October 23, 2016
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
I picked today to preach because I just love the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. I have been thinking about it since smacked me in the face three years ago when Luke was last featured in the lectionary. That that year, like this year, I heard the following line read aloud: “The 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.’” Then he enumerates to himself all of the ways in which he is such a righteous man. While he is congratulating himself, a tax collector is beating his breast and berating himself, begging for God’s mercy, not even daring to stand near the Pharisee or to show his face to God. Tax collectors were despised by the Jews because they worked for the Romans. But which man received God’s grace and mercy? It was the tax collector, not the Pharisee. When I heard this, three years ago, I immediately said to myself, “Thank God I am not like that Pharisee!”
“Thank God I am not like that Pharisee,” I said, being exactly like that Pharisee. Since then, I am constantly noticing myself pridefully being grateful that I am not like some other person or some category of persons. It hits me especially hard when I am driving: “Thank God I am not like that idiot who’s in such a hurry to get to his accident that he cut in front of me without even looking! “ Or, in this crazy election year, when I am thinking about politics: “Thank God I am not like those I politically disagree with!”
So, in the past three years, since that humility lightbulb lit up for me, I have been working hard to become more humble. And then I find myself being proud of myself for working so hard to become humble. “Thank God I am not like those other people who aren’t working as hard as I am to become humble.”
Tim Keller, in an article on humility published in Christian Century, talks about precisely this phenomenon:
“We are on slippery ground because humility cannot be attained directly. Once we become aware of the poison of pride, we begin to notice it all around us. We hear it in the sarcastic, snarky voices in newspaper columns and weblogs. We see it in civic, cultural, and business leaders who never admit weakness or failure. We see it in our neighbors and some friends with their jealousy, self-pity, and boasting.
And so we vow not to talk or act like that. If we then notice “a humble turn of mind” in ourselves, we immediately become smug—but that is pride in our humility. If we catch ourselves doingthatwe will be particularly impressed with how nuanced and subtle we have become. Humility is so shy. If you begin talking about it, it leaves. To even ask the question, “Am I humble?” is to not be so. Examining your own heart, even for pride, often leads to being proud about your diligence and circumspection.” http://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=tim%20keller%20the%20advent%20of%20humility
Keller further says:
“The problem is that it takes great humility to understand humility, and even more to resist the pride that comes so naturally with even a discussion of the subject…Christian humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less, as C. S. Lewis so memorably said. It is to be no longer always noticing yourself and how you are doing and how you are being treated. It is ‘blessed self-forgetfulness.’”
Unless we are humble we are unlikely to even think of calling on God, why would we need to if we are that great? Scott Peck said, in his book, People of the Lie, that denial is actually the cardinal sin. Denial prevents us from being honest and dishonesty keeps us from God’s grace, blocking our spiritual growth. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once famously said, “Denial of sin is worse than sin.” Probably most of us would not use the term “sin” anymore: it’s too old-fashioned and judgmental for us, but the 12-Step programs have a nice phrase. They talk about “character defects” rather than sin. Sin sounds so permanent and punishable. Character defects can be struggled with and maybe even remedied. In fact, 12-Step programs, of which Alcoholics Anonymous was the first, recommend that we pray to God and ask God to remove our character defects. Of course, to pray for that grace we must be willing to humble ourselves and admit that we have defects.
The readings come together on another topic that relates to humility and grace. This is the subject of calling on God. In the selection from Joel, we read: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” The phrase “call on the name of the Lord” is used many times both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament. The meaning of this phrase is varied and controversial. The meaning I chose to ascribe to it is the one ascribed in Psalm 86, which is to ask for God’s love and mercy, or God’s grace. The Psalm says: “for You, O Lord, one ready to forgive and abundant in mercy and loving-kindness to all those who call upon You.”
Paul, in his letter to Timothy, reviews his life as he nears death. He doesn’t talk about how righteous he is or what a wonderful servant of God he has been. His claims are very unpretentious — humble: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race (not won the race!), I have kept the faith.” Righteousness, Paul says, comes to us through the grace of God. It’s not a characteristic of ours or a result of anything we’ve done, it belongs to God and is bestowed on all of those who long for God, or, as I would say it, all of us who call on God.
The fourth chapter of the book of James reflects on humility and grace. One verse says “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble,” Another says: “Humble yourself before God and God will lift you up.”
So how to get to this wonderful and elusive place called humility? If you’ve got some good ideas, let me know! I collect them. All religions offer practices that that foster humility. I also find that the 12-Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, which are based in Christianity, offer a number of helpful practices. In working on the fourth and fifth steps of the AA tradition, one makes a list of one’s defects of character then admits them to oneself, to God, and to another person. In the fifth step one prepares oneself to have these character defects removed and in the sixth one calls on God to remove them. The prayer suggested in the steps is as follows:
I am now willing that you should have all of me, good & bad.
I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character
Which stands in the way of my usefulness to you & my fellows.
Grant me strength, as I go out from here to do your bidding.”
Now that is true humility. We don’t have to fall on the floor and beat our breasts in shame to be humble, we just have to be honest about who we are, stripping away our denial and facing our shadow. We need to recognize our true place in the order of things. We are not the center of the universe, just a very small part of it.
In this step one acknowledges that one has both strengths and weaknesses and professes a willingness to be useful and do God’s will. Discerning and acting on God’s will rather than one’s own are key elements in 12-Step practice.
Another is the practice of gratitude. The more we are grateful for the good things that come into our lives the more we acknowledge the power and grace of God. Gratitude for God’s grace helps us remember where the true power lies and to be more humble.
To me, the thread that runs through all of the readings for this week is this: those who are humble and who call upon God will receive God’s grace.
Luke says that Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” In this highly polarized and emotional election year in the U.S. both sides are trusting themselves that they are righteous and both sides regard the other side with contempt.” Hillary Clinton called half of Trump supporters “deplorables.” Trump has called Hillary Clinton a nasty woman and suggested that if she wins, gun rights advocates may want to “do something about it.” The political left and political right in our country, like the Jews and the Romans, each regard themselves as superior to each other. What can we do about this?
I read an interesting article on how to reduce partisan hostility in politics. http://www.civilpolitics.org/content/putting-interventions-to-the-test-a-comparison-of-five-techniques-to-reduce-partisan-hostility/ It was written by someone named Charlie Ebersole and published on the website of an organization called Civil Politics. This isa non-profit organization that is run by a group of academics whose expertise lies in the use of data to understand moral psychology. The article reported on a study that reviewed research to identify 5 potential ways of reducing partisan hostility then tested their effectiveness. I’ll tell you what the 5 strategies were:
Self-Affirmation – People who are confident that they possess the personal characteristics that they value are less defensive and less biased in processing opposing viewpoints.
Learning Political Membership Last – People who form positive impressions based on their initial interactions with them are motivated to maintain these positive impressions. They are less likely to change their opinion when they later learn that the individual’s political views differ from theirs.
Observing Civility– People often learn by observing the behaviors of others. Observing a role model behave with civility toward someone with whom they disagree can affect the observer’s behavior.
Superordinate Threat– Having a common threat can bring groups together when the groups become aware that bipartisan efforts has the potential to eliminate this threat.
Reducing Zero Sum Perceptions– Much of current political gridlock stems from a perception of legislation as a zero sum game (any win for the other side is automatically a loss for my side). Becoming aware of how compromise can help both sides achieve their goals my help opposing sides cooperate to achieve their goals.
The research found that all 5 strategies increased stability and that the most powerful of the five was reducing zero sum perceptions. We use these strategies to overcome our own inner Pharisees but it takes humility and it takes a willingness to let go of some of our favorite character defects. But it will definitely increase our usefulness to God and our fellow humans.
With those ideas in mind, I would like to end with a prayer that is actually a song most, if not all, of us know and love. It is called “America the Beautiful.” Jesse Palidofsky and John Morris have rewritten it to make it gender neutral. I will read the first verse of their version. (I pride myself on being politically correct. I’m glad I’m not like those other politically incorrect people!).
Here it goes:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed great grace on thee
And crown thy good with neighbor-hood
From sea to shining sea!