He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
A man was given a medal for humility, and proudly wore it everywhere.
Prospero Mesa was Dean of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Havana. One morning in June 1980, someone knocked on his door and said his family had permission to leave Cuba for the United States. They needed to be at the port of Mariel by 2 PM the same day. The Mesas packed quickly, locked the door, and left the house full with the belongings of a lifetime. They took one suitcase to start a new life.
It is hard to overemphasize the level of anxiety they felt. The Mesas had lived in Cuba their whole lives. They spoke just a little English. They knew Castro might cancel the Exodus without warning at any time They’d be in big trouble for being willing to leave. Once in Mariel, their departure was held up for two more days. They had no idea where they would wind up or how they would live or how they would support themselves. Scared to death, they still didn’t look back. They hoped in the Lord. They had faith.
Those of us here today live in the most powerful nation in the world. Unlike the Mesa family, most of us were lucky enough to be born here. As the columnist Molly Ivins wrote about George Bush: “He was born on third base, and thinks he hit a triple.” We ought to be humble and grateful Americans, since we didn’t decide where we’d be born. It was third base.
If you read the Gospels from start to finish—even just one of them—you see Jesus has little truck with the rich and powerful and particularly the proud. He cuts them down to size. He brings them down to earth, a word from the same root as humus, the ground, as in “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” at a burial. Or on Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Edwin Dobb writes in Harper’s Magazine:
Who has not gazed at the night sky, mouth slightly agape? The experience is so common, its effects so uniform, that a standard vocabulary has evolved to describe it. Invariably we speak of the profound humility we feel before the enormity of the universe. We are as bits of dust in a spectacle whose scope beggars the imagination, whose secrets make a mockery of reason. (Feb 1995)
Humility puts us in a right relationship with God and with other human beings. Pride was the Original Sin, which got Adam and Eve a one-way ticket out of the Garden.
The Book of Proverbs (11:2) says: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” In Luke, we find Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee, a good man, is very proud. The Tax Collector, in many ways a bad man, ashamed of himself, is humble before God. Jesus’ summary: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Martin of Tours was a soldier. Going from one post to another, he met a beggar on the road. He wanted to help him, but he was tapped out of cash. But the man was cold, and Martin cut his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar before continuing his journey. That night, he stopped at an inn, went to sleep, and had a dream. Christ appeared to him, wearing the other half of Martin’s cloak.
Humility, a virtue we often have to learn, helps us see Christ in other people—particularly the poor, the sick, the lonely, the grieving, strangers, immigrants and refugees, prisoners, the addicted, the kind of people mentioned in today’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount. All the people who weren’t born on third base, those who had already struck out before their lives began. Many of us know the transformative power of generosity and service to others. Ask anyone who gives their time and effort to helping other people, and they’ll tell you it means more to them than to those they help. ‘Tis a puzzlement, but very true.
We Episcopalians, often reluctant to speak about faith, resonate with the following: “Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t make you a Christian.” We are known more by our actions rather than by our words.
Most of us didn’t hit a triple. We were born on third base. Think about Humility: a virtue. Humus: from the earth and knowing we will return there. Humanity: taking our place in the world along with everyone else, being aware we are no better or worse than others. Understand this and work on it, and you’ll be doing God’s will.