Ordinary Sunday 30: 23rd October, 2016
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Sirach 35.15-17, 20-22; Ps 34; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18; Luke 18.9-14
"All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
Humility. In a psychological study of character strengths across thousands of people in Australia, humility doesn't rank well. We value the virtues of fairness, open-mindedness, kindness, but prudence, self-regulation and humility sit at the bottom of the list (Park, Peterson & Seligman, 2006, p. 121).
And yet the great writers and thinkers praise this lowly virtue, perhaps precisely because of its rarity.
"The sufficiency of my merit is to know that my merit is not sufficient" St Augustine.
"True humility—the basis of the Christian system—is the low but deep and firm foundation of all virtues" Edmund Burke.
"There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self" Ernest Hemingway.
"True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less" C.S. Lewis.
My daughter, Hannah, has just had her last week at school. Listening to all the speeches (and shedding a tear or two I have to confess) I have been reflecting on the school's motto, which is all about humility: "Non nobis solum" — not for ourselves alone. The motto is taken from a treatise by the Roman philosopher Cicero: "Not for ourselves alone are we born; our country, our friends, have a share in us." Cicero is himself drawing from Plato's Letter to Archytas, reflecting on the Stoic ideal of cosmopolitanism, the idea that we are all interconnected and interdependent as human beings, and that we need to "contribute to the general good by an interchange of acts of kindness, by giving and receiving (De Officiis, 1:22).
For the great contemplative Thomas Merton, humility begins with an inner integrity and connectedness, out of which our external actions flow. He writes: "The first thing you have to do, before you start thinking about such a thing ... is to try to recover your basic natural unity, to reintegrate your compartmentalised being into a coordinated and simple whole, and learn to live as a unified human person" (The Essential Writings, p. 295). Humility is about an awakening of our inner self, our true self. Humility is the antidote to arrogance, pride, presumptuousness; it is about the humus, the earth, the ground of our being, being down to earth, being integral, being "real" (but not in a Donald Trump sense of that word I might add).
Our Lord sees the need for humility, particularly in the good upstanding members of the Synagogue and the Temple; us! Luke's parable captures a moment that we have all witnessed in one way or another I am sure; perhaps even in ourselves if we are honest. In the parable Jesus is taking aim at "some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt."
This week is Anti-Poverty week. How easy it is to look down on those who are different from ourselves; to walk past and ignore the growing number of homeless men and women on the streets of this most liveable city in the world; the Lazarus at our gates? And then we come to church to pray: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector [this drug addict, this homeless person, this ...]. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." Our Lord is not saying that righteousness and goodness is bad. He is just saying that this lack of humility does not lead to prayer. It is the sinner who is truly at prayer.
The person truly at prayer might have slipped in unnoticed at the back of church today; she may have slept rough last night; perhaps he will wait until all the churchgoers have gone home today, and then come into church to pray alone. She or he is the one standing far off, not even looking up to heaven; head bowed, whispering, perhaps shedding a tear, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"
Humility is an awakening to our true self; seeing ourselves and others through God's eyes; as we really are. Thomas Merton draws on an Oriental text to describe it. Merton tells of a Chinese official of the Sung Dynasty, who after many years of prayer and contemplation had a profound experience of enlightenment while sitting at his desk. It is recorded in a poem (The Essential Writings, p. 300):
Devoid of thought, I sat quietly by the desk in my official room,
With my fountain-mind undisturbed, as serene as water;
A sudden crash of thunder, the mind doors burst open,
And lo, there sits the old man in all his homeliness.
There is no grand revelation of the heavenly host here; just an awareness of his true self, sitting there "in all his homeliness"; in humility. Our hymnal puts it beautifully:
Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou bid'st me come to Thee
O Lamb of God, I come! I come.
As we worship today, we come, we sit at our desk, our prayer desks, our pews, our place of contemplation; waiting, watching, opening our hearts to God's love and truth.
And then after our worship, after our prayer, something really important happens; we leave church; we go out into the world. The question is, how do we go? Awake, or asleep? Eyes open or closed? Ignoring the homeless person at our gates, or stopping to find ways to help?
Humility can be rather overwhelming; getting down from our pedestal, walking around with open eyes, going about our everyday life seeing the world through God's eyes. Yesterday I walked for 5 minutes to pick up some milk from the local IGA; I counted no less than 10 homeless people on the way. What can I do? Really; what difference can I make. It is hard enough to help one person.
There's a rather lovely story about just that reality, which I would like to end with:
Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small girl approaching. As the girl walked, she paused every so often and as she grew closer, the man could see that she was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The girl came closer still and the man called out, "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"
The young girl paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can't return to the sea by themselves," the youth replied. "When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water."
The old man replied, "But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I'm afraid you won't really be able to make much of a difference."
The girl bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then she turned, smiled and said, "It made a difference to that one!"
Views is a
St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.