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“My Eyes Are Not Raised Too High”
Sermon on Psalm 131 (John 18:33-38)
Reign of Christ, Year B
Anyone who thinks that prayer is all about other-worldly spirituality probably has not read the Psalms. The Psalms tell us, with sometimes graphic intensity, what it is like to be a human being down here on the ground. The Psalms are all about the vulnerability of human lives and the neediness of the human self before God. “Heal me”; save me”; listen to me,” the psalmists implore, and millions of Jews and Christians use these poems for their own prayers, confident that there is a connection between our experience today and that of the ancient Hebrew poets. Human life hasn’t changed as much as we think in the last three millennia: we still know sickness, we still need forgiveness, we still seek protection from those who would do us harm, and we still seek rest for our souls.
The people in the Psalms, on some level, are people we know. The Psalms are prayers and not stories, but they have their own cast of characters. There are righteous people and wicked people, frivolous people and serious people, wise people and fools. There are also arrogant, haughty people, and they may be the ones who come in for the heaviest criticism.
Our psalmist today has repudiated haughtiness. We don’t know if he is a low-status person who had aspired to things that were out of his reach or a person of high station – perhaps King David himself – who has been reminded that he is, after all, still a mortal. The psalmist here could be anyone who has been lured by the seductions of fame or wealth. Maybe he was trampled by people even more ambitious than he. Maybe he has emerged from a bruising battle that he realized was not worth the personal cost. Perhaps he has struggled with envy, disappointment and bitterness.
We don’t know what his situation is. All we know is that he has come through a place of turmoil to a place of peace – and the lovely, tender image of a child on its mother’s breast gives us a sense of the depth of that peace. Whatever has been going on in this psalmist’s life, he has come to recognize his dependence on God, and he knows the peace that comes with that recognition.
Those of you who are moms know that toddlers who are getting ready to stop nursing tend to get very restless before making this transition. They may kick and thrash about in the mother’s arms. They are easily distracted. They are hungry all the time. After weaning there can be a new sense of peace between mother and child; there is certainly a new sense of peace for the child, who can relate to his mother without the grasping sense of urgency that was there before. The child can enjoy simply resting in the mother’s arms and feeling her love.
The psalmist has not chosen a very “macho” image to describe his trusting surrender to God, but this is a psalm about learning humility, which we don’t think of as a very macho quality. In fact, in our culture humility is no longer considered much of a virtue. We do like to see displays of humility by people in very high places, but the humility that goes along with a more modest station in life does not impress us. In general, true humility is seen as a curiosity at best, something appropriate for the Amish or nuns; ordinary citizens who exhibit notable humility end up being treated with condescension.
And yet the very earliest teachings of the church stress humility as one of the most important Christian virtues. The word humility comes from humus, or soil, which reminds us that like our ancestor Adam we are earthly, not heavenly, beings, and we do well to remember our humble origins. So humility is a virtue greatly prized in the history of the church, but as John Henry Newman said, it is one of the most difficult of all the virtues to attain and to ascertain – in other words, it’s easy to fake. Of course, nowadays hardly anyone even pretends to possess this virtue. The blush and the bowed head have been replaced by the fist-pump of self-congratulation.
About ten years ago there was a very funny book called The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs. It was about the author’s attempt to spend one whole year following the Bible’s teachings literally. Some things were hard, like learning to pray, not coveting, not gossiping or exaggerating, tithing, and wearing Bible-times clothing in midtown Manhattan. But Jacobs’s greatest difficulty was in dealing with the constant temptation to tend his own ego. On the Sabbath, for example, he kept wanting to open his computer so he could Google himself or check out his latest reviews on Amazon.com.
In highly competitive cities like New York or Washington, these kinds of temptations are almost irresistible. I remember when I first moved to Washington, from a place where Southern gentility required at least a show of modesty. I still remember one of the first parties I went to in Washington, when I was about twenty-five: the host required everyone to introduce themselves to each other by telling what he or she did for a living. We went around a circle to make these confessions. I remember wishing I had something more impressive to report. I gradually learned that inflating a résumé was not just something people did to get jobs – it was how they talked about themselves socially.
Now, I certainly don’t want to suggest that we should hide our gifts and accomplishments under a cloak of false modesty. That serves no one, and is just as sinful in its own way as pride. We should not be timid about using the gifts God has given us and letting others know we have them to offer. And we should be confident enough to assert ourselves appropriately, to claim the just measure of respect that human creatures owe to one another. We all know there’s a big difference between healthy self-respect and an inflated ego. But we live in a culture that says self-aggrandizement is normal (and has become increasingly normalized over the last two years). Most advertising is based on stroking people’s egos: “You were born to stand out.” “Create your own destiny.” “Don’t ever settle for second-best.” But if 300 million people are taught to believe that they deserve to be at the top of the heap, the vast majority will either spend their lives fighting to achieve this exalted status or regretting that they haven’t been able to, blaming themselves or, more likely, someone else for their supposed failure. The ego can be a relentless master, depriving us of our peace.
A.J. Jacobs found that intercessory prayer, prayer for other people, released him from the ego’s clutches, and helped him “calm and quiet” his soul. “It’s ten minutes when it’s impossible to be self-centered. Ten minutes where I can’t think about my career, or my Amazon.com ranking, or that a blog in San Francisco made snarky comments about my latest Esquire article.”
Psalm 131 says it’s OK not to be the best – that living humanly is knowing our limits, keeping our ambitions in check, and shifting our focus to someone other than ourselves.
Only a calm and quiet soul could have faced Pilate in the Praetorium the way Jesus of Nazareth did. Jesus, whose kingly reign we celebrate today, was a truly free person precisely because he was unconcerned with his ego. He did not seek to enhance his reputation. He talked about himself only insofar as he pointed people in the direction of God. His total divestment of the signs of success is seen in the way he stands before Pilate refusing to try to charm, intimidate, threaten or otherwise persuade Pilate to release him. The tactics of manipulation, self-promotion or even self-protection are not in his repertoire. Think how threatening to Pilate’s self-esteem such a “calm and quiet” soul must have been!
The “calm and quiet” soul is the one that is not at the mercy of everything that can deliver either a blow or a boost to her sense of self. Kathleen Norris tells of a Benedictine sister who had been a university professor forced to retire because of a debilitating illness. In her new status, she had come to appreciate the lesson of Psalm 131. “For many years I was taught that I had to ‘master’ subjects. But who can ‘master’ beauty, or peace, or joy? …One of my greatest freedoms is to see that all the pretenses and defenses I put up in the first part of my life, I can spend the rest of my life taking down. This psalm tells me that I’m a dependent person, and that it’s not demeaning.”
The humility the psalmist speaks of is not an attitude of passivity – it is an attitude of trust. And that trust comes from knowing exactly who we are, regardless of our jobs or titles or accomplishments. We are children of God, “inscribed on the palms of God’s hands,” indelibly written on God’s heart. May that knowledge give you all the confidence you will ever need, and calm and quietness for your souls.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
November 25, 2018
 Quoted by Eugene Peterson from John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 156.
 A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 128.
 Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead books, 1996), 106.