Jesus said, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who
humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)
This is a sermon about humility. And as I preach it I’m painfully aware that humility is tricky business. Do you humble yourself so that you will be exalted? Or do you try to be humble about your gifts and talents so you won’t come across as exalting yourself? Jesus’ words always remind me of a clergy assistant I once had who had been a piano bar entertainer in Colorado. With his western twang and his keyboard flair, he would play and sing at parish suppers. One of his frequent offerings was a little ditty called, “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble.” That was the refrain, and then he would improvise the verses. And somehow he would always manage to work my name into one of the verses about not being humble!
In today’s gospel reading, as Jesus observes the dinner guests at a Pharisee’s home jockeying for places of honor, he warns them not to do that, but rather always to take a lower place. By so doing they avoid disgrace and perhaps garner an invitation to “move up higher.” Now, Jesus teaches this in the form of a parable about a wedding banquet. And that hit home with me in my own difficulties with humility because clergy go to a lot of wedding banquets! One time in Newport News, at the reception following a big church wedding, when it came time to sit down to dinner, I made my way up to the head table and started looking for my place card, because often I’d been invited to sit up there and offer grace before the meal. But as I did so on that occasion I noticed a parishioner approaching from one of the back tables. “O Doug,” she beckoned, “your card’s back here!” So I beat a hasty retreat! One of my more embarrassing moments!
So, how do you achieve humility? How do you make yourself be humble? Well, you don’t! Humility isn’t something you achieve. Being humble is something you either are, or you aren’t. It isn’t something you study, or learn, or get graded on. It’s not even something you’re aware of. If you’re aware of your own humility you’ve lost it. Some of you will remember Charles Dickens’s detestable character named Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. Heep constantly displays an obsequious, fawning humility toward the lawyer Mr. Wickfield, father of the lovely Agnes whom David seeks to marry. But behind his false humility, Heep is scheming to blackmail Wickfield and seize the family fortune. His treachery is finally exposed and foiled by the lowly Mr. Micawber, David Copperfield’s longtime friend.
Genuine humility seems to be born in some people. I think of the scene later in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus is sitting outside the temple treasury, observing the worshippers putting in their offerings. The wealthy put in large sums, which by all appearances they’re well able to do—and appearances are everything to them, of course. But out of the crowd there emerges a poor widow. She quietly puts in two little coins, which are everything she has to live on that day. She’s not trying to be humble; she is who she is; there’s no question of “appearances”—she doesn’t have any. She seeks no notice, no glory save the glory of serving her Lord.
One of the most genuinely humble people I’ve ever known was a man named Roy Webber. He was the priest of two small Episcopal churches on Long Island where my family and I used to vacation in the summertime. Father Roy was a slender, bespectacled individual with a friendly face, but was extremely hard of hearing. He wore an old fashioned hearing aid with a long wire leading to a little box which he kept in his pocket. It was all he could afford. He was not a great preacher; he had always served small churches, first in upstate New York and then on Long Island. His salary was pitiful, his wife always had to hold down a job so they could make ends meet. Nevertheless, they managed to raise two boys and two girls and put them all through college. Each of the boys followed in his father’s footsteps and became an Episcopal priest. I know them both, and they have had outstanding ministries. I’ve met one of the daughters too, and she is lovely. The other daughter died tragically in a mountain-climbing accident years ago. There’s a Richmond connection as well: one of the Webbers’ granddaughters is Libby Greuner, a devoted communicant and vestry member at Holy Comforter.
But the thing I remember best about Roy Webber (who died a few years ago at age 98) was his utter humility. Stamped on my mind forever will be the image of him standing at the altar of his little church on Long Island celebrating the Holy Eucharist. I have never experienced a priest more absolutely and single-mindedly absorbed in presiding at the Family Meal of God’s Church. Every word he said you knew he believed from the bottom of his heart. Everything he touched—the plate, the bread, the chalice, the vessels of wine and water—everything he touched became profoundly holy. And yet the celebration was never, ever, about him. He “got out of the way” so to speak. To be in that little congregation at the Eucharist was to be drawn deeply into the presence of the Living God.
I made the mistake onetime after the service of complimenting Father Roy on his humility; and it obviously made him very uncomfortable. Now, what would you guess someone like that would say in response to such a compliment? “Well, I do my best”? Or, “That’s the nicest thing you could say to me”? No! Nothing like that! Not even “Thank you”! Any such response would be to acknowledge some virtue of his own. All I can remember Father Roy saying to me, quite awkwardly, after I commented on his humility in celebrating the Eucharist was, “So?” He was who he was, this country priest.
His response reminded me of Jesus’ response when that precocious young man came up to him and tried to butter him up by calling him “Good Teacher.” You know what he said? He said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” That’s exactly how it was with my hero, Father Roy. He didn’t work at achieving goodness, or humility, or anything else. He simply was a good and humble man who, like the widow at the temple treasury, just rejoiced in serving his Lord. He was filled with love for his family, his parishioners, his community and, thank God, for me. He also loved the Bible and spent much time with it every day. Furthermore, having kept up his Greek after seminary, he read the daily New Testament lessons in Greek every day of his life!
When all is said and done, humility is a gift. It comes along with faith, hope, love, joy, peace, kindness, forgiveness and all the other gifts of God. And, just like all those others, you can’t earn it, learn it or deserve it. You can experience it in others, as I did so profoundly in Father Roy Webber. And you can open yourself up to it through faith. That’s what faith is, after all: Faith is opening ourselves up to God. Faith is letting God get at us. Faith is going out on a limb and taking the risk that God’s love, God’s strength, God’s forgiveness will be there. And doing those things in everyday life—and experiencing the grace of God in the process—does bring an incredible sense of humility, for which we can only give thanks. And we find ourselves saying things like, “Thank you, God, for the humility to forgive that person with whom I’ve been at odds,” or, “Thank you, God, for the humility to admit to my wife, my husband, my child, that I was the one who was wrong.”
God is the One who is good, as Jesus said to that precocious young man. And becoming the people God wants us each to be is a matter of pure faith. Micah the prophet had it right: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”