“We Aren’t That Bad, Are We?”
Sermon on Sunday, October 27, 2019
Based on Luke 18: 9-15
Dear people of the church,
We aren’t that bad, are we? I mean, as blatantly righteous as the Pharisee in this parable, as unashamedly condescending, comparing ourselves with those whom we deem not as good, not as successful, not as…, we are not really that bad, are we? Pointing at another person in God’s house! Staring at them in the sanctuary of the Lord… in our minds focusing on their shortcomings and flaws instead of ours… seeing them essentially as a failure - that’s despicable! We are better than that, are we not? One of our core values, if you had time to look at them, reads like this: “As members of St. Peter’s we value and commit to being an inclusive community promoting authentic caring relationships with each other and our partners in ministry, always treating each other with respect.” What is described in this core value is the opposite of pointing at another person. It is about a non-judgmental, caring, respectful community. That’s who we are at our core, right?
But, of course, this parable is still for us to ponder this morning… and as a religious community, the starting point for most of us is the Pharisee in this parable. He is the insider in the Temple. He is the guy who’s got it all together. In a Christian world, he’d be the one who was baptized, confirmed, went to mission trips, youth group events when he was younger, maybe he sang in the choir; he probably served his church in many ways. And he is proud of all that and happy to be part of the church community. By the way, he or she would never utter words like the ones Jesus puts in the Pharisee’s mouth. That would be way too embarrassing. Yes, I believe, we are indeed not that bad or perhaps we are simply not that inconsiderate and stupid! Our mothers have taught us better manners.
The real question is whether the attitude displayed by the religious man in the parable is something that might live quietly under the hood, in the secret thoughts of our hearts, in the more subtle ways of how we approach others. Sometimes gestures speak louder than words and ignoring someone, for instance, is a more powerful way of dismissal than most words. The late Elie Wiesel, this Holocaust survivor with astute insights into the intricacies of human nature, once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
If Elie Wiesel’s words are true, and I believe they are, then what the Pharisee says in the parable is not the worst kind of rejection, hard as that is to believe. At least he is transparent. At least he seems to care, even if he cares in an arrogant and self-righteous way. All of that can be called out. The silent rejections are harder to catch. People can seemingly take the high road, use the right words, abide by the rules taught to us in kindergarten, be outwardly nice for the most part, and yet, critical and judgmental deep inside. Jesus, in this parable, touches on one of the greatest challenges of life and that is the challenge to conquer ourselves, to know ourselves and our motives, to be cleansed from the inside out. And in our interpretation of the gospel, it also means to keep our hearts from focusing on the shortfalls of others, and to keep them from condemning even ourselves, and be filled to the brim with the unconditional love of God!
I said that most of us should begin to ponder this parable by looking at the Pharisee. But as I thought more about the dynamics at play here, it occurred to me that in today’s religious landscape the roles are probably more mixed. First of all, not all of us are church “insiders”. In fact, a sizable part of our membership, I bet even a majority, might recall a time when you felt like an outsider to the church when you were suspicious of people who attended worship frequently; possibly you were religiously confused and detached. Maybe there was a time when you didn’t feel pure enough to receive communion (which is ironic because we come to communion precisely to be purified). You felt guilty because of something, a secret you didn’t care to share. The church was for you the symbol of people who judge, even if they are not. You attended church one day again because frankly, you had nothing better to do on Sunday morning. The weather wasn’t great enough for golf; the kids were out of the house; you didn’t feel like sleeping in, and you said to yourself, what the heck, let me go to church! It can’t be that bad! And since you hadn’t been there in a while, you felt that everybody was looking at you, which probably they weren’t. But that re-entry into church can be intense and you may have been keenly aware of yourself. It’s possible you said words in your heart that weren’t all that different from the words of the tax collector in this parable. Not as dramatic maybe; perhaps you prayed something like, “God, help me to find my way! Help me through this difficult time! Let me be a better person!” You were sitting in a place by yourself, self-absorbed in all the good ways because you needed to be! And hopefully, you have since come out of your shell and found that you can simply be yourself.
If we read the parable again, we will notice that in fact, both the Pharisee and the sinner are standing on the outside of the synagogue community. The Pharisee was standing by himself, Luke writes, and the tax collector was standing far off. Both men keep their distance, one disconnected by a feeling of superiority, the other disconnected by a feeling of guilt. To me, the good news is that both came to the House of God that morning. And the good news is that everyone can be part of a worship service even if they want to keep their distance a bit. I think it’s good for a church community to be open, inviting, inclusive and all that; but it is equally important that we don’t force people to be “one of us.” Sometimes they have some business to settle and you know, they come here to talk to God and are not particularly interested in any of us, and that is o.k. too, is it not?
It also occurred to me that the Pharisee mentioned in the parable must not be a church person or a religious person at all. In today’s world, you will find self-righteousness in all forms and places. Some people are self-righteous about not being religious. Their words sound similar to the ones uttered by this caricature of a Pharisee in the parable. They will say things like, “O God don’t let me be like one of those religious people who run to church all the time, who are not confident enough to stand on their own feet. They need a god-crutch! God forbid, I become like them!” Self-righteousness is a human phenomenon, not one that any community owns. We are all afflicted by it to one degree or another. And so, the question that I asked in the beginning, how do we answer it ultimately? “Are we as bad as the Pharisee in this parable?” Dear congregation, I’d like to think not. But I also know that my own heart and mind are vulnerable to deception and that I need to pay attention to my own self-righteous tendencies, especially as a church leader. I feel that confessing and praying are some of the best tools out there to stay humble. I’m sure God has his work cut out with me. But that’s alright. God’s up for the job. And I believe that’s also true for you, wherever you are on your journey.