Psalm 112, Philippians 2: 1-11, Luke 14: 1, 7-14
It was 2007, the year I retired. I was on an ancestry hunt, researching what I hoped would be a book about my Norwegian maternal Grandpa, Jentoft Myrwang, who pastored mission churches across the upper midwest, following the Norwegian migration. On a warm July morning I sat at a picnic table on a riverbank in Merrill, Wisconsin, a declining lumberjack town way out in the boonies, strumming my mandolin, reflecting on what I’d learned, and singing an old Kris Kristofferson song, “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.”
“Woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt/The beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad, so I had one more for dessert.”
Just then, a worn-looking 30ish couple, man and woman, approached from out of the woods. He was carrying a six-pack, looking hopeful. I could tell she had been pretty and young, but now looked mostly tired and a bit droopy and bewildered. They sat down, we introduced ourselves, Bob, Kimmy, Teddy. I explained I was doing genealogy, trying to write about my pastor Grandpa. “Oh, what’s his name? Maybe I heard of him.”
I explained this was 1917-1919, and we agreed it was unlikely. He cracked a couple cans of beer, offered me one, I said it was a little early. They sipped; we talked some more. Kimmy urped up, a little, on herself and on the table, looked embarrassed, “Aw, Honey,” Teddy said, sadly, “Yer’ wasting the beer.” I finished my song, and we parted, friends, me carrying a vivid memory, them an unfinished six-pack. Like the six-pack, my Grandpa book is still unfinished.
I still carry that memory with me, praying over it, trying to understand it. I shared it with some friends at one point, and one gent, a wildly successful self-made man, burst out, “See, I don’t have any time to waste on that kind of human trash.” I felt like he had puked bile on me. I became enraged, said words I instantly regretted, stomped out of the room. He came after me, apologized, I apologized, we remained friends. To me they weren’t trash, they were Kimmy and Teddy, people like me, using a crutch of Schlitz to help them carry their pain. Tell you the truth, my friend is more like them than he wants to realize. We all carry crutches; some just don’t show.
“Don’t try so hard to elevate yourself,” is my interpretation of what Jesus is saying in Luke’s gospel this morning. “Don’t work so hard to put yourself forward and make yourself look good. Be satisfied to be ordinary, just folk. We’re all learning the ropes.”
And the theological reason why Jesus is saying what he’s saying in Luke, is there in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which was written a full generation before Luke’s gospel. It’s one of the earliest Jesus people folk songs, and, if you listen to Kris Kristofferson hard, and long, like I have, you find there’s a lot of this humble Jesus in his lyrics: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…”. (Sounds a bit more musical in the original Greek: “Touto phroneite en humin ho kai en Christo Yesou…”)
Who, though he was in God
Took the form of a slave
And was born in human form.
Those early Jewish followers of Jesus had an amazing, poetic view of ultimate reality: God, the awesome power behind all this: sailing clouds, carrying the water to fill the lakes and nourish our cells – and the ducks, loons, hemlocks, birch, snails and everything else alive, God, who lit the light of the stars, God, who sent the glaciers to carve the mountains, putting Ampersand here, and Whiteface there, and St. Regis, there.
God took the down escalator, compressed Herself to the size of a single cell – like the Big Bang in reverse – got born, in the same process as Kimmy and Teddy and me and my friend – but then stayed on the down escalator and became – not Elton John, not Martina Hingas, not some political or religious or technological superstar, but the lowest form of human being, an oppressed and exploited and homeless street preacher who was lynched by being nailed to a cross. Very nearly the sort of human being my friend said he had no time for.
And God did this, they are saying, for US, and for all humanity, so that we can be raised up, so that we can tap into the cosmic energy that gives birth to stars.
God in Jesus was humbled and exalted so that we might have the possibility of genuine exaltation in company with all of humanity and all of creation.
I’m so often like that friend of mine, and I’ll bet you are too. I so often turn away from people and their needs that I fear, or don’t want, to see.
1970, my intern year, in Philadelphia, doing a ministry of wholistic healing for runaway and throwaway street kids. We had a drop-in center next to the Episcopal Church House on Rittenhouse Square – now a snazzy hotel, then an empty and unwanted building. “Voyage House for Runaways.” I was walking home from the trolley stop to our halfway house on Spruce Street when a man, who happened to be Black, approached me and started to speak. Before he could get a sentence out, I said, harshly, “I don’t have any money.”
“Fool”, he said. And I could see, by the streetlight, he was well-dressed. “I wanted to ask you if you had the correct time.”
So often we perceive threat when we should perceive opportunity. Somewhere deep in my soul I had learned “Black people, especially Black men, are dangerous and unpredictable.” Before I could formulate a rational response, my instincts had kicked in and executed an escape plan. I had puked my inherent bias right in that Black man’s face. I was 25 then. 50 years have passed. I’ve been a leader in the anti-racism movement in the Lutheran Church, have studied and read and taught extensively. But it could still happen again. White supremacy is kind of like an addiction, one day at a time, with humility, to unwind it, and with lots of honesty and support. I’m still in it, but I own it.
Right now, at this moment in our nation’s history, we are at a cross-roads, an inflation point. We have an historic opportunity to own it and to exorcise the demon of racism embedded in our national soul – if we can have the honest humility and the stern compassion to look deeply at our true history. The cotton that fed the New England mills that fed the economic development in the 19th century that created the consumer culture in the 20th century that gave birth to the cell phones we use every day was grown on the backs of enslaved and oppressed African men, woman and children who were bought and sold to our benefit… And their descendants continue to bear the burden. We did not intend it to be so, but the consequences of that oppression are still with us. We can make a change, and we are making a change, every time we take an honest look, every time we listen to the voices we don’t always want to hear, every time we choose to share what we have in order to make the world better. Every time we practice humility.
“Have this mind among yourselves that is yours in Christ Jesus. Who did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”
Don’t try to put yourself in the place of honor, but go, sit down at the lowest place, so that the Host, when he or she comes, may say to you, “Friend, come up higher.” All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus and Paul are suggesting a different version of life than our individualistic, competitive striving, winner take all culture hopes we all buy into. This is very counter-cultural and risky. But you still get to listen to the loons sometimes, and the beauties and the harmonies of nature become even sweeter.
Plus you get to feel the cosmic joy. And meet interesting folks.
Third story about upchucking. Are you noticing a theme?
During that same intern year when I was wandering the streets of Philadelphia searching for troubled, drug-addled and alienated kids, I was up in the Art Museum district at a social worker’s house at a planning meeting with some shrinks and educators and there’s this, like, suburban “chick” (I admit it, I was a long-haired, scraggily bearded tree-huggin’ hippy, and that’s what we called our female counterparts. The lesbians on the staff knocked that schite out of us pretty fast, but this was early on. “Pre-lesbian” you might say).
Anyway – there’s this, like, real good looking suburban female person in these slick blue bell bottoms and clogs and a peasant shirt and a lavender do-rag, and I was, like “too hoity-toity for me!” But she had my eye. And she was holding the host’s baby, and spooning in red jello, when, all of a sudden, the baby urped up a big shower of jello all over that nice, hand embroidered peasant blouse. And she was so cool, this female person, had such calm, humble confidence in the way she handled that mess, I started to get the idea maybe, maybe she could handle a mess like me.
Later that same year an irate parent sent the cops to “rescue” the runaway daughter he had previously given written permission to stay in our house. I was away, but the bell-bottom woman – by this time we were co-house parents – blocked the stairs and stood her ground until Philadelphia’s Finest dragged her down, banging her head bloody on the steps, and off to the Roundhouse, where the judge heard her cool testimony and released the daughter back into our custody.
She came from a privileged background, that “chick”, but, like a lot of people from privileged backgrounds are, she was salt of the earth, a junkyard dog when the chips were down. And – turns out she could handle a mess like me, and we had 43 years of mess – and bliss- before she left me here to carry on – and to tell stories about her now and then, which she loved. (And, Oh, Lordy, if her granddaughter were here and heard me use that baby chicken word, my goose would be cooked well done!)
Humility in the terms of this sermon is not a habitual attitude of “less than”, which is, let’s face it, is a common misunderstanding and distortion: Somebody compliments you on a job well done, and, instead of “thank you!” what you say is, “Oh, really, it was nothing.” That’s humility as a secret form of pride: And I’m guilty of it from time to time. “Look at me! How humble I can be.”
Being humble, in Jesus terms, is choosing to take a stand with the lowly. It’s knowing the people who don’t get invited to the party matter too, maybe matter more. It’s being willing to speak out, to make mistakes, and to learn, because that’s how you grow. It’s being willing to listen to the voices that aren’t getting heard, and to find a way to make sure that they do.
I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt… …and stumbled down the stairs to meet the day. I stopped outside a Sunday school and listened to the song that they was singing’…and somewhere far away a lonesome bell was ringing’ and it echoed through the canyons like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.”
Sometimes, when I’m on Upper Saranac Lake, life does feel like a dream. A dream of the world when it wasn’t overcrowded. There was room and clean air and water, and places in the world that had never been explored. A world where people were friendly, and they met face to face, and everyone knew the difference between truth and a lie, and people were curious about differences and they all got along. Well, Kris, this is one place, this little church on the hill, where that dream is not yesterday, and it’s not fading away, it’s tomorrow, and we’re practicing community, and ringing our bell and praying our prayers and cherishing our departed saints, and baptizing our children so that God can make that dream come true. And every now and then, we get a taste of it today. Like right now.
God love you, and I love you, and there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it! And, may God turn all your urps into cherry jello and wipe them away!