Sunday, October 23rd, 2016 ~ Sermon ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
Well, At Least I’m Not . . . !
Two people stopped by a church to pray one day. They came separately but stepped into the sanctuary at about the same time.
The first woman, dressed to the “nines” in her mid-forties, walked in through the front doors of the church. She had an elegant, well-mannered look about her. The other one much younger, slipped in through the side door that came in through a hallway from the parking lot on the back side of the church. It would appear she had come in from work and if her garb was any indication she perhaps worked as a chambermaid or even a dishwasher at a local restaurant. She wore a stained apron and had a tired, worn look about her.
They each took a seat in a pew. They were the only ones in the sanctuary so even though they were several rows a part, they were certainly aware of each other.
The first one removed her lace gloves, carefully bowed her head and began praying out loud, “Holy Lord God, Divine author of life and death and all that is seen and unseen, I thank you for the manifold blessings I have been privileged to know and continue to experience. Oh source of all Divine love, I am undeserving of your lavish grace. I have been blessed with a wonderful family, loving husband, three beautiful children. And Lord, for whatever reason, you have blessed me with a comfortable life, unlike some who have to toil at hard labor for long hours for a living. I know that none of us are worthy of your goodness but I thank you that I have received much from you. Perhaps it is because you think I can handle it better than others that I have been these blessings. So I’m here to thank you and tell you your trust in me was not misplaced. Once again it has been my pleasure and privilege to speak with you in this holy and sacred moment of prayer. Amen.”
With this she opens her eyes, lifts her head, reaches in her purse pulls out a little mirror looks herself over in it, touches up her makeup a bit, slowly stands while she slipped her fancy gloves back on and made then her way to the door and left.
The other woman had sat quietly through this time half listening and half wondering what she would say. She was feeling rather intimidated by what she had just over heard.
So sitting there fidgeting with something or other in her little handbag, she looks up into the ceiling of the sanctuary and began, “Um, um, God? Jesus? Whatever, whoever? I’m not sure what I’m supposed to call you but I am callin’ on you, right now! If I remember you like it when we are humble, so Lord I’m a tryin’. But right now it’s been pretty damn hard and it’s not fair. My kid is sick and is missing school. I’ve had to stay home with him because as you know whether you like it or not I’m not married and there no one else. So I’m taking the night shift and I’m just plain worn out. I’m lucky the neighbor is willing to watch him at night. I think she is trustworthy. I’m not so sure about her boyfriend though. I hope so, but what else can I do? I’m trying my best. A little help would be greatly appreciated!”
“Well, that’s about it. And I guess, I thank yah for listenin’. That is if you are? I have no idea because I haven’t heard a word from you yet!”
She looks down from the ceiling, gathers her things together, looks at her cell phone, lets out a quiet gasp, apparently she is late for something. She jumps up and starts toward the doors. But just as she leaves the sanctuary she looks back to the pew where the other woman had been praying, the scent of her perfume still lingering in the air, and not quite under her breath she adds another little prayer: “Well, Lord, at least I’m not like her!”
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.
Who are you Pharisee of tax collector? It is hard to read this parable without putting ourselves the one role or the other and perhaps both at different times. But in the end does it make any difference?
Regardless of our station, class, rank, location in life it can be all too easy to compare ourselves to others and to do so in a more favorable light. No one is immune to a deficiency in humility. And there is no vitamin supplement for this!
“I may be such and such but at least I’m not like so in so!”
“I may not be the best whatever (dad, mom, friend) but I’m at least better than some others.”
And let us not think that we do not do this as Christians with each other!!
I’ll be the first to raise my hand as guilty. How many times have I thought if not said out loud “Well at least I’m more theologically astute, biblically informed, morally enlightened, spiritually mature that those ????!”
I am not preaching to the choir this morning folks!
How seductive it is to trust in ourselves that we are the enlightened, and to regard others with contempt. (We like that word better than “righteous”!) We do our good duty, go to church whenever possible; we put our envelope in the plate or make that automatic payment online. We serve the church and our community in many ways.
Hooray for me! Boo for those who do not follow the rules as we do – those whose work is detestable to us, who we would prefer not sit in the same pew with us. Even if we do don’t take our judgement to this extreme, it can be difficult to avoid looking on some with a bit of contempt when they do not conform to our expected standards of behavior, especially when it comes to religious behavior.
Well, at least I’m not like . . . !” If we have not said it, we have thought it!!
Jesus challenges us to avoid trusting in our own efforts at righteousness and to humble ourselves before a merciful God. Trust is called for, but not a trust in ourselves or our ability. What is called for is a trust in God’s mercy. In a culture that values individual; achievement so highly, this can be a tall order, but even as we are cautioned not to trust our ability to fulfill the law, nowhere else does Jesus say that we may ignore the law!
Humility in discipleship is a balancing act. Because as we all know the moment you realize just how humble you are . . . you’re not!
“. . . for all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The question is: Can we humble ourselves? Or does it take an act of God?
For some of us it is only when we mess up in a big way or to use a phrase from the recovery community “hit rock bottom” that we gain the humility and in that humility a heart that has room for God.
This past week I was called to visit an individual in the local jail. I did not know this person before I met with them in the contact visitation room in the jail. All I knew was that this person had had a difficult few days and wanted to talk with a pastor.
I listened as the events that led up to the arrest and imprisonment were shared. I heard lots of things but what I did not hear were excuses, any rationalizations, or attempts at self-justification. An act had been committed that resulted very tragic consequences for which this individual took full responsibility. We talked about forgiveness, human and God’s. We spoke about mistakes made and repentance. We spoke about the love and support of a few that had stayed with this individual throughout the ongoing ordeal.
This person had been leaning hard on the psalms especially the Psalms of lament. I encouraged him to read and reflect and pray on Romans 8: 35-39
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Here was a person who had hit rock bottom and had messed up in such a big way that there was nothing left but a wounded heart that was wide open for the undeserved mercy of God. In the end this person’s only request: pray for fairness and justice for every one including the victims.
But the tax collector, standing far off . . . was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’
I pray that it will not take such an act on my part understand the mercy of God and to open my heart up to such love and grace.
To which I guess my prayer would be simply:
Lord, help me be humble, but don’t ever let me know it! Amen!