to heaven himself is not likely to lead his hearers to heaven.  The person who hears such a preacher runs the fearful risk himself of being lost eternally.”

But the student must take responsibility for himself.  Test the teaching.  Inform yourself from the Scriptures so that you are competent to do so.

Ryle also wrote, “With the Bible in our hands and the promise of the Holy Spirit to everyone who seeks him, we will have no excuse if we are led astray.”

And when you find the right teacher, submit to him.  The disciple is not above his teacher.  An arrogant student will be so full of his own opinions that he will shut out those of one who is better trained than he.

Many students have eventually excelled their teachers, of course, but while one sits under the faithful teacher he must accord him the respect due one the Lord has ordained to that role.  It was an idea prevalent in both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures that the student’s goal was to become like his teacher.

By becoming “perfectly trained,” Jesus undoubtedly means the student must in the end emulate the ultimate Teacher, our Lord Himself.  “Be holy as I am holy.”

For his part, the teacher must not allow a log in his own eye to blind him to his shortcomings.  His student’s faults may be a mere speck by comparison.  John Milton saw the danger.  He wrote in “Paradise Lost”: “Neither men nor angels can discern hypocrisy, the only evil that walks invisible – except to God.”

When he is aggrieved by his own sin, the teacher is fit to guide others.

As we make our way through the gospel lessons in this Trinity season, we should be picking up certain themes.  None is more prominent than the juxtaposition of arrogance and humility.  We have seen it already in the pairing of the 99 righteous sheep and the one who was lost.

We see the contrast in the Pharisees on the one hand and the poor in spirit on the other.   Here, it surfaces in the roles of teacher and student – and either can play the heavy.

Our resistance to the authority God places over us, I submit, provides the best understanding of the deterioration we see around us in 21st-century America.  The contemporary theologian Dallas Willard has indicted the church for its failure of discipleship: “Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have not yet decided to follow Christ . . .”

Put that side-by-side with J. C. Ryle’s assault on false teachers.  Now mix in a student who is not submitted to his teacher and a teacher who is not submitted to God.  When no one is looking up, no one is becoming “perfectly trained.”  The result is a cataclysmic collapse of discipleship.

Our Lord commanded His apostles, and those who follow them, to “go forth and make disciples.”  If the church is not engaged in that work, what is her purpose?  Worship, yes, but God did not plant us here to serve ourselves.

We could remain here a long time indeed exploring the applications of the denial of God’s order in the civil realm.  To take but one example, we are watching our military, our most hierarchical structure, decay like a fish, from the head down.

It has dumped God’s prohibitions against promiscuity and homosexuality and His ordering of male and female.  Its power to assert itself, and to defend the rest of us, is seeping away.

In Old Testament times God showed His people that they could not save themselves.  The more I observe, the more I become convinced that in these latter days He is showing His people that we cannot govern ourselves.  The redeemed of the Lord sit mute as post-Christian America slides ever more rapidly back into paganism.

The world, the flesh and the devil are the enemies of God and His people, and they comprise a formidable array of adversaries.  Christlikeness is our only shield.  And while we may find it difficult to practice, it is not hard to understand.  The gospels show us how our Lord walked upon this earth to leave us an example.  When we appear before Him, we will be without excuse.

Mary the Missionary lived that gospel.  She was poor in spirit.  I wonder if she even entertained the thought that when she went down on her knees she assumed the posture of her Lord – and ours.  Amen.



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