Richard Maxwell

Proper 17 C
1 September 2013
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I, for one, don’t remember sermons very well.  I know that some of you are better at it than I am, because every once in a while one of you will say to me, “Remember when you said such and such?  I wanna ask you about that.”  If you’re one of those people, you know that I’ve probably been surprised and complimented that you’ve remembered something I’ve said, and also that I’ve been embarrassed because I’ve had to confess that no, I don’t remember when I said such and such.  If I can’t remember my own sermons, it’s really surprising that I DO remember a sermon someone else gave a long time ago, when I was a young boy.

We had a visiting priest that Sunday and to my young eyes he looked REALLY old.  And not only old, he looked scary . . . he had a lot of wrinkles, a permanent scowl, and rimless glasses.  My family always sat in the front pew near the pulpit, so I had a really good view of him.  Maybe I paid close attention to what he said because I was afraid that he’d yell at me if he saw me fidgetting . . . he looked like a yeller.  But I also have to confess that I probably remember the essence of what he said because it was good and important.  After all, the nuns scared me all the time, and I don’t remember much of anything THEY ever said.  The theme of his sermon was humility.

And humility is certainly a subject that comes to mind with today’s Scripture readings.  After all, Jesus advises us not to be presumptuous . . . not to assume we’re more important than we are . . . he teaches us to take the lowest place at table so that we might be moved to a better seat by our host.  Did you get taught about being humble when you were young?  I did.  And the lessons always seemed to be about denial of self . . . you might be good at something, like math, or baseball, or playing the piano, but you shouldn’t draw attention to that talent, you shouldn’t be happy that you can do something better than other people, and you certainly shouldn’t be PROUD of your gifts.  It seemed to me that we were all supposed to be cringing milquetoasts.  You might have just broken a world record, but you certainly shouldn’t crow about it:  “Oh no, it really wasn’t anything.  Really.  It was just luck.”

This sort of interpretation of Scripture lessons like:  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” has done an awful lot of harm.  To deny or minimize the gifts we’ve been given by God seems to me to be a kind of sin . . . and yet, we’re supposed to be humble.  This is why I think the message that that old, scary priest delivered so many Sundays ago was so important.  As I said, his topic was humility.  And his message was that to be humble was to acknowledge and understand who we truly are and our place in creation.  If you’re good at something, celebrate it!  If you’re bad at something, admit it.

Of course, acknowledging and understanding yourself . . . really getting to know yourself is quite a challenge.  Therapists and gurus all over the world would be out of work if getting to know yourself were easy.  We humans are pretty tricky creatures and we often fool even ourselves about ourselves.  One of the ways that I try to be truthful about myself, that I try to know myself better, is through paying attention to the ways that people react to me and through listening to what other people tell me.  Really listening to what people compliment me for – and really listening to what people tell me I do less than perfectly – helps me to reflect and perhaps rethink, recalibrate, how I think of myself.  Of course, this method of coming to know oneself is itself tricky.  Because I also have to take into account how perceptive and well-meaning I think the people I listen to are.  This business of knowing yourself is HARD.

And acknowledging and understanding our place in creation . . . well, that can be even trickier.  That old priest I mentioned to you didn’t just say that we had to acknowledge the truth about ourselves – both good and bad – he said we also had to come to recognize and acknowledge our place in creation.  We all spend a lot of time trapped in our own heads.  In fact, trying to get to know ourselves is one of the ways we can spend a lot of time stuck in our own thoughts.  To really open up to the world that surrounds us can be mind blowing.  To realize that all of the things that we spend all of our time struggling over, worrying about, working for, don’t amount to much of anything . . . well, that’s pretty humbling.  And I suspect that this is what that old scary priest was trying to teach so many years ago.  As shocking as it is to realize, none of us is really very important.

Years ago I went to a show at the Hayden Planetarium in New York.  The show was called Passport to the Universe and was narrated by Tom Hanks.  Using data and images from NASA and the European Space Agency as well as other sources, presented using the most up-to-date technology, the films takes its viewers on a flight through a virtual re-creation of our universe.  We all may be able to recognize that we are not the center of the world, and even that earth is not the center of the universe, but this absolutely breath-taking film hammered home to me the fact that we and our planet are only tiny, tiny, tiny, bits in an enormity beyond imagination.

That puts a different perspective on any worry I might have about being slighted at the next diocesan gathering . . . .  It’s quite an interesting challenge, isn’t it, to acknowledge and understand BOTH who we truly are as individuals, AND to acknowledge and understand our place in creation.  I might be king of the world (which would be really cool) and yet despite all my earthly power and wealth, when I enter the heavenly banquet I may not be worthy to gather up the crumbs under the Lord’s table.  I think that’s another piece of what that old priest was getting at so many years ago . . . I think that might be what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel passage.

And yet, all this business about humility and understanding is even more complicated than I’ve explained it to be.  The way I’ve been talking about all this may sound like I’m putting two things in opposition to each other . . . it may sound like I’m talking about us teeny, tiny humans on our tiny, little planet, on the one hand, and on the other hand the enormity of creation.  But reality is not about separate entities in contrast or opposition to each other.  Reality is that creation is all mushed together, it’s all of a piece, everything in creation is connected. 

I often remind you that we are the Body of Christ.  You and I and all the Christians across the globe have been welcomed into the Body of Christ through Baptism.  We are all united.  Whether or not we understand and acknowledge it, whether or not we act upon it, we Christians are one . . . the mystical Body of Christ.  But, ya know what, we human beings – in fact all of creation – are also united on the material plane.  It’s scientifically true.  As Carl Sagan said on his television show, Cosmos, "Our planet, our society, and we ourselves are built of star stuff."

Don’t believe me . . . or Carl Sagan?  Well, I’m gonna share with you a little something I found in an article on the website for Nova, the PBS series about science.  It’s an amazing fact you can share at the next party you go to:  Every single atom in your body—the calcium in your bones, the carbon in your genes, the iron in your blood, the gold in your filling—was created in a star billions of years ago.  All except the atoms of hydrogen and one or two of the next lightest elements.  They were formed even earlier, shortly after the Big Bang began about 13.7 billion years ago.

It's true, according to astrophysicists. You and everything around you, every single natural and man-made thing you can see, every rock, tree, butterfly, and building, comprises atoms that originally arose during the Big Bang or, for all but the lightest two or three elements, from millions of burning and exploding stars far back in the history of the universe.  You live because stars died; it's that simple.  Another article I found on a website called Physics Central, calculates that 93% of the mass in our bodies is stardust.

And all this changes the equation again.  Yes, we’re teeny, teeny, teeny bits in a creation the size of which is beyond imagining, but we are not separate from this creation.  We are PART of it.  The stars of long ago are literally, physically a part of us.  As we attempt to acknowledge and understand ourselves and our place in creation, we should remember that in a fundamental way we are united, joined to one another and, in fact, to all of creation.

So remember that, no matter how important, or powerful, or rich you become, in the grand scale of things, it amounts to nothing.  And, at the same time, remember that long ago someone may have wished upon a star that is now you.

Return to Grace Church Newsletter Page