Nova Faith Community’s Core Values—Humility

by admin on April 4, 2011

Reflection for 3 April 2011
Luke 14: 1-14

A story is told about a man who asked his rabbi why people couldn’t see the face of God. What had happened that they could no longer reach high enough to see God? The rabbi, a very old man, had experienced a lot in his life and was very wise. “My son,” he said, “that is not the way it is at all. You cannot see the face of God because there are so few who can stoop that low. How sad this is, but it is the truth. Learn to bend, to bow, to kneel and stoop and you will be able to see God face-to-face.”

This story reminds us of another saying. The door to the kingdom of God is exactly as high as you are when you walk on your knees. If you are standing tall, full of pride, you can’t get through.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, like in the marketplace, and every other place you and I find ourselves– the opposite behavior is promoted. You can’t get ahead, we’re told, unless you promote yourself, take center stage, and claim all the credit for success, even if this means shoving everyone and everything else out of the way. It’s not just the culture that has a problem with humility. Many of us still equate it with self-hatred and self-disgust.

Humility really means to accept oneself as being human. In classical Lutheran theology—and this is a peculiar piece of sheer brilliance—it means to embrace both saint and sinner, beast and angel. Simul justus et peccator. So it has a triple dose of pure honesty. Humility neither exaggerates nor minimizes, but accepts.

Lutheran diplomat Dag Hammarskjold writes in his Markings: Humility is just the opposite of self-abasement, as it is of self-exultation. To be humble is not to make comparisons.

There is a slogan from Alcoholics Anonymous which says: “The challenge is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less often.” Humility means not putting yourself either above or below others; it means not thinking about your position on a scale. To be humble is not to make comparisons.

Isn’t it interesting that Luke 14 is all about that—making comparisons, with a word of Jesus about those who are humbled will be exulted and vice versa? And all this takes place in the dining room of some bigshot religious official.

The scene already presupposes the social jockeying that’s needed to sit up front at the head table, sitting as close as you can to the guest of honor…with the hopes, of course, of having them sign their book for you, or the cocktail napkin.
Let’s talk about our three questions.

This is unusual even for Luke. Practically a whole chapter given to a single scene. But what we already know of Luke is that he likes food. Well, Jesus likes food; Luke likes to tell about it. Lots of action happens over the dinner table with Jesus. In fact, eating was the hallmark of social respectability and social equality. This is before desegregation at Woolworth’s lunch counter.

Jesus sits down to eat and stirs the pot. First with an unlawful healing and then with a rub-it-in-your-face challenge to our Emily Post etiquette.

Vv1-6 set the scene; the house of a ruler of the pious Pharisees. Behold, on e of the guests there is a guy with dropsy—generalized edema—swollen up like a blow fish. Major water retention issues here. What’s ironic is that dropsy in the ancient world was regarded at a metaphor for a person swollen with greed. Certainly this physical ailment was real, but what about that spiritual reality? People suffering from dropsy have an insatiable thirst in spite of the fact that the body is already on fluid overload. You got to wonder, what other insatiable appetites this man had, and what other kinds of over load he was lugging around.

Perhaps, given the social and religious context here of being with the spiritual high-achievers of Judaism the man might also have a bad case of the prides. That’s spelled p-r-I-d-e. We know that pride is the first and capital of the seven deadly sins (should we preach about those sometime this summer?) And the virtue – Aquinas was good at positing virtues to counter deadly sins – the virtue is humility.

Jesus gets to that straightway in the next several verses.
Vv7-14 As we’ve already said, sharing food was a barometer of social relations. With whom to eat? Remember the scuffle in the school cafeteria….whose table and with whom? Where you sit broadcasts your status in the pecking order. This is big league stuff, the kind that just might merit a mention and pic in Barbie Hendle’s column.

We call it networking today—making contacts—broadening our social landscape. Back then they called it high stakes gaming, always marked by the pervasive concern of social status. To be humble is not to make comparisons.

Verse 12 moves from a generalized idea down to the nitty-gritty of personalized challenge. Look buddy, thanks for the invite and mighty nice meal—but really—do any of us really need to eat like this? How about next time you do this, go down under the bridge and get the guys there, or the shelter of being them all uptown to your place. What Jesus is really saying here: try this out at home.

1) In Jesus day banquets were times when philosophers and teachers imparted wisdom. They were the after dinner speakers. What did Jesus speak? We already know his words, but his actions here again speak loudly. Jesus dinner entourage has included if we read Luke right, skid row bums, ladies of the evening, fraudulent tax collectors and assorted petty thieves, flim-flam men, boozers, and high rollers. All of them in equal measure—saint and sinner together. Get the drift here?

And it’s in this every-day activity called dinner which reveals the true character of his listeners. That’s the wonder of the gospels—if you pay attention you’ll discover that human behavior is best revealed in the little thing of life. The Zen Buddhists speaks of the Zen of peeling potatoes. These little things, like sitting down at a table, reveal the way of life that is the Kingdom of God. The frequent and the familiar are not to be overlooked in defining life in the presence of God.

2) So what gets revealed? The final verses speak a lot here. Jesus sidebar conversation with his host. Hosting was a big deal. “Bob served, Jane poured and a good time was had by all.” Hosting became an act whereby one person could gain control over others, first by who gets invited—Y-O-U spells you and you are not it. And secondly, by anteing up the friendship: you own me one if you did get invited.

Jesus calls for Kingdom behavior, i.e. NSA–no strings attached. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just assumed two things: there is one; and you get to be part of it. Underneath both assumptions is the reality of God himself. And to whom among us is God indebted? Who can repay God?

Suddenly there is a recalibration of the category “good and deserving.” Here is where humility comes into play. However “good” we may think we are (or are not), we cannot afford to take any kind of stand on our own “goodness.” For when we do, we go into the business of comparison. “Hey, I’m not that bad…..not like he is.”

Humility comes naturally to some people but usually it needs to be learned. We become humble by being around humble people and by consciously acknowledging that we are not #1. I call it the Mother Theresa Principle—hang around people NOT like you; do something for someone else who never in a million years will be able to pay you back…then see what happens. Here are some ways to practice.

• Kneel. This is such a simple gesture yet few of us do it outside of a religious service. Say your prayers on your knees a few times this week. See how a humble posture reinforces your intention. Zen it starts with a bow.

• Consciously get out of the way. I ain’t much but I’m all I ever think about. We have to put aside our need for attention so that the bright light of what we are presenting is what people see.

• Many of the great spiritual masters practiced what could be called “downward mobility.” Jesus, for example, encouraged his disciples to create a community of equals. After they argued over who was the greatest, he knelt before them and washed their feet. “I am among you,” he said another time, “as one who serves.”

Strive to create the conditions in the world that will lead to this kind of community. In daily life, this means working to break down the barriers that separate people and put the rich over the poor, the able-bodied over the disabled, the literate over the illiterate, and the strong over the weak. Regardless of your political commitments, think about the spiritual implications of what goes on down at the Statehouse.

• Walk lightly upon the earth. The words “humility” and “human” both come from “humus” or earth. With humility, we accept our place as one among many others. When we recognize that we are no more important than those others, we take no more than our small share. We approach even the most menial tasks joyfully. We accept that we are only here to be of service to God’s great creation.

Humility, human, humus—humor. Strive to have one. Karl Barth: “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” Keep that in mind the next time you chuckle, hear a blooper, take a pratfall, or plan a dinner—the kind Jesus has in mind.

I’m sure Jesus advice to that man hosting dinner was new news—the guy would have never thought of inviting riff-raff had not Jesus burst his bubble and then gave him an itch that would not go away. It was like a burr under the saddle, or a pebble lodged in your shoe. Constant, irritating, always on your mind.

Couple weeks ago I was having breakfast with a buddy—he’s a church kind of guy. We were talking about measuring success in business, and he should know because he’s worked in big business his whole life, in senior management. He said that one of the informal measurements of a program’s success was people occupying seats, how many people showed up and suited up. I said, “That’s how church used to count success to, but it was a failure.” “How else can you do it?” he asked. The love quotient, I said. The quality of life that ensues by showing up and suiting up. Am I more loving, forgiving, compassionate, generous……because of my relationships with Christ and these people? Just looking at him I could tell that he never thought of it before.

And that’s Jesus for you. To be humble is not to make comparisons.

May you leave here today with an itch, a pebble, a bothersome invitation to not only listen to him, but also to try this at home.

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