PROPER 25 / C
Joel 2:23-32; 2 Tim 4:6-8,16-18; Lk 18:9-14
20 October 2019
Over the course of the past week, I ran across a quote attributed to the 16th century German church reformer, Martin Luther:
He who has but a single word of Scripture and is unable to make from it an entire sermon, ought never to be a preacher.
Quite a challenge to anyone standing in this spot on a Sunday morning! Now, Pastor Luther, was, by all accounts, an extremely confident individual – some of his contemporaries even said arrogant! – and I have no doubt that he could do just that: one word from the Bible . . . then, presto! . . . full-blown, two-hour sermon! And being one who always likes a good challenge (even from someone who threw down the gauntlet over 500 years ago!) . . . and yet, being the humble person you all know me to be . . . I have built this entire sermon around not one, but two words – thereby, failing the Luther test, but not too shabby for an Episcopalian.
In reflecting on this morning’s Gospel, two words come to mind. Neither one is the rather obvious word, “prayer,” although that is certainly a major theme in Jesus’ parable. Rather, it is the attitude, the demeanor in which we engage in prayer that I am drawn to address. And since I firmly believe that our entire life, in all that we say and do and think, is a form of prayer, I take a very broad, sweeping view of prayer and address that attitude and manner in which we are called to live the fullness of our lives; not just our prayer life, but all aspects of life. So, Pastor Luther, I have built this entire sermon on the following two words: “humility” and “confidence.”
“Humility” and “confidence” – one virtue seemingly quite rare in this run-up to election season, the other displayed in overabundance . . . I’ll leave it to you to decide which is which . . . besides, that’s a whole other sermon . . .
Let me say right up front that this “humility” thing is a rather slippery slope, difficult to get our minds around, and even more difficult to get our whole manner of life around. The Bible definitely commends this virtue. Not just in this Gospel story, but throughout both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the truly humble person is held up as one to be honored. And yet, it is quite difficult to achieve this virtue on a personal level. The problem is this: we set a goal for ourselves to live with more humility – but as soon as we can take some pride in the fact that we have begun to achieve our noble goal – we’ve automatically lost any progress we may have made! I am reminded of the person who went into the sanctuary of a church, threw themselves onto the altar, and cried out: “O Lord, have mercy on me, the greatest of all sinners!” A voice from heaven was heard to reply: “And quite proud of that achievement, so I see!”
While I am not advocating a false sense of humility, neither am I saying that we should not be confident of our abilities, recognize our gifts and talents, and use them to the best of our ability. Not to do so is a waste . . . and poor stewardship on the most basic, most personal level. Confidence comes from knowing one’s self. Real confidence is born out of an appropriate and healthy love of one’s self . . . loving ourselves enough to recognize and truly appreciate our God-given gifts and talents, skills and abilities – and using them with grace and gratitude.
But there is both a fine line and a great difference between confidence and arrogance.
The contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector in Jesus’ parable points up the difference between arrogance born out of self-righteousness – and a confident life wrapped in true humility. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector were probably correct in their self-assessment. Knowing themselves well, they could each therefore be personally confident in the lives they lived. The Pharisee was quite correct in the listing of all his many virtues. The tax collector was surely right in his self-assessment that he was a sinner. The difference is in how that self-knowing self-confidence was manifest in each. And the problem in preaching a sermon that dwells on the contrast between these two characters is that we run the risk of leaving, saying: “Thank God that I’m not like that Pharisee!” Which is exactly Jesus’ point!
So, why did Jesus tell such a story? It was, of course, to point out that we are not likely to get very far in our prayer life – or in any part of our life, for that matter! – if we are focused and centered on our own importance in relationship with God. In a novel I read some time ago, there was a character named Edith. In describing her, the author wrote: “Edith was surrounded on the north, the south, east and west by nothing other than Edith.” Had Edith been real – and perhaps she is, for we have all known an Edith or two! – she would never have been able to receive the grace and mercy and love of God, for there was nowhere for God to enter. Her pride-filled ego was just too large and all-consuming to allow any room for God.
What is needed, of course, is true humility. The 17th century poet and Anglican preacher, John Donne, once wrote: Without humility, no man shall ever hear God speak to his soul, even if he hears three two-hour sermons every day. And while this probably says something about Donne’s view on his fellow preachers! . . . his main point was that it is only through our vulnerability – only through our humility – that God can reach us.
True humility, then, is the demeanor, the behavior, the attitude we must have in our relationship with God. . . . Ah, but that slippery “humility”! . . . as soon as we take pride in having achieved the proper prayerful attitude, we’ve lost it!
It isn’t too difficult to understand why it is so very hard for most of us to be as humble as the tax collector. Buried within each us is the desire – and it is pervasive throughout our modern American society . . . Buried within each of us is the desire and the need to stand on our own two feet and demand to be recognized by others as a person of substance and worth. The problem comes when, like the Pharisee, we carry that same attitude into our relationship with God. We know that, unwarranted on our part, God has done so much for us – we know that! . . . and yet, we still feel the need to grasp at some sort of respectability, earn some measure of worth in God’s eyes. We feel the need to somehow make ourselves worthy before God . . . do our part, hold up our end of the deal, make God proud of us.
The trouble is that in building ourselves up, we invariably will compare ourselves to others who – in our humble opinion! – seem not to be doing so well in their relationship with God. In our pride and our arrogance, we convince ourselves that we are somehow, in some way, just a little bit better than someone else in the faith and good works department. And whether we ever openly admit it or not, we are smugly self-confident that we are just a little bit more worthy of God’s love and mercy than the other guy. Despite what we say, we act as if there is some heavenly mathematical equation that balances the degree of our sin with the amount of God’s grace.
The Pharisee in Jesus’ story was a proud and arrogant man.
And he is each one of us.
The truth is that he is each and every one of us who want to look good before God. He may have been kind and generous and virtuous. I am sure he was all of those things. But like all of us, he is caught in the very real and human desire to be counted as a person of worth – even before God. He felt the need to try and balance that spiritual equation which can never quite compute; trying desperately to prove himself worthy enough to receive God’s grace. But true self-worth does not come from our accomplishments, or from running others down to make ourselves look good. True confidence comes in knowing our personal abilities and talents – and using them wisely. But always acknowledging that they originate not within ourselves, for they are freely-given gifts from a generous and gracious God. Like Edith, the Pharisee’s confidence and feeling of worth came entirely from his relationship with himself; the tax collector, on the other hand, knew his worth came only through his humble relationship with his God.
Our Creator would have us know that we are each of infinite value and each filled with great worth, but not because of anything we have done or can do. We are each valuable and worthy only because we are a child of God - and loved by God . . . loved enough to be redeemed by Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, and infused with God’s Most Holy Spirit.
The question for each of us is whether we truly believe that we can be loved that much – truly loved! – unconditionally loved! – loved enough to confidently stand before God . . . confident, yet humble . . . confident enough in our relationship with God to present ourselves just as we are. Deep down, how many of us really believe that God could ever be pleased enough with us – to truly love us enough – to offer us a life in Christ?
The Pharisee thought that he had proven himself to be good enough for God. The tax collector, however, trusted not in himself, but trusted fully in the goodness of God.
And it is in his prayer that we see the ultimate act of humility. And in his prayer – his confession – in his plea for mercy – we see the ultimate act of confidence – for he is confident of God’s grace.
Confidence, wrapped in humility. In him, we see the proper attitude for our prayers . . . and the proper demeanor for our life in Christ.