Bluegrass Mass and Pledge Sunday
Please pray with me:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Strength and our Redeemer.
Oh, wait, hold on, Father! I would also like to say a prayer of thanksgiving. I thank you that I am not like all those people who sleep in on Sunday mornings and then go brunch, sipping Bloody Marys and reading the comics. I go to at least three church services every week, sometimes more!
You get the point. Jesus is asking us today to consider humility.
What does it mean to humble oneself?
In this story from Luke, both the Tax Collector and the Pharisee do right things, and wrong things. The Pharisee is right to pray, he is right to give a tenth of his income, he is right to fast, as would any observant Jew at that time. Meanwhile, the Tax Collector is wrong to not do these things, and to cheat and extort money from others. But the Pharisee is wrong to brag and boast and to feel smug contempt for others, while the Tax Collector is right to pray with humility, acknowledging his sins honestly. One is pious but not humble. One is humble but not pious. Without humility, piety is arrogant. Without piety, humility is empty.
It’s all very…complicated.
The word ‘humility’ comes from the Latin word ‘humus’…which means earth, ground, dirt. Theologian Karl Barth said that religious people struggle most with one particular sin: pride. Why is pride such a big sin? Is it really so wrong to be proud of ourselves? The sort of pride Karl Barth was talking about is a sin because it is a form of idolatry. we put the ourselves, the created being in the place of the Creator. we put the gift recipient in the place of the Giver. we put ourselves in the place of God. The antidote an overdose of this sort of idolatrous pride…is humility. Humility is, at the most basic level, the recognition that none of us is God except God. Humility is the awareness that we are humans..made from humus…made from dirt.
We are dust, and to dust we shall return.
In the 1930s in Flint Hill, North Carolina, Earl Scruggs was a youth with passion for music. He liked to play the family guitar and the banjo with his siblings. One day, he was playing the banjo when he discovered he could use three fingers instead of two to manipulate those five strings, and it would make an entirely different sound, more lively and more fun. When paired with the mandolin genius of Bill Monroe, the Scruggs signature three finger style helped to found the genre of bluegrass. But to me, the really interesting thing about this musical pioneer was not his special skill but rather, his willingness to share his skill with younger, up-and-coming musicians. Scruggs played the banjo in such an amazing new way that many who came after him asked him to teach them how to play with three fingers instead of the standard two…and he would.
Scruggs would patiently teach his method to anyone who asked, and in the process, he changed the way the instrument was played forever more. One of his students, comedian and fellow banjo player Steve Martin, wrote this about him: Before him, no one had ever played the banjo like he did. After him, everyone played the banjo like he did, or at least tried. In 1945, when he first stood on the stage […] in Nashville and played banjo the way no one had ever heard before, the audience responded with shouts, whoops, and ovations.
Earl Scruggs could have kept his special three finger banjo picking method to himself, and let others try to figure it out on their own, but instead he taught his method to anyone and everyone who wanted to learn. He had a gift, and he shared it with the world, and he did it because he knew this gift was not really his to begin with. It was from God. That is humility.
God calls us to try to live lives that are both pious and humble. The piety is doing the right things, being fervent in our prayers, generous with our time, talent, and yes, treasure, and fasting from those behaviors that distance ourselves from God. The humility is having the right attitude about the things we do—recognizing that we are not God. and that it is God, not ourselves, who is the source of every good thing we have, and that those good things are graciously bestowed upon us even when we don’t deserve them.
Today is the day many of us will make our annual financial pledge to support our life together as a faith community. It is a very important and pious thing to do. but it is also a very humble thing to do. When we give away our gifts, whether it is a special skill we can patiently teach to an eager student, or a portion of our financial income, we are saying to God, “Thank you, God.” We are practicing the sacred art of gratitude in place of the stumbling blocks of pride and idolatry. When we do not cling to our gifts and blessings, but offer them back to support God’s mission, we somehow find that we are blessed with even more gifts. They are not the sort of gifts you can weigh or measure. They are the spiritual gifts of joy, peace, and love. That’s the promise I make to you today. The more you give in a spirit of humility, the more joy, peace, and love you’ll receive in return.
Look, we are all human, created out of and destined for…dust. We are all both Pharisees and Tax Collectors. We are capable of both wrong actions and smugness at any actions of ours we decide are right. But the good news is that since we’re all both a little bit Pharisee and a little bit Tax Collector, all of us go away justified in God’s eyes. We are all humbled and exalted daily, receiving peace, love, and joy, if only we can open ourselves to them.