“Humble yourselves therefore under God's mighty hand so that in due time he may exalt you.”
When I was an intern at Bethel-Imani Lutheran Church on the Southside of Chicago I participated in a lot of funerals. And at pretty much every funeral the women's organization of the congregation read a resolution that they had approved that would be included in the permanent record of the church, a resolution of condolence and consolation and prayers for the family members and loved ones of the person who had died. In all of these resolutions the phrase that we just heard was included, in the King James style: Humble thyself under God's mighty hand so that in due course he may lift you up.
The people who compile our readings for the church year have given that impression because they stitched together two pieces of the first letter of Peter but they left out a middle piece. That piece is aimed at leaders of the church or “elders”--as we would call them later “priests”--in the church telling them to lead their people gently and willingly not as people who are under compulsion. So this message of humility was meant for the leaders of the church to humble ourselves under God's mighty hand.
But that wasn't the reason for my for my resistance to this verse when I heard it all those years ago. My resistance to this verse had really two sources. The first was that I was reluctant to say anything that seemed to attribute the cause of suffering to God. I did not want to to invite the question of whether God takes some and spares others and why that might be. And this is all the more important when we humans are inclined to confuse the effects of human injustice or mistakes with the judgment of God. So whenever there is a historical or human cause for some evil in the world I always want to focus on that first rather than attributing it to God's will.
Now there are some reasons that that's not a complete answer to the question and we will get into that some other time. But I I have always been very unwilling, or was at the time very unwilling, to subject God to judgment. C.S. Lewis liked to point out that once upon a time humans viewed themselves as being under the judgment of God and now human beings see themselves as God's judge, that we are evaluating God or the rightness of God's actions or the things that we say are God's actions. When I was a 28 year old seminarian who already knew everything, this was a very compelling problem to me.
I would think about this differently now but that was one of the sources of my resistance at the time. The other reason that my hackles were raised by fearing these words of first Peter in the context of a funeral is that I had in the back of my head the the insight of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who said, I'm kind of loosely quoting here, “He who humbles himself wishes to be exalted.” In other words the person who deliberately humbles themselves is looking to be lifted up in another way. So it's not genuine humility. It's a kind of frustrated pride. Like, I couldn't get up high in the normal way so I'm gonna try to take a different road to getting up to that same high place. And if like me you are from the Midwest you know that there is something to what old man Nietzsche was talking about: that attitude that will sometimes, instead of dealing straightforwardly with conflict or with what I need or what I want, have us saying “it's okay I'll just do it myself” or “I don't want to be a bother, don't make a fuss.” Which is a deeply coded way of saying “please do make a fuss” or at least “make a fuss about the fact that I don't want a fuss. I wish to be exalted in another way and I am going through this gesture of humility in order to get that.”
These are real problems but all the same I, as a 28 year old seminarian who already knew everything, was missing something important. I was missing what the women of the church were trying to tell me and I was missing what St. Peter was trying to tell me. So it's all more important to listen to these words with pure and open hearts and to ask what would it mean to humble ourselves under God's mighty hand.
I think about this in connection to a lot of my colleagues I've been paying attention to over the last couple of months, some of whom have responded to our present circumstances as though it is a problem to be solved by fixing our theology of the church. That is, if we can set things up in a certain way we will have solved the problem of the present crisis. And I think about it when I notice other colleagues who view this period as a sort of inconvenience to be gotten through as quickly as possible and who are eager to rush back to the way things were even if the risks involved are what I would consider unacceptably high. And I think about it especially when I notice colleagues or others who have treated the present period as though it is an instance of Christians being victimized or oppressed.
All of these reactions have been ways to avoid asking ourselves something harder or reflecting on possibilities that are more difficult to entertain. It is much harder to ask, “Is something in me standing in need of correction and is that being revealed to me?” It's much harder to ask, “Have I personally or have we as the church become prideful in a way that demands humbling if necessary through this event?”
For example, to wonder if I or if the church at large has taken the sacrament for granted or approached it too lightly with our regular experience of receiving. I certainly wouldn't think I had but I've had to ask myself that.
Or to ask if churches have become too complacent about the mission and the world beyond their doors?
Have churches become too businesslike on one hand or to club-like on another?
Have we as Americans become too cavalier about the health and the welfare of our neighbors until it becomes a problem that affects us more directly? Have we as a society gotten so good at avoiding suffering that we have forgotten how to value courage and generosity as we should?
I do not pretend to know the answers to these questions and I certainly do not pretend to know the relationship between God's will and what happens in the world. Those are very big questions indeed. But I do know that humility, that humbling ourselves, begins with asking them and asking them fearlessly. It's a very difficult thing to ask yourself, “Have I not been what I should be? Am I not what I ought to be? Or have I been in an important way in the wrong?”
It's hard to do that but that is the beginning of the wisdom of humility. “Humility” and “humbling” ourselves comes from the word for soil. Humus is soil. If you’re a gardener you know about humus. “Humus” does not share a root with “human;” I think that comes to him through another road in English. But humility and soil share a root and so humbling yourself or cultivating humility is not a matter of making yourself out to be worse than you are. It's not about saying “oh I'm worthless, oh I'm so bad oh I've just been awful.” That's what old man Nietzsche and the women of Bethel-Imani Church were trying to teach me: that it's not about beating yourself up. It's about accepting that you are soil. That is what we are: conscious bits of soil. We are piles of Earth with a plan.
Humility comes when we acknowledge that and when we draw a certain kind of strength from the community of conscious soil. That's what I was supposed to be hearing all those years ago. Accepting that we are earth and we will go back to earth, that our plans will come to an end, that our consciousness will be released and accepting and embracing that fact as part of who we are. To humble ourselves under God's mighty hand by knowing ourselves.
And when we are exalted by God we are exalted through Jesus Christ, who became a bit of conscious soil, who became a person of earth for us in order to turn us into children of heaven. He is the one who will renew and restore us. He is the one we hear and he is the one we struggle every day to cleave to and to cling to. Amen.