"The Power Of Humility"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 8/30/1998
Jeremiah 2:4-13; Luke 14:1, 7-14
For example, what image comes to mind when you hear a person described as "a wall flower"? What image is created through the cartoon character, Casper Milquetoast? We often hear the comment, "He's a good man but he certainly isn't going to set the world on fire." Then there is the image of a woman being labeled "plain Jane." By contrast most of us have been taught that "The squeaky wheel gets the grease." We respond accordingly.
Men and women who want to broaden their people-skills seek organizations like Toastmasters or take courses offered by the Dale Carnegie Institute. They educate themselves on how to interview successfully, how to market themselves or how to assert their personal strengths. The word "humility" may not exist in their internal dialogue. They are more apt to use it to describe someone else.
And as we have mentioned before, the advertising industry wants us to know that "G.E. brings good things to life" or "Toyota is for everyday people." They want us to know that their industry, the quality of their products, and their prices set them apart. In essence they teach us that if we have a good thing, we need to let everyone know about it. A humble industry may not be around very long. This misrepresentation may suggest that humble people may not be around either.
Such images influence us. Fear tells us that opportunities might pass us by. We need to become more aggressive as we approach the top positions in our field. We need to become more competitive. We need to become more attractive. We need to stay young longer. And we need to train our children how to adapt to this world because we sure don't want them to fall behind.
One of the reasons Jesus came to the earth was to teach us why it is important not to chase the prizes this world finds so attractive. He came to teach us that there are two worlds. His message was quite simple, "When our internal world is in order, the external world will take care of itself." His message is repeated again and again in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount.
We hear and study that message but we also understand our society's system of achievement. We are also well educated about what the symbols of achievement look like. Our world teaches us that when our external worlds are in order, we will find the time to fine tune our internal world. Too often, however, the heart attack or the emotional problems come first. Why? Our external worlds are always changing and literally defy permanent correction. Jesus said, "No informed person builds his house on sand."
Our Scripture lesson today addresses the issue of humility. Before we examine this quality of spirit, let us first revisit the setting. Luke's passage gives us unique insight into how Jesus prepared his lesson plans.
It was the Sabbath day and Jesus had been invited to the home of a leading Pharisee. As the meal was in the final stages of preparation, Jesus noticed how some people were selecting the better seats. It was this experience that provided Jesus the perfect illustration to frame his lesson on humility. Jesus' instruction about how to grow our inner worlds was always linked to common, everyday experiences.
If we brought this illustration into today's world, we might find Jesus sitting outside of the CVS or the grocery store. He would be doing the same thing, watching people vying for parking spaces that are close to the front door. In fact there are people who mention with some degree of pride that they often pray, "O God, please create a space for me in front of the grocery store." And more often than not, they see a driver leaving such a spot.
If such prayers were ever answered in that fashion, it is more realistic for God to respond, "I have created a spot for you as far away from the front door as possible because I love you. The walk will give your body its much needed exercise. And I am also providing you with the opportunity to demonstrate your humility. You will be helping people who really do need to park closer to the store's entrance."
This illustration brings us closer to what the spirit of humility looks like. Humility is nothing more than the extension of a loving spirit. We are not being doormats by allowing others to have something they feel they need or to achieve something they feel inclined to do. When we choose differently from others, it is a sign that our love is allowing for other people to be and do as they wish without causing us distress. And of more value than that, we are also communicating to ourselves that we are working on our inner worlds. When we assume this new attitude every day, watch what happens to us. Our hearts and adrenal glands will thank us as our stress levels are reduced.
The power of humility comes when we recognize that we actually do live in two worlds. The first world is filled with forms that are always changing. The second is the world that does not. When the qualities of our spirits come from the world that remains timeless, we gain control over ourselves while living in the relative world of change. Humility gives us that power. It also allows us to bring creativity into our physical world.
There is a wonderful story about a young man who was dating a very attractive girl. One Sunday after church the two went for a picnic. He had made arrangements to rent a row boat. His plan was to row to a small island on their favorite lake and enjoy the lunch he had made. Since he had been unaccustomed to making lunches, he had forgotten to pack a number of things. She said, "It might be nice if we had some salt, ketchup and napkins." Without hesitation he got into the boat and rowed back to shore to get them.
He loved her very much even though her repeated requests sent him back to the shore no less than three times during the course of the afternoon. By the end of the extremely warm day, he had perspired so much that his good suit was soaked.
What is so interesting about this young man was that he willingly put into practice everything he had learned in church. "I have come among you," Jesus said, "as one who serves." While it appeared that his "romantic love" may have taken his servitude to extremes, his mind had been working on how to solve the very problem that had troubled him all afternoon. His name was Clarence Evinrude. Later that evening he designed the world's first outboard motor. An industry was born. And yes, Clarence later married his persistent friend.
Authentic humility gives us power to bring our creativity into a world that is always changing. Rather than being distracted by thoughts of frustration and blame, Clarence focused his energy on remaining humble. In fact humility prevents the formation of hasty judgments and allows us to keep focused on who we want to be with each opportunity that comes. Jesus was teaching us the art of how to create ourselves every day as we follow him and his teachings.
We must remember that Jesus was not in ministry simply to teach us another set of rules or commandments. Jesus was bearing witness to an attitude about life that is very different from the thought patterns many people choose. Humility influences our outlook and assists in preventing the development of attitudes that can easily hold us prisoner. This process gives meaning to Jesus' words, "For those who make themselves great will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be made great."
At first such a teaching appears to oppose all responses that will help us get what we want. As a result, it is very difficult for us to want humility, a power that allows us to detach from the changing forms our world seems to prize. Jesus was telling his listeners that it is human nature to want the best seats, but it is better for the development of our inner world to sit in the least desirable seats. Choosing humility causes us to discover what we cannot see amid all the possible consequences of a decision.
When I was ordained in 1968, I was soon offered a part-time job by the Cheverly church trustees that would give me an additional $50 a week. The job was to assist our two elderly custodians with a number of their chores. Among those chores were locking up the church every night and cleaning the fellowship hall after the large Alcoholics Anonymous chapter met on Thursdays and Saturday nights.
Frequently there was spilled coffee on the floor that looked like it had triple cream and 10 sugars in it. In addition to conditions like this, the trustees allowed the AA members to be the only group permitted to smoke in the church. The gray air hung thick as I cleaned the hall, a process that often started at 10:30 p.m. The large room had to be ready for Church School classes the following morning.
I remember wrestling with all kinds of identity issues. Humility was not one of them. I had my academic degrees. I had just finished working evenings at the White House during my seminary training. Not only did I have a Top Secret security clearance but I also had spent time with people who were the chief advisors to the President. Such privileges are nothing new for many of you, but these experiences had made quite an impression to a much younger Dick Stetler. The thought persisted, "So, what am I doing now with a mop in my hand?"
One Saturday morning I had just finished buffing the fellowship hall when a mother of a bride came to talk to me. Believing I was the custodian, she instructed me in a rather condescending manner how she wanted the tables and chairs arranged. I felt her attitude of superiority. How interesting that four hours later I was in the chancel performing the marriage of her daughter! She never looked at me during the wedding.
During this period of struggle, I never found the answer. But I did make up my mind that I was going to do the best job I could without judging what it meant or what it would do to my thinking. Before I arrived at that point of acceptance, I remember having gone through every conceivable emotion a person can have. The Apostle Paul once wrote, "Do not think more highly of yourselves than you ought to think." (Romans 12:3) Obviously I did, or there would not have been such an internal struggle.
All of us find ourselves at this threshold everyday to a lesser or greater degree. It is a difficult challenge to remain in a very competitive world and deliberately choose to walk to the drum beat of another drummer. At first it is very painful to eat humble pie. However, when we accept such experiences peacefully they give us a powerful new perspective on our relationships, our work environment and our life's goals.
There is tremendous power in humility. It alone stabilizes our inner world. It brings perspective on how much ego investment we have in the outcome of our circumstances. As we free ourselves from that investment, we are free indeed to be more faithful in our sowing seeds that heal and enable others to bear fruit.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and gracious God, thank you for creating us with the ability to experience your presence. Each time we turn to you during periods of uncertainty, you help us translate those moments into opportunities. When we feel life has forsaken us, you invite us not to judge or cast blame. Each time we feel that something is missing in our lives, you assure us that you created us with everything we need. When we no longer sense your presence, you remind us that faith depends on trust. And when we try to convince ourselves that life is not working, you invite us to make other choices. We thank you, God, for being so gentle and kind with us. Thank you for leading us to a deeper understanding of our purpose for living. May we learn from your presence in our lives how better to serve one another with the same quality of caring. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal and every present God, once again we thank you for these moments together near the end of a month that has served to remind us of the changing quality of our world. We have experienced a crisis in the office of the Presidency, roller coaster stock markets, threatening weather conditions, and the bombing of embassies. Yet, we never waiver in our confidence that in spite of all that we experience your perfect will is being done.
In that spirit we go on with our lives. Teachers and students find their way back into the classrooms. Skills and knowledge are passed from one generation to another. Babies are being born as many of our loved ones return to the joy of life eternal.
We ask that as we worship, you will allow us to feel your peace. And through that peace we might find the creative perspective that enables all of us to live and work in this world sowing seeds of helpfulness, caring, reassurance, and acceptance. Each one of us has what others need and as we share with each other, may we enjoy our common destiny.
Encourage us to move well beyond the "we - they" thoughts that divide us. May the thoughts that dominate our minds be ones that equip us more fully to reflect your image. Help us always to remember that all of us are constantly in the process of creating ourselves. Even though we have called that "growth" and Jesus called it "discipleship," we have come to know this was your plan for each of us. Bless that process as we now pray the prayer Jesus taught us to say. . .