Down to Earth Humility
“Down to Earth Humility”
Today we look at the story of the coming of Jesus from the perspective of God’s humility and the invitation for us to live by that same spirit. We can praise God for coming to us in the humble form of a baby who grows up to become a servant. Yet, when it comes to our own path of humility, it is not so easy to put this into practice. Humility requires a constant sense of openness to change and to whatever life brings us. We know from personal experience how difficult it is for us as human beings to change. Mike Slaughter writes, “To experience the new this Advent season, to find our ‘next,’ we must let go of the old. Old habits and ways of thinking must be replaced with new.”
Our history shows that rigidity and pride are more characteristic of the Christian church than willingness to change and be humble. One of the things that have plagued the Christian faith throughout the centuries is the struggle to change and adapt to new ideas and revelations. One example that has been dramatized is the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Tennessee in 1925. “Inherit the Wind” is a film adaptation of the 1955 play by the same title. This is the story of a school teacher by the name of John Scopes who was arrested in Dayton, Tennessee for teaching the theory of evolution. This was against state law at the time. The sad part of this is how rigid Christians were about teaching the Bible literally. Not much humility there! Not much openness to change or to the possibility that they could be wrong about God’s intentions. The Christians who were defending the literal interpretation of Genesis felt that they had to defend the truth by being certain that they were right about the way they interpreted and understood the scriptures. Here is a clip from the movie: https://youtu.be/MPfhOhx3x_w
Mr. Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine of one hundred dollars. Later, on appeal, the state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the law but acquitted Scopes on the technicality that he'd been fined excessively. The law was not repealed until 1967.
A couple of weeks ago, Rabbi Gellman wrote an article called “Things Religion Gets Wrong.” His major criticism of religion is when people stop being open to new revelation and understanding. He wrote, “The great religions of the world are mostly all thousands of years old, and it is naïve to imagine that over such a long time no beliefs were misguided and no religious practices were wrong. Some of these mistakes have been corrected. Some are still out there begging for reform. The word of God has come to us, but the word of God is a word that becomes clearer over time.” He then goes on to give examples of this need for change from different religions such as Reform Judaism’s change of ordaining women as rabbis in 1972, the LDS Church’s change about ordaining black men as lay priests in 1978 when their leader declared receiving a new revelation to end a previous ban, and the 1965 Roman Catholic declaration “that no Jewish people bore any guilt for the death of Jesus and that any anti-Jewish teachings or sentiments were against the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.” These were excellent examples of when people allow God to show them a new way to live and to be. Yet, we know that our inner ego’s resistance to such change is real and a major challenge to the spirit of humility and openness.
Today as we prepare for the coming of Christ, we have to remember that at the time of Jesus, people had to change their expectations about his coming. They had to let go of their images of a military ruler to behold the nonviolent prince of peace. They had to let go of their expectations of a royal birth to accept someone from the countryside of peasants and manual workers. They had to trust the visions of a teenage girl, the dreams of a carpenter, the words of lowly shepherds, and the blessings of foreign visitors. And as the babe grew up to be a man, they had to wait thirty years before his ministry finally took off and he gathered a following. They had to trust that even after he was executed by the Romans, his message was going to continue to resonate with people. They had to accept the witness of a handful of terrified women at the tomb. All of this is to say that this humility business was tough. Keeping an open mind and heart was not an easy thing! And thus, we have the words from the letter to the Philippians by the Apostle Paul who was trying to encourage the followers of Jesus in Philippi to be humble as Jesus was.
This is the kind of example Jesus left us. The church in Philippi was struggling with external pressures and internal divisions. There was the pressure to fit in with the culture and the struggle over power within the community. Paul was reminding the Philippians of the example of Jesus and how he emptied himself of power. His humility is the way to go. In the birth of Jesus, we see how God works in the world. God does not use force or domination as the tools for accomplishing things. God uses the power of love and service. That is why the birth of Jesus was so radical. He didn’t get killed because he taught people to love. He got killed because he challenged the whole political and social systems of power.
Our transformation as people of faith is about having a Christlike humility. We have to open ourselves to be ready to change not just once or twice but all the time. We must always be willing to grow and to see things differently. Whenever we get stuck in our own opinions, fears, and experiences we have to be willing to step outside of ourselves and of our comfort zones to let God lead us to greater love, understanding, and compassion. We tend to think of the way to God as going up, a process of attaining things and powers. However, the example of Jesus of self-emptying shows us that the true path to life and to God is through decent and letting go.
Last Sunday was World AIDS Day to help raise awareness about the disease. There was a great story about a woman who stepped out of her comfort zone and safety because of compassion. This was at a time when people were very fearful of those who became infected with HIV. They were also very fearful and judgmental of gay men. The story was called “Cemetery Angel.” Here is the video of the story: https://youtu.be/ajm3M8qvxK8
According to the CBS story, the woman’s name was Ruth Coker Burks. She had inherited 262 plots in a cemetery in Arkansas. That was the result of a family feud when her mom bought all the remaining plots in the cemetery so that the uncle could not be buried there. But one day, while Ruth was visiting a friend in the hospital, she noticed a room where no one would visit. As she inquired about the occupant of the room, she discovered that he had AIDS and no one was visiting him, even his own family. Ruth, who saw herself as a “straight church-lady,” was moved by compassion to visit the man. That was the beginning of an incredible journey of compassion for Ruth. She stepped outside of the comfort of what she knew to embrace the men who were in her area who were dying of AIDS. She provided comfort and peace toward the end of their lives. Then she provided them with a space for burial. When no one wanted their remains, she paid for their cremation and brought their ashes to the cemetery. She helped over 40 men find peace at the time of death and dignity after. While others were calling AIDS “Gay Cancer” and condemning gay men as evil or abnormal, Ruth was there to show them love and care. Many of the men were abandoned by their families and churches because of prejudice and pride. The KKK burned crosses in her yard three different times trying to stop and intimidate her. But for Ruth, this was not about ideology or morals. It was about humility and compassion in the way of Christ.
This week as we are invited to God’s down to earth humility, I invite you to consider where God is nudging you to open up? What has God been prompting you to let go of for the sake of love and of compassion? Where are you being invited to descend instead of ascend?
We are going to end with a meditation on some of the words from 1 Corinthians 13 about love. But instead of love, I am going to invite you to put your name in place of the word love. I will read the scripture with love in it the first time and then will have the next image on the screen with open spots for your name. Take a moment to meditate on this and let God speak to you about where you need to be.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
"… is patient; …is kind; … is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. … does not insist on …’s way; … is not irritable or resentful; … does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. … bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." Amen.