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Apr 09, 2017

True North | Humility

True North | Humility

Passage: Matthew 21:1-11

Speaker: Jerry Deck

Series: True North

Category: Weekend Message

Not only is this Palm Sunday and the last Sunday in Lent, but it is also the first Sunday of part 3 of our True North Series. If you’ve been around since last fall you will know that in the first part of our series we talked about what we believe about God, about humanity, about the Bible and on and on. Then, starting in January we said, “Okay, if this is what we believe then what practices should we engage in?” Another way that we have said it is that if we really believe in the grace and love of Jesus, how do we respond to that, how do we show our gratitude? We do this through practices like spending time in prayer, reading scripture, and growing in biblical community. What’s important to see, and what we’ll be talking about in this the 3rd and final part of our series, is that we do these things not just out of gratitude, but also because as we do these things we are growing more and more into the likeness of Jesus. In other words, the life of discipleship is a life that is growing in how it reflects the one who has lived, died and been resurrected for us. As our Philippians passage today says, we are to let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. The theological term that we typically use to describe this is the process of sanctification. 

Since we’re kicking off this part of our series on Palm Sunday we decided that it was the perfect day to begin by talking about our first virtue which is humility. That a follower of Jesus should be one who reflects the humility of the one who, again as Philippians says, emptied himself, took on the form of a slave and became human. It’s also appropriate to begin with humility because, as one of the ancient church fathers pointed out, humility is, “the root, mother, nurse, foundation, and bond of all virtue.” So many of the virtues that we will be looking at over the next several weeks begin at humility because, as we will see, one has to be able to see himself or herself as they actually are before they can hope to look more like Jesus. 

So, what is humility? Well, as my wife said laughingly this week, “It’s a bit ironic that the one-time 4th grader who his teacher described to his parents as having an “overdeveloped sense of self-worth” would be talking about this!” Truth be told perhaps Scott Shelton should have been preaching this sermon today, but since I have already slotted him to do gentleness in a few weeks (and good thing for that!), I figured I would go ahead and tackle this subject. (Plus, I thought I’d do a great job at it!!) In reality I did struggle with it a bit and I found that perhaps biblical scholars also struggle with humility because though they would mention humility, they didn’t delve into the subject very deeply. It may be that they struggle with it or it may be that it’s just hard to really define. Kind of one of those, “I know it when I see it.” 

Perhaps it’s best to begin by stating what humility is not which is that it is not saying that you think lowly of yourself or have a poor self-esteem or that you allow people to walk on you all of the time. I don’t think that is what Paul or Jesus would say. Instead, it has been suggested that humility is the ability to see yourself as you truly are. This goes back to our understanding of humanity which is that we are created by God which means that we are each unique and special and yet, it also means that we didn’t create ourselves which means that we are like everyone else, not better and not worse. This is why the Christian faith, I believe, has such an instrumental role to play in understanding humility. It is rooted in our understanding of the creation story. Quite honestly, if we could really see the world through that lens we would all be much more humble.

In an example I’ve shared before, C.S. Lewis says that humility is like an architect who looks up at the finished cathedral that he has built and if someone came up to him and said, “Wow, what an amazing cathedral,” the architect wouldn’t say, “Oh it was nothing,” or “you really think so,” but could honestly say, “Thanks, I think it’s beautiful as well.” But, and this is critical, if someone else were to build that same cathedral that same architect could look at the cathedral that he did not build and still say, “Wow, that’s beautiful,” with no fear that this other architect’s cathedral makes him any less of a person. Humility is that beautiful tension between knowing that, yes, you are an incredible person because God created you and that you are no better than anyone else because God created them as well.

But when we don’t believe that or when we struggle with living into that, then of course receiving love and a sense of worth from God and others becomes a competition with others. We feel we need to prove to others (though perhaps even more to ourselves) that we are better than them, smarter, more gifted, more attractive, more whatever, making it much less likely that we can be as happy for someone else if they’ve built a beautiful cathedral than if we had built it ourselves. Philippians says that we should not be conceited and literally the word that we translate as conceit means “empty glory.” What I love about that is that it points out that when we are continually comparing ourselves to others, when we are living our lives trying to figure out if we’re better than others at something, then we are working, working, working to fill a hole that is bottomless, that will never be filled, that is empty.

And my guess is that almost all of us know what it’s like to get caught up in searching for that empty glory. What we discover is that just about the time we feel better about ourselves because we think we’re a better worker or better looking or more fit or a better mom or better dad or better pastor, all of a sudden we’ll see someone else who seems better than we are and so we’ll either get depressed or we have to come up with some rationalization of why they’re better like, “Well, if I didn’t have to work 60 hours a week then I’m sure I’d have time to work out and would have a 6 pack like he has,” or “Well, if my parents had been more supportive than I could have gotten a better job and have a nice house like she does,” or well if I had a better spouse then my kids would probably behave just as well as theirs do,” and on and on the search for empty glory continues. It is exhausting, quite honestly.

As I was thinking about that picture of us exhaustingly trying to fill that “empty glory,” I got this almost comical image in my mind of us looking up in the midst of tirelessly trying to prove our worth and seeing Jesus, the Lord almighty sitting there on his donkey saying, “Hey, whatcha’ doing?” I do think that this image of Jesus really is much more comical, much more farcical, than we realize. I have a feeling that the image of Jesus on a donkey has lost much of its power because of the fact that most of us aren’t farmers and because we’ve heard this story year after year for decades and because the clip-clopping of the donkey has been overshadowed by images of crowds and shouts of “Hosanna’s” and cute little kids waving palms while parents snap pictures. But really this whole scene is somewhat comedic in nature. As Dale Bruner describes them, donkeys are “slow, stubborn, the perennial work animals of the poor, and not too handsome--earthy animals indeed.” We really should be jarred and should either laugh at or cry at this image of us trying to prove ourselves and our importance while the God himself sits on a donkey and says, “Hi.” While I suppose I could go on and on with words about humility I’m not sure I could do any better than simply point us to this image on Palm Sunday. An image that should shock us back to remembering that if Jesus is on a donkey then we probably don’t need to spend much time and energy trying to prove ourselves by climbing up on a majestic horse and letting everyone see what an incredible job we’ve done.

In light of this image, a fair question to ask is why is humility important, anyway? I think we may talk about humility, but perhaps don’t know why it’s significant. Well first, because man you save a lot of time and energy when you aren’t spending it trying to fill up the bottomless pit of empty glory by comparing yourself with others and trying to figure out if you’re better than them or if they are better than you. I genuinely think that if we could stop pursuing that empty glory that we would feel a burden released from us that we hardly even knew was weighing us down so immensely. Perhaps Jesus rode the donkey, not just as an act of humility, but as a reminder that just as the donkey would carry burdens, so would the one riding it carry our burdens. When we are free from competing with others for worthiness we are immediately free to love others, to serve others, to care for others. You are a special creation of God just like the person next to you is a creation of God. Free up some time and energy by ceasing your attempt to compete with them.

Humility though is also absolutely crucial to the formation of healthy community. The church in Philippi was dealing with conflict and so Paul beseeches them to be unified and he knows that humility is essential for this unity because if everyone is trying to best one another or is convinced that he or she is right about everything then community will never be achieved. As Scott Hoezee put it, pride divides and humility unites.

Of course, at the heart of community are relationships and humility is critical for healthy relationships. In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis says that if you meet a humble person you may not walk away thinking, “Wow, what a humble person that was,” but you will walk away thinking that that person took a real interest in what you said to him. In other words a humble person is curious about other people and the reason for that is because when you’re not having to prove yourself against someone else you can be genuinely interested in knowing them and caring about them. If someone were to ask me why our churches and our society see to be so divided one of the first things I would say is because we have a lack of humility which results in a lack of actually caring about other people in the midst of conflict. We are far too interested in making our point, in proving our rightness, than we are in actually engaging in relationship.

It’s why I continually shake my head at people’s Facebook posts or tweets, especially on volatile issues. Facebook, ironically enough, is basically “faceless” meaning that while this person may be one of your 850 “friends” they probably don’t really know you and yet they think that by saying this or that on a massive scale that it might actually change your mind about an issue. Conversation about difficult issues, trying to be less divided and more unified, will only happen in the context of humble relationship. Jesus was able to engage in relationships with such a variety of people because of the fact that he genuinely cared about them, was curious about them. Did he have a message to give them? Absolutely. Did he have an opinion? Of course. But those were shared in the context of an invitation to be in relationship.

Which is why I think humility is the number one thing we as Christians must have if we genuinely want to be able to share our faith with others. Philippians says that out of Jesus’ humility, out of his giving his life for others, that in that act at some point every knee will bow down and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. If it is humility, like we see in Jesus, that will lead to others knowing that he is Lord then why in the world do we think we can skip the donkey and just go straight to the glory? But, I think we as Christians do that again and again and again when we try and use power or a raised voice or an argument or anything outside of doing the hard work of being in humble relationship with others. How jarring it must be for Jesus riding atop the donkey as we pass him on our high horses in order to do his work. We want to take the easy route that keeps us from the earthy, hard work, of humility and Jesus keeps saying, “Get back on that donkey.” I’m not saying that we can’t have opinions or share those opinions, we are absolutely called to share that good news of the gospel, but we do that more often than not in the midst of doing the hard, slow, sometimes dirty work, of engaging in humble relationships with those who agree with us and those who do not.

I think one of the reasons why we don’t talk a lot about being humble is because it’s kind of hard to know how to learn humility. You can’t just keep telling yourself to be humble and think that it will just happen. I think, instead, we have to engage in what I will dub “donkey disciplines,” practices that can help us to remain humbly grounded in Christ. The first donkey discipline is simply to worship God. Again, whenever we worship we are remembering and being shaped by the reality that God is God and that we are not. We are remembering and being shaped by the reality that we have been created specially by a loving God and that the person next to us has been as well. You show me someone whose life is a continual worshipful act and I will show you a humble man or woman. But, remember, you can’t just worship sporadically because you will be overwhelmed by external and internal pressure that says your goal is to be better than the person next to you, not to serve them. Worship shapes us into a humble people.

Another donkey discipline is to reflect on how curious you are about other people’s lives. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, a willingness to engage and listen to others is a great measuring stick for whether you are in a position to learn and care for others or whether your desire for relationship with them stems solely from a desire to get something from them or to have someone serve you. On a scale of 1-10 how curious are you about others? If you aren’t very curious, then perhaps you can begin by asking a simple question to a co-worker or friend that you haven’t asked before and not wait for it to be reciprocated. Curiosity is a key to humility.

I think another donkey discipline that can shape us in remarkable ways is if we can try and learn when we are in humbling situations rather than spending all of our time thinking that we should be someplace better. This week I received an email from a friend from my first call near Chicago asking if I’d write a letter to the church as they celebrate their 40th anniversary. It got me thinking about my 6 years pastoring in this small congregation. I came out of seminary ready to set the world on fire with my amazing sermons, dynamic leadership and good looks (okay, maybe not the last one). And every Sunday I would roll out the sermon I had bled and sweated over the previous week and the 40 or so that had gathered would listen, and some would nod in approval, others would nod as they went to sleep and still others would wonder when I was going to end. And I’d go back to my office when it was all done and everyone had gone home and honestly it was everything I could do to not weep. I’d tell people that I was the pastor at this particular congregation and no one knew who we were or where we were and even after I said to them, “It’s the church across the street from the big 3,000 student high school they’d say, “Oh, is that where my kid parks when he goes to school?” Yes, I’d think, I’m pouring my life into a parking lot.

And then every Tuesday, as I recall, I’d walk out to the street, grab the trashcan that had been set out that morning and walk slowly back to the church. I’d had all these grand visions of what I was going to be able to do for God and here I was walking back and forth with a trashcan. In many ways, though perhaps it was invisible to everyone else (even myself at first), what I was doing was riding a donkey. A donkey, if I’m honest, that I didn’t want to be riding. But something happened in those 6 years of riding that donkey which is that I slowly began to see that ultimately this wasn’t about what I brought to the church or how big the church got, or didn’t get, but was about how God decided to use me when I was there. It was about my meeting people where they were, being curious about their lives and about their struggles and joys. This wasn’t about me setting myself apart from other pastors or other churches, it was about learning how to humbly serve. Now hear me, I’m not saying that I’m the most humble pastor in the world, I’m not, but I am saying that that experience certainly shaped me into a much different person than I was than when I rode in there on my high horse. Quite honestly, I’m still a bit bow-legged from that experience.

So, how good are you, how good are we, at riding that donkey? Humility will not be a trait our society encourages nor is it one that most of us will naturally discover in ourselves. It begins with understanding who we are as God’s creation and it is cultivated by our willingness to engage in those donkey disciplines that help to shape us into a people who are not competing with one another, but are serving each other. And in so doing, are we able to be released of the burden of proving our worthiness and, in so doing, we are able to become a people who engage in deep relationship, helping to form a community that reflects the love, grace and humility of Jesus. Get on your donkey, people of God, and let us follow Jesus this week. May it be so. Amen.