Sunday, October 24, 2010

22 Pentecost

October 24, 2010

Luke 18.9-14

+ Earlier this week, I had one of the conversations clergy people often has with people. My lunch mate was a member of one of the more conservative congregations in town. During our conversation, the topic, invariably, turned to the issue of the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church.

“I am not against gays,” the persons aid. “In fact, I have many friends who are gay. “My issue is…” I held my breath knowing full-well where she was going. “ with the sin of homosexuality. I love the sinner. I just hate the sin.”

Now, over the years, I have heard this explanation so many times that I can almost anticipate it even before the words actually come out. And over the years, I will admit, I have not responded to it as I should. I am guilty of doing so. But this past week, I couldn’t hold my tongue. So, I held up my finger and waved it at her a bit and I clicked my tongue at her. I said,
“You know, I don’t know believe, of course, that being gay is a sin by any sense of the word. But….for the sake of argument, let’s just say for this one instance that it is. Even if it is, it is not your place or mine to say we hate anyone else’s sin.”

She stared back at me in disbelief, but (and I give her full credit for this), she decided to let me speak. “Go on,” she said.

“It’s is not my place or yours to hate any one else’s sin. My only responsibly is to hate my own sin. If I sin, I must hate my own sin. But it is not my job, as a Christian or as a priest, to even see the sin anyone else has.”

I then went on to quote my favorite quote from Pope John XXIII (and sort of the motto of my priesthood): “I am here to bless not to condemn.”

The point I went on to make to her (and to you) is that I am simply not in the position to look at anyone else as a sinner. My own job is to see myself as a sinner and live with that. My only job as a Christian is simply love—not just someone who is a sinner, but all of us, who are sinners. And to love them fully and completely as they are, just as God loves us.

For those of who say things like, “I love the sinner, but hate the sin,” we think what we are saying is actually kind and selfless thing to say. But it really isn’t. It’s a terribly self-righteous statement. And it’s a terribly judgmental thing to say.

When we say such things, we end up sounding very much like the proud Pharisee in Jesus’ parable this morning. In a sense, we are saying, I love the sinner, but I cannot abide by their sin and I am just so thankful that I am not sinning in that same way.

In those moments when we are confronted with what seems like someone’s else’s sin, we should take the example of the tax collector. We too should beat our breast and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

It’s probably one of the purest and more honest prayers we can make. And what I love even more about this parable is the fact that the prayer of the Pharisee isn’t even necessarily a bad prayer in and of itself. I mean, there’s an honesty in it as well. The Pharisee is doing, as Pharisees do, the “right” thing; he is filling his prayer with thanksgiving to God. The problem arises in the fact that the prayer is so horribly self-righteous and self-indulgent that it manages to cancel out the rightness of the prayer. The arrogance of the prayer essentially renders it null and void.

The tax collector’s prayer however is so pure. It is simple and straight-to-the-point. This is the kind of prayer Jesus again and again hold sup as an ideal form of prayer.

But what gives it its punch is that is a prayer of absolute humility. Humility is the key here. It gives the prayer just that extra touch. There is no doubt in our minds as we hear this parable that God hears this prayer, even though it being prayed by someone considered to be unclean.

Humility really is the key and it is the one thing so many of us are lacking in our spiritual life.

St. Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite saint, once said, “Humility, humility. In this way we let our Lord conquer, so that he hears our prayer. And the first sing that have this humility is that you do not believe that you have earned the Lord’s gift of grace and delights or count on earning them as long as you live.”

I think we’re all a bit guilty of lacking humility in our spiritual lives and in being self-righteous when it comes to sin. We all occasionally take some delight, as the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable does, in the shortcomings and failures of others. We watch with almost gleeful joy when politicians are involved in scandals, or movie stars get in trouble with drugs or the law, or even when clergy fall and fall hard.

I think some of us think: “Thank God it’s them and not me.” And maybe that’s an honest prayer to make. Because what we also say in that prayer is that we, too, are capable of being guilty. We just don’t want to be found out.

We all have a shadow side. We are all sinners. There’s no way around that fact. But the fact is, the only sins we’re responsible for are our own sins—not the sins of others. We can’t pay the price of other’s sins, nor should we delight in the failings of others.

I remember reading a saying once by an Eastern Orthodox saints, Barsanufios. He said, “”He who recognizes his own stench in his nose cannot recognize any other smell even if he stands on a pile of dead bodies.”

Yes, it’s a disgusting image, but it strikes home.

All we can do as Christians, sometimes, is humble ourselves. Again and again. We must learn to overlook what others are doing and concentrate on what we ourselves are doing wrong. And when we recognize what we are doing wrong, to correct those wrongs and to strive to do right. That’s all we can do.

There are too many self-righteous Christians in the world. We don’t need anymore. What we need to be is humble, contrite Christians. We need to be people who don’t see the people we are called to serve as inferior to us—as charity cases to whom we can share our wealth and privileges.

Rather, to paraphrase the great St. Therese of Lisieux: we should sit down with sinners, not as their benefactors but as the “most wretched of them all.”

We should because we are. In our own eyes, if we carry true humility within us, if we our own stiffest and most objective judges, then we know that we are the most wretched of them all and that we are in no place to condemn others, nor are we in a place to hate the sins of others—only our own sins.

It’s not easy to do that, but it is essential. It is essential if we are going to truly love those we are called by Jesus to love and it is essential to our sense of honesty before God.

So, let us steer clear of such self-righteousness as hating other people’s sins and let us draw whatever hatred we might have within us onto our own failings and shortcomings—not so we can beat ourselves up and be self-deprecating, but so we can overcome our shortcomings and rise above them.

Let us look at others with pure eyes—with eyes of love. Let us not see the sins of others, but the light and love of God permeating through them, no matter who they are.

And with this perception, let us realize that all of who have been humbled will be lifted up by God and exalted in ways so wonderful we cannot even begin to fathom them in this moment.

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