The homily below, based on the Virtue of the Month, Humility, was originally presented in middle and upper school daily worship.
I start with an admission - perhaps an obvious one - but nonetheless one that is important to air at the outset. I can be hopelessly old-fashioned - emphasis on the “old” part. I wear a suit most days. I like the formality. I still subscribe to a newspaper. I like to hold it in my hands when I read it. Spread it out over the table. Linger with it over the second cup of coffee. It is a joy. I prefer to pick up the phone and call someone instead of sending a text - particularly when I have something difficult to talk about. I need to hear a voice, sense a human emotion. I need that connection. And I still listen to the radio, for gosh sakes. Who does that? It reminds me of my youth when I would dial in stations from all over the country on my transistor, imagining what was going on in far-flung cities across the United States - cities I only could dream about in the age before widespread travel and the internet. Contrary to popular belief, I was not alive when giants roamed the earth, but sometimes it feels close.
On one of my favorite all-time radio shows, the host, someone even more ancient than I am, used to close with a segment he called “Old Guy Radio.” He would play music from the 1950s and ’60s and reminisce about his childhood, often touching on by-gone themes of virtue that, to him, seemed lost.
So get ready, folks. it’s time for Mr. Baad’s version of “Old Guy Radio.”
We are wondering this month about the virtue of humility. As a young boy, this virtue was drilled into me by my father. In fact, I would argue (and so would he probably) that there was no other virtue that he thought was more important to teach me than humility. Some things he would say to me over and over again,
“Those who are good at something usually don’t talk about it much.”
“David, always let your actions speak for themselves. If you’re good, people will know it. You won’t have to tell them.”
He loved telling me the story about the 1960’s era Dallas Cowboys rookie who scored a touchdown, spiked the ball, and danced in celebration. When he got to the sideline, the legendary Cowboys coach Tom Landry looked at him disapprovingly and said, “Next time, act like you’ve been there before.” I was taught that under no circumstances should I show emotion when I scored, hit a home run, threw out a runner. “Act like you are supposed to do that,” my father would always tell me. To this day, even though my sport has changed, his voice is still in my head. If I sink a 20-foot putt, my instinct is simply to go get the ball out of the cup and go to the next tee. No hollering, no fist pump. “Act like you were supposed to do that.”
Nowadays, all of what my father taught me seems so anachronistic - so out of place with the time we are living in.
It seems that the messages that you and I receive from our culture are more like,
“How are you going to get the most ‘likes’?” Or
“How are you going to sell yourself?” Or
“What’s your brand? How are you going to make sure people know about you?”
Ugh. Are we goods, a commodity, to be bought and sold?
Facebook and Instagram have been much in the news lately. I am not here to bash them. I have seen the positive impact that these platforms can have on social networks. I enjoy the efficacy with which I can see pictures of my newly born grand-niece Evie who lives in England - remarkable stuff really when I imagine what was possible just 50 years ago when I was a child.
I do wonder, though, how these platforms are used otherwise. It appears to this old guy that most of the time, people are snapping pictures of themselves, expressing opinions, or virtue signaling in some way to be sure that everyone out there knows how great and virtuous they are and how fabulous their life is - even if sometimes their pictures are heavily edited or their captions are lies. This boasting about oneself is sort of the social version of the touchdown dance I referenced earlier. Every time I hear about this practice, I remember my dad:
“Those who are good at something usually don’t talk about it much.”
Or Tom Landry
“Act like you’ve been there before.”
On Tuesday, Father Nate talked about the Golden Mean, the Aristotelian ideal that all virtue is a settling on the perfect balance between the excess and deficiency of a virtue. It may be right now that my ancient complaining, my geezerly whining, is not achieving that goal. I have thought on occasion that my father’s advice in fact eroded my confidence sometimes. It did not allow me to enjoy and celebrate my success, feel good about what I accomplished. Perhaps there is an element of truth to that thought.
However, as time as passed, I have come to accept another wisdom - a sentiment beautifully expressed through the exhortation in our prayer today:
“Make us grateful for how you (God) have enabled us to develop our gifts in community.”
I think what God is telling us here is that we are blessed to be able to develop as people with the support of those around us. Wonder for a minute about anything you have accomplished so far in your life. Can you honestly say that you did it all by yourself? That it was “all about you?” When I think about my own life, I recall the opportunities my parents gave me, the colleagues and teammates who supported me, the teachers and coaches who taught me. And ultimately, God’s love and Jesus’s sacrifice that created this world for me to live in.
The great scientist, Sir Issac Newton, when talking about his discoveries and inventions, said, ”I am merely standing on the shoulders of giants.” He was describing how his ability to see things others could not was merely a result of the foundational work that other great people had done before him. Wonder for a minute whose shoulders you are standing on.
So the question you may be asking then, “Mr. Baad, how does accepting that others are primarily responsible for our accomplishment help us be more confident? Wouldn’t that make us feel less than? Feel like we did not have what it takes to succeed?”
Oh friends, quite the opposite. Whenever we are in a place where we must approach a difficult task, we can take great comfort in knowing that we are not alone. We carry the love and wisdom from those around us - our parents, our mentors, our friends, and colleagues - into the challenge. And we carry Jesus’s love with us, too, because it can remind us that as a beloved child of God, we can endure whatever is ahead of us. We may not always succeed, but the love of God is there no matter what.
Many of the proverbs we heard in today’s reading of scripture reinforce this virtue of humility. The two today though to focus on are:
“When pride comes, disgrace comes;
But with the humble is wisdom.”
“Before disaster the heart is prideful,
But before honor comes humility.”
These two proverbs link the word “pride” to disaster and disgrace. Two conditions we all wish to avoid. But, the dictionary defines pride both as “excessive appreciation for one’s own worth” and as “a reasonable or justifiable self-respect” - two seemingly contradictory meanings - a toggle between the excess and the Golden Mean. Interestingly though, Webster places the order of the definitions in that way, perhaps signaling by priority of order what is more common in we humans. My favorite theological definition of pride is used by priests most often when they are preaching about Adam and Eve. They call pride acts “arrogating to ourselves the prerogative of God” - meaning we try to act as if we are God.
I sometimes wonder whether when we are self-congratulatory, when we post our selfie on Instagram, feel the need to make sure everyone knows our opinion via social media, when we dance in the end zone of life, whether in some ways we are self-worshiping, whether we are putting ourselves before God. Remember the first part of the Summary of the Law - Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. The second part - and love your neighbor. I don’t hear anything in there about congratulating yourself.
Both theology and history tell us that pride can become one of the seven deadly sins. Religious thinkers from Talmudic rabbis to St. Augustine of Hippo to the prophet Mohammed to Milton in Paradise Lost to St. Thomas Aquinas have identified pride as the origin of terrible behavior. All major religions see it as an obstacle to salvation and peace. Some call it the capital sin - the Latin root of capital coming from the word caput meaning “head.” Pride is the “head sin.”
So maybe, like all children, I return at the end by saying maybe my dad was right. Maybe he knew instinctively that since pride is the capital sin, it was important to pound that lesson of humility into his stubborn son. I will admit I feel like it is a lesson I am still learning.
My prayer for all of us in our community is that we always take our success with the humility of knowing that we stand on the shoulders of giants, the most important of which is symbolized by Jesus’s love.