True humility elevates serving others over serving primarily oneself.
Have you ever had to "eat humble pie"?
Most of us have heard this expression. It is a phrase meaning "to face humiliation for an error or wrongdoing, something for which we must apologize, often in some public way."
Fewer of us know the origin of this odd phrase. According to etymologists, the saying derives from umble pie, which was a pie filled with horrid stuff like liver, heart and other internal organs, especially of cow but often of deer or
boar. Umble evolved from numble, (after the French nomble) meaning "deer's innards."
Umbles were considered substandard food. In medieval times, this pie was often the only meat dish available to people of the lower economic class. For someone of noble rank or superior station in the Middle Ages to be publicly humiliated would be akin to them having to sit down with a commoner and have a bowl of umble pie.
The umbles and the word "humble" appeared with and without the initial "h" until the 19th century. Thus, while umble is now gone from English, the "humble pie" phrase remains, and etymologically speaking, it is still linked to a meal comprised of the less desirable animal parts.
Right now there are several examples of public humble pie eating. Recently, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley resigned after pleading guilty to abusing his office, allegedly to conceal an affair with a political adviser. His humble pie meal contained four-courses, including not only his resignation, but also his surrender of campaign funds totaling nearly $37,000, his performance of 100 hours of community service as a physician (which he is), and never being allowed to seek public office again.
We could easily name other examples, but this really is not the focus of my message this All Saint’s Sunday.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus infers that those who exalt themselves will eat humble pie, while those who eat humble pie as a staple will be exalted.
Actually, that's not exactly what Jesus said, but that may be how we hear it.
What Jesus said was, "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted," meaning that the truly great among us are those who choose to serve others and not go in for self-promotion. In fact, in our reading, Jesus said: "The greatest among you will be your servant."
On this All Saint’s Sunday let’s focus on those saints in our lives, living or part of that great cloud of witnesses- people in our lives who carried us forward, cared for us, served as an example for us, and taught us something important about how to live.
Take a moment and think of those faces and names; they may be public figures, or family members, teachers, and friends. While you think about your gathering of names and faces I will share one of mine. My example comes from: “Rolling the Stone Away” the conference in St. Louis from which I just returned.
My example is Mark Bowman, the visionary and organizer of this conference that gathered lgbtqia activists spanning more than 50 years of history. I was humbled to be present among so many activists, religious leaders, and scholars; Mark is the one who made it happen.
But there is more to why I chose Mark Bowman; it has to do with this little symbol on the back of our bulletin (point out Reconciling emblem) and the statement on the poster hanging on the back wall of our sanctuary.
Mark Bowman is currently the coordinator of the LGBT Religious Archives Network. But when Mark came out as gay while at student at Boston University School of Theology in 1981, he was removed from clergy status in the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.
Mark became one of the founders of the Reconciling Congregation Program in 1983; and also served as publisher of the award-winning “Open Hands” magazine from 1992-1999. His vision 34 years ago developed into the Reconciling Ministries Network of which St. Nicholas is a part.
For me, Mark Bowman is the kind of living saint Jesus describes as a true servant.
In the gospel, Jesus is talking about the intent of our actions and attitudes, not the status assigned to our positions. The kind of reversal Jesus had in mind was to move service from its maligned position at the bottom of public perception, to the top, and to devalue self-promotion.
This kind of service is precisely what I experienced among the saints present at “Rolling the Stone Away.” Not one of the stories originated from ego or self- interest. Most of the people present were thrust into justice ministries by necessity (as in response to the A.I.D.S epidemic, when churches were refusing care or burial services to victims) or happenstance; as when Mark lost his clergy status in 1981.
But humility, even though Jesus thought it was really important, often seems in short supply these days, even among Christians! We can change that, at least as far as our own lives go, but we need to make a real effort to do so.
Historically, the church has never hesitated to label certain behaviors as wrong, but Christianity as a whole has always considered verbal stone-throwing to be risky business. We have the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery who was dragged by the Pharisees before Jesus for judgment (John 8:1-11). The Pharisees asked Jesus if she should be stoned to death, but when Jesus said that whoever present considered himself to be without sin should cast the first stone, the woman's accusers slunk away.
Some pastors, and even other professionals like teachers, doctors and business people, keep a stone on their desks. Most of them are smooth and polished. On the stone is an inscription: "The First Stone." The stone is a continual reminder that only the one who is without sin can safely throw stones of judgment at others. In other words, it is a stone which is never thrown!
The moral? It is best to hesitate before pointing the finger in judgment at others.
Another place we need humility is in our opinions, recognizing that simply because we hold them doesn't make them true.
This is especially important in the current polarized political climate, where the temptation is often to assign low-character motives to those who don't agree with us.
Back in 2002, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote about this when he stated what he called the fundamental law of American politics: "Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil." Or, as he also stated it in the same column, "Liberals, who have no head ..., believe that conservatives have no heart." And vice versa. (If you want to see the development of this claim, read his column included in the "Sources" below.)
We're not here to argue the point, but simply to say that both claims are caricatures that ought to instill some humility in us who tout our political views as if they were on par with gospel truth. The late Steve Hayner, who was the president of Columbia Theological Seminary, once said, "I believe in objective truth, but I hold lightly to our ability to perceive truth."
Yet another place we need humility is in our assessment of our own character. We need to be aware of our own capacity for self-deception and realize that even our good deeds can have elements of self-interest. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do them, but we can be aware that we are not above having mixed motives.
Several years ago, Eberhard Arnold, the leader of a Christian group known as the Hutterite Brethren, wrote about church discipline. This is the process by which a congregation calls for a person who has been seriously misbehaving to repent. He said that "church discipline can be practiced rightly only if each church member feels he [or she] is also prone to the sin being treated" so that each person's decision about the offender is tempered by honest self-assessment.
In his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis pointed out that any of the virtues we possess become something of a spiritual problem once we become aware of them. As an example, he said that if we truly are humble, the depth of our humility may suddenly occur to us, so that we say, "By jove! I'm being humble!" Almost immediately, Lewis says, pride -- pride at our own humility -- will appear. And if we awake to that danger and try to smother this new form of pride, we can become proud of our attempt to do so!
Think again about those saints in your lives. Names? What makes/made them saints for you?
Scientific research shows that humility is an asset. A headline in The Washington Post last year stated, "Leaders are more powerful when they're humble, new research shows." At its best, this finding can encourage the type of powerful humbleness Christ displayed:
"True humility, scientists have learned, is when people have an accurate assessment of both their strengths and weaknesses, and they see all this in the context of the larger whole. They're a part of something far greater than themselves. They know they aren't the center of the universe. And they're both grounded and liberated by this knowledge. Recognizing their abilities, they ask how they can contribute. Recognizing their flaws, they ask how they can grow."
As one source said, “Couple that with commitment to Christ and you've got ... not humble pie, but humble piety, which is good for us and for those around us.”
Thank God for all our saints, living and beyond, who have brought us to where we are today.