This is week two of a sermon series inspired by The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, along with Doug Abrams of a California agency called Idea Architects, who helped orchestrate and record a five-day visit between these two spiritual giants in 2015. After a discussion about “obstacles to joy,” the pair laid out eight “pillars of joy,” which comprise the second half of the book. Those pillars are my focus for the next several weeks. Last week, I spoke about perspective. Today’s topic is humility.
Our English word, humility, is derived from the Latin humilis, which means “low,” and the Latin word humus, “earth, soil” (and you might be familiar with the pronunciation of that word, and related meaning, as “humus”) — and these words are also related (as you probably have already guessed) to the word “human.”
Low, earthy (and I might add to that, messy), human, humility. I rather like rolling those words around together and pondering them. Because life is messy, and it requires humility to go through it with grace — especially because we go through it with other people.
The brief little letter called Second John doesn’t even come up in the lectionary, and I’ve never used it as a preaching text before. It’s kind of a “housekeeping matters” note, widely believed to be from the same author as First and Third John, a person known as “The Elder” because of the way he starts this and the third letter — the standard form for letters in the first century, like a business memo with both “To” and “From” lines in the heading. The “chosen gentlewoman and her children,” on the “to” line, is probably an expression denoting, not individual people, but a particular local church, beloved to the author because of the community’s faithfulness to the teachings about Jesus.
I have a colleague, the Rev. Kim Smith of Mt. Tamalpais Church in Mill Valley, who created a series on The Book of Joy last year, and although I’m not borrowing much from her actual sermons, I did find some guidance in her choice of scripture readings, which seem to have arisen from a text search on the word joy in the Bible. You find a form of that word in verse 4, when the author says, “I was overjoyed…” (show verse 4 on screen)
Now, as I read this 15-verse-long letter, the one little nugget I can reasonably grab from it is the exhortation to “let us love one another.” No matter what’s happening, whether it be political, power struggles (like those the church John wrote to might have been facing), or a different kind of crisis (and we’ve got plenty to choose from these days), agreeing on love is going to help us get to joy.
And that requires some humility. In our second reading, the Apostle Paul illuminates further on the qualities of love within a community as he writes, in a similar vein, to the congregation that he founded in Philippi. He also says “love each other,” but he’s a lot more wordy about it. And he lifts up the quality of humility as a foundation for love.
If we practice humility, that makes us vulnerable. But that vulnerability is the opening to connection. So it actually takes courage — much more than what’s required to appear “tough” and “impenetrable” — which leaves one usually standing alone.
Furthermore, Paul lifts up the example of Jesus as a model of humility that comes from a place of strength. If you look in a Bible, you’ll notice that verses 6-8 in this passage are typeset like a poem, which indicates that this was an ancient hymn or liturgy of the church, words that were repeated and well-known among the recipients of the letter. The humility of Jesus, the divine “form of God” become human, humble, even humiliated by death on a cross — the worst form of execution of the day, carried out by the occupying power. That Jesus would “take the form,” not just of a human being, but of a “slave” — and earlier in life, a refugee and a member of the working class — was sung about, over and over, in the early Church. It was among such people that Christianity flourished: the outcasts, the workers, the downtrodden and oppressed. “He was one of us!” they chanted. In contrast to those Roman or Greek gods who were otherworldly and powerful and fickle, Jesus put away power to be one of us — and demonstrated how humility can open us up to love and joy.
In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama says:
I am just one human being talking to other human beings. [People] should consider me as the same human being, with the same potential for constructive emotions and destructive emotions…Then, you see, my talk[s] may offer them something relevant, but if I consider myself something special, or if they also consider me something different and special, then my experience will not be of much use. (pp. 204-5)
Doug Abrams, summarizing the Archbishop, writes: “Our vulnerabilities, our frailties, and our limitations are a reminder that we need one another: We are not created for independence or self-sufficiency, but for interdependence and mutual support.” (p. 209)
The Archbishop also says: “When we realize that we are all children of God, and of equal and intrinsic value, then we don’t have to feel better or worse than others. No one is a divine accident.” Abrams adds: “While we may not be special, we are essential. No one can fulfill our role but us in the divine plan.” (p. 210)
Perspective — last week’s “pillar of joy” focus — as Abrams writes, gives us “a natural understanding of our place in the great sweep of all that was, is, and will be. This naturally leads to humility and the recognition that as human beings we can’t solve everything or control all aspects of life.” (p. 209)
Archbishop Tutu encourages with these wise words: “God uses each of us in our own way, and even if you are not the best one, you may be the one who is needed or the one who is there.” (p. 211)
Every Vacation Bible School endeavor, for me, is an exercise in learning to pray, “I surrender” over and over, because it simply cannot be done alone; one must depend on other members of the team to do their part. Camp Noah was “VBS on steroids” where that is concerned. Imagine any camp or classroom you’ve been a part of, where there’s one particularly challenging child, and then imagine a whole camp full of such kids, and you come close to the picture of our gathering of children, who have experienced profound grief and difficulty from last October’s fires. This past week was one of feeling, over and over, that I was not “the best one” but “the one who was there,” floating from group to group, tuning in to my intuition, and going wherever there seemed to be a need. This was a camp full of those kids who would probably be labelled “needs special attention,” and our small volunteer staff, some of whom lacked much professional training or teaching experience, from time to time found themselves overwhelmed. We had to work together, trust each other, trust the safe space we were creating, trust the curriculum, trust our intuition, and trust the Holy Spirit. None of us was perfect, and none of us could do it all. We had five California HOPE counselors present during the week, and even that was not enough; we could not refer every kid who acted out every time they did so. Offering our gifts humbly, as caring, older people who have, like all human beings, also experienced grief and loss and come through, however imperfectly, trusting God to let that love plant seeds, and even trusting the kids to heal each other as they formed friendships and worked in small groups and played and sometimes got silly with each other, was quite something to be a part of.
The Dalai Lama, responding to a question posed by a young boy, said: “Wisdom is like rainwater — both gather in the low places…Growth begins first in the low places. So similarly if you remain humble, then here is the possibility to keep learning. So I often tell people that although I’m eighty years old, I still consider myself a student.” (p. 212)
It was a humbling experience that led Adelaide Pollard to write the hymn that we are going to sing together next. When she was in her 30s, Adelaide dreamed of going to Africa as a missionary, but her hopes were dashed when she was unable to raise sufficient funds for the cause. Discouraged, she found herself in a prayer meeting one evening in 1902, and heard an older woman pray out loud: “It really doesn’t matter what you do with us, Lord–just have your way with our lives.” Inspired, she went home and wrote the four verses to this hymn before she went to bed. It was published in 1907. A few years later, she did make it to Africa, and she did write other hymn texts, but no one knows how many because she did not seek any recognition for her accomplishments. Amen.
Creative Commons licensed photo by Davisson123