Pentecost – Proper 11
Genesis 18: 1-10a; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10: 38-42
The REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
There are many things about the job of being a priest that I enjoy, but one of the most rewarding aspects of this vocation is the people I meet. Over the past eleven years of doing this, I have met some really interesting people. Some of the most interesting, and frankly captivating, people I have met are individuals who are well into their nineties. At another church where I once served I got to know George McMahan, 95, who served in World War II. I remember going to George’s induction as the honorary leader of his Masonic Lodge – at age 94. We have several nonagenarians here at St. Andrew’s. There is Ruth Frenza, a member of St. Andrew’s Quilting Guild, who tells me all kinds of stories, one of my favorites being how her daughters used to babysit our current Diocesan Bishop, Andy Doyle, when he was still in diapers. There is Addie Smith – who joined St. Andrew’s Church in 1955, and continues to serve as an usher, and leads monthly trips for our 50+ group all around the city of Houston and the state of Texas.
I believe that if you are fortunate enough to make it into your nineties, the wisdom you have from your life experiences is deep, grounded, honest, and profound. I feel that these are the people who should be standing in this pulpit, not me. Some time ago I met with a woman well into her nineties, at her home here in Houston. She had no problem telling me at her house that she had little use for religion. “Well, I think it’s all pretty ridiculous, actually” she said. “She continued, “all that bowing, all that kneeling, everybody looking at the priest thinking he’s special because he’s wearing that white dress.” After she said that, I remember thinking, this is one cool chick.
I appreciated her honesty. And though our opinions on religion may differ, or not, I share her disdain for the inflated egos of clergy, politicians, or otherwise. The Peruvian author Carlos Castaneda once said that “self importance is our greatest enemy.” He continues, “Think about it - what weakens us is feeling offended by the deeds and misdeeds of our fellowmen. Our self importance requires that we spend most of our lives offended by someone.” I agree.
It is easy for me to point my finger at others and say “look how important they think they are! Who died and made them God?” What is much more difficult for me is to look at myself in the same way. It is really unpleasant for me to have someone point out to me “Why do you think you are so important? Why do you think you are right all the time?” That hurts. But it is true. And this is an unsolicited appeal for the important work that therapists do – they help us see us as we really are.
The Christian path is, and will always be, a downward path of humility. Christian life, particularly in America, is often dressed up as something else – a way to be prosperous, or successful, fit in – whatever any of that means. But those are lies. Christianity is not about puffing yourself up with your own success, your own talent, your own money. It is paradoxically opposite. By that I mean, as St. Augustine said long ago, Christians do not ascend through flattering our egos, our by maintaining an unrealistic sense of piety or self-importance. I honestly believe none of that matters to God. Christians don’t ascend, but rather Christians descend, they turn their gaze to the ground, to the earth, the Hebrew word for which is “Adamah” from which we get the name Adam.
This is the paradox of the Christian life: Christians descend, Christians are humble, Christians are of the earth, not above it. Why is this kind of life by descent a paradox? Because it is only by our descent, our humility, that we truly free ourselves to ascend to take flight. This kind of life is a paradox, one which the Bible honors with reverence. “Humble yourself before the Lord, and he will lift you up” James 4:10“He has brought the powerful down from their thrones, but has lifted up the lowly.” Luke 1:52. I could go on and on. The paradox is there. That is the truth that was conveyed to me by this women deep into her nineties. It is the kind of wisdom I hope to attain in this life, and I was humbled and grateful to receive it that day in her home.
Those who humble themselves will be lifted up, not because God is pleased with a person’s humility, not because God requires it, not because our humility saves us. We are lifted up when we descend, because in doing so we learn to take ourselves lightly.
How many of us carry such heavy burdens, and have forgotten how to ascend? A few days ago, I went to “Ifly” a place where you can do indoor skydiving. It’s essentially a vertical indoor wind tunnel tunnel you step into and wind around one miles an hour propels you upward. It’s a really strange feeling, and I was not very good at it. I was flailing around, moving my arms about, trying to maintain my stability. I was burdened by the weight of trying to do it right, which I couldn’t do very well.
In complete contrast to me, my oldest son, James, stepped into the wind tunnel and it was like he had always done this. It was so natural to him. His body was gentle, his form perfect to my eyes, the smile on his face stretching from cheek to cheek. I watched as he ascended in that tunnel, floating to the top, because he didn’t struggle with it like me. He floated – he flew high – because he knew how to be light.
What a blessing it was for me to witness. A boy, flying, like an angel, so naturally, so graceful. For a moment I thought about that woman in her mid nineties, flying in that same wind tunnel. A woman, old of age, who had spoken words of humility and earthiness to a young priest, now flying, rising, ascending. Witnessing the miracle unfolding before her very eyes. AMEN.