St. Augustine said, “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is still humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are fruitless.” My brothers and sisters, today we begin Holy Week and witness not only the humility of God, but if we look carefully, also its fruit.
I’m going to offer a confession that, sadly, may not come as a surprise to some. Here it is, I like to be liked. I like to be appreciated. I like to have nice things said about me behind my back, but even more right to my face. Some of you may even know that I enjoy being the center of attention and am quite comfortable being center stage, and while none of these things are wrong in and of themselves, they can become stumbling blocks to salvation. You see, if we desire praise and applause more that humility and sacrifice; if we desire power and influence more than humble service; if we desire honor and privilege more than the crown of thorns and the cross, we will seek only comfort and refuse to pursue the very life of holiness that is required to enter into eternity with God. And that causes me to be more than a little concerned for myself and others.
My motto is often, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re this darn good!” Or “The good Lord broke the mold when he made me!” That’s the feeling Jesus had today as he entered Jerusalem. The people praised him! They worshiped him! They got on their knees and yelled “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” And no doubt Jesus was like, “Finally, the respect I deserve!” And who could blame him? So often our Lord was rejected and ridiculed, but his day had finally–Jerusalem’s king had arrived. I just know that Jesus and his apostles loved it…but they didn’t love it more than the Cross.
No sooner was Jesus welcomed as the King was he stripped of his dignity, stripped of his clothing, mocked by soldiers and rulers, and even criminals. He was spat upon, and beaten, and falsely accused. And in spite of all of this, Jesus humbly loved, showed mercy, and forgave others–because that’s what God does. And this is the key for you and I–Jesus never forgot who he was. Jesus never acted out of character. God is love, and when they exalt you as king you love them, and when they ridicule you love them, and when out of ignorance they insult you and beat you and hurt you, well…you love them. So many times I find myself willing to love, forgive, and show mercy when I am in a position of power, when I’m at the top of my game, but God living in me is truly revealed when I am able to love when I am beaten, when I lose, when I am in the dirt. That’s the mark of a true Christian. That’s the criteria for entering heaven.
In the verse before the Gospel we heard, “Christ became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” That’s our example of humility; being willing to obey God’s law of love, mercy, and forgiveness–even to the point of humiliation, suffering, and death to self. We can desire to be center stage. We can hope that all speak well of us both to our face and when we are not around. We can hope others are pleased with us at all times, but we cannot desire these things more than heaven, lest we begin to compromise. If we desire praise and power more than humility, mercy, forgiveness, and love–then the things that we desire the most become our master, and we cannot serve two masters.
As we begin holy week, we are offered two very different pictures of how the world receives us; one of applause and fanfare, one of scorn and derision. Our call is to humbly follow God, regardless of how others feel about it. We love, period. In good times and bad. I know you love in good times, but do we love in the bad times? Do we humbly embrace our cross when it appears? Or do we kick rocks, become bitter and angry, and become unkind?
The fruit of this brief earthly humility is not without reward, “Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.” God’s desire is to exalt us, but it must begin with accepting our humanity, humility, and often humiliation for the love of God. It means loving God more than anything this world has to offer. The fruit of which is nothing short of eternal life with God…our exaltation, our reward. As St. Elizabeth Seton said, “The gate of heaven is very low; only the humble can enter it.”