'Rest for Your Souls'
St. Francis Day
October 5, 2014
St. Francis, Charleston
I want to commend you here at St. Francis for your work and efforts and accomplishments on behalf of The Episcopal Church. Your story is impressive, as you sacrificed a great deal to remain a part of this church. You searched for a place to meet, with several stops along the way, and have come to this funeral home – for a time at least. You have developed various programs for youth and adults, and you are living into your calling as an Episcopal church in this time and place. You deserve considerable recognition and appreciation for what you have done and continue to do.
Having said these things – which I absolutely believe to be true – it is my responsibility now to lead us in another direction in this sermon. That is, the readings for St. Francis Day call us away from excessive attention on accomplishments. Rather, these readings focus us on the subject of humility as we seek to follow the example and message of St. Francis of Assisi. Remember that St. Paul wrote these words to the Galatians, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:14a). Remember, too, that St. Matthew reported that Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (11:25). Humility, then, becomes the virtue of St. Francis which we are called to emulate.
To focus on humility, though, is to engage in a countercultural activity. That is, we certainly tend to prefer recognition and praise … and the world in which we live surely supports that tendency. Humility is not considered to be a great asset, frankly.
Interestingly, however, a public figure such as Pope Francis – who tries to follow the example of St. Francis – is admired for his humility. We need only consider his preferred method of transportation and his choice of lodging to perceive his dedication to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. And for his dedication to that path, he is greatly respected.
Thus, it is safe to say that we seem to be conflicted in our attitude toward the practice of humility in our society. Let me suggest that perhaps humility may be an attribute that we admire in others but prefer to avoid ourselves.
I am reading a book on narcissism currently, and it relates some trends that are troublesome for those who value the example of St. Francis. The book’s title is “The Narcissist Next Door” (Jeffrey Kluger), and that title itself suggests how prevalent this trait is becoming. According to the author, a narcissist brings to his encounters a great degree of “grandiosity” and “an unquenchable thirst for admiration”, along with a complete “lack of empathy” (p18). Such a person also seeks with great passion, “recognition, attention, glory, (and) rewards” (p18).
Now, the book does not claim to be entirely scientific in its compiling of data and reaching conclusions. However, it does point to some compelling trends that indicate a significant rise in the tendency to focus on oneself in our society. The most interesting example, I think, is the identification of the “Person of the Year” by Time magazine in 2006. The award was presented with these words: “For seizing the reins of the global media; for founding and framing the new digital democracy; for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME’s Person of the Year for 2006 is you” (quoted on p16). Instead of a photograph for the magazine’s cover, reflective Mylar was on the front – so that we could see the reflection of ourselves.
Therefore, a dilemma is squarely before us today. On the one hand, our instincts and our world push us toward seeking recognition, appreciation, and honor. On the other hand, though, our faith – including the example of St. Francis – encourages the practice of humility. So, what are we to do, in the face of this dilemma?
It seems to me that one answer to this conundrum is suggested by the example of the narcissist himself. That is, such a person has very little self awareness – at least as far as how his actions are perceived by others. Thus, from his perspective, why worry about what opinions other people may have about any issue. After all, his opinion is the only one that matters, for it is clearly superior. Also, from his perspective, it surely is no surprise that he is the center of attention in any room and the focus of all praise. After all, he deserves it.
What I am suggesting by this example is that one key to the practice of humility involves healthy self awareness, which the narcissist lacks. Honors and praise will come our way, at least occasionally, for that is the practice of the world we know. To focus too much on them – or, ironically, to deny one's merit entirely – simply calls greater attention to oneself. On the other hand, a simple expression of gratitude is appropriate. On our good days, we also know our own shortcomings and failures – and we claim those as well. Such self awareness helps ground us in humility.
Probably the best way to deal with the dilemma before us today is to remember some of our Lord’s words, as well as his example. In today’s Gospel reading, we heard this direction: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (11:29).
That rest for the soul describes the goal of a healthy spiritual life. We will not find such rest in the pursuit of more honors or greater recognition … for always, always, that appetite will remain unfulfilled. Neither will we know such rest in the denial of appropriate gratitude that comes our way. Rather, the rest for the soul comes to those with healthy self awareness … those who practice unaffected humility. Therefore, may our prayer be to seek that yoke of humility, whose “burden is light” indeed. Amen.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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