Monday, August 27, 2007

Looking at the Lectionary

The readings for this coming Sunday, according to the lectionary in the BCP are...

Ecclesiasticus 10:(7-11)12-18
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8
Luke 14:1,7-14

... and I thought I'd take an early look at them and do some pondering this morning. I'll have to admit that my first thought, on reading these, was Oh crap, it's all about humility this week! And then I have to confess - a little guiltily, I'll admit, knowing the proportion of my readers who are clergy - that my next reaction was I'm glad I don't have to preach on these! - because who honestly thinks they're going to be very popular in their congregation after telling everyone they're supposed to be humble and not love money and all that?

One thing that shined through pretty clearly for me from the gospel lesson here was that this parable of Jesus is an important spiritual truth, but it's also excellent practical advice. When you're in a group of people, it's just not good tactics to seek out the top spot, unless you absolutely know you can cling to it. Because if you are unseated, it will be embarassing for you and for everyone else there. In fact, it will be humilating. What I tend to wonder, though, about those humiliating situations is this: do they really teach us to be humble? If someone is prideful enough to take that top spot, and is then humiliated in front of everyone, is she saying to herself, it's okay, I deserved that; I know I was being prideful? Or is she looking at the floor and clenching her fists and muttering under her breath and thinking, those idiots! They don't know who I am, or they would never treat me this way! Look at him over there - he's laughing at me - laughing! Well, I'll show him...? So it is good advice that Jesus gives here. It feels good to be recognized and called out and raised up.

The Hebrews reading is full of good advice, too. In fact, it's so easy to just gloss through it, but it would make an excellent list of bullets for somebody's mission statement. I mean, imagine it on a Powerpoint slide or a glossy brochure:
  • Let mutual love continue.
  • Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.
  • Remember those who are in prison, those who are being tortured.
  • Let marriage be held in honour by all.
  • Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.
  • Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
I find myself enamored with let mutual love continue. Of course, that's a bit less stringent than how Jesus ended his speech in the gospel lesson. Jesus said to show hospitality to the poor, the lame, the crippled, and the blind, because they can't reciprocate. Mutual love is good, and it can be hard sometimes. Loving people who can't or won't love us back... it's even harder to love them, and yet, it can be so rewarding.

It takes humility to love - to really, truly love someone. And I'm not just talking about romantic love, but love for children, love for parents, love for our fellow parishioners, love for co-workers, love for that crazy lady who is always outside the grocery store ranting at the pigeons. To love someone, we must set ourselves aside. We have to try to see the other person for who they are, and not for who we want them to be or expect them to be. We try to anticipate what they might want or need. We want to bring them happiness or delight or joy, because it brings us these things to see them happy. And I know I can't do any of these things when I'm full of myself, full of what I want and what I need and what I think reality should look like.

It's true in reverse, too. It takes just as much humility to receive love as to give it. And this may sound counter-intuitive, so give me a moment to explain. I'm going to tell it from my point of view, but I've seen enough to make me realize that this is probably a pretty universal thing. I can tend to get wrapped up in my low self-esteem stuff. I don't deserve love. I don't deserve happiness. I deserve to be sad and alone and lonely forever. And, of course, my personal favorite, I'm fundamentally unlovable. And the truth is that this stuff can all get turned upside-down into a bizarre and warped form of pride. If I'm fundamentally unlovable, then I can refuse love when it is offered to me, and I can act as hatefully and spitefully and bitchily (is that a word?) as I want - because all of this just serves to prove my point. So when someone - including God! - breaks through that and makes it clear that I am loved, it is hard to take this. I have to set aside all my prideful beliefs about my fundamental unworthiness in order to accept the gift of love that I am offered.

A question: how many times have you been paid a compliment that you didn't really believe? And how did you react? Did you try to deflect it? Guess what - that's not humility; that's pride. Humility is recognizing the gift you've just been given, whether you feel deserving or not, and expressing gratitude for it. You don't have to believe it, but denying or deflecting the gift is prideful. A truly humble person merely says, thank you, and continues on. I'm sure you can think of someone who has elevated this false humility into an art form. There's an absolutely hilarious song by Weird Al called Amish Paradise, with the line, Well, I know that I'm a million times as humble as thou art. Yeah. That's not humility.

I'm not quite ready to wrap all of this up into a neat little bundle for you. I'm not sure exactly what that bundle is. Hospitality is big. Humility is big. Love is big. These readings are full of really big, important stuff. I find myself thinking a great deal about the Rule of St. Benedict, and how the chapter on humility is the longest chapter in the Rule. But I think I've already gone on long enough here without bringing Benedict in, as well. :-)

So I think I'll end with my favorite sentence from these readings, and wish it for you as a blessing:
Let mutual love continue.