Walking Humbly

Stephanie Paulsell Appleton ChapelSermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies in the Harvard Divinity School. (Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)


This morning, the lectionary has given us two of the most powerful texts in the Bible. They are so powerful, that I was nervous when I saw what they were, knowing that I could never preach a sermon that would fully do them justice. The book of the prophet Micah is one of the Bible’s shortest books, but its influence has been all out of proportion to its size. The passage Grace read for us is chiseled into walls, attached to digital signatures, written on hearts. Our greatest preachers return to it again and again. In notes he took on this passage in the late 1950s, Martin Luther King, Jr. described Micah chapter 6 verse 8 as one of the most sublime articulations of the life of faith in the whole history of religion, expressed with what he called “elemental simplicity.” In 1977, President Jimmy Carter took his oath of office on a Bible that lay open to this passage and quoted it in his inauguration address: God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

The Bible is a complicated book, a book made up of many books written by many authors from different times and places to address a diverse range of concerns. But if you were asked to describe the Bible’s message, if you were asked what is at the heart of its teaching, these words from Micah would serve well as an answer. In three short phrases — do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God — Micah sketches the contours of the life to which faith aspires.

The passage from the gospel of Matthew that KMarie read for us is no less iconic, no less quoted, no less beloved than Micah chapter 6, verse 8. The Beatitudes are the opening of Jesus’s own sermon — the sermon on the mount. They are the doorway through which he beckons his listeners. Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Bless are the merciful and the pure in heart and the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for standing up for what is right. It’s as if Jesus had been asked to elaborate on the passage from Micah, to flesh out what it looks like to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.

The author of the gospel of Matthew is sometimes criticized for spiritualizing the Beatitudes.  The gospel writers of Matthew and Luke were working with the some of the same source material, and Luke gives his account of these blessings a distinctly revolutionary focus. Rather than saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” the Jesus who speaks in Luke’s gospel says, “Blessed are the poor.” Rather than blessing those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, Luke’s Jesus blesses those who are hungry. Blessed are those, Jesus says in Luke, who are hated and excluded and reviled. And woe to those with full bellies of whom people speak well.  Because the kingdom of heaven belongs to those shoved to the margins of society, those made vulnerable by hatred and greed, those who are scapegoated. It’s not difficult to hear Jesus speaking in these blessings and woes to our own moment: blessed are those who are incarcerated, who are undocumented, who are banned. Blessed are those who are caged at the border, who are turned away at the airport. Get ready, Luke’s Jesus says, because God is going to turn all of that upside down.

It’s a challenging teaching, especially for those of us who are living comfortably, with more than enough to eat, those of us about whom people speak well. 

But does this make Matthew’s Beatitudes less challenging?  It could, if we looked to Jesus’ blessings in the gospel of Matthew as some sort of refuge from the revolutionary demands of his blessings in Luke. But I don’t think these blessings are meant to be read in opposition to each other; it’s not necessary — or desirable — to choose between them. The early Christians who assembled the New Testament seemed to think we needed both versions to understand all that Jesus was trying to teach. I think Luke and Matthew are doing different, but deeply compatible, things with these blessings. Luke’s version teaches us that God cares about the poor, the hungry, the hated, and the reviled, that God cares about the material circumstances within people are living and how others treat them. Matthew’s version teaches a way of walking humbly with the God who cares about these things, a way of life to which we can aspire. Luke’s blessings reveal something about who God is. Matthew’s blessings imagine who we might become — people who do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

Some scholars believe that Micah might be drawing on a pilgrimage liturgy in the crafting of his text, which might account for the “elemental simplicity” Dr. King noted. The voice of the pilgrim speaks in verses 6 and 7:  “With what shall I come before the Lord,” the pilgrim newly arrived at the Jerusalem temple would ask. Does God want burnt offerings, or ten thousand rivers of oil, or my firstborn child, “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” And the voice of the priest at the temple’s threshold would respond that God is not interested in settling up debts with offerings.  “God has told you, O mortal, what is good,” the priest would say in response to the pilgrim’s questions. What God wants is for you to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

It’s easy to imagine that this liturgy might be a little disappointing for a pilgrim who has traveled far to get to Jerusalem. It would be simpler if it were just a matter of arriving and making the required sacrifice and feeling a sense of accomplishment. It is wonderful to get where one’s going on a pilgrimage. But, as we’ve learned from many pilgrims this year, our arrivals can feel incomplete, or not what we expected, or downright disappointing. Micah’s vision suggests that that’s because the end of the pilgrimage is not an end at all, but more of a new beginning. The pilgrim arrives at the temple after days and weeks of walking. And what is the pilgrim told?  God wants you to keep going, keep walking:  walk humbly with your God. For God also seems to be on a pilgrimage in Micah’s vision, moving through the world attentive to the ways we treat one another, the ways our communities include or exclude. Walking humbly with God, we begin to see the world through God’s eyes and to see the life of faith as a life in motion. Even if we are unable to walk, we can change. And that’s the pilgrimage, both Micah and Jesus seem to say, that God is interested in. That’s what it means to walk humbly with our God, that we are always becoming more merciful, more committed to peacemaking, more hungry for justice.

And more humble. Humility is a complicated religious idea. The feminist scholar of religion, Judith Plaskow, years ago wrote that the idea that pride is the greatest sin and humility the greatest virtue came out of a world dominated by men who could take their power for granted. For women, Plaskow suggested, it might be the other way around — humility might be the greatest sin and pride a virtue to be cultivated. There’s truth in that. The virtue of humility has been used against women, again enslaved people, against those who have had a posture of humility forced upon them.

Humility that is forced upon us, though, is perhaps better described as humiliation, a deeply destructive force in human life. Humiliation isolates us, but humility helps us to see our life in relation to other lives and to ask how our choices affect others. This is as true for communities and nations as it is for individuals. Nationalism is nurtured on narratives of humiliation that isolate, that urge us to put our nation first and to refuse to see how our destiny is bound up with the destinies of other people, other communities, other nations. As we can hear plainly in our own national discourse, nationalism casts humility as weakness.

But humility is not weakness. Nor is it a free-floating virtue that we achieve once and for all. It’s more of a practice, a way of being in the world that is cultivated on pilgrimage, in God’s company. St. Teresa of Avila once wrote that humility is the first step on the journey to God, but it’s a step we never get beyond. It’s the very gravel on the path we’re walking, and the grit that works its way into our shoes and reminds us that anyone we meet along the way contains, as we do, hidden places where God is waiting to meet us. Practicing humility helps us remember that what matters on any journey, on any pilgrimage, is not our credentials, our possessions, our place in society, but our ability to hold those things loosely enough to imagine new ways of being together, and new ways of being ourselves.

As usual, I have learned the most about the practice of humility from my students. I remember last year listening to an HDS student preaching at our weekly communion service. A queer woman, she had been given by the lectionary a text from the letter of Titus in which women are instructed to be submissive to their husbands (the daily lectionary is a bit more uncomfortable than the Sunday lectionary — it’s a confrontation with the whole Bible.) This student could easily have chosen another reading. But she stuck with what the lectionary had given her, asking what she was meant to learn from a text that kept her so firmly outside its circle of concern. She concluded that she was being called to notice her own insider language as a student of religion and to ask continually who was being excluded from her discourse.  “The letter of Titus may not be speaking to me,” she said, “but God is.”

Teresa of Avila couldn’t have said it better. Humility allows us to rest for a while in uncertainty and even in discomfort. It lets down our guard long enough for us to hear voices other than our own.  And it reminds us that when we walk with God, we walk with all with whom God walks: the poor, the hungry, the brokenhearted, the hated. And those struggling to be poor in spirit, hungry for righteousness, makers of peace, and bringers of mercy.

Each week, we’re getting closer to the beginning of the pilgrimage that is the season of Lent and taking that first step with Jesus into the desert.  In the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday, we should be getting ready. We should be making sure that our shoes are broken in, that we have enough band-aids, that we have a raincoat that can be rolled up tight and tucked in our backpack.  If you’re like me, you’ll overpack — too many sweaters, too many books, too many gadgets.  The weeks before a pilgrimage begins are about getting ready to go, and part of getting ready to go is paring down. On a pilgrimage, it’s best to travel light.

Today’s readings are perfectly suited for the pilgrimage we are about to undertake. These readings can be rolled up tight and tucked inside our memory. Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers. If the experience of Jesus is any guide, what will happen to us in the desert is that we will be tempted to abandon our convictions, to pack up and return to the place where our credentials mean something, where there are people with whom we feel comfortable, where we understand our place in society. For those moments when we want to give up on this pilgrimage and go home, we need something to jog our memory, to help us recall the vision that set us on the road in the first place. Let’s spend these weeks writing Micah’s vision and Jesus’ blessings on our hearts so that when we need them, they’ll be close at hand.