Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble
Luke 18: 9 - 14
9-12 He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’
13 “Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”
14 Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble when you're perfect in every way! Do you remember that song? YouTube it!
The perfect song for the pharisee in the parable. The story of a man whose hubris led him to believe that somehow he was better than others. He was worth more and that somehow his righteousness gave him the authority and the confidence to stand before God and say "look at me God am I not the pinnacle of your creation? I am so pleased to be such, unlike that slime filled piece of vermin back there." A little blunt perhaps, and maybe we wouldn't say it that way, but I know for myself there are certainly times when I act like it:
● Have you seen the tattoos on his face?
● The TV never goes off in their house!
● Oh no, I'm not the kind of person who watches love island.
● She goes to the supermarket in her pyjamas.
● My children knew how to behave in church.
● Have you seen him, in shorts, in February!
● Have you seen her – Mutton dressed as Lamb in my book.
● He thinks he is God’s gift to women
And on and on we go, saying 'I'm so glad I'm not like them' we just use different words.
What a week it's been for Liz Truss, only what 10 days ago she was saying that everything was sorted, that we were moving into a growth phase, that those who didn't agree with her were part of an anti-growth coalition, you might know them, those people at the back who get things wrong, who mess up. Or to quote the recently departed Home Secretary, the Guardian reading, Tofu eating wokerati! Them not us – history is littered with them, the scape goats, the penalized minority, the Jew, the Gypsy, the Single parent, the immigrant, the list just keeps on growing.
Then of course here we are this week as she sits in the House of Commons looking deeply troubled, deeply distressed and whilst I don't appreciate her politics I most certainly felt for her as a human being. She looked lost, broken, as though having thought herself beyond everyone else suddenly discovered that it was all a mirage. For hubris, that overstatement of our own abilities is no more than that, a fantasy soon to be punctured by reality.
Sometimes humility is misconstrued as debasement. For some it would seem that the Dickensian idea of the Uriah Heep hand rubbing ever so 'umble’ characterises what it means to live humbly. One of the crueler aspects of our media and adversarial political system is the way in which all and sundry seem to wade in and kick the politician as hard as they can with whatever they the moment they are down. ‘The PM humbled’, declared the I. The opposition too were enjoying every moment as they laid in, mockery shaping their words as they sought to debase this broken leader still further. Now it was their turn to be the Pharisee, look at her, they declared, are we not glad that we are not like her, only perhaps in one way they are, perhaps hubris has them its grip too.
And as for the pharisee he was actually a good living person he was the kind of person that others in his community would have looked up to. He would have belonged to his local rotary club, would have raised funds for good causes, would have given to the poor would have attended the temple regularly, would have had conversations with the great and the good. He would have been a man of stature a man who others would admire, look up to and may be even described as the person I want to be like. He was a keeper of the law the kind of person that the Jewish system depended upon to keep itself running. He was a big man.
Yet the truth is that we are all a bit broken, even famous people, big people, religious people, well I know I am! We all get it wrong; I know I do. We all have cracks in who we are, they are simply part of what it means to be human. If we claim, we don't then we simply deceive ourselves. And there is purpose in that, for when we allow ourselves to be human, we also allow God to be divine. If we act as though we are divine we are lost for there are no cracks through which grace, through which real divinity, can shine. Our hubris becomes a hard shell that one day will crack, one day will be exposed for the frail thing it is really, and then we will understand that our cracks, our flaws, give the divine a gift, a gift that allows grace to shine, hope to erupt and kindness to dominate discourse.
So this humility stuff matters, for not only does it not exclude the broken, or more accurately ‘the honest’, it allows God to become part of our humanness, bringing us to life in a new way as he woos us.
Let me tell you a story.
That memory’s seared within my soul; she’d just walked in the door,
But, I summed up with passing glance, dysfunctional, poor!
She peered uncertainly around with a fixed though twitchy smile,
Then stood there, seemingly transfixed, for quite some little while.
The stewards of course were busy, important folk to see.
And then with sinking heart I saw her gaze was fixed right on me!
She walked with tiny nervous steps, just like a mouse, or rat
And came and sat beside me, that I thought was that!
Her look was filled with questions, so I handed her my book,
Showing her page forty-seven so she knew just where to look.
A smell of rotten cabbage hung around her in the air
Whilst a dirty blackish Alice band held back her greasy hair.
The vicar preached so perfectly, the choir so innocent and sweet.
Her hands shook, stained and grimy; I looked down at her feet
The dirty pair of branded trainers, they must have cost a bit.
Charity shop, I conceded, they didn’t really fit!
A junkie I concluded, a girl of low repute.
I shuffled further up the pew, lest I got dirt upon my suit.
The benediction couldn’t come too soon and when at last it did
I rushed off for some coffee, of her I wanted rid.
She followed though some way behind, coming right into the hall.
I thought ‘Oh God why me’ as I sat against the wall.
The coffee ladies did their bit, they handed her a tea,
But I can’t pretend their smiles eclipsed their sense of probity.
She stood, the far end of the hall, and shyly looked about.
I stayed across beside the wall, friendliness in rout.
I saw her face then brighten, she’d noticed where I was
And began to come towards me I thought: ‘must go because..’
“Excuse me but I must go now”, I smiled, and then I left.
Though on her face I couldn’t help but see her look bereft.
“Perhaps I’ll see you next week”, the words came out too fast.
I left the woman standing there as though she’d breathed her last
She didn’t come the next week, I admit, I felt relief.
You just can’t trust these people she may have been a thief
As for the Sunday after, well, I didn’t spot her face
But then coming in here anyway, she’d looked so out of place!
It was in fact a month or so before I had that dream
It left me feeling broken, somehow, diminished and unclean.
I saw her in right outside my house, she ran, though just in sight
I followed her, wraithlike, dream walking through the night.
She stopped outside of my church door, imposing, locked up, bare.
And gazed around imploring, her pain I seemed to share
Then rushing on with torn up mind we saw another spire
We dashed toward it quickly. Her need I knew was dire
This church too was barred to her, and all we visited that night.
And we were in some random snicket when she lost the will to fight.
It was then I saw a figure, in stature sad yet kind.
He reached to simply hold her, new strength she seemed to find.
I stepped out to see clearer, though I’d thought at first to hide.
And the words he spoke cut through me, ‘Come and be my bride’.
She lifted up her arms to him, held them up above
And then before my very eyes was filled up with his love.
It seemed he turned and looked at me, so proud now of his wife.
I thought no finer couple had I seen in all my life.
My tears ran, flowing freely as they faded from my sight
But my heart was ‘strangely warmed’ and has been so since that night.
But… Church no longer seems like church to me, the worship seems so sad.
I have the strangest feeling that somehow I’ve been had,
Oh yes we still share the peace, old friends we warmly greet.
But is the one we come to worship really out there on the street?
(Whisper) Oh Lord its hard to be humble