Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 1 October, 2023.  Readings for the Eighteeth Sunday After Pentecost (Yr A):  Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32 


Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  (Phil 2.3)

I’d like to tell you an uplifting story about the most humble person who ever lived, but other than Jesus, I don’t know about that person.   We will never meet that person his side of heaven, since someone who is really good at being humble will never tell you about it and you’ll never notice them.   I can however tell you an autobiographical story about the absence of humility.

My first parish had a scarcity of resources, so that in winter, when I arrived on Sunday at 8am, the walkway and doorstep was often deep in snow and I’d be the guy to shovel them, which exasperated me because I thought I had better things to do with my precious time.

One day I said to my wife, “I’ve got four university degrees and I’m shovelling the snow.”  At which she fixed me with a piercing gaze and said in a cold voice, “And what is your point?”  

At which I quailed and realized that I had no point, other than that I was too good for this work.  And I realized that I my sin in that moment was pride, which is not becoming in a minister.

Now there are some things that I as a pastor should never be allowed to do in church – electrical wiring and accounting come to mind.  But I have come to believe that a good pastor should never be afraid to get their hands dirty, because what is a church, but a collection of disciples who serve Christ and serve others?

The virtue that describes this mindset is called humility, and it’s not a fashionable word today.    In an age of social media influencers, and bullhorn politics that despises “losers”, the idea of humility is completely unfathomable.   

Humilty would have been equally weird to many in St. Paul’s world.  Last Sunday in the first part of this sermon series, I described how the northern Greek city of Philippi had become a Roman colony, with all the trappings of Roman power and its state religion.   

Some members of the Philippian Christians would have had some status, such as Lydia, the cloth merchant who along with her household were baptized by Paul (Acts 16:11-15).  However, it’s most likely that the members of this little church would have mostly been lower class Greeks, including slaves and servants (Lydia’s “household” would likely have included some of these).  

Such folk would undoubtedly have been captivated by Paul’s preaching that Jesus as the Son of God would, in this splendid and beloved phrase, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil 2.6-7).    

The word that Paul uses for slave is doulos, which can mean slave, servant, or any person of menial or “humble” status.  A Roman victory parade would have been led by generals and nobles, and the slaves and captives (douloi) would have followed in the rear.  Such was the Roman world.

It’s worth noting that Paul planted these first churches as or even before the gospels were being written, which means that the first Philippian believers would not have known the stories that we know.  For these first Christians, it was enough to know that Jesus, the Lord (kryios) of Heaven, became a servant (doulos) for their sakes.  That in itself would have been good news aplenty in Roman Philippi.

The Philippian believers of this letter would not have known St. John’s account of the last supper, of how Jesus “tied a towel around himself” and washed his disciples feet (Jn 13:1-15) as an example to them.  They would not have known this story, but it would have fit perfectly with Paul’s teaching.

Likewise the first Philippians would not have known Jesus’ parables, such as the parable of the wedding banquet  and its teaching that guests should take the lowest seats, so that the host can honour them with a better one.  They would not have heard Jesus’ conclusion to this parable, ”For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Lk 14.11), words which Jesus repeats three times in the gospels.  The Philippian’s didn’t know these words, but they would have fully comprehended and endorsed them.

If we understand humility as a willingness to be a servant, without the trappings of human accomplishment and status, then we understand much of Jesus’ teaching.   As Jesus said to his disciples, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Mt 20.25-26).   

Across the centuries there have been many who have rejected or even scorned this teaching.  Philosophers like Nietzsche have rejected Christianity as a “slave morality” because it undercut his belief that the strongest should rule and impose their will on the weak.   

Today, as strongmen and authoritarians seem more and more acceptable to many, the church needs to guard against and reject this belief.   Jesus came down to earth to serve others, and taught us to follow his example.  That’s gospel.

We also need to realize that the church always needs to guard against the emotions and customs that lead us away from humility.   For some churches there is pride in having the right doctrine and teaching, which is a kind of Pharisee mentality.  For other churches there is a pride in status and accomplishment, which is a particular Anglican vice.

For example, our Diocese can’t seem to manage to put together an event without listing which participants have the Order of the Diocese of Toronto.   Clergy love their titles and honours, and I confess, there are times when I think it would be nice to call myself a Canon, which is a conspicuous failing of humility in itself!

Humility is a gift that each believer should strive for, myself included,  which is why Paul encourages us to grow into the mind of Christ (Phil 2.5).   The pursuit of humility is I think a constant direction of our faith lives, one that keeps us from becoming self-righteous Pharisees.   

The American pastor and author Chris Hutchinson recommends three ways in which we can grow into humility.

The first is reminding ourselves that we are saved by grace alone and not by own our own efforts.   last Sunday’s parable of the vineyard, in which the owner gives all the workers the same wage despite their efforts, is relevant here.   If taking pride in something, ask God for more humility.

Second, if we wondering how to proceed in our faith lives, simply ask God how we can be a servant, how we can put others first.  We would do this daily, just as the Lord’s prayer teaches us to ask for our daily bread.

Finally, we should ask how we are I serving my church.  Are we seeking to burnish our reputation for holiness? Do we seek recognition for our ministries?  When we are in a dispute about church matters, how important is it that  we win the argument?  Or, can we learn to see the point of view of others and thus grow in grace?

Chris Hutchinson also poses the same challenge to churches as a whole.   How can we grow in grace as a church?  Can we, to use Paul’s language, boast in our faith in Christ and not boast in ourselves?  Can our websites and our messaging feature our humility rather than how great we are?   

So let me leave you with something to ponder.   We are currently designing our website.   How could our new website show, without boasting, but with appropriate humility, that we be a servant church?

0 Responses

  1. Excellent sermon, Padre.

    At this time of year, I'm reminded of the words of St. Francis of Assisi: "What we are before God is what we are, and nothing more." A true remedy for arrogance.

  2. Hi!
    I’m a teenager and I’m establishing a Micronation. I was wondering if you (in a comment) could crown me king of my Micronation and bless my Micronation.