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Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 2019

Humility

The Venerable David Stanton Sub-Dean, Canon Treasurer, and Archdeacon of Westminster

Sunday, 1st September 2019 at 11:15 AM

We all know that humility counterbalances arrogant and assuming behaviour. I think it’s also true to say that as we have not made ourselves, so we were not made just for ourselves. 

The other day Nicholas Macpherson, Baron Macpherson of Earl's Court, who has been Permanent Secretary to three Chancellors, compared the Prime Minister’s senior adviser (and de facto chief of staff) to Henry V111’s formidable minister Thomas Cromwell.

He was probably thinking of Cromwell’s brutal end, beheaded when his master turned against him.

He wrote Twitter: ‘My main advice to public servants, whether political or official, is to avoid self-promotion and believing your own myth. Otherwise it tends to end badly #thomascromwell’.

Well, in this current political climate I’m sure that we, along with other advisors, can see the point he’s making!

If we look back through history we see that humility has invariably been one of the key characteristics of great men.

When Thomas Hardy was so famous that any newspaper would gladly have paid enormous sums for his work, he used sometimes to submit a poem, and always with it a stamped and addressed envelope for the return of his manuscript should it be rejected.

Even in his greatness he was humble enough to think that his work might be turned down.

So how can we too retain, and perhaps even grow in humility? It goes without saying that the more we learn the more we realise how little we actually know.

However much we have achieved in life, we have actually achieved very little in the end.

However important we think we are, when we come to retire, life will go on just the same.

To save us from ourselves we place ourselves before God and if we live close to God we clearly see our unworthiness in comparison with his divine purity, pride dies and self-satisfaction melts away.

Our Gospel reading today reminds us that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 14.11).

The thing about humility is that it’s a rather tricky thing to talk about in a sermon. But what’s pretty uncontroversial is that true humility always resists judgmentalism and hypocrisy. 

In one of his ordination charges given while Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey offered some wise and practical advice on how to grow in humility:

First, thank God, often and always, thank God, carefully and wonderingly, for your continuing privileges and for every experience of his goodness. Thankfulness is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.

 

Secondly, take care about confession of your sins. Be sure to criticize yourself in God’s presence: That is your self-examination. And put yourself under the divine criticism: That is your confession.

Thirdly, be ready to accept humiliations. They can hurt terribly, but they help you to be humble. There can be the trivial humiliations. Accept them. There can also be the bigger humiliations. All these can be used as chances to be a little nearer to our humble and crucified Lord.

Fourthly, do not worry about status. There is only one status that our Lord asks us be concerned with, and that is the status of proximity to himself.

Fifthly, use your sense of humour. Laugh about things, laugh at the absurdities of life, laugh about yourself, and about your own absurdity. We are all of us infinitesimally small and ludicrous creatures within God’s universe.

We all have to be serious, but we don’t have to be solemn, because if you are solemn about anything there is the risk of becoming solemn about yourself.

Indeed, Archbishop Ramsay would be the first to agree that humility has a strong moral basis.

Generally, humble people have a keen moral compass, they’re sharply aware that they are made as Immanuel Kant would say, out of the crooked timber of humanity where no straight thing was ever made.  

In a similar vein, Thomas Merton reminds us about the need to struggle against our weaknesses. He talks about souls being rather like athletes in that they need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers. 

Indeed history is full of examples of great people who have written about their humbling experiences as they dealt with their personal challenges to become better human beings.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine writes very movingly about the serious struggle he had with pride. For St. Augustine, pride was all about arrogance; it was about ego, a bloated form of expression of self-importance.

He realized how pride was a major impediment on his way to becoming a spiritually enriched person. The overcoming of his pride did not come easy.

He said, 'If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts our meaningless.'

Over recent decades our British culture of self-effacement seems to have shifted somewhat to a culture of self-promotion.  

Now days other people’s thoughts and feelings tend not to receive the same kind of attention as our own because ours seem to be more urgent, more real, and more important to us.  The new mantra today seems to be ‘It’s all about Me’.

In a world that is crying out in pain and poverty, the humility that leads one person to serve another in need will never be irrelevant. 

There is no doubt about it, humility is the foundation for the spiritual life. Without it we will probably not advance much in holiness.

Yet it’s not simply a quality to be admired in others, it’s a virtue to be learned and practiced through the often painful circumstances of daily life.

Let us then always strive to be humble, and imitate Christ, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

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