Readings for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 9 Year A – Track 2)
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
This sermon was preached at the Chapel of St. Francis at San Francisco Towers on October 1, 2017.
“God guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly.”
This morning I want to talk about the virtue of humility, a virtue that is absolutely necessary for spiritual growth and wisdom. Anglicans often reference St. Benedict who lays out the twelve steps of humility in his monastic Rule and describes these steps as the rungs of Jacob’s Ladder, upon which angels ascend and descend. Benedict writes, “Without doubt, we should understand that the climbing of the ladder shows us that we go up by humbling ourselves and down by praising ourselves.” (Ch. 7, p. 57). As Jesus says, “He who exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
Although I love St. Benedict, the readings this morning invite me to approach this virtue of humility from a different perspective; one that you might not expect: that is, the perspective of the Hebrew alphabet. Our psalm this morning (Psalm 25) is an acrostic psalm based on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in which each Hebrew letter is given a verse in the psalm. So the first verse begins with the letter aleph (A), the second with the letter bet (B), and so forth. By using the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in this way, the psalm offers a mnemonic device for Hebrew readers to memorize the psalm while also demonstrating that the primary purpose of the Hebrew alphabet and of language itself is prayer. The last verse from our slice of the psalm this morning reads, “He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly.” (Ps 25:8) That verse begins with the Hebrew letter yod and sounds like this in Hebrew: Yadrek anavim, bamishpot; vilamed anavim darko.
As someone with Jewish background on my father’s side, I have always been drawn to Jewish spirituality, which helps me appreciate and draw closer to my Jewish Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I learned the Hebrew alphabet several years ago and, ever since, I have found myself often reciting the alphabet silently in my head and doodling the letters on scraps of paper. For some reason, reciting the Hebrew alphabet has always felt very prayerful to me. So I was very encouraged when I learned the story of a humble Jewish farmer whose prayers were apparently more effective than those of the great rabbis of the time. The prayers of the humble Jewish farmer involved simply reciting the Hebrew alphabet and then asking God to put the letters together himself to form the right prayers for him to pray
The Jewish mystics believe that all of creation is formed and sustained by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet; and each letter of the alphabet has its own value, meaning and even personality. There are Jewish stories of the letters themselves conversing and even arguing with God. And for thousands of years, the Jewish people have been using the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order to help them pray humbly before God, as we see in our psalm this morning.
I like to imagine young Jesus learning the Hebrew alphabet as he most probably did. In fact, there is a relatively early text called the Syriac Infancy Gospel which describes Jesus as a young student learning the Hebrew alphabet from a teacher named Zacchaeus. In the Infancy Gospel, Zacchaeus teaches the first letter of the alphabet which is “Aleph” and then begins to teach Jesus about the second letter “Bet.” However, Jesus interrupts his teacher Zacchaeus and asks him, “How can you teach me the letter Bet when you have not even understood and explained to me the meaning of the letter Aleph?” Jesus’s words here actually sound fairly authentic to me especially since they are not too unlike Jesus’s words in our Gospel reading this morning from Matthew, in which Jesus essentially says to the chief priests and elders, “How can you expect to understand my authority when you have not even understood the authority of John the Baptist?” In Matthew, Jesus then goes on to explain how the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of heaven because of their humility. They were humble enough to believe that God could and indeed did speak through a scruffy, locust-eating wild man dressed in camel hair. They were humble enough to believe that God could use them to accomplish his will even though they did not always know the right things to say or the right prayers to pray. In our Gospel, Jesus invites the chief priests and elders to practice humility so that they too could enter the kingdom of heaven, along with the humble and penitent tax collectors and prostitutes.
In studying the Hebrew alphabet, I have learned that this is also what young Jesus is saying when he asks his teacher, “How can you teach the letter Bet when you have not yet understood and explained to me the meaning of the letter Aleph?” As I said, all of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet have their own spiritual meaning; and the primary spiritual meaning of the letter Aleph is humility. So Jesus is asking his teacher, “How can you understand anything else in the spiritual life if you don’t first understand and practice humility?”
It this through humility that we can access the Father and it is through humility that the Father makes himself known to us in Christ. St. Paul makes this clear in our reading from Philippians when he calls us to practice humility and then poetically describes Christ Jesus (the incarnate Word of God) as One who empties himself and takes on the form of a humble servant.
All of the beautiful prayers we pray here this morning, all of the songs we sing and the rituals we perform are critically important, but if we don’t first understand and practice humility, then we are missing the point. If we don’t first cultivate humility before God, then we are like the second son in Jesus’s parable who says all the right things but fails to follow his Father’s will. Without humility, we are like the chief priests and elders who pray all the right prayers but fail to see God at work right in front of them. The readings ask us, “How can we understand anything else in the spiritual life if we don’t first understand and practice humility? How can we understand the letter Bet if we don’t first understand the meaning of the letter Aleph?”
So I invite us all to cultivate or continue cultivating this virtue of humility so that we may draw closer to the God who speaks to us in the language of humility and reveals himself to us through Jesus Christ who humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. I invite us to cultivate humility not by groveling and flagellating ourselves (as some Christians have done throughout history) but rather by letting go of our egos and letting go of our need to always say the right thing or pray the right prayer. As C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not necessarily thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less.” So I invite us to think of ourselves less by humbly opening ourselves up to the possibility of God being at work in unexpected places and among unexpected people. I invite us to practice humility this morning by together praising the God who humbled himself in Christ and who continues to give himself to us in the bread and wine made holy. And I invite us to practice humility by praying the prayers in the book of Psalms and perhaps even by learning the Hebrew alphabet, the very alphabet that the psalmists used to pray their ancient prayers and that Jesus himself used throughout his life. It is by cultivating this virtue of humility that we can continue to grow in the spiritual life, and be empowered to fulfill God’s will and, in the words of Paul, be enabled to work for God’s good pleasure. May it be so. Amen.