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I stumbled across a set of books the other day known as the Philokalia. It is a four-volume set of teachings by the Desert Fathers. Opening it was like lifting the lid on a treasure chest full of scrolls on the nature of the soul.
One contributor to this anthology, a sixth century Syrian monk named St. John Klimakos, claimed that to understand the hidden knowledge of God, using Paul’s words from in his First Letter to the Corinthians, one must embody authentic humility. Klimakos wrote: “The humble person must possess every virtue, and yet truly think them self the greatest of debtors and inferior to everything else in creation” (Philokalia, Vol. III, p. 159).
And it became clear, as I read these words, and as I prayed over the Scripture for today that humility must be the watchword for this sermon; that humility is key for understanding the hidden wisdom of God. And my next thought was UGH!!! How am I supposed to preach humility at Epiphany?
It is not a word that comes up much around here. Nor is it a word that jumps to mind when we think of Epiphany and our beautiful buildings; and our big Bible with its gold artwork and ornate calligraphy; and our radiant vestments; and our organ’s and our choir meek and mild…And yet, all good things come from thee O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee. Art and architecture, music, and indeed all gifts that we, you and me bring to this space come from thee of O Lord.
As St. Peter of Damascus, another Desert Father found in the Philokalia wrote: “From God, too, comes the knowledge of the arts and scripts, of healing and medicine, of languages and various other branches of learning. In short, all things, whether past, present or future, have been and are always being given to us by God so that our bodies may live and our souls may be saved. (Philokalia, Volume III, p. 158).
And so, there must be a match, somewhere, for authentic humility to exist as both debtor to all creation, and master of things good and noble, beautiful and true. Today we’ll seek this intersection of debtor and master, knowing that where they meet, we will encounter in true humility; the hidden treasures of God.
It is important to begin by acknowledging that the cultural notion of humility is not particularly aspirational. The word humility often engendered impressions of weakness and lack of self-confidence and meekness-even inferiority and possibly indebtedness, to use Klimakos’ words.
How then can humility be a desirable state of being? And in this question, we come to the first insight about the humility Klimakos speaks of: that authentic humility is always measured against the nature and capacity of God; that authentic humility is always measured against our relationship with God.
I’ll explain by sharing a conversation I had the other day with Jad, our Communications Minister. He’s been here six months. We were talking about humility. He said in response to my suggestion that humility is not a top presenting attribute of our parish…“When I first arrived here, I might have agreed with you, but the longer I’m here, the more I see that beneath the veneer of achievement and professionalism, mastery if you will, there moves a humility that rests in the recognition that there is indeed something greater than ourselves worthy of our humble attention each week.” I agree. I do believe that each week in worship humility is revealed by your very presence here.
Worship is a reflection of authentic humility as an outward and visible sign acknowledging the nature and capacity of God; rooted in the idea that “All things come from thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee” (John 7:17). I know that little quote from the Gospel of John by heart, incidentally, because they were the words said every Sunday as the Offertory sentence at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Rochester MN. It was sort of Rochester’s Epiphany equivalent. It was not a place where humility was outwardly apparent. Some of the best doctors in the world worshiped there, my father included.
It occurred to me one Sunday as I saw my Dad go up for communion, and kneel down, like he did every Sunday, and close his eyes and hold up his hands for the wafer-it occurred to me that the scowl line right here, (the one he claims I gave him) went smooth as he knelt at the rail. It occurred to me that he was experiencing something- something deep and profound; something inexplicable and holy. And it occurred to me that maybe he, in humility, was acknowledging “All things come of thee O Lord and of thine own have I given thee.”
At the communion rail we reach into the treasure chest of God and take out the scroll upon which our name has been written. But, we can only lift it out, as Paul so notes, “in weakness and in fear and in trembling. ”That doesn’t mean we do so as cowards or pushovers, scared with knees knocking nervously, but with a reasonable and healthy appreciation that we are the lesser approaching God that is the greater.
This is the humility that St. Klimakos writes of. It is this humble acknowledgement that God is greater that enables us to lift the lid on the hidden treasure chest of God. But to take out the scroll we see inside, the one with our name upon it, requires another step, which, as Paul writes, “requires knowing the spirit within you” (1 Cor 2:11). And so, there we must go, into our hearts, in search of the scroll upon which God has written a secret message of wisdom for you and for me.
We get there through two core spiritual exercises: prayer and the study of scripture. No surprise here. We talk a lot about prayer at Epiphany, so, I’ll be brief here, and just remind us that prayer is one of those things you don’t have to know how to do; you just have to do it. The fact that prayer is so easy is often what trips us up. Just sit down. Shut your eyes. Say the Lord’s Prayer. Be quiet for a bit. And then go on with your day. Then do it again the next day, same time, same place, same way…and then do it the day after that.
In prayer there is a guarantee that “the Spirit from God,” as Paul writes, “is given so we may understand the gifts bestowed upon us by God” (1Cor 2:12). Prayer gives us insight into how God sees us, or, maybe, how God hopes to see us. Prayer shows us which scroll to pick up.
But it is scripture that gives us the ability to interpret it. And so, if your skill is math, or oratory, or jumping high in the air; if your talent is holding your breath, or cutting business deals; if your strength is editing books, or flying airplanes, or being a mom, or an auto mechanic, or even a doctor… well, the scroll in your hand, will be indecipherable, it will be unreadable if you are expecting scripture to give you insight into a specific occupation or how to use your physiological attributions.
And here is why, your God given gift is not an assigned job, or a task, or a particular occupation; the calling upon your soul is not based on a physical attribute, or even the luck of the context of your birth; the words written to you by God on the scroll pulled forth from God’s treasure chest are utterances of virtue that can be applied to all aspects of your life, for your entire life, and ever your eternal life.
The calling upon your soul may look like utterances of wisdom; or faith; or the gift of healing, or the working of miracles, or prophecy, or discernment, or languages, or patience, or kindness. These virtues are the hidden wisdom of God. How we are to live them out is revealed to us through our knowledge of the life of Jesus Christ.
And so, a doctor may not possess the soul gift of healing, but she may have the soul gift of discernment, or patience, or kindness; and it is her knowledge of this inscribed virtue upon her soul that makes her a great doctor, and a great mom, and maybe even a great auto mechanic all at the same time.
And here is what happens to people who become acquainted with God’s calling upon their soul not only is authentic humility awakened, but awe for God is magnified. And then an additional gift is added to authentic humility: the understanding that each person you meet has a secret note written on their soul by God; and that they too are gifted with a virtue that is unique and glorious.
That is what Klimakos is talking about when he writes: “The humble person must possess every virtue, and yet truly think them self the greatest of debtors and inferior to everything else in creation” (Philokalia, Vol. III, p. 159). What I have seen with people in touch with the hidden wisdom of God is not arrogance or judgement, but awe in what others can do, and joy in witnessing it, and encouragement for these gifts to be lived out more and more. What I have observed with people in touch with the hidden wisdom of God is a deep desire to give away what is written on the scroll of their own soul. What I have witnessed with people in touch with the hidden wisdom of God is a passion for humbly mastering the virtues God has woven into their souls for the benefit of others; and the more they seek to serve, the more radiant they become.
It is at this intersection that the debtor and the master meet, and authentic humility comes to life and the hidden wisdom of God is revealed.