Humble Crumble (September 2018)


We’re all trying to live our lives, day by day, week by week and it’s not easy. The younger ones among us certainly – and all of us to some degree - are under constant outside pressure to compete, to succeed, to have self-belief and to be comfortable with our personal image and identity.

But what was Julie saying last week? Don’t obsess about who you are. Forget about yourself. Just take up your cross and follow Him.

And then we come up against all this stuff He teaches: The last shall be first and first shall be last. The meek shall inherit the earth; love your enemies, lose your life in order to keep it.

And we know deep down in our hearts that these strange sayings really do contain the hidden treasure of  God’s truth and occasionally we see these sayings working little miracles if we have the courage to live them out in practice.

And yet it is almost impossible to prize ourselves away from the opposite magnetic pull of worldly standards and values.

Unless you are some kind of religious freak prepared to shut yourself away in a little cocoon and avoid the contaminating contact of other people, you inevitably see and feel all around you - and inside you - powerful forces at work:- the instinct of self-preservation even at the expense of others;  the urge to outdo, usually described as “healthy”, and fostered early on the class room and the exam system;  an ambition to get rich by your own efforts (applauded in some quarters as the attainment of the “American dream”);  a craving for fame – to be somebody special, a “sleb”.

That, if you like, is the list on the quasi-respectable side of the sheet of paper but, if you turn it over, you see a darker side: resentment at the success of others, jealousy and anger at one’s own failure.

The insecurity which always lies behind selfishness also produces a disproportionate hostility towards anyone who tries to go a different and gentler way.

Witness the incredible outburst by the wicked against the so-called “virtuous” man in the first reading this morning

Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out just how gentle he is and make trial of his forbearance.

Let us condemn him to a shameful death since (get the sarcasm here!) according to what he says, he will be protected.

Where does all this sheer nastiness come from? Some kind of  “selfish gene” - probably a perverted survival instinct – seems to be embedded in us. We find it everywhere - even in the church: bitterness and tittle-tattle in the pews and abuse of power or careerist ambition among the clergy. Red buttons and pompoms.

You name it, it happens.  Listen to the letter of S.James this morning: Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder.These conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from the cravings that are fighting inside you? S.James should have been a psychiatrist.

Even in the gospel today, we can’t get away from the instinct for self-promotion. What were you arguing about on the way? Jesus asks His disciples, as if He didn’t know! But they were silent, because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest.

Notice the because there. They were ashamed and so they kept quiet. They knew He didn’t approve of jockeying for position but they just could’t help it. They were only human.

Remember, Jesus had chosen ordinary, simple blokes to be His disciples - nobody clever or famous. And, certainly at first, they couldn’t get their heads round this idea of following a suffering servant who would wash their feet, instead of a triumphant conqueror who would lord it over the 12 tribes of Israel. They thought His kingdom was going to be a worldly one, that they were on the ladder for advancement towards prestige and power.

Well, we’re not much better, are we? A muddle of human weakness and vanity mixed up with a genuine but rather feeble desire to please and follow Jesus Christ.

What’s the answer? My suggestion is that we don’t get too spiritually ambitious. That we don’t try to be perfect and heavenly all in one leap.  Why don’t we admit that our human nature can be very silly and sometimes unpleasant? BUT then, having got that out of the way, try very hard to be the one thing that which will counter the worst effects of the selfish gene and keep us close to God: BE HUMBLE.

“Humble”is a word much misunderstood. It does not mean grovelling.   

Remember the plucky retort of that feisty foreign woman I was preaching about last time who argued with Jesus that, even if she was a dog, she was entitled to the crumbs on the floor?

Well, I don’t like the way the Book of Common Prayer pinched those words and twisted them into We are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs under thy table. Hang on. She was entitled, why aren’t we? This prayer is known irreverently in the trade as the humble crumble – and it really does sound to my ears something very akin to grovelling.

The literal meaning of “humble” is “connected to the soil” i.e. “down-to-earth”, realistic, unpretentious. Secondly, in a religious context, its true meaning is “trusting in God.”

As I said, if we’re honest, we can’t just wave a magic wand and remove from our natures all traces of self-interest, ambition or competition. But we can temper and control them by cultivating a healthy attitude of humility.

We need to learn to trust God to look after us. Then we won’t be so edgy and aggressive about looking after ourselves, trying to be masters of our own destiny.

Grovelling is false humility.

Humility does not mean automatically thinking less of yourself than other people or having a low opinion of your own gifts. It actually means NOT thinking about yourself one way or the other.

It is quite right and natural that, if you are conscious of a certain God-given talent or power, you would want to exercise that gift for God.

It may even be right that, occasionally, you insist that you are more capable of doing what has to be done than anyone else. “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”. Like Winston Churchill galvanising this country into not being defeated by Hitler. Or Nelson Mandela knowing it was he who had to lead South Africa away from apartheid.

 But whether or not you have any particular talent, what matters is that you simply give your whole heart and mind to God and the fulfilment of His will. That way, you will have gone a long way towards losing your life in order to gain it. You will be not far from the kingdom.

 Don’t grovel. Don’t navel-gaze or beat your breast, crying “Oh what a worthless creature am I!” That is a sick form of self-preoccupation, of pride in disguise.

Real humility, trust in God, is much more effective because it frees you from anxiety.

Forgive me for talking about my beloved cricket for a moment.

Now. You’re fielding on the boundary at fine leg and the batsman hooks the ball in the air towards you. It’s either going for 6 or he’s going to be out. If you start to wonder whether you are going to catch the ball, you’ll drop it. But if you just catch it without thinking about anything – especially not what other people are going to think of you - you’ll probably hold on to it.

In any game, nothing paralyses a player so much as anxiety. And that goes for everything else in life from the simplest task to the biggest. But you can’t get the confidence to free your life from all anxiety by what the sports analysts call “self-belief”, or getting into “the zone”.

It is only trust in God that casts out all anxiety and trust in God is that real humility, that lack of self-importance, which enables us to be transformed into the image of Christ. 

Spike Wells