All Who Humble Themselves Will Be Exalted
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
October 27, 2019
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost,
Reformation and Reconciliation Sunday
Psalm 84; Jeremiah 14:19-22; Luke 18:9-14
Human wisdom has defined the ideal life and society, what our tradition calls God’s realm on earth, and that vision has been consistent across cultures and millennia. Common people share common sense and common decency, but unfortunately, humans also have a common tendency to stray from that path.
We fall prey to addiction, or to individual and corporate greed. Leaders of institutional religions become tempted by power or wealth. Saints and mystics get distracted or out of balance countless times a day. It happens to us all.
Reformation is what we call our efforts to get back on the ideal path after we realize we have gotten off track, and reconciliation is how we overcome what has divided or separated us from our neighbor or our best, truest self or ideals.
Perhaps the greatest wisdom school of all time for working with the tools of reformation and reconciliation is the 12 Step Program of the anonymous groups. Consider for instance a Washington lobbyist who is a workaholic. Like the people in Jeremiah, he hits rock bottom. He is burned out, his wife is threatening divorce, his children are struggling, he’s living on coffee, antacids and sleeping pills and his body is falling apart.
He finally admits he is powerless over his workaholism and it is making his life completely unmanageable, so he forces himself to take the time for a Workaholics Anonymous meeting.
The relief he feels is immediate and moves him to tears. The idea that a higher power could restore his life to sanity makes him feel like Psalm 84. “My soul longs, indeed it faints for your courts; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.”
The reform begins with him turning to that higher power whenever the impulse comes to take on more work and drive himself too hard. He becomes a reformation machine with the help of mindfulness and meditation, countless times a day turning his will and life over to God’s care, laying down his old compulsive self and gaining the freedom to live in peace.
It is not easy going, though. It is painful to feel the anguish of Jeremiah over the mess he has made of his life. Reconciliation is hard, but he becomes a reconciliation machine, too. He has conversations with his wife and each child acknowledging what he has done wrong. It is humbling to ask for forgiveness and a chance to try to do better. It takes courage to do it at work as well as at home.
He isn’t perfect, he falls many times a day, but he gets up again, and he has become wiser and more compassionate along the way. He has accepted that there are limits to what he can do if he wants to have a sane, balanced, healthy life, and he has discovered that greater connection and joy come when he lives within those limits.
Reformation and reconciliation work in similar ways in our relationship to society and to the earth.
The Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry built a pond in the 1980s to provide water for a steep hillside pasture. He hired a bulldozer that did careful work and he seeded and mulched the dam and banks. The pond looked like a success, but then a wet season came and the earthwork eroded and a section of the woods above the pond slid down into it. Berry felt sick. He wrote about it in a pair of prose poems entitled, “Damage” and “Healing.” He talks about the pride, the failure of humility that made him think he knew what he was doing, and the grief that came of it.
Berry says that the more technological power we wield the more we need to think of limits and need a culture that teaches and enforces those limits. He writes, “After the stone axe we needed song and story to remember innocence, to record effect—and so to describe the limits, to say what can be done without damage….” Berry concludes ruefully, “A man with a machine and inadequate culture…is a pestilence.” Wendell Berry looks to the Amish as a model culture that teaches its people limits.
The Amish trace their roots back to the same period of reformation that all Protestant churches do. Reformers like Martin Luther were overthrowing a corrupt, authoritarian, oppressive religious institution, but in the end most of them established their own compromised, oppressive and violent churches. It led to the Thirty Years War, the bloodiest period in all of human history except for a few months at the end of World War II.
Martin Luther did much to connect us directly with our higher power—if not for him we might still have to go through the mediation of priests and pay indulgences instead of going to democratic 12 Step or Centering Prayer groups—but Luther was criticized at the time for not taking his reforms far enough. The mainstream Protestant church has mostly aligned itself as Luther did with the culture around it, with the power and wealth that dominates society, choosing what is in our self-interest rather than what a higher power tells us is wise and right and virtuous to do.
But not every denomination followed the mainstream in the Protestant Reformation. The Anabaptists, including the Mennonites and Amish, believed that true reformation meant not to compromise and conform to popular culture but to go back to what Jesus taught, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, and reform our lives and church and society to align with that wisdom. Amish society lives what it believes. The Golden Rule. Loving enemies. Forgiving and not judging. Serving God, not materialism or wealth. Seeking first the realm of God and its right ways and trusting that everything else in life will then be right.
Like the 12 Step groups, the Amish believe that the higher power’s guidance applied to everyday life is the only way to create a sane society. They lay down their will and life, they choose against their self-concern and turn to God’s love and care.
The Amish are very clear that Christ calls us to strict nonviolence, as was universally agreed upon for the first three hundred years after Jesus. Christians would not use violence against anyone and would not serve in the military. Period.
And yet many Amish have guns. They use them only to protect their crops and to hunt, and they place limits on the kinds of guns they will buy—not even fancy hunting rifles—but it can still seem incongruous.
The Amish are not anti-technology, they are just extremely cautious about using it. They want to understand all the effects a technology could have on their community, their way of life and their health. They want to make sure that the values of the realm of God and the Sermon on the Mount are not violated, that greed and materialism and violence are held in check. They put tight limits on how and how much a technology is used.
Among their chief concerns is the one we heard Jesus warn against in the Gospel passage, the pride that comes unless we have limits to power and wealth and prestige.
Jesus says it is inherently wrong to exalt ourselves over others. Self-exaltation puts us into wrong relationship. Jesus says, do not judge, love everyone, see your neighbor is your self, have compassion, lay down your life even for strangers, outcasts or enemies. Exalting ourselves goes against all that. But even more, it is inherently wrong because God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and we make a mistake if we believe our judgments about ourselves.
That is why being humble is inherently right no matter who we are. It puts us into right relationship with others, loving and serving, and it keeps us aware that we will stray and fall and make mistakes and even when we think we are doing the right thing we may be wrong about it. Humility keeps us looking to our higher power, to the Holy Spirit to transform and guide and empower us. It leaves God to be the judge.
Amish school rooms have the word JOY written in all capital letters on the wall. J-O-Y stands for Jesus first, Others second and You last. Seeking first for the realm of God and the right and sacred way to be, seeking second to love and serve others and seeking third to be humble and put ourselves last—this is the Amish secret of joy and it is the secret to their success as a sustainable, democratic community. Limits are essential.
We certainly could argue with some of the social and gender limits the Amish set, but we there is no arguing with our need for limits. We have the opportunity now in our time to bring about a major reformation of our civilization, limiting and reconciling our ways to the ways of nature and the God who created nature. We have this opportunity because it has become clear that the only other choice we have is unthinkable suffering and mass extinction.
The Amish show us that it is possible to live well and joyfully within the limits we must adopt. The church needs to speak boldly, loudly and immediately calling our society to live by the wisdom all traditions hold in common: the Golden Rule and universal compassion and love of neighbor. We need to insist on limits to greed and the power of wealthy individuals and corporations.
We need to model this, to make our own reformations personally and as a community. The path of reformation and reconciliation means sacrifice, hard work and grief, as the 12 Step groups know, but it leads to the greatest joy, and more abundant life, and freedom. It means our children will have a future, and our beloved community and earth will be here to nurture generations to come.
All who humble themselves will be exalted.
Let us pray in silence and humility, asking our higher power for the guidance we need and the strength to do what we must…