Sunday, October 27, 2013

23 Pentecost

October 27, 2013

Luke 18.9-14

+ I must be in an ornery mood lately. Last week, in my sermon, I actually mentioned cracking my knuckles. And I got some major feedback about my feistiness and knuckle cracking. I’m still in that mood this week.

Partly I am because, I saw someone on Facebook say something that really set me off.   For all my years in the church, there is one thing you can almost guarantee will set me off. In fact, you’ve no doubt heard me go off about this before. But one of the things some people in the church love to say is something that I simply cannot stand.  You’ve heard this phrase before, I know.  The phrase is this.

“I love the sinner, but I hate the sin.”

Grrrr. My blood runs cold when I hear such a thing.

Now, to be fair, people who say it feel they are saying something kind and selfless. But the reality is it really isn’t kind. Or selfless. It is, quite simply, 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.  That stupid phrase just makes no sense to me.

I love the sinner, but I hate their sin.

It sounds too much like we are saying,  I am just so thankful that I am not sinning in that same way. And most times, the so-called “sin” the person hates, is really a sin they themselves are not guilty of.

And that is the real rub here. How easy it is for any of us to say we hate someone else’s sin, when it isn’t our sin. OK. I need to get over this feistiness.

I just need to relax and let things like this go. And I need to remind myself of what to do in those situations when I confront someone’s sin in a way in which I really do hate their particular sin (which, yes, happens). In those moments when I am confronted with what seems like someone’s else’s sin, I realize what I have to do is the example of the tax collector in our Gospel reading for today.  

I too need to beat my 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.

The Pharisee is the religious one. He is the one who is doing right according to organized religion.  He is doing what Pharisees do; he is doing the “right” thing; he is filling his prayer with thanksgiving to God.  We should all thank God for all the good things God grants us.

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 holds up as an ideal form of prayer. But what gives it its punch is that is a prayer of absolute humility.

And 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—and grants—this prayer, even though it is being prayed by someone considered to be the exact opposite of the Pharisee. Whereas the Pharisee is the religious one, the righteous one, the tax collector, handling all that pagan unclean money of the conquerors, is unclean. He is an outcast.

Humility really is the key.

And it is one of the things, speaking only for myself here, that I am sometimes lacking in my own spiritual life. But, humility is important. It is essential to us as followers of Jesus.

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.”

I think we’re all a bit guilty of lacking humility in our own lives, certainly 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.

In those moments I find myself saying: “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 just that  guilty.

There but for the grace of God go I, we may say.

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

I remember reading a saying once by an Eastern Orthodox saint, 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, we need to struggle to correct those wrongs and to strive to do right. And that’s hard work. It’s sometimes impossible work.

It exhausts me. And so I don’t know why I would want to deal with other’s sins if my own sins exhaust me.

There are too many self-righteous Christians in the world.  We know them. They frustrate us.  And they irritate us.  We don’t need anymore. What we need are more humble, contrite Christians.  We need to be Christians who don’t see anyone 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.”

That is true humility. We should because we are. In our own eyes, if we carry true humility within us, if we are 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.

In dealing with others, we have no other options than just simply to love those people Sin or no sin, we must simply love them and hate our own sins.  That is what it means to be a true follower of Jesus. 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 us 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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