© Barbara F. Meyers 2007. All Rights Reserved.
A sermon delivered Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation on January 7, 2007

Opening Words

To worship is to stand in awe under a heaven of stars, before a flower, a leaf in sunlight or a grain of sand.

To worship is to be silent, receptive, before a tree astir with the wind or the passing shadow of a cloud.

To worship is to work with dedication and with skill, it is to pause from work and listen to a strain of music.

To worship is to sing with the singling beauty of the earth: It is to listen through a storm to the still small voice within.

Worship is a loneliness seeking communion; it is a thirsty land crying out for rain.

Worship is kindred fire within our hearts; it moves through deeds of kindness and through acts of love.

Worship is the mystery within us reaching out to the mystery beyond.

It is an inarticulate silence yearning to speak; Worship is the window of the moment open to the sky of the Eternal.
Jacob Trapp

Humility Sermon:

When I first began attending a Unitarian Universalist church - this was at the Hayward church in the late 1980s - I eagerly soaked in everything new that I was learning. One Sunday I remember distinctly was a lay-led service by a dearly beloved elderly couple who had been members for a long time. They had just been on a religious pilgrimage to Japan, where they visited representatives of a number of progressive Japanese religions, and their service was a report of their adventures on this trip. The religion they spoke of that I particularly remember was a religion named Ittoen founded in 1904. Members of this religion seek to live a life having no possessions and in humble service to others. They believe that true world peace must begin with resolving and removing seeds of dispute from the hearts of individual men and women. Their chief religious ritual practice is called Rokuman Gyogan, and consists of humbling oneself by cleaning toilets.

The picture on the front of the order of service today shows two people engaged in this practice. They believe this humble act purifies them for the future of the world without conflict.

There was something so striking about this story that I remember it clearly nearly 20 years later. (We should have all of our sermons remembered for 20 years!) I think it was the idea that doing one of the lowest most humble tasks in life, cleaning toilets, could be a religious act, and that this could prepare us for world peace. At first I thought "You've got to be kidding!" Surely, cleaning toilets couldn't be a central religious ritual for a modern religion! This idea was vastly different from any religious thinking that I had been exposed to.

But, they weren't kidding. Doing a lowly task can be part of a religious practice - allowing one to demonstrate humility. I think this was this "radical" idea that struck me so clearly when I first heard it.

A person who has humility, a humble person, is generally regarded as unpretentious and modest, someone quiet, self-effacing, understated, someone who doesn't think or act like he or she is better or more important than others. I need to make clear that humility is not to be confused with humiliation, which is the act of making someone else feel ashamed, and is seen as something completely different.

In studying this subject, I have learned that humility is a greatly prized virtue in all of the major religions: Christianity, Buddhism, Tao, Judaism, Islam, Sikh, and Hindu and the spiritual leaders that formed and lead them. Please join me now in the responsive readings from the insert in your order of service. You will read the italic entries.

Responsive Reading (Congregation reads the italics entries)

Judaism: What does the LORD require of thee, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God? - Micah 6:8

Christianity: For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.' - Luke 14:11

Islam: "The true servants of the Gracious God are those who walk on the earth humbly" - Koran (25:64)

Buddhism: Let one be strenuous, upright and sincere, without pride, easily contented and joyous... Let one be wise, but not puffed up. Metta Sutta

The sage accepts the world
As the world accepts the Way;
He does not display himself, so is clearly seen,
Does not justify himself, so is recognized,
Does not boast, so is credited,
Does not pride himself, so endures,
Does not contend, so none contend against him.
- Tao Te Ching

Sikh: "Humility is my mace; becoming the dust of everybody's feet is my sword. No evil doer can dare withstand these weapons" - Sorath 80

The Sermon Continued

Each religion has extended and refined the concept of humility, expressing it in a way that fit that religion's theology. For example, it has been observed that for Judaism, humility is more than just a virtue: it is a form of perception, a language in which the "I" is silent so that I can hear the "Thou" of the other. Jesus said "Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" and in Christianity, humility became the first virtue because it removes the obstacles to faith. In Islam the faithful prostrate themselves to the ground five times a day to acknowledge mankind's utmost lowliness and humility before the Allah. In the Buddhism, humility is one of the ten sacred qualities attributed to Buddha, a natural by-product of supreme spiritual attainment that transcends the ego. For followers of Taoism, humility is one of the three major jewels to be sought by believers. Sikhs believe that God is present in every living soul, and therefore to injure the feelings of another person is to hurt the God in him. Thus, the humble man, will serve others without material motive or the expectation of reward because of his love of God and man.

"But," I can hear you thinking, "This is fine for religious founders and extremists, but most of us don't live in a world like that. Our daily life consists of living in a competitive, winner-take-all world. What place does humility have in this kind of world? We may consider humility a hindrance to success and a by-product of failure. How can anyone achieve success without ambition and a competitive spirit? Who does not feel elated and proud after accomplishing something great? Humility can appear to be a foreign concept in a capitalist economy.

"And further," you may be thinking, "psychologists universally think that self-esteem is critical for psychological health. On the surface we might think that self-esteem is the opposite of humility. Can humility and self-esteem be reconciled?"

To respond to these observations, I'll tell some stories.

First I'll tell a story from my own experience. When I was hospitalized in the psychiatric ward for the first time shortly after my daughter was born, I was scared, I felt humiliated. I didn't want to think I was anything like "these people" - the other patients. It was a very painful experience that I was determined not to repeat.

However, eight years later when I was hospitalized for the second time, subjectively it was completely different: these other patients were all God's children, like me. Seeing myself as being worthy in God's eyes, no better or worse than anyone else, completely altered my experience of hospitalization. I wasn't afraid. In fact, as strange as it may sound, I was happy.

Looking back at these experiences from a vantage point, I can see that in my first hospitalization, I lacked humility, trying to maintain the idea that I was better than the others, and hating myself for being in the situation. Eight years later, I was a humble human soul, the same as the least of my fellow patients. From this experience of mine, I can tell you that feeling humility was vastly better than trying to feel superior. I could just be, without being scared and miserable in striving to convince myself that I was better.

At least in this experience, being humble I had a far better self-esteem than unsuccessfully trying to preserve my self-concept of being superior.

Another Story
I have another story about me. At one point in my therapy with my psychiatrist, a man with both a deep spiritual life and excellent therapeutic skills, I was unhappily grousing to him about being delegated to some lesser role that I thought I deserved at work. He told me that when he goes on a retreat he sweeps the floors, and he does it with love, because it is the love that you put into a job, rather than what others think of the job, that is most important. The instant I heard this, it hit me, "This is truth." And listening to that message has made so much difference in my life.

A Third Story
The last story is by Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain, and tells how he as a young man, he had met Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He had heard many tales of his charisma and extraordinary leadership, many verging on the miraculous and he resolved to meet him if possible.

He relates, "I did, meet him and was utterly surprised. He was certainly not charismatic in any conventional sense. Quiet, self-effacing, understated, one might hardly have noticed him had it not been for the reverence in which he was held by his disciples. That meeting, though, changed my life. He was a world-famous figure. I was an anonymous student. Yet in his presence I seemed to be the most important person in the world. He asked me about myself; he listened carefully; he challenged me to become a leader, something I had never contemplated before. Quickly it became clear to me that he believed in me more than I believed in myself. As I left the room, it occurred to me that it had been full of my presence and his absence....There was no grandeur in his manner; neither was there any false modesty. He was serene, dignified, and majestic; a man of transcending humility who gathered you into his embrace and taught you to look up."

I might add that we should all be lucky enough to meet such a remarkable person in our lives.

What Self Esteem is

Next let's look at what self esteem is. The term "self-esteem" is one of the oldest concepts in psychology, having been first coined by American psychologist and philosopher William James in 1890. It is a person's mental perception of his or her own qualities. Simply stated, self-esteem is knowing yourself and your abilities well enough so that it is not what others think of you that matters, but what you know to be true about yourself. It keeps you from bending under the strong will of another person, asserting yourself and your rights as a person.

Among psychologists and other mental health professionals, there is general agreement with the notion that self-esteem is a basic human need. That is, it is indispensable to normal and healthy self-development, and has a value for survival.

How humility and self-esteem are compatible Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden explained self-esteem to be "the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness. This means trust in your ability to think, learn, make appropriate decisions, and respond effectively to new conditions. It also means confidence in your right to experience success and personal fulfillment-the conviction that happiness is appropriate to you." Thus, self-esteem is experienced as a part of, or background to, all of an individual's thoughts, feelings and actions.

A humble person's self-esteem is an accurate, not over-estimated, not-underestimated view of his or her abilities and worthiness. One can stand one's ground when challenged, cope with failures, and not be overly proud of one's successes.

I believe that humility is very much compatible with this definition of self-esteem. I'll go further to say that both of these concepts, humility and self-esteem are compatible with our first Unitarian Universalist principle: the inherent worth and dignity of all people. All are worthy of happiness, just by being human beings. All can see themselves as able to face the basic challenges of life - which we all do to a greater or lesser extent. Sometimes we need others to help us, sometimes we can do this alone. All of the time, we are worthy of what some call the Grace of God, and others term the benevolent connection to all of creation.

There is a further connection between humility and Unitarian Universalism. Direct experience of the transcending mystery and wonder is the first Unitarian Universalist source of truth. We stand in awe of a creation of vast and unlimited beauty. Our response is humility. The link between direct religious experience and humility has been observed by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr. In a recent NPR broadcast, he said, "People who have really met the Holy are always humble. It's the people who don't know who usually pretend that they do. People who've had any genuine spiritual experience always know they don't know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind. It is a litmus test for authentic God experience, and is -- quite sadly -- absent from much of our religious conversation today. My belief and comfort is in the depths of Mystery, which should be the very task of religion." Further, UU minister Barbara Wells says that, "At the root of all direct human experience of the Holy are the two essentials for a true Universalist faith: humility and awe."

Humility theology: Unites science and religion

In my research for this sermon, I've discovered that there is a branch of theology called "humility theology." Humility theology is predicated on the assumption that there is far more to know about God and the natural world than is now known or ever will be known. In this theology, both the scientist and the theologian stand in awe of the vastness of the existing cosmos, acknowledging the smallness of human beings in their ability to understand and take actions. Humility theologians see their work as being complementary with the work being done by scientists. The common ground where humility theologians and scientists meet is where speculation and experimentation serve as the means of inquiry. Both posit assumptions and theories and test them using rules of reasoning and logic. Both realize that they won't be able to discover the complete "truth" within this vastness, but are driven to try.

In his book The humble approach: scientists discover God, psychologist David G. Myers offers readers a theological perspective that lends support to humility theology. He cites the observation of the writer/poet Madeline L'Engle that the unaided intellect is an extraordinarily inaccurate instrument, Myers says, "...that is why, rather than trusting our unaided intuition, we do science. This perspective disposes a healthy attitude for approaching all of life: to be critical, but not cynical, curious, but not gullible, open, but not exploitable-in a word, to be humble." And that these methodologies are practiced by both scientists and theologians.

Being trained as a scientist for my first career, I find it fascinating that humility can be a meeting place for science and religion, where they can find commonality. Maybe this is part of why this idea grabbed me so much when I first heard it in Hayward. Cleaning toilets being the way to unite science and religion? Fascinating! I would never have guessed it.

Humility in the Capitalist world

Next, I'd like to address the question of whether humility is practical in today's world. Our daily life consists of living in a competitive, winner-take-all world. How does one practice humility in this kind of world? Is humility practical?

It has been observed [Dr. Sawraj Singh a Sikh active in social justice issues [Chairman of Washington State Network for Human Rights, and Chairman of Central Washington Coalition for Social Justice] that "religion and spirituality were considered impediments towards the unbridled growth of capitalism because they promoted the values of moderation, austerity, humility, and restraint. These qualities prevent people from becoming good consumers. Capitalism needs the exact opposite values to be successful: extravagance, arrogance, selfishness, and greed in order to make people better consumers."

But do better consumers imply happier, more secure people with more meaningful lives?

To explore answering these questions, I turn to a paper entitled "I'm glad that I'm a nobody: A positive psychology of humility," written by the psychologist Paul T. P. Wong. First, he makes a distinction between the quest for significance vs. selfish ambition, saying, "The search for meaning and significance should not be confused with personal ambitions for worldly success. Meaning fulfillment can be achieved only through knowing who we are and becoming what we are meant to be.

"A clear sense of identity cannot be found from external circumstances; it can only be built on the foundation of core values and beliefs, which define our selfhood." He cites the work of psychologist Alfred Adler, who concluded that selfish ambitions for fame, power and wealth are misguided, because in the end, they only lead to disillusion rather than fulfillment. The trappings of success never fill the inner void for meaning and significance.

Next, Wong looks at personal significance vs. pride. "Significance," he says, "refers to a sense of one's self-worth and self-esteem. To love and to be loved are key ingredients of personal significance, which can be derived from a variety of sources. Humility comes naturally from the existential/spiritual perspective, because meaning fulfillment is primarily a gift, which comes from serving others and serving God."

Finally, Wong addresses self-abasement vs. realistic self-assessment. "Self-abasement is not always helpful in our relationship with people, because it may invite them to trample on us like a doormat... One can maintain a humble attitude without the false modesty of denying one's ability or diminishing one's work. However, a humble person does not take oneself too seriously; nor does one take full credit for one's accomplishments." I agree.

"But," I can hear you asking, "That's fine for my personal life, but do these lessons apply for business?" We all have the image of the commanding, egocentric CEO with a taste for celebrity. Leadership expert Jim Collins, backed by the results of a 5-year research study, says the essential ingredient for taking a company to greatness is having an executive in whom extreme personal humility blends paradoxically with intense professional will. Collins identifies the characteristics common to these leaders: humility, will, ferocious resolve, and the tendency to give credit to others while assigning blame to themselves. He says becoming a great company also requires vision and strategy, faith and facts, breakthrough momentum, focus, technology, and discipline. Some of these are obvious, but it is the humility of the CEO that is striking to me.

I'd be interested if any of you want to explore these ideas further after the service.

Specific lessons for our lives

I have a number of suggestions and offer these ideas for cultivating humility:

So be it. Amen


From arrogance, pompousness, and from thinking ourselves more important than we are, may some saving sense of humor liberate us.

For allowing ourselves to ridicule the faith of others, may we be forgiven.

From making war and calling it peace, special privilege and calling it justice, indifference and calling it tolerance, pollution and calling it progress, may we be cured.

For telling ourselves and others that evil is inevitable while good is impossible, may we stand corrected.

God of our mixed up, tragic, aspiring, doubting, and insurgent lives, help us to be as good as in our hearts we have always wanted to be.


-- Harry Meserve

Closing Words

Go in peace. Live simply, gently, at home in yourselves.
Act justly. Speak justly.
Remember the depth of your own compassion.
Forget not your power in the days of your powerlessness.
Do not desire to be wealthier than your peers
And stint not your hand of charity.
Practice humility.
Speak the truth, or speak not.
Take care of yourselves as bodies, for you are a good gift.
Crave peace for all people in the world,
Beginning with yourselves,
And go as you go with the dream of that peace alive in your heart.
--Mark L. Belletini, adapted

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