• Fr. Peter Kavanaugh

Becoming Small

“It is only by being little that we ever discover anything big.”

Fulton Sheen preached this on Christmas Day, while he and the congregation celebrated the birth of a tiny baby curled up on a bed of hay. That’s what our religion is about, right? When God appeared to us, He was so small that you could hold Him in your hands. In fact, in order to look this Christ child in the eyes, you needed to bend over, perhaps even get down on your knees in the straw and dirt of the stable. And so, throughout every step on our journey to Christ, we have to continue to put ourselves in that position.

“It is only by being little that we ever discover anything big.”

Our gospel, this morning, is about humility. We said last week, that we would start focusing on the theme of worship. So today, I want to look at humility in worship. For, without any question, humility is the key to worship.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’” (Luke 18:9-14).

Which man went home justified?

The tax collector.

There are other saints in Scripture who pray like this man. Ezra cries out, “My God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee” (Ezra 9:6). The Psalter prays, “Mine iniquities have taken such hold upon me that I am not able to look up” (Ps. 40:12). “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God” (Ps. 51:17).

What is humility?

Humility is radical self-knowledge.

The word humble comes from the Latin word, humus, which, in its original context, meant soil. You can imagine a field of dirt. People trample across it and the rains pour down on it, but all along it never complains. Yet, when this same soil is worked and seeds are planted in it, it’s able to grow great crops. That is how we are.

Short of God’s grace, we’re nothing. Do you remember what the priest says on Ash Wednesday, “Remember, O Man, that dust thou art and dust shalt thou return.” We really aren’t that impressive, like a bare field of dirt. If you take God out of the picture the nihilists are all right. We live a little here and now, then we die, and everything we worked on turns to dust. But when we let God into the picture, everything shines in a new way. Everything matters. The way we love our children and spouses, the way we put our hearts into our work, everything we do has eternal repercussions. With God in our lives the dirt that we are can become the very dirt that bears fruits beyond comprehension. But until we realize that we are in fact barren and fruitless, we’ll never turn to God for help

The Tax Collector and the saints who blushed to lift their eyes, were fully aware of who they were and who God is.

God is always ready to pour out His love to you and me. But are we open to receive it? All the Pharisee could think about was himself. He was so confident in himself that he wasn’t even able to ask God for help. And we too can fall in that trap. It’s when we realize how small we are that we can turn to God, and that’s the beginning of everything.

Humility is courage.

The Tax Collector knew his shortcomings, and at the same time, he was unashamed to come to God and ask for mercy. That takes strength. Have you ever said something dumb to someone, and were afterwards too embarrassed to show your face? Often, when we realize how messed up we are we’re too embarrassed to approach God. We might think that’s humility, but it’s not. Humility is saying boldly, “I am no more than a pile of dirt. But please, God, have mercy on me and make something good from this dirt.”

Humility is joy.

Think about the two men in the temple. One puffed up his chest and boasted of his self-importance. The other beat his chest and begged God for mercy. The Pharisee was so caught up in himself that he was chained to his self. He was addicted to the drug of ego. He couldn’t think about anything or find pleasure in anything but himself. What kind of narrow existence is that? But the Tax Collector was different. He was so aware of his smallness that he was able to wonder over God’s bigness.

Who is happier?

The billionaire who looks at all his skyscrapers and relishes the empire he’s built, or the young girl who gazes up at the mountains and clouds and marvels at the empire God’s built.

There’s nothing as pitiful or depressing as pride. The Tax Collector could go home joyfully, in the same moment laughing at his silly old self while in awe of God’s splendor and beauty.

For after all, “It is only by being little that we ever discover anything big.”

So what does all this have to do with worship?

I want to take some time now to dwell on two parts our lives where we’re given a chance to become more humble: private and corporate worship.

"Look to the LORD and his strength; seek his face always" (1 Chronicles 16:11)

The Scriptures are absolutely clear about how much we need to pray. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing” (5:16-17). But that’s not easy to do. You have to work your way there and there’s only one way to do it. We have to dedicate time to prayer. At a minimum, every Christian needs to put aside time in the morning and evening for God. Even 10 or 15 minutes is enough to transform your life utterly. We’re starving for God, but most of the time we don’t even realize it. When you get used to praying a little you can’t imagine life without it, and the more you pray the more you wake up to that reality. So, why then do we struggle to pray?

When I look into my own life I have to ask, what is it that keeps me from praying the moment I wake up, every time I sit down to drive, or while I’m going about my day? Why is it that I sometimes miss a morning or evening prayer? I don’t know about you, but I’m good at thinking of all kinds of excuses. “I’m too busy.” “I’m too tired.” “I need time to relax.” It goes on forever. But if we’re going to be honest, radically honest, all that is nonsense.

No one is too busy to pray. We don’t pray because we’re proud.

The only thing that keeps me from prayer is my own obliviousness to how much I need God. Just look at the Pharisee in our Lord’s parable. It’s easy to hear this story and point our fingers at him. But are we really that different. As I wrote this sermon through the week, I couldn’t help but see how much of me is the Pharisee. I may speak the words, “Lord have mercy” and “I am not worthy.” But is my heart there? Do my thoughts whisper underneath these words, “Boy, I’m so glad I’m religious and not like those others,” or, “I’m a pretty good guy…I don’t really need to pray more”? In the end, there’s only one reason I struggle with my daily devotionals. I’m blind to the full reality of how much I need God.

We all fall in this trap. God is merciful, so we shouldn’t despair. They say when we move and inch He takes us a mile. But this should remind us why it’s so critical to pray. Each and every time we decide to stop whatever we’re doing, place ourselves in front of the icons, and just kneel down in prayer and worship, we kill a little bit of that Ego. Prayer changes us. Over time, it helps us to become smaller, and, “It is only by being little that we ever discover anything big.”

And finally, we learn humility in our corporate prayer.

I want to read something by a lay theologian named Sam Guzman.

“Good and true liturgy,” he writes, “draws us upward and out of ourselves. It is disorienting and uncomfortable in a healthy and joyful way. Holiness, if it is real, should feel disorienting. So give yourself permission to not know and understand everything that is going on in the Mass. Some priestly gestures and prayers are meant to be beyond your reach, and you aren’t meant to grasp their every meaning. That is just how it is. Embrace it. Let the mystery wash over you and transform you.”

You can say this in a million ways. In the Scriptures, we see this every time someone encounters God. God comes in a cloud and the witness falls on his face. Corporate worship is meant to bring us to that same place.

You know, some weeks ago, I greeted a visitor at the end of mass and told her that I hoped she enjoyed it. She quietly responded, “I really didn’t know what was going on.” My immediate reply was, “That’s good! It’s good sometimes not to know what’s going on.” She shot me a confused look and I’m not sure how she felt about that…But it’s true…

Nowadays, in our enlightened, post-modern world, we like to feel in control. We feel entitled to know what’s going on all the time. And we carry that attitude into religion. We think: ‘Church should make me comfortable.’ ‘Church should meet me where I am.’ ‘It’s rude to challenge me…’

But we’ve got this all flipped.

Mystery was woven deliberately in our mass and in all traditional Christian worship. It was their intention to make you feel like you didn’t quite know what’s going on. That’s why there have always been secret prayers, east or west. That’s why everything was shrouded behind a veil. One of Vatican II’s main attempts was to pull off the veil, with the hope of making church more accessible. But by stripping the liturgy of its mystery, it stripped the liturgy of its holiness.

In fact, the very word ‘Holy,’ in Greek, means ‘non-earthly.’ God is Aghios. He is that which is not of this earth. He comes in a cloud. He is mystery. He’s the numinous, the sublime, the Other. In order for us to draw near to God we have to be willing to step out of our comfort zone. The silence during mass, the Latin songs, the robes on the sacred ministers, all of these add a sense of otherness to worship, and in doing so, invite us to step out of our skins into the realm of the holy.

A couple weeks ago we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration. Christ took Peter and John up on the mountain, and there, before their eyes, he transfigured into brilliant light. Most of us never get that experience, but we all have a similar opportunity each and every time we attend Mass.

I want to encourage you all to really strive to enter into the worship when we gather here.

As much as possible, whether we’re in the pews or in the nursery, we should strive be focused and prayerful. If you have to say something to your neighbor or to your child, do it in a whisper, so quiet that hardly anyone notices. It’s important not to talk before mass so that you and the people around you have a chance to prepare your hearts for what’s about to happen. We are desperately in need of silence and stillness, for it’s only there that you can hear God’s whisper.

Some hundreds of years ago, when Russian emissaries wandered into Aghia Sophia in Constantinople, they reported, “We did not know where we were, in heaven or on earth.” If a man were to wander off the streets into our mass, he should feel the same way. We are in the presence of God. The veil of the temple is torn and we are all here treading where before few men dared to tread. We are surrounded by angels, and should be almost tip-toeing, out of reverence for this sacred space.

This mystery and holiness in the service, what is it all for? Our worship offers us a chance to become a little more humble. It can make us a little smaller, because it’s only then that we can drink in God’s bigness.

For again, “It is only by being little that we ever discover anything big.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

3808 Seymour Road

Wichita Falls, TX, 76309