Sermon: Walking Humbly

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

Micah 6:1-8

Imagine yourself in the forest that we just heard about during Children’s Time. What do you think you’d be noticing if you were in the forest? Maybe the sound of birds or the height of the trees? Maybe the skittering of the squirrels, rustling the leaves as they bound across branches? Maybe you’d notice the pinecones strewn across the path or a mushroom popping up under some ivy? Maybe you would notice the smell of leaves or of an eucalyptus tree nearby? 

I imagine myself walking slowly through the wooded park near my house. I notice the trees and greet them, saying their names if I know them. I hear crows overhead and ask for permission to pass by. I get lost in thought and my pace quickens, no longer paying attention to my forest surroundings. Then I breathe, slow down, and become present to the web of life around me again. 

I was actually sitting in this wooded park, at my favorite spot (my sit spot), when it became clear to me on which passage to focus my reflections this Sunday. I was watching the squirrels scamper about and the wind saunter through the treetops when I remembered that the Latin root of the word humility is humus or earth. The word human also comes from the root humus. 

As any gardener can tell you humus is the decayed organic matter that is crucial for plant growth. It transforms sterile dirt into fertile soil so plants can grow. In a forest, the addition of humus to soil happens on its own as plant debris, dead animals, and other organic matter decompose. 

Humus is the stuff of life and death. Death is composted into new life. Ultimately we will all become compost as we return to the earth. Dust to dust. Soil to soil. So to be humble is to be close to earth, to know we are earth. To walk humbly is to recognize our connection to earth and our interconnection within the web of life as earth creatures.

[Deep breath] 

This week we have brutally witnessed what it looks like when humans are not walking humbly. With the embodied knowledge of interconnection is severed, lives are snuffed out in an instant, the web torn apart. In the face of such violence, in a country founded on violence and continuing to perpetuate violence, how are we to respond? What does it mean to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly? How do we stitch together what has been torn apart?

This past Thursday I joined Sylvanna at a vigil in Chinatown organized by the group Stand with Asian Americans. It was a powerful gathering, led by the Chinese community, inviting everyone across lines of difference, to come together rather than let fear and shame keep us isolated. I was especially moved by the words shared by Orchid Pusey, director of the Asian Women’s Shelter, where Sylvanna volunteers. 

Violence almost never happens out of the blue, she said. It begins at home. It begins in intimate settings before it happens in public. She and other speakers emphasized that mental health crises need to be addressed without shame, especially in Asian communities where there is a lot shame around mental health struggles. 

She acknowledged that it’s easier to talk about violence when the perpetrator is outside of the victim’s community. What do we do, she said, when the perpetrator looks like us? We must not pretend it didn’t happen. We must not be silent. We must come together. We must care for each other and be connected so that we can see warning signs and help people understand there are so many more options than violence. 

Another speaker, Josephine Zhao, co-founder of Communities As One, shared the story of her own mental health crisis and how friends helped her find healing even when she was resisting it. The words shared by Orchid and Josephine, coming out of their lived experience, embodied the way of walking humbly. They were reweaving the web of connection and inviting others to do the same. 

I was also moved by the different types of invitation to action. They were embodied. They were interpersonal. And they were systemic. One speaker invited us all into movement together, to move energy through our bodies, to shake and breathe and exhale loudly. When we don’t move the energy out, they said, we can get stuck in trauma. Orchid and Josphine focused on interpersonal connection and healing. And another speaker, Mattie Scott of the Brady Campaign, spoke about passing legislation to ban assault rifles. 

These invitations to action also echo the call from the prophet Micah to do justice (confronting systems of domination and death), to love kindness (care for ourselves and those around us in crisis) and to walk humbly (to embody our connectedness). 

Another theme from the evening was the importance of being together in our grief, rather than being fearful, numbed out, and alone. This is one reason I am so glad to be part of this community, where we have the practice of gathering each week. We never know what might happen from one week to the next (personally, nationally, or globally). But we know we can always come here, in person or virtually, and have a place to share our joy, our grief, our questions, our dreams. 

This is a great gift in a world riddled by violence and disconnection. Showing up together in this place is a way of walking humbly. This practice of community enables us to continually weave webs of connectedness. Like the soil on the forest floor, held together by webs of mycelium, our connectedness also helps us to digest our grief and our loss. This emotional composting is so crucial for our well being and resiliency, and strengthens our ability to walk with others on healing journeys. 

Just as the calls for healing and transformation were multilayered at the vigil on Thursday, I also see us committed to transformation that is systemic as well as interpersonal. Sheri shared a number of these examples in her sermon last week

It is a grim truth that the violence will continue. It is too much to bear. It has always been too much to bear. None of this is normal or inevitable. It is rooted in histories of dispossession and genocide. It is rooted in policies that turn a blind eye to suffering because business is just too good. It is rooted in an economic system that has always valued profit over human life and all life on earth. This is the polar opposite of walking humbly. This is a reality without wonder, without a web of connection, without honor for the sacred beauty of life. 

So we must let our light shine, proclaiming that God is in all beings and that the Spirit is the great weaver of the web. Perhaps God is like a sacred spider, spinning the thread of connection, holding us all together, constantly tending and mending the web. What we create here is a sacred space of resistance to the patterns of violence and isolation. It may feel small and insignificant given the scope of what we face, but within our practice are seeds of healing. 

As we learn to walk humbly, digesting and composting the layers of our experience, we are creating the humus in which new life can take root. And beyond just the metaphorical, I know that many of us are actively in relationship with landscapes, creatures and growing things all around us. We are walking with wonder through the forest or along the beach or beside the creek or through the park. 

This is being close to earth, claiming ourselves as human humus, knowing we will return to earth. It is my prayer that we all will become good soil for the generations that follow. Amen.