Imperfect Vessels

Sermon for Sunday, March 31, 2019 || Lent 4C || LUKE 15:1-3, 11-32

Today I’d like to talk about humility. And we’ll start at the low point of the story I just read. The younger son has squandered all his resources, and a famine has driven him to hire himself out in such a way that simply perpetuates his destitution. In the parable, Jesus places the son there in the mud among the pigs, longing to eat their slop. And in this moment of distress and clarity, Jesus tells us, the younger son “came to himself.” In other words, there in the mud, the son received the gift of humility, which allowed him to view his situation with new eyes and new possibilities.

We’ll get back to the mud a little later. But for now, let me tell you, I have spent the better part of my adult life trying to understand the concept of humility. As someone who went through decades of schooling with my self-worth and self-image tied to the grades on my report cards, this journey toward understanding humility has been long and circuitous…and ongoing. At the outset of the journey, I had no concept of humility because I interpreted my academic success as being the product solely of my own hard work. I didn’t think to give credit to the family who raised me or the teachers who taught me or the accident of several overlapping areas of privilege that told me I deserved everything I got.

During my first year of seminary, my spiritual director, the Rev. Margot Critchfield, invited me to imagine how humility might intersect with my life. She diagnosed my spiritual sickness easily: an isolation from God and my fellow person because I misconceived myself as the primary mover of my life. If I were fully responsible for making myself, what was left for God? And how could I ever authentically interact with other people?

So Margot asked me to bring the concept of humility into my consciousness – not humility itself, just the idea of it for starters. My first attempt at understanding humility went way off track. I thought of humility as a sort of false modesty: demurring when given compliments, downplaying my gifts and talents, saying that, “No,” I’m no good at something that I actually am good at.

Well, Margot didn’t let me off the hook when I came to her with this wrong-headed definition. She set me straight: “Humility,” she taught me, “is not false modesty or downplaying of gifts. Humility is the proper attribution of giftedness to the source of all good gifts.” In other words, humility helps us stay in right relationship with God and with one another. Humility allows us to recognize the contributions of others to our own flourishing. And, perhaps best of all, humility allows us to see ourselves for the imperfect beings we are, while also reminding us that God loves us and blesses us with gifts anyway. It turns out, humility itself is one of God’s gifts, for humility helps us see our imperfections not as disqualifiers, but as natural parts of the human experience that God embraces for God’s good purposes.

For the next part of this sermon, I need a visual aid…

I love this chalice so much. Angie Robinson donated it two years ago in memory of her late husband. She and I had great fun searching for an artisan to craft the chalice. We wanted a ceramic piece, handmade by a potter, thrown on a wheel, glazed and fired in a kiln. We wanted it to be one-of-a-kind, not mass-produced to exacting specifications. And the end result was exactly what we were hoping for.

Here it is: the product of clay and fire and God-given creativity. This chalice is not a perfect specimen. The bowl droops a bit on one side. If you try to place something on top of the chalice, the item will lie there ever so slightly slanted. It wobbles a bit when you put it down. But the very fact that this chalice is not a perfect specimen is precisely why I love it so much. Because this chalice is just like you and me. This chalice is an imperfect vessel that God still manages to use for God’s good purposes.

And so are you and I. In fact, the material of the chalice is instructive – the clay itself. The words humility, humble, and human all come from the same Latin source, the humus – the clay, the earth, the ground. (I told you we’d get back to the mud.) This etymological relationship happens in Hebrew also – with my name, ironically enough. Adam is the Hebrew word for human. Adamah is the ground from which God formed the human. Thus, another definition of humility is a certain “groundedness” – a visceral understanding of our place in the world, of our place in God’s family, of the relationship between our gifs and our imperfections. When the younger son “comes to himself” in the parable, I think he is discovering this groundedness there in the mud.

Such groundedness allows us to acknowledge our present location, the starting point of today, of now, of where our feet are currently planted. Humility then helps us to be honest with ourselves when we take stock of everything going on inside us – our hopes, our fears, our triumphs, our failures, our aspirations, and our limitations. Humility helps us “come to ourselves.”

And this is where our two definitions of humility combine. Our groundedness helps us understand the source of the gifts which makes us soar. And the more we attribute our gifts to the beautiful mixture of God, self, and community, the more deeply will we be able to access those gifts. And not just access them, but employ our gifts for the building up of God’s beloved community and the stewardship of God’s creation.

Of course, the sneaky shackles of imperfection can hold us back from embracing God’s gifts and using them in these ways. And that’s when we need to remember the imperfect chalice, which God transforms into the vessel of Holy Communion, that which lets us drink in the presence of Christ. Remember, the younger son has a plan to return home and hire himself out to his father. The son thinks he has irreparably damaged his chances with his family: “There’s no way my father can love me as he used to, not after all I’ve done.” But that’s not how the story goes. The father welcomes his son back home with open arms; the son’s imperfect behavior is not a barrier to the father’s love.

God uses imperfect people to accomplish God’s purposes. God uses imperfect institutions filled with imperfect people to do the same. As we partner with God in God’s mission of healing, justice, and reconciliation, God continues our own transformation. We begin in humility, a people grounded, made of the mud. Then God fills us with God’s love and light just like we fill this chalice with blessed wine. We may be imperfect vessels, but God fills us anyway, because God yearns for us to embrace God’s glory. And in embracing God’s glory, we naturally find ourselves working for the transformation of this world so it more fully reflects the glory of God.

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