Humility has always been one of the trickiest virtues for me. I actually see myself as a pretty humble person, mainly because life has deflated my ego enough times that I learned pretty quickly to be humble. In high school I was at the top of my class, and I remember how my classmates all thought I was pretty smart. But when I got to college, everyone else had been at the top of their class too – and quite frankly, the workload was crazy hard. Any ego I had started to build up in high school was immediately brought down to size. Or, as I like to tell the acolytes, in one of my first Sundays as an ordained priest, I was serving the chalice. We missed a latecomer, so I grabbed the chalice and rushed around the altar to serve them. In my rushing, my elbow hit the side of the altar, and the wine splashed all over the stone floor. The gasp from the choir in the chancel was audible. For someone who holds the sacredness of liturgy dear, I was mortified; but there was nothing I could do. So humility has never really been an issue for me. But the weird thing about humility is owning the virtue. As soon as you declare, “I am a pretty humble person,” haven’t you just negated your humility by bragging about your humility?
Of course, the quest for humility can go to the other extreme as well. I have a friend who went through a phase of being a pretty fanatical Christian. At some points I found talking with him to be so frustrating that I avoided him altogether. He was so obsessed with being a humble Christian that you could never pay him a compliment. I might say something simple like, “I’m so proud of how well you are doing in school.” And his immediate retort would be, “Oh, well I had nothing to do with that. All the credit belongs to God.” There really is no good response to a retort like that without sounding sarcastic or rude.
But humility is what our epistle lesson today demands. Paul addresses the community at Philippi with a letter from prison. Worried that the community of Philippi stay on the right track, Paul tells them, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” In three simple sentences, Paul’s instructions get harder and harder. First, Paul tells the community not to let their egos get too big. Paul wants the community to right-size itself by looking at their intentions and attitudes. Second, Paul tells the community not just to be humble, but to put the needs of others above their own needs. Here Paul is commanding the community not just to correct their attitudes, but to reorient their actions as well, focusing on others before themselves. Finally, as if the other two were not hard enough, Paul takes his instructions one step further and tells the community to have the same mind as Christ Jesus. Paul wants the community to be a humble as the man who sacrificed his own existence for the sake of humanity. The more I read Paul’s letter this week, the more I wondered whether my fanatical friend had not been rooting his whole life in the mandate presented here by Paul. Maybe my friend’s annoying, over-the-top humility was actually what Paul was suggesting.
The challenge with trying to take on any spiritual discipline, like taking on the mind of Christ, or becoming more humble, is that we tend to fret so much over the discipline that we get lost in ourselves – which is, in fact, the very opposite of what Paul invites us to do today. In focusing on our weaknesses or lack of humility, and trying to work our way into a more humble way of being, instead, we find ourselves alone, struggling with God, but separate from others who may actually be able to help us in our quest for humility. The secret to mastering humility is not by focusing on the self, but instead by focusing on others. One scholar describes this method by explaining, “One does not ‘self-empty’ by focusing upon oneself. One is emptied of self to the degree one is overcome by the needs, pains, hopes, and desires of others. When concern for others takes one utterly beyond self-interest, beyond obsessions with achievements and self-obsessing guilt over failures, beyond self, then one receives the comfort of an Easter ‘yes’ so overwhelming, unconditional, undeniable, and absolute that [the ‘yes’] is experienced as unfailing and forever – a yes more potent and enduring than any imaginable no.”[i]
When I did my year of AmeriCorps service, I arranged to clean and lock up the Episcopal Campus House in exchange for a free room in the back of the house. Since AmeriCorps volunteers get a very modest living stipend, the free housing was a huge help. But one day, at the end of a particularly physically grueling day of work, I was talking to one of the clients that the Food Bank served. He lived in a group home and was trying to transition to independent housing. We were talking about my housing situation and he marveled, “Man, I wish I could find a situation like that!” Truthfully, I had taken my housing situation for granted – occasionally I even resented having to clean toilets and mop floors. But after that conversation, every time I mopped those floors I remembered how incredibly lucky I was. I needed that client to help me get to a place of humility and gratitude.
That realization is what Paul is hoping the community at Philippi will have as well. Paul knows that setting aside the self is difficult. That is why he pushes us to look at the needs of others. Paul knew that when the community of faith began focusing on others, they would forget about themselves. They would gain the perspective needed to help them on the journey toward humility. And as the community turned more and more outward, they would be turning more and more toward the life of Christ – a life always oriented toward the other. The work of building individual humility and having a mind like Christ only happens in the context of community. The work cannot be done alone.
In 1974, poet Adrienne Rich was awarded the National Book Award in poetry, having beaten out fellow nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker. When she gave her acceptance speech, she shocked the literary community. She began, “We, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Alice Walker, together accept this award in the name of all women whose voices have gone and still go unheard in a patriarchal world.” The three women had sat down together before the event and written the statement. No matter who won that night, this would be the statement of the winner. When asked about the statement, they “said they believed that by supporting and giving to each other they could enrich each other’s lives and work more than by competing against each other.”[ii] What these three poets did was refuse to play by the rules of the game. Instead of accepting that there must be one winner, they declared that they had all won – despite what the award givers were proclaiming.
What these women did is what Paul was hoping the Church community would do. By working together, these women resisted the temptation to lose their humility. If any of them alone had won, they could have become puffed up with pride. Conversely, if any of them alone had lost, they could have spiraled into the depths of self-doubt. But together, they were able to claim a humble acknowledgement that God was working through each of them to do great things. That is the true nature of humility – one found and expressed through community. We are blessed to already have in place the kind of community that can support and encourage one another in the development of humility. Our invitation is to trust this community enough to uplift us, to challenge us, and to help us grow. We cannot face the journey alone; but luckily, we are not alone in the midst of this community. Amen.
[i] William Greenway, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 114.
[ii] Entire story told by Mike Grave, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 113.