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Ecclesiastes 5:1-3

Good morning, church. Please go with me in your Bibles to the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 5.

This is the third sermon in a miniseries on humility through the season of lent. We’ve been talking about how much of humility is just understanding yourself rightly, and I was arguing last week that understanding yourself rightly really is not an inward discipline, because understanding yourself rightly makes you realize you are not the most important thing you need to understand. Humility helps us see ourselves rightly, and so humility helps us forget ourselves and focus on God and his creation.

You aren’t the hero of the story, even of your own story. This passage in Ecclesiastes introduces an image which is going to be repeated all through Isaiah, and constantly in Jesus’ teachings: the image of the religious actor. I was a theater kid in high school, and I learned the meaning and origin of the word upstaging. In the earliest amphitheaters, instead of building the seating at a slant, they built the stage slanting toward the audience, so the back of the stage was literally upstage, higher than the front of the stage. So if you upstage someone, it means you’re an actor doing something in the background that all the sudden distracts the audience from the main drama happening downstage, toward the front. Like one time I was meant to be dancing upstage in the background, and I very loudly and noticeably dropped my dancing partner. Speaking from experience, upstaging is not a good thing.

Jesus is the hero of our stories, whether we realize it or not. Focusing on yourself is upstaging the Lord. Humility is learning your role, not as the hero of your own story, but as the one being rescued. We aren’t damsels in distress, we’re invited into all of the work of our God day to day, but that doesn’t make it our work, and if what we do is good, glorious, triumphant, the triumph isn’t ours.

I hope this morning we can learn through humility to glory in creation and in the Lord, and to give that glory to God. If you will, please stand with me as we read the Scriptures. Ecclesiastes, chapter 5, starting in v.1. [Ecclesiastes 5:1-7]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. You can be seated. Pray with me.

In our text, religious actors are contrasted with the worshippers who guard their steps. Acting is loud. A lot of the actual work of acting is learning lines and speaking them in ways everyone can hear you, and everyone will pay attention. When I first started acting in high school, we spent weeks just learning to project our voices, months learning lines. Actors stand up in places they can be seen and loudly speak a lot of words. Loud words, gathering attention, are great in a theater, but lousy in the day to day life of a Christ-follower. Religious actors want to be seen and heard talking about God, making promises, offering sacrifices.

If humility is understanding yourself rightly, then acting religious is the worst thing you can do. In acting, you become someone else. Serious actors are always trying to understand and live into their character. What is the character’s motivations, what are their flaws and quirks? Acting is learning to be someone else. Humility, is the opposite. Humility is learning to be yourself, being content to be upstage, or offstage altogether.

Our passage is arguing, silence is more meaningful than acting in religious practice. The author imagines worshippers who guard their steps, meaning, they approach the temple almost in secret, privately, like they don’t want anyone to know, like they’re trying not to be followed. When they reach the temple, they draw near, not to talk, but to listen. They would have to move through the courtyards of the temple, where they would have seen the sacrifices and free will offerings of the others going up—imagine the smells of animals and blood in the open air, meat roasting, the noises of the animals and the vendors; they go past all of that, through the courtyards into the inner courts to sit and listen to the reading of the law, the singing of the psalms and spiritual songs, the teaching of the rabbis. Solomon describes the wisdom of humility and quietness beautifully in verse 2: “God is in heaven, and you are on earth; therefore, let your words be few.”

Silence. Silence will add more meaning and wisdom to your life than any great number of words spouted acting on a stage. When you’re an actor, you’re so busy pretending to be something that you never actually become that thing. You can play a surgeon on TV for years, and the world may love you for it, but you’ll never get to a point where you can actually help anyone who’s sick. That kind of skill is learned in scrubs by bedside after bedside, in quiet rooms filled with books. In quietness you’re able to learn, able to gain the things actors pretend to have, so let your words be few.

Benedict, the fifth-century monk, taught that silence was one of the steps every Christian would eventually need to take if they’re wanting to walk humbly with God. I’m not advocating we stop speaking to each other, and neither was Benedict, though as an introvert, to me that does sound kind of nice. This isn’t a vow of silence. Silence, not as in shutting each other out, but silence as a default, a lifestyle, can lead you toward humility. Benedict’s rule is basically not speaking unless you really have to, unless someone asks you a question, or unless you have something to say to help them, to build them up.

As I’ve oriented my career toward helping in a space of poverty, I’ve read several research studies. One that surprised me—there was a study done on the average noise level of the lives of people in poverty vs. people in affluence. There’s a huge gap. Poverty is loud. Think about it: overcrowded houses near highways and railroad tracks and airports are cheaper, lower rents. Or if you’re on the street, there’s always noise. Large apartment complexes crowded with people create more opportunities for noise in the environment. Loud movies and music are in the room or just a wall away. We don’t normally think about it, but alongside things like medical care and education, one of the needs of people in poverty is just silence.

In these studies, it’s always difficult to tease out cause and effect, but as a pastor, former science teacher, I have a hypothesis: noise is a cause. Noise helps create poverty. Not just material poverty, but relational poverty, too. Not just auditory noise, either, but phones and business and entertainment. Even before we get to the spiritual, science will tell you, silence is a need for all of us. So why do we hate it? Why are we always trying to fill the silences of our lives?

I know I’ve had to learn, am learning, silence in my life. Did you know the average American spends just over eight hours every day consuming some form of digital media? That’s up from 3.5 hours a decade ago. If you get 8 hours of sleep at night, and work 40 hours per week, eight hours a day is literally all of your non-work time. I’ll ask again: why are we always trying to fill the silence of our lives?

We go from work or school to our car stereos, home to our phones until we eat in front of the TV, and I understand it. I even resemble it most days, but what if we didn’t? What if you turned the stereo off next week in the car, or started taking long walks in the morning without your phone, or as an adult gave yourself a bedtime? You could pick a night of the week to not watch TV, or set your phone to automatically shut down notifications past 8pm. I see two things happening in the silence of my life as I’ve started to ruthlessly carve it out of my schedule. I connect more with God, because oftentimes when I quiet my mind, he’s been in the silence already, the way my wife will sit sometimes in the morning early with coffee in the living room, waiting for me to join.

That’s one thing I notice, the other is, in silence I’m able to move beyond myself into appreciating the beauty of God and creation. On a long walk in the morning, I’m not thinking about work, or responsibilities at home, or conflict, which are all different ways to think about myself. I’m thinking about the way the trees arch over the path, the playful sound of the ducks, and the quiet beauty of the sun as it rises over the city and stains everything crimson for a moment, a picture of atonement, a reminder of how God wants to redeem and rescue every person here, restore every heart and body. Humility isn’t noisy, but neither is it bored. The silence of humility is contemplation and rest.

Practicing silence is a step toward humility, because, to quote one saint of old, in silence we learn the Lord “needs neither our brilliant deeds nor our beautiful thoughts.” Our words are not necessary, but his words created the universe and without them nothing would be. Our words wound and destroy, his words wound and heal. So in silence we learn to listen to God over our own voices, which is a step closer to humility.

For those seeking a path towards humility, Benedict teaches silence and he teaches self-abasement. I was talking with a coworker this week about ministry in the French Quarter. One of the largest difficulties of pastoring here is the outside perception of the Quarter. I could probably raise a ton of money for our church if I were to adopt a message of this church being a light in the midst of darkness, a last bastion of Christian goodness deep in enemy territory. I could raise a lot of money, the only problem being I love this place, and I love you people.

I’m not naive. There are evils here—the drugs slung and guns toted by kids who are being used by dealers because if they get arrested they only go to juvie. That’s evil, and I hate it. I hate that women are trafficked, addicted, objectified, and used here in our neighborhood. Drunkenness is a destroyer of lives. But when I look at our neighborhood, I see a square mile with almost 7,000 residents, and millions of visitors per year. These are all people Christ died to save, people he loves and values more than his own life.

I see art and creativity, the cultural center of the entire city. Restaurants and passion projects, like the Jean Lafitte enthusiast who opened up a themed coffee shop by the courthouse, or like Ms. Doreen who could play on any stage and chooses to play at Royal and St. Peter. Or the owner of Wakin’ Bacon who started a generator and battery program to help restaurants open faster after storms to feed the community. Things would be so much easier for me pastoring here if I didn’t love this place, if I would just preach against it, focus on everything evil and nothing beautiful, the only problem being, that’s not how Christ sees our city and our neighborhood.

Every person here, he wants to adopt into his family, to love them and give them a true home. You, me, even Phil. God hasn’t brought us here to condemn this place, but to help rescue and redeem it. And the same is true in our individual lives. Self-abasement is not self-hatred. Humility does not lead us to have a low view of ourselves, to despise ourselves. We talked a few weeks ago about the fear of God arising, not out of fear of what God might do to us, but out of fear of what our lives would be like without his intervention. In a similar way, self-abasement leads us to humility, not by asking us to hate ourselves or anyone else, but by asking us to consider how dark our lives and souls would be without his grace.

Self-abasement in Christianity doesn’t lead toward hatred, it leads toward gratitude. I tell my eight-year-old I love him all of the time. He’s annoyed by it at this point, and gets embarrassed when I say it front of his friends. But when he makes mistakes, and he knows it, when he’s in the midst of guilt and shame, in those moments when I come to him, pick him up and tell him I love him, he melts. When you think yourself worthy of a gift, you’re not grateful for it. But if you feel, in your bones, you don’t deserve love or forgiveness, and in that exact moment you are loved and forgiven, you’re grateful. Self-abasement in Christianity seeks gratitude for the gifts God gives.

Self-abasement leads us toward gratitude, and in gratitude, toward humility. The truly humble person will reject, ignore, any talk which would deride or devalue themselves or any other person. Humble people tend to find value and worth in all people, precisely because they don’t see value and worth arising from the person’s accomplishments, and instead see our worth and value coming from the love of Christ. Adam told me a story about Dorothy Day a while back where a reporter came to interview her in one of her ministry sites as she was sitting with a person who had lost everything and was in crisis. They were deep in conversation when the reporter walked up, and after finishing the conversation, Dorothy looked up and asked the reporter, “Would you like to speak with one of us?”

Humble people, too, will reject, ignore, any talk which will aggrandize any person, including themselves. One of the best preachers I know, I’ve stood near him several times after he’s preached, and people will come up to tell him how much the sermon changed their lives, and every time he responds with, “Praise God,” which is both a recognition in gratitude for what God was able to do, and a rejection of any glory that might come to him in the midst of the work of God.

The practice of self-abasement in Christianity will lead you toward a radical kind of equality in your thinking, if you will allow it to do so. This is an equality, which is able to admit the mutuality of sin, but far and beyond that is able to see the mutuality of the value God places on each of us. We are equal in value and worth because we are all broken, yes, but vastly more-so we are equal in value and worth as human beings because we are all beloved by God. He is a good father, and good fathers do not have favorite children. This mutuality is radical enough that the scriptures tell us, those who are in Christ have been made co-heirs even with Jesus.

Thinking less of our accomplishments and position in life invites us into thinking more of the beauty of God’s grace and the goodness of the gifts he gives. We don’t deserve to be in his family, but he wants to adopt us all the same. We don’t deserve his forgiveness as we fail over and over again, and yet he never leaves us. He’s always standing ready to open the door when we seek him. We don’t deserve all the beautiful things he gives us in our lives—our marriages, children, possessions, food, and friends. If we know we don’t deserve them, how much more will we praise God when he gives them?

Let’s silence ourselves this morning in order to hear what the Lord is saying to each and every one of us this morning. His Spirit is here to sanctify us, to draw us further down this road to humility and gratitude and abundant life in him. Do you feel him here? Respond. We’re going to take a minute—one single minute, to sit in as much silence as we can this morning. In silence, hear what God is saying to you this morning. I would invite you to contemplate how little you have deserved God’s love and your life and yet how generously, how extravagantly he does love each and every one of you this morning, not because of anything you’ve done, or anyone you’ve known, but because of his great love. Lord, in humility, we come to you saying we believe, help our unbelief.

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