Mastering Humility

Mark 4:26-29
February 14, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

The subject of today’s sermon was to be humility. In fact, I have sitting right now on my desk at home a brilliant exposition on the subject of humility, a sermon that I wrote to explain the the positive results that one can experience from living a humble life, based on what I myself have obtained through my own mastery of humility. I won’t be preaching that sermon, however, because after re-reading my discerning and perceptive work, I decided that my thoughts on humility are far too complex for you to understand let alone undertake. I’ve decided instead to preach on the ideas of Jesus. I think his philosophy will be more at your level and easier for you to manage.

This is, of course, tongue in cheek. For one thing, anyone who knows me, knows full well that it’s usually all I can do to get one sermon written by 10:30 Sunday morning let alone writing an extra sermon that I don’t use. I am being serious, however, about one thing and that is that although I intended to preach on humility today, I had a real change of heart this week about the place of humility in the life of a Christian. You see, although I have often said (and I used to believe) that humility is the central characteristic of Christian faith, as I began to consider how best to talk to you about cultivating humility, I ran up against this conundrum, namely that it seems that the only people who believe they need to cultivate humility are people who believe that they have something to be proud of in the first place which is somewhat of an oxymoron.

To see what I mean, just search the web for examples of humility. This past week, when I googled the phrase “examples of humility”, the stories that popped up concerned — in this order — Booker T. Washington, Samuel Morse (the inventor of the telegraph), the famous evangelist George Whitfield, poet and Pulitzer Prize-winner Edwin Arlington Robinson, and the opera singer Marian Anderson. The people that we think of as paragons of humility are people who are also paragons of excellence, which means that when we talk about being a humble person, we are really defining humble as “someone who is above average but chooses not to brag about it.”

I’m reminded of the story of Henry Augustus Rowland, a professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University, who was once called as an expert witness at a trial. During cross-examination a lawyer demanded, “What are your qualifications as a witness in this case?”

The professor replied, “I am the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion.”

Later, a friend of Rowland’s expressed surprise at his answer, knowing that Rowland was normally extremely modest.

Rowland countered his friend’s surprise, saying, “Well, what did you expect me to do? I was under oath.”

In effect, then, when a person says that they are working to cultivate humility, they are saying that secretly they believe themselves to be above average but as a Christian, they’ll do their best not to remind us of their superiority every day: “I will remain humble about what a great person I am.”

The very act of trying to cultivate humility makes us contemplate our specialness which in turn makes us realize our need to be humbled which again leads us back to thinking about our talents which reminds us again to be remain humble until we look like a bullfrog, puffed up one minute, deflated the next, puffed up, deflated, puffed up, deflated, in a constant internal struggle to keep our egos in check.

So what are we to do? We know that pride is contrary to the Christian spirit, yet our efforts to cultivate humility lock us into a vicious cycle of guilt and arrogance that ultimately leads nowhere and helps no one. I think we all agree that we need something that keeps us from thinking too much of ourselves but we also need something that keeps us from thinking of ourselves too much. In our Wednesday book group, we watched a lecture by the Reverend Alistair Beggs who proposed that the solution to this conundrum is to develop, instead of humility, what he calls a theology of “inadequacy.”

The most useful people to God, Beggs says, are not those who deny their skills and talents, or cultivate a modest demeanor; the most useful people to God are those who recognize that even the greatest singular human being cannot compare to the greatness of God; that even at our most talented, most brilliant, most skilled, most knowledgeable, most insightful, compassionate, bold, strong, and generous moments, we are still finite human beings wholly inadequate to the tasks that confront us as faithful people. You might be able to write a violin concerto to be performed by the New York Philharmonic; you might be able to break the world record for the Winter Olympic Super G; you might win this year’s teaching award or lead your Little League team to the State championships; you might bake an apple pie that wins first prize at the Allegany County Fair; or you may shovel your driveway faster than anyone else on your street; you might grow amazing roses, or successfully lose thirty pounds putting the rest of your family to shame, or you might beat everyone in your age group at the YMCA Turkey Trot, but you are still a finite human being wholly inadequate to the task that confronts you as a disciple of Christ, because as a faithful Christian, Christ calls you to relieve the suffering of the world, and who among us can really manage such a thing? It is a task to which we are and will forever be wholly inadequate and when we recognize our inadequacy and yet know at the same time that Christ nevertheless calls us to that task, all we can do is put our trust and faith in an eternal God believing God can make use of our feeble efforts in ways we cannot know, and may never see.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” The worker in this parable is wholly inadequate to the task he has been given. Jesus doesn’t say, “A man plowed the land, prepared the soil, and planted the seed in careful rows, watering and weeding the acreage, tending it so that his expertise and vigilance would result in an abundant harvest.” Instead, Jesus gives us the picture of a pretty inept and ignorant farmer — “He scattered the seed on the ground and while he was sleeping, somehow it grew, and he had no idea how” — and then Jesus said, “That’s what discipleship is like.”

I find this to be very good news because what Jesus is telling me is that I don’t have to be really skilled at all of the things God asks me to do, but I can still trust that as long as I am willing to try and to persevere, God can and will make use of my efforts in ways I may never even see.

A Sunday School teacher told the story of the Good Samaritan to her class of 4-5 year olds, and she made the story as vivid as possible to keep the children interested in her tale. After she described the robbers beating the man, stripping him naked, and throwing him by the side of the road, she asked her class,”If you saw a person lying by the road, all wounded and bleeding, what would you do?”

A thoughtful little girl broke the hushed silence, “I think I’d throw up.”

A faithful disciple might react in the exact same way. A faithful disciple might look at the wounded bleeding man and feel sick to her stomach, or scared out of his socks. A faithful disciple might very well look around to see if there isn’t anyone better qualified to tend to the wounds of the dying man, but then the faithful disciple would gird up his loins, or grit her teeth, and step into the need to do the best a disciple can do and trust that God will bring healing and hope from their efforts.

God calls us to heal the people of their wounds. Who among us is adequate to that task?

God calls us to stand up for those who have been oppressed and make society more just. Who among us is adequate to that task?

God calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who have hurt us. Who among us is adequate to that task?

God calls us to feed those who hunger, and help those who are poor. The United Nations says that 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. Who among us is adequate to that task?

None of us is adequate but as disciples of Christ, we will trust that if we forge ahead anyway and do the best we can with the limited talents of our finite human lives, and place all of our efforts in the hands of God, the seed will grow. We won’t know how, and we may not even see the harvest because our sight is too limited and our time too short, but our God is infinite, eternal, and beyond any single one of us.

During these weeks of Lent, I am ending each sermon with an invitation to write prayers and so today I would like you to write a simple prayer — one word or phrase — which completes this sentence:

Lord, when I am feeling inadequate in the face of _________, may I persist in my faith and trust that your Spirit is alive and at work in the world.

Think for a moment then: Where do you feel most inadequate in meeting the call of discipleship?

Do you look at the injustice of our society and feel helpless?

Do you feel like your efforts on behalf of the hungry are inadequate to the overwhelming need?

Do you get feeling depressed about persistent bigotry or cruelty in our society?

Or maybe your sense of inadequacy is closer to home — family problems, friends in need of comfort, or challenges at the office. Take a minute in silence and consider where you feel most inadequate, and where you are most need to be reminded of the promise of Christ that your efforts are making a difference, and that God will bring a harvest to your planting one day.

And now, take your pens or pencils and write:

Lord, when I am feeling inadequate in the face of _________, may I persist in my faith and trust that your Spirit is alive and at work in the world.