Monday, 28 October 2013

contempt and humility- Luke 18

          
  A friend of mine who lives out west on the coast was picking up her daughter from school in the middle of winter. It was a really cold day, and she had 2 small children in the van with her, one of them was a young baby. So as she was waiting she had her car idling to keep the car warm. It’s one of those things parents can be a bit paranoid about in the winter, especially since babies can't tell you if they are getting cold.   So as she's waiting outside the school she has the van running.
            A very angry man came up to her and knocked on her window and started to lecture her about how she shouldn't be letting the car idol because it puts more carbon into the atmosphere. She explained to him that she had a baby in the car who would get cold if she turned it off, but he wouldn't hear any of it. When she wouldn't turn off her vehicle he went and stood in the exhaust behind her minivan and started coughing loudly to get his point across. I don't remember how it ended, but I do know that event did not make my friend care more about the environmentalist movement. If anything it had the opposite effect. That man may have been right, but he was filled with contempt and self-righteousness.   

            In our Gospel reading we meet another man who was filled with contempt and self-righteousness. Jesus tells a parable about two men who go to the temple to pray. Likely this is at one of the daily atonement services, where a lamb was sacrificed for the peoples' sin and incense and prayers were offered. The Pharisee stands off by himself, maybe so he's not touched by anyone who is ritually unclean. He prays by thanking God for his own goodness. He prays, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." We are left wondering if he is actually thanking God. Or is he just basking in his own sense of self-satisfaction. The Pharisee obviously feels he is righteous and looks on the sinful people around him with contempt. Contempt has the effect of making you feel better about yourself by thinking someone else is really horrible. It’s a bit like making yourself feel taller by beheading the others in the room. He isn’t a robber. He isn’t a con artist. He isn’t living in sexual sin. … I'm sure we've all met people who are sure they are good people because they've never killed anyone. They aren't like Hitler, so they are basically good people. 
            The Pharisee goes a step further.  He's not just ‘not bad’- he's actually really good. He even goes beyond the requirements of the law. The Old Testament requires fasting on festival days, but the Pharisee fasts twice a week. The Old Testament requires a Tithe, or 10%, from certain kinds of income, but he tithes on everything he has. He has gone above and beyond the call of duty. He is a super Israelite. He stands and basks in his own sense of righteousness. How good it is to be one of the righteous, especially more righteous than the other people around you.
            Traditionally, in the first century, the people would often pray out loud. So it is also possible that his prayer is a bit of a sermon to the people gathered for prayer. Get it together people. Be righteous like me. I'm sure we've all heard prayers that are a little more like sermons than prayers- "...And Lord as we sit down to eat our supper, please remind Johnny to do his homework and eat his vegetables...".         
            The environmentalist who confronted my friend was basically right.  We are in the middle of an environmental crisis. Maybe she should have found a way to keep the baby warm without having to keep the van running. It is a good thing to care for the environment. As Christians we should be on the front lines in caring for creation. The problem was the judgement he was heaping on her head from a heart that seemed filled with pride and contempt.
 Of course as soon as we bring judgement on the Pharisee or the environmentalist we realize that we have become the Pharisee in the story if we start to look on the Pharisee with contempt- glad that we aren’t like him. … What was wrong with the Pharisee was not his dedication and good works. What was wrong with the Pharisee was his sense of comparative righteousness which led to pride and contempt. "God I thank you that I am not like this tax collector". Pride, self-righteousness, contempt, and judgement are poisons to our soul. When we try to justifying ourselves by looking at others with contempt we destroy humility in ourselves, which is the necessary stance before God to receive grace.   
            It might be helpful to talk a bit about why humility is important, and to do that we have to look at what kind of a story we are in.  St. Augustine taught that we are living in a state of sin. The world is polluted by sin, and that toxic sludge creeps into us from the moment we are born so that we are inclined towards selfishness. We are still God's good creation, and so we still carry God's image, but that image has been broken.
            All religions have this basic belief- Something is not quite right. Something is not quite right with the world. Something is not quite right with us. We are not enlightened. Things are out of balance. We are disconnected from who we really are, or who we are meant to be. We are fooled by illusion, and lies. It is expressed in a myriad of different ways and through a variety of stories from as many cultures. Something is wrong with us and the world. The religions of the world, each in their own way, teach us about how to deal with the brokenness. They give us a new way to think about the world, or they give us actions to do, or they give us hope for a future time when the world will be fixed. They all give a way of dealing with the brokenness. Either way, from the time we are children the brokenness is a part of us.
            This is basically what Augustine referred to as Original Sin. We have inherited this pollution. It was part of the world we have been born into, and we will add to the pollution as we add to it our own personal sins. Our own pride, greed, lust, wrath, gluttony, jealousy, and unwillingness to use the gifts God has given us,… all add to the toxic sludge that permeates the world and results in war, violence, oppression, and addiction. In our brokenness we chase after what we think will make us happy, but it eventually just leads to more pain and emptiness. Paul says in Romans Ch7, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do". It's that monkey that you can't get off your back and just when you think you have shaken it off it sneaks up on you again.   We are stuck up to our waste in a mud pit, and the more we wiggle to free ourselves the more stuck we get. … The Christian response to the brokenness is to acknowledge that we need someone to come pull us out.   
            This is where the Pharisee gets it wrong. He thinks he has worked his way out of the mud, because by comparison to the people around him, he looks like he's doing alright. But, he doesn't see the root of all sin living in his heart- Pride. Pride is the seed of sin. Pride leads to contempt. Contempt leads to anger and hatred, which leads to murder.  The prideful Pharisee might have good works, but with pride planted in his heart he is a ticking time-bomb.

            And this is where the Tax-Collector gets it right. Jesus isn't saying that there is anything good about his job.  Tax-collectors were crooks and traitors who worked for an occupying army. Often they were already wealthy and they gouged the poor to make themselves more rich and powerful using the authority of their Roman oppressors. They were allowed to skim as much as they wanted off the top as long as Rome got their share. Anything extra the tax collector was free to have.  It was a rotten system that led to all kinds of corruption. … But, this Tax Collector seems to have realized his part in the world's problem. He realizes that he is pumping that toxic sin sludge into the world. And he comes to God for forgiveness because he can feel his own sin weighing down his heart. The Pharisee doesn't see his own sin. … The tax collector sees his own brokenness- his greed, and gluttony. He stands at a distance from the rest not because he is afraid of being polluted like the Pharisee, but he feels like he is not worthy to stand among them out of shame over his own sin. He is so burdened by his own sin that he hangs his head and beats his chest. He is feeling deep regret and remorse. I know there are moments of sin and stupidity in my life that will come back to me in a quiet moment and I will have a gut reaction as the memory hits me and almost without thinking about it I’ll groan and feel as though I’ve been hit. I think that kind of full-body reaction the tax-collector is having.
            The tax collector calls out for help in humility. Humility is just seeing yourself as you are- no better, no worse. Humility is seeing yourself as God sees you. The Tax collector calls in genuine humility for God's mercy. And that is the prerequisite to receiving it. Unless you genuinely realize your need for atonement you don't have the ability to receive it. Unless you realize that your relationship with God and the people around you is messed up, you can't really ask for and receive help from God.  Humility is the seed of all virtue. With humility planted in your heart you are bound to be led into a transformed life.    

            Before the confession in the Book of Common Prayer it says this, "YE that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead the new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways...". … Truly and earnestly. We are welcome to the sacrament of Absolution if we truly and earnestly repent. The confession is not a magic formula to grant us forgiveness. It presents us with the opportunity to open ourselves to receive forgiveness. As we do the confession we should have specific personal sins in mind, rather than a general sense of being a sinner. We all live in a sin sick world, but that sin finds specific expression in our lives. Maybe we drink a bit too much, maybe we look at internet sites that we shouldn't, maybe we gossip a bit too much, maybe we judge others, maybe we are a bit greedy with our money, maybe we are filled with anger. Sin has an expression in all of our lives. We all have something we struggle with. And that stuff is not news to God. But purposefully and specifically confronting it and bringing it to God is important.  

            Sometimes we talk about repentance and we start to think God wants us to have bad self-esteem. That’s not what humility is about. What God wants is repentance, or “metanoia”. He wants us to be in a continual state of turning towards God. He wants us to be continually changing our minds and hearts. He wants us to see the world and ourselves as God sees. This starts with humility. The alternative is to live in an illusion.  God knows the deepest and darkest parts of yourself. God knows the parts of yourself you keep secret even to those who are closest to you. God knows about them. God doesn't want us to remain stuck in the mud. Christ stands with his hand out to us who are stuck in the mud. What we have to do is have the humility to grab hold. Christ has done the painful work. He has shed his sweat and blood on the cross for us.  He wants to transform us. He wants to make our lives better. He wants to work through us and transform the world by transforming our little piece of the world. God wants to speak peace into your life. That is what it means to be justified. You have peace with God. Your relationship is healed. The Tax collector went home with his relationship to God healed. Sure he had work to do. He had to fix some things in his life, but God was there to help him. 

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