Readings from the Scriptures: 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.”
Meditation: The Still Small Voice
When I write a sermon, I’ll read the text a few times, pray over them, and then leave them. I’ll think about it for the rest of the week, trying to find myself in the text. When I find myself, I find it easier to listen and respond to the text.
But this week, I really struggle to see myself in the text.
I’m don’t really see myself as the self-righteous Pharisee, better than anyone else just because I’m in church every week. I don’t go bragging that this is what I do, or who I am, it’s a part of my faith journey and has little to do with anyone else. I don’t look down on others who are not in church, at least I try not to, I know that church is not for everyone. I’ve known profoundly grounded, spiritually deep, and unequivocally generous people who have never darkened the door of a church. So I don’t judge, I don’t compare my faith life to anyone else’s.
And the Pharisee in this text, he’s not wrong.
In fact, the Pharisee does some things right – goes to church, gives generously, but the moment the Pharisee looks beyond his own life, his own faith, he starts to get into trouble. He’s no longer thankful that he’s able to fast (as a choice) or give a tenth of his income (again as a choice). He’s now bragging about it. He sees himself better than others (maybe he’s looking around the temple, seeing) thieves, rogues, adulterers, and even this tax collector. This Pharisee would have difficulty making friends and influencing people. His prayers move outside of himself, outside of his relationship with God. His prayers become judgment. This is where he gets into trouble, and it all happens very quickly.
It’s like a prayer that we say as we’re passing an accident. After we pray for the individuals involved, for the rescue workers, for all of them…there’s one prayer that sneaks in at the end. God, I thank you that that’s not me. That’s the one that opens the door and makes it easier to wonder if the person was looking at their cellphone. Or fiddling with the stereo. Or if someone was drinking. Or maybe they just blinked a little too long because they’d been on the road for hours. It doesn’t matter – the minute that prayer becomes less for the person and more about the person, more about judgment, that slippery slope becomes inevitable.
Karoline Lewis says we move from making
“a passing appraisal, [into] that which leads to judgment. Judgment without understanding. Judgment without empathy. Judgment without any attempt to see as Jesus sees. Without any action that tries to come near to the marginalized whom Jesus regards.”
While judgment might come easily, it’s not really our faults. It’s a result of the evolution of our brains. In the three parts of our brain, the reptilian, limbic and neocortex, we find each piece operating in conversation with the other. Very Trinitarian. But the limbic system, “the seat of the value judgments that we make, often unconsciously,  exert such a strong influence on our behaviour.” We discern situations, we look at others, evaluate their lives, learn from them, take that wisdom for our own lives. But the minute we take that wisdom to ensure we might not find ourselves in the same situation of others – that’s what opens the door for judgment. We slide from unconscious valuations of situations, into conscious judgments so easily, and it’s why Jesus spoke so clearly about the judgments we make.
Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye”, when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? (Luke 6)
Or about the woman caught in adultery:
‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ (John 8)
When we move away from discernment and lose ourselves in judgment, it becomes easy to throw stones.
These last few weeks I’ve prayed, God I thank you that I am not an American. I started with thankfulness for Canadian politics, the comparative brevity of our election process, but I quickly slid into judgment. I certainly didn’t mean it to. It’s amazing how we utter a prayer for ourselves that quickly turns about the other person. About those who have so deeply divided themselves with lines in the sand. Divisions where hope and joy have been sucked out of an entire people that people just want to get on with their lives. And down that slippery slope I’ve slid, because I’ve found myself praying, God, I thank you that I am not like Donald Trump…
Oh my God. I am the Pharisee.
I gotta tell you I really wanted to call this sermon, How to be a Christian without being a Jerk but in writing this sermon, I realized, that if you type that into google, there’s actually a ton of websites about it. How hard is it for us to be a person of faith that worries less about others and more about our own personal faith journeys? I know we’ve been commissioned to baptize and teach, to share the good news that is within us, to revel in divine experiences of God, but nowhere does it say it has to come with judgment. It may be counter intuitive, but I think it starts with you, first.
If that Pharisee strode into the room and prayed, God, I thank you. (period, that’s it, nothing more) Jesus would have nothing to say.
But it’s our need to talk. God speaks in small, still ways, and we fill in those silences. And if the Pharisee wanted to, he could pray for the thieves, rogues, adulterers, and even this tax collector. He could pray for their wellbeing. He could hope and dream that they too might be able to fast twice a week and feel so moved to tithe as well, because of the joy it brings his own life. He could pray that they may know the same relationship with the divine, rooted in thankfulness. He could even burst into song and sing that hymn by Kurt Kaiser, It Only Takes a Spark (VU289):
I wish for you, my friend, this happiness that I’ve found…
That’s how one steps away from the edge of judgment; how one embodies and examples a faith rather than use it like a stone to throw at someone. When your faith is about you and your journey, when you embody the stance of the tax collector, you embody the wisdom that
The Only Person You Should Try To Be Better Than
Is The Person You Were Yesterday
I’m sure you’ve heard that before.
But you know what. I don’t think the tax collector has got it right one hundred percent either. While the tax collector is honest about his life, his failings, his struggles, that’s all there is. He looks to God to fix his situation. And I think to be a better person than we were yesterday takes a little bit of the Pharisee and a little bit of the tax collector. We need know we have a ways to go, as the tax collector prays, yearning for God’s help. We also need to know that we have the power to get us there, the power to act and respond to God’s grace, as the Pharisee prays. There is that fine line between self-aggrandizing and self-deprication, between arrogance and humility…between action and reaction. From day to day, we move between these two people as we stand before God…sometimes we need a little more humility, other days we need a little more hope.
Being a Christian without being a jerk, means paying attention to that still small voice of God. For God speaks to the Pharisee and the tax collector alike, and gives to both what they need in that moment. That’s the power of this text, to point out that God humbles and exalts, God responds in both their lives, God is present in ways that are transformative for both of their lives…and powerfully so, both share a view of God which is unique to them. This is the opportunity as people of faith. Not being a jerk about our faith means that we don’t know the completeness of the divine, for have experienced of God, and what you have experienced of God, and what others have experienced, each of these are but a small part of the whole picture of our profoundly intimate and yet transcendent source.
So let us pray…two very different prayers…
Oh God, help us to leave our pride outside when we enter this holy place. Help us to remember our neighbour and seek ways to understand our role in helping bad situations. Help us to recognize our shortcomings and that the one to compare our life to should not be the one standing next to us, but should be Jesus, if we should ever think that our life can’t be improved in some way. May this comparison benefit us with the knowledge that we each can each do our humanly best, and that our best, truest prayers are the ones that reveal the inmost hopes and desires of our hearts.
O God, help us to be arrogant and know that our strengths and gifts matter. Help us to know that what we have to offer is acceptable and blessed in your sight, O God. Help us to be a little bit of both, the Pharisee, and the tax collector; to represent the complexity with which you created us, self-righteous and righteous, humble and holy-blessed…all in the same breath.
Help us to learn to love ourselves for who we are, for whom you love us to be.