Humble Gratitude

Sermon for  October 26, 2013
Proper 25, Year C
Sirach 35: 12-17; Ps. 84: 1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18: 9-14
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

To be humbled or to be exalted, that is the question!  We all understand the pitfalls of having too high an opinion of ourselves, but in a culture that nearly makes an idol of winning, getting ahead, and building our self-esteem, what does it mean to humble oneself?

Clearly, Jesus wants us to understand that the Pharisee in this parable lacks humility. This man exalts himself with self-aggrandizing prattle about his piety and practice, in what is thinly veiled as prayer.  He is incapable of admitting to himself or God any shortcomings or sins he might bear. He is a stand-in for the crowd to whom Jesus is addressing himself, those who Luke tells us, “trust in themselves,” while looking down their noses at others.  The Pharisee and his ilk, we are told, will be humbled.

The tax collector on the other hand, is a stand-in for the sin-stained souls that Jesus has come to save. He is portrayed as a breast-beating sinner too filled with shame to even look heavenward, standing off to himself and prayerfully begging God for divine mercy.  This man and his ilk, we are told, will be exalted.

Now my guess is that unlike Jesus’ original hearers, Pharisees themselves who were meant to find this parable outrageously offensive and about as “in your face” as you could get, few of us are especially moved by it one way or another. It’s just too much of a stretch for us to relate to either the Pharisee or the tax collector.

After all, the Pharisee–among the wealthiest and most respected members of Jewish society–was, for better or worse, a religious superhero by today’s standards, strictly observing a fast twice a week, tithing at least 10% of his income to the temple, and praying multiple times in the course of the day, every day.

Few of us can lay claim to any one of those spiritual disciplines, much less all three.

As for the tax collector, while cast as presumably humble, he was among the most corrupt and despised groups in Jewish society, who prospered by colluding with the Roman oppressors, collecting exorbitant taxes from his neighbors, and extorting from them even more just to line his own pockets.

Neither man, it seems to me, can lay any claim to being justified or righteous.  Sorry, Luke, but that, by definition, means being in right relationship with God, and neither man in this parable is in right relationship with God. The Pharisee is so puffed up with self-importance, and the tax-collector so beaten down with self-loathing, that neither man is right-sized.

What these men share in common is such an exaggerated sense of themselves that they are blind to God’s grace. Because as long as they are self-identifying as excessively virtuous or morosely unworthy, neither man is being humble. To be humble is to be right-sized. To be humble is to accept the fact of our belovedness before God no matter who we are, or what we have done.  It is to accept that God loves us, warts and all.

After all, the scandal of the gospel is that Jesus died for the Pharisee and for the tax-collector, as sure as he died for you and for me, our friends and our enemies, the sinners and the saints of the world and everyone in-between. We can not earn that love, or the promise of new life that it offers, by anything we do. It’s pure grace. It’s gift.  And to be humble is to be learn to accept that gift.

To be humble is to live into the freedom for which God made us: the freedom to choose to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and all of our mind and all of our soul, and to choose to love our neighbors as ourselves, by choosing to live generously, creatively, and relationally. It’s to be free from the bondage of self-centered fear that pinches and diminishes us and shrinks us in on ourselves.  It’s to embrace the freedom that lives expansively, inclusively, in ever-widening circles of community and compassion.

To be humble is to trust God, unlike those who Luke tells us, “trusted in themselves.”  It’s to trust that there is method behind what sometimes seems like God’s madness, to trust that God really does know a lot more than we do about how to do this thing called life, and to trust that if we follow God’s perfect will even imperfectly, instead of following our own imperfect wills perfectly, He will indeed do more for us than we could ever ask or imagine. We will thrive, we will flourish, we will know the joy and peace of perfect freedom!

Finally, to be humble is to be grateful.  It is to recognize that all is gift–that our very lives are contingent upon God’s constancy; that if God were to hold God’s metaphorical breath, all of creation would melt away like some special effect that dissolves before our eyes on our TV screens.  It’s to realize that the mystery we call God is so much bigger than anything we could ever get our heads around that we are like tiny amoeba in comparison–yet we are amoeba created by this mystery we call God in God’s image — and that means created by Love, with love, for love.

To be humble is to appreciate the achingly heartbreaking beauty and fragility of life, and to feel one’s heart overflow with gratitude for the gift of experiencing it. It’s to gather at God’s table to meet Christ in the bread and the wine and to delight with surprise when we discover him in the squirming child kneeling next to us. It’s to, “Give to the Most High as He has given to you, and as generously as you can afford,” saying, “Thank you, God” all the while, and saying it with joy.

To be humble, plain and simple, is to love and be loved by God.

A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee was filled with self-righteousness.  The tax collector was filled with self-loathing. Neither had room to accommodate God’s grace and love.

But imagine if they did. Imagine that these two men reached out to each other, despite their differences, and embraced. Imagine they realized in that embrace, that they were embracing God’s grace. And imagine that then together, in humble gratitude, they exalted God – exalted God by the way they lived their lives and by the choices they made for God’s sake.

What a different story Luke would have had to tell then!

May we make that story our story, as we choose to live ever more generously, creatively, and relationally into the freedom for which God has made us.  Amen.

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