First of three sermons on Micah 6:8
Micah 6:8, Luke 14:7-11
“God has told you, O mortal, what is good and requires you to do….”
You can call human beings by lots of names. Homo sapiens, anthropoids, people, citizens, consumers, the image and likeness of God, or as a Star Trek alien called Captain James Kirk, “ugly bag of water.” Micah calls people mortals, those who die. I don’t like being called something I don’t want to think about too much. But Atul Gawande, who wrote “Being Mortal,” did excellent service by reminding us that death is not a failure. Death in this body is inevitable, and we find more profound meaning and less anxiety in accepting our mortality and limits. The word mortal isn’t used much in the Bible. Half the occurrences are in Job and Ezekiel. Sometimes God reminds us to stop acting like we are all-knowing divine beings and remember our mortal limits.
Micah is simplifying our life purpose as mere mortals. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Being mortal, we don’t have the time for lesser pursuits. The first five chapters from the prophet Micah sound contemporary. He rails against materialism, greed, status-seeking, and exploiting one another to get what we want while ignoring poverty and injustice. You don’t win at life by your bank balance, SAT scores, or resumes. Come on, mortals, Micah implores, “It’s about justice, kindness, and walking humbly with God.”
Micah reads like an excellent mission statement. Just ten words give us three decisive actions. It’s not a punch list to do one at a time. It’s not; Monday, I will work at justice. Wednesday, I will be kind. Friday, I’m off, so I will walk humbly. These actions are an inseparable trinity informing all our purposes. Fredrick Faber’s hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,” has a line that goes, “There’s a kindness in God’s justice.” if I concentrate on justice but ignore kindness and humility, my work for justice becomes hostile and arrogant. If I focus on kindness but ignore justice and humility, I may overlook oppression’s harmful effects or overestimate the durability of my kindness. If humility is my primary virtue, I may neglect the courage to work for change or use it as an excuse to avoid conflict.
I was asked a question during the search process for guidance about how a church deals with challenging issues like racism amid polarization, and conversations in the church can lead to conflict. I answered that Micah 6:8 could be a great tool to help us have better conversations than partisan wrangling. How can we do God’s work differently if we take Micah 6:8 seriously? I have longed to explore this in a sermon series, so here we go with part one of at least three sermons.
I’m starting backward with humility because too many conversations today start and end with justice, our heads explode, and we never get anywhere. Humility is also the easiest to ignore.
The word humble needs a makeover. The adjective means “having a low estimate of your importance” or “to come from poor circumstance or low social rank.” As a verb, to humble someone means to lower their dignity or importance. That sounds mean. We may like to see arrogant and dishonest people humbled, but that doesn’t mean we want to strive for humility as a virtue. If you look at the self-help section, few books tell us how humility will change your life and make you happy and wealthy. Humbleness isn’t a popular method of growth. It isn’t always virtuous to lower yourself or think you are unimportant. In situations of injustice, urging humility sometimes means “know your place” or “don’t talk back to your betters.” I looked up humility in Greek and Hebrew, but that was no help, as both mean lowly and unimportant.
Latin is much more promising. The root word “humus” means ground or earth. “Humilis,” which means lowly, literally means one who is on the ground. What about “human?” A human is from the earth. On Ash Wednesday, the liturgy from Genesis says, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The second creation story in Genesis says God formed the first human from the earth, shaped and molded a body, and breathed life into it. I love that metaphor. (The whole rib thing that came afterward is a little weird. Let’s stick to being formed from the hands of the divine potter.). What shifts when you think humility means grounded or earthy? You are calm, realistic, focused, and present in the moment. You know who you are, with all your strengths and weaknesses, comfortable in your skin, as the saying goes.
Jesus speaks positively of earth and soil. In the parable of the sower, the soil is a metaphor for the soul. There is rocky soil, weeds, and thistles, and good soil renders a hundred-fold harvest. Human life cannot exist without soil, the rich earth with nutrients and stability for trees, peas, beets, and beans. Humus is the stuff of origin that makes life possible. If human means “earth-creature,” then to be fully human is to be connected to the earth and grounded. Humility is remembering that you are dust, the life-giving substance that nurtures most living things.
Here is the problem of pride and arrogance. These are states of mind where we have lost touch with the source of life. We have replaced our grounded nature with status, being right, and being better than others. Our unity with the source of life is damaged. Pride goes before fall. Of course, because you have no roots in the ground to hold you up. Seeds don’t grow in thin air. To be humble is to affirm your grounding. Christian theologian C.S. Lewis said, “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
Humility also resembles mindfulness. In Buddhist thought, being mindful is an awareness of the moment and what is present. It is to perceive things as they are right now and monitor what your mind is doing. Mindful practice grounds you in your breathing and the physical reality of your body and helps us let go of the endless chatter in our brains. Much of what we think is making judgments, fears, worries, and annoyances. For a moment, we think pretty, then hungry, tired, or alone. Mindfulness helps us let go and be present to life to make choices. Otherwise, fear, pride, or illusion are in the driver’s seat. If we can focus on our breathing for even one minute, about ten breaths, we are reminded that we are not the center of the universe because every second of our life depends on the air we breathe, which connects us to all living things. This is the essence of humility; grounded, mindful, and aware of connection. If we are aware of our inter-connectedness, humility is the fruit. Its opposites are pride, arrogance, and maybe narcissism – being in love with a false self.
Let’s turn to the practical implications of humility as we work in the world. Humility is pragmatic if you work for social change and be a good leader, friend, or spouse.
How many good things fail because a leader has a big ego, wants all the credit, or must be right? The need to be right suffocates curiosity and closes the door to creative possibilities. You probably heard, “You can be right, or you can be married.”
Think of the best leaders you have worked with. I bet they had a quality of humility. (If not, maybe you like authoritarian leaders. But you probably would not then be a congregationalist!). My favorite leader was Gail Webster, the ED of a housing nonprofit. They had a million-dollar budget at my first board meeting; ten years later, it was $10 million. What made Gail a great leader is that she cared for and listened to every person in the organization. She built a great team. You knew she had your back. She paid attention to our homeless clients and heard their challenges. She admitted when she made a mistake. She would call me out of the blue and say, “Todd, I’m in a bind. Help me think this through from an outside perspective.” Her humility drew us in and valued our contribution, making us want to follow her. Yet it didn’t stop her from being decisive and a powerful advocate for housing.
Gail’s leadership models the first way we can work on the virtue of grounded humility. Gail saw dignity, value, and worth in everyone. She told me it did not come naturally, but she had to work hard at it with some people. You don’t get humble by beating yourself down. It works better to lift others. I will see their dignity if I genuinely believe God created human beings in divine image and likeness. If you work at valuing other people, you will grow in humility. You can’t be ego-driven when you respect others
The second way to grounded humility is the ancient Christian practice of confession. Confession is good for the soul. Again, it is not about beating yourself up for your mistakes. The Jesuits developed an essential practice called the prayer of Examine. It’s a simple prayer where you go back through your day and think about what went well and what did not. When you identify success or blessing, you give thanks. And where there was anger, or a problem or conflict, you ask this simple question. “What could I have done differently?” And “What will I do now?”
Friends, I pray for humility. Be humble, grounded, aware, curious, and connected. Do this, and you will experience the fruits of peace of mind, greater choice, insight, and surprise.