Walk Humbly. Or Not.
One of the hardest things to realize about yourself is that you are living out of line with your own values. That you believe something or are doing something that you actually don’t think is right. If we are serious about self-awareness and spiritual growth we will all have this painful experience at some point because none of us are perfect. Several years ago I was struggling with my own faith and self-worth. I really truly thought that my value to God and the world was based on the things I could accomplish. What I could do, what was recognized as good and useful by other people. My breaking point came when I realized that if I carried that belief to its logical conclusion, then there were a whole lot of people in the world that I thought were worthless because they weren’t accomplishing. They weren’t contributing to any GDP. I had to admit, specifically, this was my thing, I had to admit that I thought I was better, intrinsically better, more worthy, than people in refugee camps. Because I was producing and they were not.
Now please don’t try to let me off the hook by coming up with ways that people in refugee camps are producing. This was my experience and it was life-changing for me. I had to realize that if I thought my value was in what I could DO then there were a lot of people that I thought were worthless because they weren’t DOING what I could do. I know I’m not special; I’m not better than anyone else, there aren’t special rules that applied to me but not to everyone else in the world; and I want my beliefs to be consistent. So in this case, i had to admit that I had a value I really didn’t agree with. Friends, that was devastating to me.
Once I faced that, God began to open my heart. God began to show me how ridiculous it is to value people based solely on what they can do, even on what they can “do for others,” which is how we sell that lie in Christianity. God began to free me from my own burden of self-judgment and simultaneously open my heart to stop judging other people. But none of that could happen until I faced my own hypocrisy, and admitted it in plain words.
This is an example of what it means to walk humbly with God. To face ourselves, to recognize our own hypocrisy without making excuses for it, and to invite God to help us change.
Walking humbly with God is the final piece of the puzzle, the final ingredient in the formula, the final variable in the equation of what God requires of us. Two weeks ago we said that God’s justice is not blind and theoretical, but is partial towards meeting the actual needs of actual people. Last week we said that to love mercy means to do unto others as God has done unto us, going beyond what is normally expected to do the most gracious, kind, and loyal action. This week we are going to talk about what it means to walk humbly with God.
This formula comes from the Old Testament prophet Micah, a man on the margins who was called by God to speak uncomfortable truths to the people in power. In chapter 6 we read the narration of a lawsuit that God has against God’s people. Not like our lawsuits, a violation of a principle. In the ancient world, these lawsuits were a violation of covenant, a violation of relationship. God is saddened and confused by the people’s unwillingness to be faithful. You’ll hear at the beginning that all of creation is called as witness. The mountains and hills and foundations of the world that have witnessed God’s faithfulness to God’s people are called to stand as witnesses to the people’s unfaithfulness. Things will not stay hidden any longer.
Hear what the Lord is saying:
Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains;
let the hills hear your voice!
Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the Lord!
Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!
The Lord has a lawsuit against his people;
with Israel he will argue.
“My people, what did I ever do to you?
How have I wearied you? Answer me!
I brought you up out of the land of Egypt;
I redeemed you from the house of slavery.
I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.
My people, remember what Moab’s King Balak had planned,
and how Balaam, Beor’s son, answered him!
Remember everything from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you might learn to recognize the righteous acts of the Lord!”
They people respond by trying to buy God off. They assume that they can just give more stuff to fix it. That a wounded heart will be soothed by a present. If someone who hurt you has ever tried to make it right by giving you a thing that is totally unrelated to the way they hurt you, you know how God is probably going to feel about this move by the people.
With what should I approach the Lord
and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him
with entirely burned offerings,
with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased
with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Should I give my firstborn for my transgressions;
the fruit of my womb for the sin of my spirit?”
Finally, we hear what God actually wants. What will heal a wounded relationship is not stuff but renewed attention to the relationship itself.
God has told you, human one, what is good
and what the Lord requires from you:
to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
That’s Micah chapter 6, verses 1 through 8. Verses 9 through 16 lay out the specific problems. Same as we see in other prophets, the problems are greed, violence, and religious hypocrisy. The problems are institutionalized injustice that impoverishes the poor and enriches the rich and is not at all challenged by people of faith. That was the downfall of the ancient Israelites. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear this morning.
The opposite of greed, violence, and religious hypocrisy to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. If we do this, we will find lasting joy and heal the world. We do it as individuals, this has to be something that each of us are committed to, but we do it as individuals IN community, so we can solve problems and find support and tackle challenges all together. And the more we do it, the more joy we have and the more we participate in God’s work of healing the world.
So, justice, mercy, and humility. For those of you who were keeping track, the word “justice” shows up 412 times in the Old Testament. The word “mercy” shows up 247 times. Guess how many times the word “humbly” shows up? 2. Just 2. Isn’t that weird? It’s weird to me. I mean I think if it’s that important, it would show up more often. There are some words that are closely related to it that show up maybe another 20 times, but that’s still a lot less than 200 and 400 times. Here’s what I suspect. I think humility is one of those traits that is characterized not by what you do but by what you don’t do. You follow me? How helpful is it to tell someone “Go be humble”? OK … but how? If Sam and I are going to teach Sammy what it means to be humble, which is a core value for our family, we are going to teach him quite a bit about what NOT to do.
I’ve given this a lot of thought in the last couple years and I think humility is THE mark of spiritual maturity. It’s no accident that it’s the final piece in Micah’s puzzle. We have a visual representation of the relationship between these three things and walk humbly is at the top. This formula of do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God is a path of discipleship, it’s a way to talk about how we are growing in our practice of following Jesus. We can look at each of these areas and say, “Specifically in what ways am I doing justice? In what ways am I loving mercy. In what ways am I walking humbly with God? In what ways am I NOT doing these things? Why not?” As we grow in our willingness and our ability to do all of them we spiral closer to the center, where all three overlap, and right there is where we find the spirit of the risen Christ. This is how we know we know we are growing spiritually. We are getting closer to the center, growing in all three areas.
It’s all spiritual. Do justice is communal, love mercy is interpersonal, walk humbly is individual. But it’s all spiritual. So what happens if we neglect walking humbly with God? What if we just do justice and love mercy. Here’s what I think. People who do justice and love mercy have their earthly priorities in good order. They are focused on being faithful in their relationships and also attending to the larger needs of the world. BUT they are doing it in their own power. Their motivation and stamina are coming from their own good ideas but are disconnected from the Eternal Source. These folks are very passionate. But, what I have seen personally, is that their passion either burns out because they are always pouring out without having anything poured back in, or the passion starts to be fueled by cynicism and rage. Without a divine connection, which Christians find in the person of Jesus Christ, a life focused on giving and giving and giving simply isn’t sustainable. Either we just can’t keep it up because it’s so exhausting and discouraging, or we keep it up by being angry and self-righteous. That’s why walking humbly with God is key to finding true joy and healing the world.
I want to make sure you hear what I’m saying when I talk about humility. As Sam reminds me, it doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself; it means thinking of yourself less. It doesn’t mean denying or dismissing your God-given gifts. It doesn’t mean never letting yourself be recognized for your hard work. Being humble means acknowledging that the gifts we have come from God. We may have honed them, but we were born with the potential. Being humble means acknowledging that we don’t get anywhere on our own. We may work hard, but we have all been helped in countless ways.
Being humble means saying, “I might be wrong.” Yes, I’ve thought about my opinions and beliefs. But I don’t know all that there is to know in the world, and I might be wrong. I’m open to other ways of seeing things.
Being humble means saying, “I am wrong.” If we are truly going to walk humbly, then we are all going to look at the standard of doing justice and loving mercy and have to say, “I’m not doing those well.” Period full stop. I’m not. Some of you are doing them better than I am but none of us are really nailing it. We’re just not. No buts. No excuses. No explanations. Just the willingness to say, “I’m not doing that well.” I’m not the hero or the victim. I’m the villain.
What happens if we just sit with that for a second? If I take a moment to let the wave of rationalizations and justifications pass, let that wave break on the shore of my mind and dissipate. If I take a moment to remind myself that this is not a shame-game, to deliberately set down my past religious baggage and remember that another way is possible. Once the rationalizations and the shame have both had their moment, and I still sit with the reality that I’m not living up to my own standards, there’s a freedom that comes. A release. An exhale. In my confession of my failure there’s a letting go. Letting go of my constant attempts to justify myself or set up barriers against the shame that’s always trying to get in. I’m just here and I’m just me, facing my real self.
And what does God do in this moment? Some of you expect that God revels in our wrongness and tries to keep us focused on our sin. I say that’s crap. That’s not true. That’s not what God does. When we finally admit that we have a giant ugly plank sticking out of our eye, when we admit that, God says, “YESSSS! Here is a person that is ready to participate in the healing of the world. Come here, baby, let me help you with that plank so we can get to work.”
The reason it’s so important to walk humbly is because humility is where we begin to find freedom. When we finally fully admit our weaknesses, failures, hypocrisy and resistance can we begin to change. Only then can we fully appreciate God’s grace. Humility says “This is who I am,” not in a strutting way (snap snap snap) but in an honest way. “This is who I am. And I know God loves me. And I know I matter. And I know I’m chosen. This is who I am. I’m doing my best. Sometimes I get it wrong. And God loves me.” No pretensions, no carefully curated social media image, no propping myself up with my achievements, just me, coming as I am, and finding welcome. And change. And growth.
If you’ve been around here for any time at all, you know we’re not the kind of church that tries to convince you there’s something wrong with you. That’s not what this is about. This is about discovering that it’s safe to admit our own sense that there is something wrong. That in fact all of us have areas where we are wildly hypocritical. We talk about justice we aren’t actually willing to do. We theoretically like mercy but don’t actually love mercy. We know that’s not right and so we spend a lot of energy covering up or rationalizing or avoiding. When we walk humbly we are willing to admit those failures precisely so that we can transfer all that energy to growing and changing with God’s help. Freedom starts here. I think that we could even call it salvation, being rescued from ourselves.
So we can walk humbly. Or not. If we choose not to walk humbly because we are too scared to be ourselves because we don’t want to trust that God is really THAT good, then we are actively choosing to be less than what God requires of us, to have less than the abundant life God offers us. We may be successful, we may work for justice, we may give to others, but we will be doing it in our own power and eventually we won’t be able to keep it up. But another way is possible. We can walk humbly. We can stop trying to avoid the truth, rationalize our behavior, or cover it up. We can stop hiding and come into the light of God’s extraordinarily amazing grace. We can recognize all the mercy that God is already pouring down on us. We can be free. We can be filled with the Holy Spirit and sent out into the world to be the body of Christ.
Which is what this table is all about. It’s about coming exactly as we are into the light of God, admitting our failures, and discovering that God loves us exactly as we are and that God’s not finished with any of us. At this table we find true freedom, freedom from our self-obsession, freedom not to be served, but the freedom to serve.
Today we gather around the Liberating Christ’s table to remember what true freedom really means. It is a table where outsiders and the “least of these” were invited. It is a table where the privileged also had a place, but were invited to let the “seats of honor” be given to those who had not previously been afforded access to them. This table holds the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all ages, races, and sexes – people in every type of body – come from the north, south, east and west and are welcomed by Jesus, the host at every table.