November 5, 2017
Matthew 23:1-12, Joshua 3:7-17
“O Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble!”
How many of you remember a moment when you were humbled? You may use the word humiliated instead, but you know what I mean. When I was in college, I worked with a church youth group who took a water skiing trip each year to a lake. Several members had boats and the group spent the weekend swimming and skiing. I had never water skied before and I love the water so I was excited. I think I assumed I would be a natural. I am not sure why, there is nothing natural about me in the water, but I have always harbored fantasies of myself doing amazing feats in the water. When it was my turn, I took my place behind the boat while everyone on the boat yelled at me to bend my knees and keep my arms straight so of course, I bent my arms and kept my legs straight. I fell over and over and over. They yelled the same instructions and I fell over EVERY SINGLE TIME. Finally one of the high school boys got into the water next to me. We sat side by side on the water and he talked me through one step at a time. We very slowly stood up together. It was glorious! I was doing it! I was skiing! I was so proud! They drove the boat past the shore where the rest of the group gathered. In my pride, I lifted my arm to wave, the group cheered, and I crashed into the water! Water skiing doesn’t work so well when one is proud. It requires some humility…some time crouched down before gently standing up. It also requires some focus when one is standing.
Jesus and the disciples have an ongoing conversation (i.e. debate) about who goes where in the line of importance. The disciples are always vying for the spots next to Jesus. “I call shot gun!” “I call the seat next to Jesus!” There are stories of dinners where people come in and sit in the important seats only to be demoted to the less important seats while others are promoted to the places of honor. We hear that and like to think it is all a bit silly. Is it?
Jesus tells us that the way to God is on the ground. If you trace the word humility to its roots in Latin and Greek it comes from the root word humus, or of the earth. Jesus is calling us to ground ourselves in God. Graham Standish says that “Humility does not mean becoming feeble. Instead, it means bringing an attitude of radical openness to God…that allows us to become conduits of the Holy Spirit.” (Humble Leadership, p. xiii)
There are more than 2400 references to humility in the Bible. It is good to be reminded that we are not being called to be doormats, but to open ourselves to God. The times that is the easiest for me to do is when I am in over my head. When I find myself in a situation that I know I cannot control, I lean back and find that God is there.
That is what is happening in the reading from Joshua today. The people have followed God through the wilderness. They have survived not from their own power and skillfulness, but by relying on God. Now they are almost there…they are standing on the edge of the Jordan River. They just have to cross into the land where they will build a life together. God explains to them, “It’s simple, really. Just step into the water with that ark of the covenant. The water that is overflowing the banks will stand still and let you cross, but not until you actually step into it.” Oh my! God isn’t going to part the water and wait for them to cross. They have to step in and then God will still the water for them.
Once again, God is saying, “This is not about you. This is what I will do through you, BUT you have to be open to my working through you. If you keep believing that you’ve got this, you aren’t going to get it. Following me means checking your ego, your resume, your everything at the door, and trusting that I’ve got you. And I do.”
Somehow they were able to trust and step into the rushing water. Perhaps their experience with manna, water from a rock, and the many ways God had shown up for them in the wilderness carrying them and feeding them and loving them gave them the courage or maybe they did it because they had no other choice. Either way, they stepped into the raging river and God stilled the water for them so that they could cross into the beautiful land that awaited them.
One act of humility we observe together is coming to the front to receive a tiny piece of bread. Somehow we trust that with that little piece of bread and that bit of juice, we are being fed to do big things. We aren’t being fed to flex our muscles in the world, but to allow God to work through us especially when we are in over our heads. If we are willing to put our feet into the overflowing water, God can still it so that we can move across. It is good to be reminded that it is not about what we can do, but what we will allow God to do through us.
That is why I work hard to stay in relationship with each of you. We need each other. It is why I keep the Nob Hill clergy connected. It is why I drove several hours to Tucson this week for the Southwest Conference Clergy retreat. It is why we have ministry teams. We need each other and we need to be reminded that we are not alone in this. Sometimes we don’t discover that until we are desperate.
“John Buchanan served one summer as pastor of a small parish church in a village in the Western Highlands of Scotland. The Church of Scotland minister in the neighboring parish, Johnny Dunlop, reached out to him. John tells the story this way:
‘He came to see me. We sat in the little manse study, had a cup of coffee and good long conversation. The next Sunday was Communion Sunday, and Johnny told me a story he said he recalled every time he presided at the Lord’s Table and a story I remember every time I am privileged to stand behind the Lord’s Table and break the bread and share the cup.
Johnny was in the infantry in the British Army in World War II. His unit was surrounded, and he was captured and ended up in a prisoner of war camp in Poland. It was dreadful: cold, wet, filthy, and worst of all, there was almost no food, just a bowl of thin soup and a scrap of bread once a day. Prisoners lost weight, until they were skin and bones, contracted diseases, and began to die. The war was not going very well for the Allies, and there didn’t seem to be any reason for hope. As the tide began to turn and Germany’s fortunes diminished, the conditions in the prisoner of war camp became worse, until some prisoners didn’t want to go on living. One easy way to end it all, he told me, was to throw yourself against the barbed wire fence as if trying to escape and be shot instantly by the guards. Johnny said that one night, deeply discouraged, depressed, and sick with despair and hunger, he slipped out of the barracks and walked toward the fence, not quite sure whether he ought simply to end it all. He sat down on the bare ground thinking. He sensed movement in the dark on the other side of the barbed wire. It was a Polish farmer. He had half a potato in his hand. He thrust the potato through the barbed wire. As Johnny Dunlop took it, the man said, in heavily accented English, ‘The Body of Christ.’” (John Buchanan, “In Remembrance of Him,” 02 October 2011, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, Illinois, www.fourthchurch.org).
We often talk about what we can do for others. It is important to offer what we have. Perhaps we are the ones offering a potato that looks like life and hope to someone else. There are times when we find we are the ones who open our hands to accept the life and hope someone is giving to us. Opening our hands is a way of receiving what we cannot do for ourselves. It requires great humility to allow someone to meet us in our vulnerability. It is hard to be humble. But it may be that in our humility, we discover God is waiting to take our hand and lead us into that next beautiful place…a place we cannot reach on our own.