text :: Matthew 23:1-12
theme verse :: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)
In the Middle Ages, a common food eaten by those with little economic means included deer innards. It was made into a pie, of sorts, and became known as umble pie. If an uppity nobleman was every publicly humiliated, it was said that he had to eat umble pie. While thevernacular shifted some through the years, the phrase, “Eat your humble pie,” hung around and still gets used often today. Jesus explains that the humble will be exalted and the exalted will be eating humble pie. Humility is indeed a Christian virtue. However, as C.S. Lewis notes in his book, The Screwtape Letters, any of the virtues we possess become something of a spiritual problem once we become aware of them. It is possible to become proud of our humility. Can we possibly practice humility while keeping a level spirit?
anthem :: 'My Shepherd Will Supply My Need' (arr.Wilberg) :: Chancel Choir; Kelly Ford, director
reader :: David Brock
preaching :: Rev Mark Briley
closing :: 'Mercy Mercy' (HillsongUnited) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
Matthew 23: 1 – 12
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,[a] and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.[b] 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.[c] 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Who’s up for a slice of humble pie? We’ve all heard about this pie and maybe have sampled from it now and again. The idea is really a slam on another person who couldn’t live up to the hype or their promise or was insistent on being right when, as all was soon revealed, they were wrong. The etymology of this phrase is grounded in the word, “umble” which is the word humble minus the “h”. Umble Pie was a real food in medieval times, particularly consumed by the poor. It was a pie filled with the least desirable animal parts like liver, heart, and innards. In fact, it’s derivative in French literally means “deer innards.” It was considered inferior food and often the only meat dish available to people of lower economic status. For someone of noble rank 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. This is troubling on a number of fronts but it is the origin of this phrase we’ve heard for years. It also makes this link of humility to humiliation which I think is a poor pairing. Humiliation whether self-induced or at the hands of another is not one that jives well with what God has to say about us. God says we are loved, crafted uniquely in a way that bears God’s very image. There should be nothing humiliating about that.
C. S. Lewis said,
Do you sense the difference? Pride draws a tight circle around myself – it points to me and what I’ve done. Humility draws a wider circle to include others acknowledging that none of us are self-made. Winston Churchill was once asked, “Doesn’t it thrill you that every time you speak, the hall is packed to overflowing?” Churchill replied, “It is quite flattering, but whenever I feel this way, I always remember that, if, instead of making a speech, I were being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.” Humility helps keep things in perspective.
We’re wrapping this series, (y)our WHOLE life, this morning with the consideration of humility. I hope you have found this series to be meaningful. This Wednesday is the launch of the season of Lent which we will mark with a special Ash Wednesday service at seven o’clock. It is always one of the most meaningful services of the year. I hope you’ll come. I’ll launch our new Lenten sermon series, “Sacred Rhythms” that very night. I’m stoked for the season and trust that it will grow our spirits. That’s Wednesday. But today? Humility.
Creating a humble approach to our living will make us more faithful to Christ, more influential in the lives of those around us, and simply a more pleasant person to be around. Our word from Jesus this morning in Matthew’s account of the Good News follows this religious sparring match between some trained church folk and Jesus. Jesus had just won the debate against the Sadducees as they proposed some question about a Seven-Brides-for-Seven-Brothers-situation except there would be only one bride. They were testing Jesus on the Mosaic law that says if a married man dies having not given his wife a child, the man’s brother was obligated to marry her and bear a child together. Their test to Jesus was passing through all seven brothers – none having a child with the woman. The question at the end of this long mathematics word problem was this: “Who would her husband be in the resurrection since no one gave her a child?” Jesus gives them the look and says, “You guys are way off!” He’s like, “You are drawing too small a circle around something that doesn’t matter.” That’s a pride thing, remember. “Resurrection is beyond marriage,” he says. “We’ll all be together and worshipping God and it will be extraordinary.” Not what the Sadducees were looking for. The Pharisees try to box him next. “600+ laws and commands in the faith, Jesus. Which one is most important?” Jesus famously replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. That’s the most important.” And then he adds, “A second is like it: Love others as you love yourself.” Jesus then says, “Everything else – all of those other laws and the words of the prophets hinge on those two things.” The Pharisees floored by his response, regroup and go after him again. They were such literalists that they couldn’t handle what they perceived to be Jesus discounting what they had held so legalistically for their whole lives.
The church has done this forever. We like to think we’ve claimed Jesus and are not in the rigid religious camp but then someone tries to draw a bigger circle to include someone new or someone tries to change something that we’ve always done before and we discover we’re not as Jesus-y as we thought we were. All church fights, schisms and persecutions seem to center around two things: 1. Who is in and who is out and, 2. Who decides who is in and who is out. Our Methodist brothers and sisters wrestled with that this week in a very public way though they’ve been wrestling for years. And the rest of our churches wrestle too and we get our pride involved and our righteousness caught up in a bunch and suggest that it’s about being right legalistically when Jesus seemed to be more concerned with being right relationally. The Sadducees said, “Who will she be married to in heaven?” and Jesus said, “You’re going to be in heaven dude!” The Pharisees, having passed the bar exam of religious fervor said, “Every law must be held!” and Jesus said, “You draw a wider circle of love for God and your neighbor and then we can talk about the rest.”
Even the early church, Acts 15, was dealing with another divisive church issue. A circle had been drawn wide enough to include Paul, a Jesus hater, into the Jesus movement, and so Paul was working to draw a wide enough circle to include the Gentiles without asking them to conform to all of the laws of Judaism – in this instance, the practice of circumcision. That’s sort of a downer at the Membership Inquiry Class, right? “To join the church, we’re just going to ask you to make this profession of faith… oh… and be circumcised.” I imagine Paul taking his thought to Peter… who’s been drawing a wider circle himself for Gentiles who didn’t follow all the dietary laws and says, “Peter… help me out here. These people believe in Jesus. They want to follow him. And I can see the Spirit at work in their lives already.” Pete says, “I’ve seen it too, Paul.” So they’re in. Paul takes it to the General Conference in Jerusalem where James, the brother of Jesus presides as Bishop (so to speak). To an angry crowd of church insider types who want everyone to conform to the same rules they play by, James says, “Nope. No circumcision required.” (Huge sigh of relief from one side of the crowd). And they compromise. They widen the circle. And more people find relationship with Jesus and the church. These people… all people… are the handiwork of God and when we begin to see one another this way… there is a growing humility and appreciation for the tapestry born of the creative hand of God.
Pastor and writer, Eugene Peterson, part of the resurrection now, learned this as a kid spending time at the Butcher shop run by his father. He said, “Not so much by words but by example, I internalized a respect for the material at hand. The material can be a pork loin, or a mahogany plank, or a lump of clay, or the will of God, or a soul, but when the work is done well, there is a kind of submission of will to the conditions at hand, a cultivation of what I would later learn to call humility. It is a noticeable feature in all skilled workers — woodworkers, potters, poets, pray-ers and pastors. I learned [humility] in the butcher shop.” Where did you learn to appreciate life like that? This is a spirit or attitude that says, “I can learn from this person who is not like me but is loved by God as much as me.” It’s an appreciation for art or song or creation or talent or practical tool. Humility invites a sense of awe that pride never allows. I don’t know how, but the screensaver on my computer has some new setting in which every twenty-four hours it changes its image to some new, glorious, magnificent place in the world that has me saying “Wow!” every time. Absolutely breathtaking. I look forward to it everyday. It makes me so grateful. Humility does this … it widens our sense of awe and gratitude and acceptance that God is so good that we should do everything in our power not to take that gift away from someone else.
So Jesus has just had it out with the faith leader types and turns to his disciples and the crowds surrounding them to give this gem of a word that we’ve heard today. He says, “You’ve heard these religious scholars – they know their Bible for sure. Talk the talk they’ve got down. But walk the walk? Not so much. Lot of smoke and mirrors.” And this is so convicting, right? It is for me. We know what Jesus says and we know what Jesus does but oh how I’ve come up short in following him. I own that. And I own that with no false humility… this is not about shrinking in the face of our shortcomings. Author John Pavlovitz offers a helpful insight to humility noting we’ve often distorted the image of a humble person as some “mousy, apologetic nebbish” who possesses neither confidence nor courage nor backbone.
He says this is incorrect. “Humility” he says, “is about balance: it means we neither dismiss nor exaggerate our value. This place of equilibrium allows us to refrain from carrying unwarranted criticism and undeserved praise, to not be beholden to public opinion on either side. It is in that elusive sweet spot between self-righteousness and self-loathing that humility resides. When we’re in this place, free from feeling like we have to prove our worth or jockey for position, and unencumbered by a pride that needs feeding or an ego that seeks validation, we can simply be present.” That’s all I’m after here as your pastor… to be present with you on this journey of faith we’re seeking together. To interpret, as we all do, the ways of Jesus so that we may help earth resemble more closely the gift and nature of heaven. Before we can pray, “Lord, Thy Kingdom come,” we must be willing to pray, “My Kingdom go.” (Alan Redpath).
Jesus’ critique continues, “Instead [these religious leaders] bundle these rules into heavy packages and load you down like pack animals.” The Message version reads this passage forward like this… it’s too crisp to pass up. Listen… “These religious leaders seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees and getting called “Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’ Ugh that hurts.
But Jesus digs deeper. He says, “Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. … there’s only one Life-Leader for you and them – that’s Christ.” And then the crux of it all. “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.” The humble will be exalted. Be yourself. Draw a wider circle. Never stop learning. That’s humility. I would suggest that the proud miss out on some wonderful things because that circle of self is so small.
The Washington Post offered research that suggests that “true humility 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.” Isn’t that powerful? Stepping outside of our own circle of pride puts Jesus at the center and allows us to view everything, and everyone, through that central focus. Your whole perspective changes. Author Kurt Vonnegut said
I would say that the people on the edge are the first to see the Kingdom of God. Draw a wider circle. Get to the edge of it and look back at the center where Jesus is. See Jesus. And what did Jesus say? “You’ve seen me. You’ve seen the Father.” “You see the least of these. You’re looking at me.” “You love your neighbor. You love me.” You can’t help seeing other people as beloved when you are looking at the world this way. Everybody is going through something extraordinary… some giving every fiber of their being just to get through the day. Our pride may think, “Well just suck it up, buddy!” Humility opens a door to them instead and says, “How can I see Christ in them?”
Pavlovitz, who I named earlier, offers this reminder to “Go easy,” as “there are grieving people all around you.” He said, “The day my father died, I was at the grocery store buying bananas. I remember thinking to myself, “This is insane. Your dad just died. Why the hell are you buying bananas?” But we needed bananas. We’d be waking up for breakfast tomorrow morning, and there wouldn’t be any bananas—so there I was.” He goes on about all the motions he simply was going through always mere seconds away from losing it. “I wanted to wear a sign that said, I JUST LOST MY DAD. PLEASE GO EASY.” He goes on to name all the things we know are breaking hearts in the bodies that are stumbling around us every day … even sitting among us right this very second. Parents whose children are terminally ill. Couples in the middle of divorce. People grieving loss of loved ones and relationships. Kids being bullied at school. Teenagers who want to end their lives. People marking the anniversary of a death. Parents worried about their depressed teenager. Spouses whose partners are deployed in combat. Families with no idea how to keep the lights on. Single parents with little help and little sleep. We know these realities are true. They are our realities. We can’t fix it all. But we can start with drawing a wider circle. We can start with making room for one more. We can make a difference for one. We can exalt one knowing that such brings glory to God. When you begin to see the world from this humble edge, you begin to do things like Jesus would do. And I still believe it is the way to the world’s transformation.
Something seemingly small and profound is happening along the banks of the Charles River in Newton, Massachusetts. Glenda and Raphael Savitz moved into a quiet neighborhood in Newton to start their lives together after college. The neighbors brought cookies when they moved in bearing promises of friendship. It’s the kind of place where elderly neighbor’s driveways are shoveled without prompting and if you’re sick, expect a casserole. I’ve always thought casserole theology was some of the most sound theology of all. But life presses forward as it does for us all.
A few months after moving in, the Savitz’s welcomed their first child, Samantha, into the world. The neighborhood was excited to welcome a new baby to the street. It had been a while. Within a week of Sam’s birth, however, newborn screening tests showed that she was deaf. Her mom said, “She was the first deaf person my husband and I had known.” It was a surprise and unexpected but love does what love does and her parents knew of course that they would want to learn sign language so they could engage and enjoy their daughter. They worked at it fervently the first couple years of Sam’s life. As Sam found her feet and began to bounce around the neighborhood, the neighbors were sad that they couldn’t engage Sam as they’d like. But… you can’t expect all of the neighbors to learn sign language can you? Certainly, you cannot. But, you sure can appreciate it when they do. Thus began the story of twenty neighbors who sit in silence to learn a new language so their littlest neighbor will know what their own kids raised in that neighborhood had always known: community; friendship; and inclusion.
They didn’t ask the parents. They just hired a teacher and they all committed to learn… this is how love widens the circle. Terry Nowak, one of the neighbors said, “We will all be participants in helping her as she grows. We do that with each other’s children. The community is already in place. This is just a new way to express it.’’ Sam parents were speechless and humbled in their gratitude. They’ve noted how much it has changed Sam’s demeanor already… and honestly… the demeanor of the ever-widening neighborhood as well. That’s how American Sign Language has become the second tongue now spoken on one end of Islington Road. Why? Because that’s Samantha Savitz’s language. And there was no way her neighbors were going to let her practice it alone. That neighborly warm embrace is now there every time a neighbor leans down and signs with Sam. Every chance encounter of inclusion in the local grocery store. Every time Sam points to the living room chairs where her neighbors meet to learn her language, she makes the sign for “friend.’’
Who does this? Neighbors ready to humble themselves to learn something new if it means exalting another in need. How might we draw a wider circle? Whom might you seek to exalt this week because you’ve stepped to the edge instead of staying in the center? There is room to learn. There is room to grow. Jesus said, “The greatest among you is the one who serves.” And the gift of humility will create a deeper sense of wholeness for your life and everyone around you. We might call this the practice of humble piety.
 “Humble pie.” Wikipedia, wikipedia.org. Rev. Bob Kaylor, senior editor for Homiletics inspired the humble pie/humble piety reference.
 Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir (HarperCollins, 2011), Kindle Loc. 632-35.
 “Hope and Other Superpowers.” John Pavlovitz. Simon & Schuster Publishing. 2018.
 Merryman, Ashley. “Leaders are more powerful when they’re humble, new research shows.” The Washington Post, December 8, 2016, washingtonpost.com.