Sermon: Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Proudly?
Texts: Matthew 5:13-16; Micah 6:6-8
Speaker: Joel Miller
Last June, about 20 of us marched in the Stonewall Columbus Pride parade. It’s something our congregation has done for a number of years, and, after a Covid hiatus, it was nice to be back. Because of that time gap, or maybe just because we’re forgetful, we couldn’t find the banner we usually carry to let folks know who we are.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to start from scratch. Stored away in the recesses of the church basement was our former Micah 6:8 banner that had hung on the parking lot side of the building, blown down by a gust of wind in some bygone storm. Too damaged to affix back to the building, but whole enough to fashion into a banner. Here it is.
As the march began, we took turns holding the banner, a person on each side, at times doing our best to resist the strong winds that would have made a couple Mennonite paragliders into a headline feature of the event.
Along with the energetic winds, the energy of Pride was in the air. The streets were lined with enthusiastic and colorful parade-goers, cheering as we walked by. And we cheered right back, clapping, waving, with the occasional whoop and fist pump. At one point it was me and Dan L carrying the sign. Columbus Mennonite Church. Do Justice. Love Mercy. Walk Humbly. And at one point, looking at our Micah 6:8 banner and looking at the scene around us, building on a lifetime of astute observations as a journalist, Dan turns to me and says something to the effect: Someday I would like to hear a sermon about how to walk humbly in a Pride parade.
This, dear congregation, is that sermon. You can either thank or blame Dan after the service.
If you were here last Sunday you’ll remember that Micah 6:8 was also the focus of that service. It shows up in the lectionary this month and because it’s such a central passage for us we decided to have a Micah 6:8 mini-series.
This Sunday is part 2 of 2. Last week: Boiling it all down. This week: Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Proudly?, with a question mark with potential to turn into an exclamation point.
I won’t claim to have Dan’s journalistic observation skills, but I will say that the contrast between the celebration of Pride that has been so vital to the queer community, and the cautions and warnings against pride present throughout scripture and church teachings has stood out to me for quite a while. It’s Pride, Rainbow flags, Yes! on one side and pride, red flags, No! on the other side.
And I’m not talking about the church’s historic antagonism toward queer folks. I mean quite simply different ways of understanding the role of pride in human thriving, or in our downfall.
And so while this is a sermon about Micah 6:8, it’s mostly about that last phrase, “Walk humbly,” or just that last word, “Humbly.” Humility, and its counterpart, Pride.
So, here goes.
For starters, I’d like to suggest that Pride and humility aren’t the only contrasts at play here. We’ll get to that in a bit. What I’d like to do first is to back up and talk about another set of contrasts: Pride and shame.
No one I’m aware of has done more to address the dynamics of shame, spoken for a broad audience, than Brene Brown. She is, for all intents and purposes, the guru of shame.
And to understand how she defines shame, she brings in another distinction: The difference between shame and guilt. As Brene Brown defines it, guilt is the psychological discomfort we feel when we’ve either done something or failed to do something that conflicts with our values. When we’ve harmed someone else. Guilt can be helpful because it means we have a conscience and we’re willing to listen to it. It means we, like everyone, make mistakes. The feeling of guilt can help us grow. We said something hurtful to a friend. We failed to follow through on a promise. We bought way too much plastic that now we’re dumping in the trash and landfill. We went along with the crowd rather than speaking up. Guilt can lead toward spiritual reflection along the lines of the Lord’s Prayer, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. We forgive ourselves, reconcile with others if appropriate, and strive for growth. We give thanks for Divine grace. Guilt can be the adaptive nudge that moves us in this direction.
Shame, on the other hand is different. Brene Brown writes “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” This can be because of something we’ve experienced or done or even something that has been done to us, but it can also be because of who we are.
Shame is felt internally but it is often caused by signals we pick up around us. It can be about our bodies, how we look, size, shape, skin color. It can be about our emotions and affections, what we are drawn toward, who we feel an attraction toward. It can be about social standing, what we do or don’t have or own or wear. You get the idea and you know what I’m talking about.
Unlike guilt, shame is not adaptively helpful. Guilt reminds us that we have done something wrong. Shame tries to tell us our very being is wrong and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
Shame causes us to shrink, to hide, to become small. Sometimes a person disappears inside themselves. Sometimes they disappear to the world and end their life.
Dr. King would often speak about the need everyone has for “somebodiness.” One of those times was during a speech to Glenville High School students in Cleveland, the same month he came out publicly against the Vietnam War, April 1967. King told those high schoolers:
Now the first thing that we must do is to develop within ourselves a deep sense of somebodiness. Don’t let anybody make you feel that you are nobody. Because the minute one feels that way, he is incapable of rising to his full maturity as a person. You know a lot of people have segregated minds and one of the first things that the Negro must do is to desegregate his mind.
It’s hard to have humility when you’re just humiliated.
In April of the next year, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee while giving leadership to the sanitantion worker’s strike. If you’ve seen images from that strike you may remember Black men lining the streets holding up signs that say “I am a man.” It was an expression of somebodiness. A forceful pushing back against the shame racism creates, and all its social ills.
It was just one year after that, in 1969, that the writer and gay rights activist Thomas Higgins coined the term “gay pride.” That expression, just that word, pride, came to capture queer folks’ claim to their somebodiness, pushing back against social stigma, refusing to live in shame. This has come and still can come with tremendous risks.
In this sense, pride is a refusal to shrink, hide, or disappear. Pride is a refusal to be small.
A teaching from Jesus especially fitting here comes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, right after he has given the Beatitudes, teachings about what it means to be blessed. Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
If seeing yourself as the light of the world sounds a bit prideful, maybe it should, in this kind of way. What I hear Jesus saying is that the world needs everyone’s light, the whole house needs illuminated. This is the light that casts out shame. Unfortunately, a good portion of the world is trying to divvy out whose light is good and who should be cast out of the house altogether.
So that’s the first part. Self-affirming pride is a holy state of communal celebration that overcomes self-negating shame. You are the light of the world. Thank you Jesus.
But this doesn’t fully address the question: How do you walk humbly in a pride parade?
There is a significant difference between self-affirming pride, and self-aggrandizing pride.
If it’s that first one Jesus was urging in the Sermon on the Mount, it’s the second one that comes with warning signs throughout scripture.
Most famously, Proverbs warns that pride comes before a fall. The actual citation is a bit longer, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18. Pride lifts you high above others, then you fall back down to earth.
Paul writes to the Romans, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.” (Romans 12:3)
Mary proclaims in her magnificat: “God has shown strength with their arm. God has have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” (Luke 1:51)
We could go on. This is the kind of pride all wisdom traditions caution against. The kind our plays and films and storybooks weave tales of warning about. Psychology has given us the language of “the ego” which just means the self but often gets reserved for talking about the self blinded by too big a sense of itself.
So, is this where humility comes in? Is this how this whole things plays out? If we start with shame making us small, with pride helping us be our full selves, claiming our dignity and goodness and light, do we just get a little too much pride, and start to feel guilty about that, such that humility has to come to the rescue and make us small again? Do shame and humility touch at the bottom of the circle?
I don’t find that a particularly helpful way of looking at it. It sounds exhausting.
What I’d like to suggest is that this other kind of pride, the self-aggrandizing kind, the thinking of yourself too highly kind, the kind that comes before the fall, the kind Mary’s God wants to scatter and crush – this pride, like shame, has too small a view of the self. Way too small.
Because like shame, its caught up in the game of worthiness and flaws and belonging. Only rather than being on the underside, self-inflating pride pushes others down as not quite as worthy or more flawed than me, or not belonging in these parts. It’s a game that requires winners and losers. It cuts us off from kinship with one another. This pride imprisons us in our separateness from others.
To walk humbly with God is to walk toward a much larger, much more expansive sense of self and others. To go from the Hebrew to the Latin, humility has the same root of as humus, the rich soil from which all life comes. The ground under our feet that holds us all up. And it’s the same root as human. As soil creatures we are all connected in the unfathomably complex web of life. We are more than the limits of our bodies and brains. We are members of a community.
When Paul writes to the Romans in 12:3 that they shouldn’t think of themselves more highly then they ought, his counter is to remind them that they are each members of the same body. Paul writes in 12:4: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” He cautions them about thinking too highly of themselves by reminding them they are actually part of something much larger than themselves.
Humility is not a shriking. It is a great expansion of spirit. It beckons us into mystical union with all things. With the Divine.
You are the light of the world. The world needs everyone’s light, but ultimately it’s about the light we carry and not about us. The light is the gift we are responsible for, and like any gift, it didn’t originate from us. It came before us, it will outlive us. It holds us and all beings in its care.
So if you ever find yourself marching in, or just watching a pride parade, or this can apply to life in general, we can marvel and rejoice with those who have found a community that has enabled them to move beyond shame and claim their god-given worth and dignity. Those who have helped us do the same. All these somebodies shining their multicolor lights. We can rejoice further that we are of the humus. Humility invites us deeper and deeper into kinship with one another and with God.
So I guess what I’m saying is I think it’s possible to do justice, love mercy, and walk proudly, humbly.