As most of you probably know, I grew up north of here, in the tiny village of Coleridge, NE – it’s a community that’s quite a bit smaller than Schuyler. The school in town has since been consolidated, but while I was growing up, the school was K-12 – kindergarten through twelfth grade – all in the same building. I graduated with a class of 17 people; 14 of us had been there from the beginning and had known each other pretty much our whole lives.
But for most of the time, during those 13 years of school, it had actually only been 13 of us together, taking classes and going out for sports and other extracurricular activities. The 14th core member of our class was a girl named Ashley. Ashley was born with pretty severe cerebral palsy, which affected her mobility and also left her with significant cognitive impairments. Because of this, she wasn’t really able to progress much further than about a third grade level of education. So as the rest of our class progressed through middle school and high school, Ashley kind of got left behind.
But when the time came for our class to graduate, Ashley “graduated” alongside the rest of us as well. Even though she didn’t get an actual diploma, her family wanted to make sure that she also got to experience such a significant milestone. And to celebrate, they threw a huge graduation party for Ashley, and they invited absolutely everyone.
Now, my class was never particularly chummy or close with one another. I mean, I grew up being bullied on and off by most of them – I certainly don’t keep in touch with any of them now, and we really didn’t hang out much back then either. But that party – Ashley’s party – was the one party we all turned up for. It was the one party that brought us all together. And it was such a blast! It was a beautiful mid-May afternoon. We were all hanging out in Ashley’s family’s big backyard eating pizza and barbecue, playing with their kittens, and just having a good time.
Once we were all stuffed to the gills with pizza and hotdogs, we decided that it would be fun to start up a game of kickball. Our whole class played – even Ashley. I still remember how it went every time she came up to bat: instead of lobbing the ball like they did with everyone else, the pitcher would gently roll the ball toward Ashley; after a few tries, she’d connect with it and kick it a little ways into the infield and take off for first base. Whichever infielder was closest to the ball would then leisurely stroll over and pick up the ball, then rear back and chuck it as far as they could out into the outfield. The outfielders then went scrambling after the ball – meanwhile, Ashley reached first base and started toward second, just giggling all the way. Then they’d throw the ball back toward the infield, comically overshooting the second baseman, and leaving the third baseman to go hunting for the ball under the picnic table. It was just hilarious chaos. And it went on like this all the way around the bases, until Ashley made it back to home base and practically collapsed into a puddle of giggles – and we all cheered and cheered for her. It was a very silly, and very lovely afternoon together.
This memory popped into my head this week as I was meditating on our gospel reading. This particular reading is one of those passages where it almost seems like the most faithful thing a preacher could do is just say “Amen” and sit down again. It’s such a rich passage that it’s honestly hard to add anything else to it. For once, Jesus’ teaching here is pretty clear and straightforward: Be humble. Don’t think of yourself more highly than other people or try to hog all the places of honor. Instead, choose a lower spot than what you think you deserve, or what society teaches you you deserve.
With Jesus, this teaching is more than just words – he doesn’t just say it; he lives it. Jesus’ entire life and ministry point toward his enduring concern for the poor and the lowly, for the marginalized and outcast. Jesus reflects God’s immense compassion for all humanity – but most especially, God’s compassion for the least, the last, and the lost. The very act of God coming to earth in a human body shows God choosing to take a much humbler place in the cosmos than what God deserves, choosing to come among the people God created to live as one of them. It’s the ultimate example of this humility that Jesus is calling us to emulate.
Jesus calls us to share in God’s concern for all those who are left out or left behind; he calls us to humble ourselves by choosing not to sit in the places of honor. And I think there actually is a bit more to be said about what happens when you choose to do these things. This story focuses on choosing to sit in a lower place; but truly being humble isn’t just about always putting yourself lower than everybody else – I mean, just imagine how wild wedding receptions would be if we’re all there competing to sit in the seats furthest away from the newlyweds!
Humility isn’t about putting yourself down – because humility is actually not about your self at all. It’s about making space for others, letting other people have a chance to shine. It’s about raising others up to sit in places of honor by choosing to take a back seat ourselves.
During that kickball game all those years ago, my classmates and I chose to take a back seat by pretending to be much worse at kickball than we actually were (okay, not all of us were pretending…). And we did this not to put ourselves down, but because it raised Ashley up. It enabled her to fully participate at the level she was capable of, instead of just being left out. That afternoon, Ashley was brought into the community of our class in a way that she really hadn’t been for most of the time we’d all known each other.
And it bears noting that this wasn’t some kind of act of charity or pity; it wasn’t us going above and beyond to be nice. We lifted Ashley up to be fully part of our community – as she always should have been. And as a result, Ashley was able to more fully share her gifts with us – and we discovered that she actually brought quite a lot to the table. She brought an infectious laugh and just pure, unadulterated joy in being together with us that lit up the whole afternoon. Her delight in eating pizza and playing kickball with us was so totally unselfconscious that, for a moment, it actually broke down the rigid social boundaries that had divided our class for years.
Ashley’s gifts made us truly a community. By humbling ourselves and lifting Ashley up, our fellowship as a class was made much richer than it had ever been before.
Jesus calls each of us to humility – to be humble as he is humble. He calls us to put aside our own self-regard in order to lift others up, just as he has first lifted us up. So I invite us all to wonder this week: How can we imitate Christ in our own lives and humbly lift up the lowly? Who are the lowly in our world? In our nation? In our community? In our congregation?
Who knows what joys might be waiting to exalt us, if we can just manage to let go of our pride – to let the first be last so that the last may be first.