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A Pharisee's Prayer

So... I'm one of those ministers that needs to write a sermon. I don't preach from an outline or notes or from something I've memorized and practiced. I write my sermon out as I will deliver it.

So why not begin to post those? In worship it is a monologue, but a blog is supposed to be interactive. Why not invite questions or comments or thoughts?

Here's this past Sunday's sermon.

October 27, 2019

Luke 18:9-14

Our second reading this morning comes from the gospel according to Luke. In this parable, Jesus tells about two men praying. Sounds simple enough, right? So, I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it continues to speak to you this morning.

READ THE SCRIPTURE PASSAGE HERE (okay.... so that's some stage direction for you. I know I'm supposed to read the passage here. And do.)

This is one of those parables that seem pretty clear on first read, doesn’t it? I mean… is there anything else I really need to say? What can I add to make this parable any easier to understand. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. Good lesson. Now go off and do that… you need to go out into the world and humble yourselves in order to become real top notch Christians. If we humble ourselves… we’ll be okay because then God will love us and others will readily look upon us with envy hoping to be like us… all humble and exalted.

But as Admiral Ackbar is wont to say… “It’s a trap!” Sorry. Every now and then I have to throw in a Star Wars reference. (Sorry to say that my Admiral Ackbar reference didn't go over well. Tried real hard to sell it, but just got lots of blank stares. Oh well.) But think about that lesson a bit. All who exalt themselves will be humbled. Ok. Yeah. I can see that. That makes sense. But all who humble themselves will be exalted. It’s this part of the lesson that causes me to pause. Sure… having a sense of humility is a good thing. Nothing wrong with that. I think it is the phrase… “humble themselves” that gives me a bit of a pause. How does one humble oneself. Can you humble yourself? Think about that. Yet isn’t humility by its very nature somewhat beyond our control… meaning once we try to be humble isn’t there then a measure of… what’s the right word… phoniness… artificiality. There’s always that bit where our action of humbling ourselves is a backdoor to exalting ourselves. Because we are all… to one degree or another… we are all self-righteous. Sorry, but it’s true. There’s no way around it. We all… to one degree or another… trust in the goodness of ourselves and regard some other out there with some level of contempt like this Pharisee does with the tax collector. There’s always someone out there that we think… yeah, I’m better than they are. And the problem is once that thought crosses our mind… once we believe ourselves to be better than someone else… even if it’s in our own acts of humility… that thought invites in contempt for our neighbor.

Maybe the only way we can get past this unavoidable self-righteous condition is to be totally… one hundred percent… self-loathing. Except that’s not quite the message of the gospel, is it? Hate yourself so that God will love you more. I don’t think that’s quite right. Although I have met those who have turned this idea into a well-executed theological formula. The more I hate myself, the more God loves me because in my self-loathing is the demonstration of my high level of personal humility. No self-righteousness here. But… think about it though… wouldn’t such an expertly practiced self-loathing ultimately put us right back into the trap of this parable. Our justification can’t be based upon how well we loathe our very selves… because then we would be self-righteous in our own self-loathing. God, I thank you I am not like other people; movie stars, politicians, star athletes, news commentators… people who all think so highly of themselves. No Lord… I am dirt. Lower than dirt… because even dirt can at least be useful for something. That’s some expert groveling.

You know… it seems that if we try to apply any sort of method to our own justification… any method at all… that method backfires on us and becomes the means of our own self-righteousness. Take our parable’s Pharisee as an example. The Pharisees are earnestly trying to live out their faith in their daily lives. Not a bad thing to do. They follow certain rules to help them in the practice of their daily faith. So do we. They have an example in their mind of what a person who lives out their faith should look like… and how that person is to behave… and what that person is to do if that person is serious about devoting themselves to God. Again… not a bad thing. But… the Pharisees tended to cross the line and they got too locked into their singular vision… and all those who were outside of that vision were… in their judgment… outside of God. They were better than those others.

Has anyone ever done that to you? Have you ever had the experience of being locked into a singular vision of what a good Christian is supposed to be… a vision that you personally did not meet? A vision that they themselves also did not meet… the ones who were judging you… but would never admit to it? But, they would earnestly argue, this is what God demands. Perfection of this vision. Or at least the veneer of the perfection of that vision. We are too often led to believe that God wants nothing to do with those fake Christians who do not fit the mold. God only wants to associate with those who are better than. It’s a working of the numbers… heaven rejoices over the verification of one real Christian over the exposure of twenty-three fake Christians. I think it says something like that in Luke’s gospel somewhere.

Look. It’s not bad for us to have higher expectations for ourselves. Scripture is full of God’s expectations for us. Good expectations. It is better to love than to hate. It is better to be merciful. It is better to be generous. It is better to be forgiving. And let’s be honest… isn’t it better that our Pharisee in the parable is a Pharisee rather than being a thief, or an adulterer, or someone without any higher expectations for their life? I would think so. Isn’t it better for us to try to live a faithful life… to at least try to have an echo of Christ in our lives rather than to go out and live a life that is self-centered and perhaps hurtful and harmful to our neighbor?

I think what springs the trap in this parable, though, is that method… that method for attaining justification and the trust we put in those methods that we use to justify ourselves before God… to convince God… and ourselves… and those around us… of our own deservedness of God’s goodness. That’s the hinge on which the trap door springs shut. How are we justified before God?

And that is a question my fellow Presbyterians… that is a question where we hit upon some solid reformed theology. In this parable there are two men standing in prayer. One, the Pharisee, believes he is justified before God… meaning that he stands without sin before God. That’s what it means to be justified… to stand without sin before God. For the Pharisee, it is his understanding that he is justified because of the goodness of his life and his works of faith… he believes he is justified because of how well he works his method of attaining justification for himself. Justification is the reward he receives from God for being a good Pharisee. The other… the tax collector… ashamed of his life and works within his life… asks God to have mercy on him, a sinner.

Now… at this point I need to interject a working definition of sin because it’s a word we throw around quite a bit in churches, but a word we rarely take the time to define. And it can be confusing because there are two types of sin. There are the sins we do… sins of commission and omission… the choices we make… how we treat one another. These are the sins for which we ask forgiveness each week during our time of confession. The Pharisee in our parable may be pretty good at keeping this level of sin low through his higher expectations for himself. But he also demonstrates for us how, even with the best of intentions, this type of sin is always there… and this Pharisee is exposed in his harsh judgment of his neighbor. That’s one type of sin. Then there is the larger understanding of sin… and that sin has to do with humanity’s relationship with God and the brokenness of that relationship. That sin has nothing to do with our daily actions. That is the sin we try to describe through the story of the fall in Genesis… with Adam and Eve and the expulsion from the garden. That is the sin that only the cross of Christ can mend… this separateness we have from God… this broken relationship with God.

In reformed theology, our understanding of ourselves begins not with our own goodness… or with our own decisions about our faith and our methods of faith… but with our being a sinner… a sinner in the larger understanding of that word… in the broken relationship with God definition of sin… in the necessity of the cross for atonement definition of sin. We start as a sinner and that is a humbling place to begin. Through Christ and only Christ, our relationship with God is mended… that sin is forgiven. As Presbyterians, we believe we cannot earn that forgiveness but it is given to us only by God’s grace. We can do all good. We can be as religious and as pious as we are able to be and commit as little sin against our neighbor as possible. But we cannot accomplish on our own what God in Christ has done for us through the cross. In reformed theology, only God can free us from this larger understanding of sin. Only God. Only God. Now… not all Christians believe that as revealed through their practice. That is not the current popular Christian message, which says we each have some role to play in our own justification… meaning our own forgiveness of that larger understanding of sin. In that way, popular Christianity today is like Pharisaic Judaism as Luke presents it. Other Christian theologies say that if we do this or do that… or if we believe this or believe that… then God will justify us and forgive our sin… that separateness. God will reward what good we can accomplish with forgiveness and reconciliation. Presbyterians don’t believe that. Only God forgives sin and that forgiveness is not based upon our merit… or upon our goodness or upon our professed religion or upon acts of faith… but on God’s grace and God’s grace alone. Reformed Christianity is clear to say that all forms of self-justification are an illusion… all forms of self-justification are a delusion… and a dangerous delusion at that. Reformed theology says God justifies… and then we respond to God’s grace by then trying to live that life of goodness in order to give God the glory.

In our parable two men stand in prayer. One stands and is thankful for the goodness in his life… a goodness for which he shares in the credit. He has made the right choices and has done just fine. God set the plan and he, the Pharisee, has followed the plan… unlike that tax collector. The Pharisee is doing well in his own method of self-justification. And it has created in him a pride… a pride whose fruit is the condemnation of others whom he sees as deserving of that condemnation as he is deserving of his well-earned reward. The other man, a tax collector… a sinner… has no choice but to throw himself on the mercy of God. Does that make him better than the Pharisee? No. Does that mean he employs a better method of justification than the Pharisee… or that if we follow his example we too can be guaranteed the same results from God? No. However, starting with being a sinner… what we do see through the tax collector that we don’t see through the Pharisee is that the two men stand in prayer equally as sinners. Neither better. Both humbled.

As I see it, the issue is trust. Jesus tells this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous enough in themselves. It is appealing for us to believe that there is some method or plan for us to obtain our own justification… that we are able to stand on our own two feet… that we are able to accomplish it all by ourselves. Tell me the method. Give me the steps to follow that lead to justification. What are the words for the prayer that I must say or the church that I must join in order to earn God’s forgiveness? Tell me the beliefs I am supposed to hold in order to be justified. Give me the answer and I will do what needs to be done. I will do it right. I can put my trust in that. I can see it. I can do it. But… tell me I play no part… I don’t like that as well because that means I have to put my trust fully in God’s grace… that I have to fully rely on God. That means I am powerless. Like that tax collector. And I don’t like being the tax collector. I don’t like being the sinner who must rely on the mercy of God alone.

Saints, we are all equal in the eyes of God. We are all sinners in need of justification… in need of God’s steadfast love, grace and mercy to heal the relationship between us and God. We can’t humble ourselves into being justified. But we can humbly understand our own sinfulness and how we stand before God in prayer… in life… and in death. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells this parable on his way to Jerusalem… where he will take up his cross for our own reconciliation and exaltation. It’s wonderful that we are good… that we do our best to live good and godly lives. But our goodness flows from the goodness of Christ on the cross… the one place where our true justification lies. Amen.

Sorry. I just can't help myself!

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