Sunday, October 27, 2013

Humility: Mercy at the Margins

Luke 18: 9-14
October 27, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

We’re now well into our season of Stewardship, this being the third of six Sundays during which we are paying particular attention to our Christian commitment, with an emphasis on the words that emerge from our Scripture readings that reveal and signify our faith in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Our first Sunday focused on gratitude as we heard the story of the one leper in ten, a Samaritan and a leper, thus doubly an outcast, who returned to thank Jesus for his healing, and was made whole by his faith. In this 18th chapter of Luke’s gospel, we are again listening as Jesus tells stories. He has told, as we heard last week, of a widow who was persistent in her pursuit of justice for her cause, and he talked about the need to be persistent in prayer, to pray always, and not lose heart. The one story wasn’t enough, however, and, typical of Luke’s attention to those on the margins, we have another story of an outcast. Let’s listen for God’s word for us today as Jesus tells this parable in Luke 18:9-14:

9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus is such a clever storyteller. He’s just told a parable about an unjust judge and poor widow woman, a woman at the margins of society, and how God will grant mercy to those who cry out for justice. In Luke’s account, he barely stops to take a breath before he goes on to tell a second parable, which we’ve usually called “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” We tend to see this story as a clear contrast in black and white: there’s the pompous, arrogant Pharisee who thinks he is all that and a bag of pita chips, and the humble, hangdog tax collector who only seeks God’s mercy.

Listen to this arrogant man:
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

Can you imagine such a prayer? “Oh Lord, we give you thanks that we are not like other people: politicians, drunkards, junkies, Muslims, Yankees fans, and people from Indiana…”

Who would PRAY such a thing? 
Who would SAY such things? 
Who would even THINK such things? 
Well, except the Yankees fan one… (I KID!)

Seriously, nobody even mildly self-aware would say such things. Just for the record, neither would a Pharisee. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time were religious Jews who had kept the law and maintained the tradition during very difficult times. Their faithfulness had kept the people and the traditions alive. They were not all like this man, nor did Jesus intend to indicate that. Nobody would have expected a Pharisee to be such a Judgy McJudger.

Neither would anyone have expected a tax collector to enter the temple. Just as unlikely as the self-righteous Pharisee, is the humble tax collector, beating his chest and pleading for mercy. Tax collectors were basically independent contractors, in Jesus’ time. They had a certain amount of taxes they had to collect and hand over to the Romans. Anything they could get over and above that amount, by whatever methods they could get it,was theirs to keep. Their profit margin. And they got it by threats, extortion, and other unsavory means. They were like mafia thugs, demanding protection money…“Nice little fig orchard ya got here…shame if anything happened to it…”

So a tax collector coming to pray is just as unexpected as an arrogant Pharisee. But here they are, here in Jesus’ parable, and he makes it clear which one will be justified and which one will not. Pretty obvious.

Aren’t you glad we got an easy one this week – a nice slow pitch, right across the center of the plate: I’m sure glad we aren’t like that self-righteous Pharisee! I mean, we have plenty to be proud of, we can list a lot of accomplishments and good deeds we have done, but we would never be so arrogant, so conceited, so supercilious as this smug, self-important, bigheaded Pharisee.

But wait a minute…
This Pharisee, his prayer is all about himself. And as soon as the words of my prayer leave my mouth, thanking God that I am not like him, I’m doing the exact same thing. Accccck! I don’t want to be like that Pharisee!

Let’s be more like the humble tax collector, who asks only for God’s mercy. But wait – beating his chest and begging for mercy – that’s all this tax collector does. He’s not repentant. He’s not promising he’ll change. He just drops by the synagogue to pray and tell God he’s a worthless worm. He’s probably going to walk out of the synagogue and get back to work.  And who is it that goes home justified? Obviously, not the one who exalted himself. Of course not – it is the one who humbled himself.

I have a dear friend, a retired Presbyterian minister, who always wanted the chance to preach his final sermon, a sermon he had thought long and hard about, a sermon titled: “My great humility, and how I accomplished it.” The joke is so funny because he would never do it, which just goes to show how truly humble he really is, right?

Ohhhh, so that’s it…this simple little parable about pride and humility… it isn’t so simple after all. It’s a trap, this parable! This obvious choice – it is a trap!

I want to pause for a moment to talk about pride, guilt and shame. The kind of pride we are talking about here is not the justifiable pride that we take in a job well done. It is the pride of arrogance, of taking credit for success that is not ours to claim – thank you, God, that I am not… you can fill in the blank.

Guilt is the feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, or wrong, whether real or imagined. It is the admission that we have done something wrong.

Shame, on the other hand is a painful feeling about oneself – the sense of humiliation, embarrassment, and worthlessness. A simple way to say it is that guilt is the sense that I’ve done something bad. Shame is the sense that I am something bad.

Often, arrogance and unwarranted pride like that demonstrated by the Pharisee is a cover-up for a deep sense of shame and worthlessness. And sometimes, the kind of humility demonstrated by the tax collector is a sham, a plea for mercy in hopes of escaping punishment. Shame and guilt and pride – all of them, as Jesus knew, plague us. When we are too smug and content, so sure of our own self-sufficiency, then grace and mercy have no meaning— and God has no meaning. We don’t even look for forgiveness. When we believe we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, our faith is always corrupted because it doesn’t understand the mystery of how Jesus gives us life, how people change, and how life flows.[1]

So the parable is not as simple as it seems.
It isn’t just a choice between pride or humility. Pride or humility -- as soon as we accept the obvious conclusion, the one that makes us announce we are glad not be like that, we’ve fallen into the trap of thinking too highly of ourselves. And if we choose humility, then we are proud of ourselves, and in danger of becoming self-righteous.

You want to know the secret – the release from this Gordian knot?
I will tell you the secret of this parable: It is not about us and our pride or our humility; neither of them really makes any difference to God. It is not about you. It is not about me. It is only about God – about who God is, about God’s mercy, about God’s grace.

The Pharisee came into the synagogue and recited an inventory of his good points, updating the Almighty on all that this Pharisee had done for God lately. The tax collector came into the synagogue and threw himself on the mercy of God, which is really the only place for any of us to start. And no matter where we do start, the place where we end up is in God’s grace and mercy. Our transformation begins the moment we stand in God’s presence, and give ourselves over to God’s grace. We confess that we are people in need of grace. But it still isn’t about our need or our humility – it is about God’s mercy.

Even if we are at rock bottom, utterly desperate, crying out for God, fully aware of our hopeless condition, entirely aware of our need for grace, it is God’s freedom, God’s action, and God’s initiative that lift us up. Through God’s grace, we begin to change, and in that process we begin to see ourselves as made in God’s image, utterly beloved for who we are. There’s a saying that God loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to let us stay that way.  

Through God’s grace, we are justified – re-aligned, made right.
You know what justification is – you can see it on all kinds of printed material. When a document is left-justified, everything lines up on the left. Same thing – right justified, everything lines up on the right. Fully justified, it lines up on both left and right. When God in Christ fully justifies us, there is nobody left in the margins, nobody still marginalized. When we are fully justified, each one of us is encompassed within the body of Christ.

God’s mercy extends to the margins and beyond, and whether we are proud or humble, rich or poor, old or young, Cardinals or Cubs fans, even Yankees fans, God in mercy welcomes us. And those who were last in line come to the head of the line, and those who were brought low in the world will be lifted up, and those who are humbled will be exalted.

We come into the presence of Jesus bringing our pride and our guilt, bringing even our deepest shame, and he offers words of grace that pull us in from the margins and teach us the humility of those who have been loved and forgiven.

Thanks be to God for the Word!

Whether you are more like the Pharisee or more like the tax collector, this blessing is for you, for me, for each of us:
May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace,
to do what others claim cannot be done.
And the blessing of God the Supreme Majesty and our Creator, Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word who is our brother and Saviour, and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide, be with you and remain with you, this day and forevermore.[2]

[1] Richard Rohr

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