Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
June 10, 2018
Psalm 131; Matthew 6:24-34
Let’s start with the premise that we are all humble people here. At least humble enough, considering that humility is profoundly countercultural in our world today. Western culture in general, and American culture in particular, is built upon a foundation of pride rather than humility. It presumes that our people – or at least the people most like us – are inherently and appropriately better, and thus more deserving, than others – those who are not like us. There is some dissonance in this. We generally think of the American experiment in democracy as having been rooted in core principles of Christian ethics and commitments. At the same time, we often interpret the cause of the expulsion from the Garden as pride – the sin of pride – of being “proud” – of standing out – of presumption. Pride is not a Christian value – though many who call themselves Christians cling to it. “Humble” literally means “from the dirt” or “upon the ground.”
The name of the first human according to Genesis – Adam – means ground or earth. And human, like humble, means “from the dirt” or “upon the ground.” Perhaps to be humble is to be grounded. Being humble and well grounded, we here today might not think much of this particular Psalm of Ascent. It may not seem to hold much meaning or command for us. We’ve already got the message –
We noted last week that part of the message of the Psalms comes in their poetry. Psalm 134 – about blessing – underscores that meaning with threefold repetition of the word.
Blessing. Blessing. Blessing. Like waves on the sand.
In Psalm 131, the threefold repetition is more like a withdrawal – a backing down – a diminution. Here the repetition is negation.
Not. Not. Not. My heart is not lifted up. My eyes are not raised too high.
I do not occupy myself with things too great and marvelous for me.
One implication is that we do tend to do these things. The heart lifted up – at least when we do it alone – is a proud heart. It is a way of self-promotion above all else – the Hebrew word for heart also means the whole self – the core identity of the person – even the soul. The eyes raised too high are haughty, superior, disdainful of the dignity of others. To occupy one’s self with things too great and marvelous is to give over the internal life to something other than the breath of life – the Spirit breathed into our bodies made from the earth.
The pilgrim’s heart is not proud.
The pilgrim’s countenance is not proud.
The pilgrim’s soul is not proud.
The pilgrim’s feet are grounded.
Psalm 131 is about humility, and Eugene Peterson tells us that in it he sees a moderating or mediating message. Like a just-weaned infant, the pilgrim is in the moment between the insatiable hunger of the newborn and the willful demands of the toddler. God is the mother who has weaned her children, perhaps a little emptied of power and reluctant to control, but expectant and hopeful for her offspring – that they will remain rooted in the earth of her love. Every mother wants her children to thrive, but not at the cost of thriving for her other children. One wonders how she sorrows as she watches children taken from their parents at the borders of our nation – supposedly a nation rooted in Christian ethics and commitments.
The Message paraphrase of Psalm 131 says we should not meddle where we have no business – and so it would be well to be clear about where our business lies – as individual pilgrims as well as a pilgrim people – on our way to the City of the Peace of God. On this bold and never quite completed journey of faith – at least not from what we have seen in this life – we pass through regions of hurt and hunger as well as justice and joy. Nowadays the regions of hurt and hunger seem closer to our path. Perhaps the paths we have chosen as individuals and as a people have generated some or most of the hurt and the hunger. If we are so intent upon marching to Zion – the state of perfection beyond our earthly cares – we are unlikely to tarry in those hungry hurting places. And if we care too much for our life, for what we will eat or drink, or about our body, what we will wear, we may not even set out on the journey. As followers of Jesus, our business is with the with those close to the ground. The journey of faith is not an easy one – not always pleasant – often challenging.
In the past week or so we have been tragically reminded that the journey of life is difficult as well. Two celebrities have taken their own lives – one whose genius was to celebrate our lives through what we eat and drink – the other whose genius was to celebrate our bodies through what we wear. Each of them would seem to have no cause to worry. They had made it. Perhaps they were proud. Perhaps like newborns they had an insatiable hunger. Perhaps like toddlers they had willful demands that overreached, causing hurt in themselves as well as in those around them. Perhaps they woke up one day with the aching realization that their achievement, appearance, and affluence did not enhance their joy, their beauty, and their love. Perhaps they were clinically depressed, and the way of life that we have created together does not accommodate those who are lost in pathless regions of hurt and hunger.
Suicide is frightening. And like many things that frighten us, we want to hold it as far away as possible. We want to stigmatize it and condemn it. Suicide is a disease, but it is not communicable. It does not infect people one by one, but like alcoholism, it is a disease of a community. Its presenting symptoms manifest primarily in individuals. These symptoms are exacerbated by our pride and our worry about our individual life, what we will eat or what we will drink, about our body, what we will wear – not only our clothing, but the ways in which we dress ourselves for the world. The cause of suicide is not pride, but more often the loss of pride – the realization that we cannot live up to the illusions and expectations of a culture of acquisition, control, and privilege. The cause of suicide is a desperately lonely and unquiet soul. We trust that God never wants us to suffer; God wants fulness of life for each and all of us.
Eugene Peterson encourages us to cut away these overweening concerns through soul-pruning. He says, “… pruning… reduces the distance between our hearts and their roots in God…. The two things that Psalm 131 prunes away are unruly ambition and infantile dependency, what we might call getting too big for our britches and refusing to cut the apron strings. Both of these tendencies can easily be supposed to be virtues, especially by those who are not conversant with Christian ways. If we are not careful, we will be encouraging the very things that ruin us. We are in special and constant need of expert correction. We need pruning.”[i]
Psalm 131 tells us that these two things come together: humility and the quiet soul. It’s not clear that one comes before the other. Perhaps the quiet soul can be entered through the gate of humility just as well as humility can be entered through the gate of the quiet soul. Or perhaps, like much of Hebrew poetry, the psalmist deliberately sets up a parallelism – each thought is a reinforcement or illustration of the other – humility and the quiet soul are somehow synonymous.
At the risk of being repetitive, I believe the underlying message of Psalm 131 for us here today is the same as the message for us of Psalm 134. And so, humbly I offer it to you again. We, as individual followers of Jesus, and our community of faith will thrive as each of us nurtures an ever more intimate relationship with God – one in which we whisper God’s name constantly in our heart – and God calls us by name into the rhythm and swirl of life. If you don’t already set aside 20 minutes every evening for centering prayer, start now. Make it a prayer of one word only – your own intimate, unpronounceable name for God – a name you never dare to speak aloud. If you can’t sit still, walk as you pray. Quiet your soul. Ground yourself. Prune away the worries of yesterday and tomorrow. Allow yourself to rest in that place between worry and demand. Do it alone or together. Maybe even lift your hands in blessing. And as you pray, follow your upward path toward the City of the Peace of God, where God’s servants await you.