Humble Pie – October 27, 2013 – “Reformation Sunday”
“Humble Pie” – October 27, 2013
“Let the words of my mouth . . . “
(Knock on the pulpit). It’s a dark and stormy night. The date is October 31st . All Hallows Eve. The year is 1517. As we look off in the distance, we see the light coming from a solitary lantern. Closer and closer and closer it comes. Weaving its way from house to house, from tree to tree, until finally it comes to rest at the doors of the church. There, we see the solitary figure, their face shielded from view by their cloak. They quickly place the lantern on the ground, grab a hammer and some papers, and start nailing. Bang. Bang. Bang. Quickly, they pick up the lantern and retreat the way they came. Who was this? Why all the secrecy? What did they so clandestinely nail to the Church doors?
Fast forward to today and we know that this person was none other than Martin Luther and what he nailed to the doors of Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany was his infamous 95 theses. Truth be told, it was probably not a dark and stormy night but rather the middle of the day. The nailing to the doors was done with no more fanfare than you or I thumb tacking a flyer to the community bulletin board at Beeston Hill fitness, inviting everyone to attend Jazz Vespers next Sunday. The door was like a community bulletin board and what Luther wanted was to invite the powers that be to a theological debate.
Standing on the shoulders of reformers who came before him, Luther wanted to engage discussion with those in power so as to “reform” what he saw as abuses going on in the church. He was not interested in starting his own breakaway church. He just wanted to fix what was wrong with the current one, or at least have some good discussion about it. Well, the church at the time was not interested. Luther was excommunicated.
Not to be discouraged, with the power of the newly invented printing press, Luther began to write. And just like our internet blogs and posts that can soon take a life of their own, Luther’s writings did the same. They went viral! The rest we can say, “is history”. So today, WE stand on the shoulders of men and women who constantly looked to reform what were seen as abuses within church and society. And while I am happy to be on this side of the reformation; happy with the Reformed mantra of scripture alone, faith alone, and grace alone; I am saddened by the all the divisions.
Luther may not have intended to start the Lutheran Church, but it happened. As did the Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist, and so on. And it continues to grow today. Just Google ‘Christian denominations’ and you will see that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000. Now I am all about diversity, but it seems that every time differences arise, one group will shun the other; leave; and start a new faction. Maybe there is something hard wired in our DNA as human beings, but we sure like to take sides. Whether it is catholic verses protestant; democratic verses republican; tea party verses progressive; National league verse American, we like to take sides; differentiate ourselves; try to get others to join us; and put God on our side and our side alone. It’s tempting with today’s parable too.
As we read in today’s scripture lesson, we have a Pharisee and Tax Collector, both going up to the temple to pray. Now I am getting pretty used to these characters from Luke so my mind quickly fills in the scene. The Pharisee is going to act all righteous and pompous; while the tax collector will be more down to earth, more like me. Right? But then I have to remember that this is a parable and a parable is meant to shock us a little, to give us a bit of a jolt, to make us look at things from a different perspective. It has been said of parables, “they are like fishing lures with bright colors and decorated feathers, with a sharp barb on the end”! But by becoming too familiar with it, I’m like the sneaky fish who always snatches the worm from the hook without ever getting caught. So let’s reframe this parable a bit to get our ears to hear it like those from the 1st century.
The Pharisee’s were all about observing the law as laid out by Moses in the Torah, but they were also about trying to make Torah observance available to all. Today, if we were to put a label on it, we might call them progressive or even evangelical. He does what is expected. He fasts, tithes, goes to the temple. So instead of a Pharisee, let’s substitute someone who we think of, someone who is a great example of a follower and doer of the teachings of Christ. How about Mother Teresa?
Now for the tax collector. These guy’s, and I am sure they were all guys, were not cut from your typical IRS agent mold. No, these guys would have been ruthless. They would have been members of the local community who were working for the oppressor state of Rome. They would be assigned to gather the required tax, keep a little cut for themselves, and return the rest to Rome. How they would gather this tax was in there discretion. I’m sure that some used beatings or the fear of beatings to get the required tax from some people. Unscrupulous and dishonest would have been the order of the day. They were NOT liked. So instead of a tax collector, how about Osama Bin Laden (*see sermon note).
“Two people went up to the temple to pray, one was a Pharisee: Mother Teresa and the other at tax collector: Osama Bin Laden”. Mother Teresa prays, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, or even like this terrorist. I fast twice a week, I help the poor in places no one wants to go’. Osama Bin Laden, standing far off and not even looking up to heaven , beats his breast and says, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’. I tell you, this man went down to his home made right with God rather than Mother Teresa, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted”.
Let that register for a second. Can you feel the shock factor a bit more with those characters? Feel the challenge to our preconceived notions? As I hear the story, I’m pulling for Mother Teresa. Certainly, she will be justified in her prayer. Just listen to her litany of achievements. How can she NOT be made right with God? But it’s not her, its Osama Bin Laden, the ruthless terrorist who is justified . . . how can this be? What kind of lesson is this parable trying to teach us?
It appears that humility is a virtue that is being rewarded (just keep on eating that humble pie). And while that is hard to argue with, to say that the moral of this parable is simple “be humble” is difficult. Humility is this kind of two-edged sword. First, humility can keep us from putting our best foot forward. I have struggled with this in the past. Using this scripture as my example, I have forced myself to be humble, almost to the point where it began to impact my own self-esteem and confidence. “Don’t want to put myself out there because then I won’t be humble”. But does not Scripture also tell us, “don’t put your light under a basket . . . let is shine for all to see”. Failing to acknowledge and use the wonderful gifts that God has given us is not humility, it’s a sin.
Second, humility can lead us into a trap. Can you see it in this parable? Once I start focusing on being humble, not prideful, not puffing up my own feathers, then I risk becoming prideful in my accomplishment that I am being humble and not prideful. Our prayer becomes “thank you that I am not like this Pharisee”. So, if humility is not the main message of the parable, what is it? When the Pharisee, or in our case Mother Teresa, began to pray, they listed their litany of achievements. As the parable is first unfolding, I find myself agreeing. Are they not just stating the obvious? As a Christian, can’t I be thankful that I am not like a terrorist? Can’t I be thankful that I am not like that evil person over there or that deceitful person over there? It’s those divisions again. The “who is in my camp and who is out” that we so love to do. We so want to be on the winning team. Winners and losers. It is an easy trap to fall into.
I remember when the charismatic movement blew through our town in Oklahoma. Many churches and ours in particular got caught up in what was called “spiritual renewal”. The spirit was moving again, just like at Pentecost. Liturgies began to change. New music and patterns of worship began to evolve. All that was fine, but attitudes began to change too. All of a sudden, if YOUR church was not “spirit-filled”, in the way that “I” define it, then you are just missing the boat. Can you hear it? “God, I thank you that we are not like those Baptists and Methodists and Catholics down the street”. It’s the Pharisee’s prayer. We become the judge and not God. We decide who is in or out.
Who do WE think is righteous? They can’t be righteous, look at what “I” am doing. I did this. I do that. There is a lot of “I” in there and not a lot of “God”. That is the point this parable is trying to drive home. It is not about us, it is about God. That is the point that Luther and other reformers were trying to make as well. It is only by God’s grace and mercy that we brought into wholeness . . . that’s it . . . nothing that we have done or will do can get is justified or right before God. Faith alone and Grace alone. What this parable wants us to realize is that it is ALL ABOUT GOD!
This parable, in fact, the crux of the whole Reformation, was an attempt to shift our attention away from ourselves and back to God. To shift the focus away from our own piety our own works our own successes, and back on to the Grace of God. To remind us that any status we claim, comes from God alone; a God who delights in dining with tax collectors and turning our preconceived notions upside down.
To set our focus again on the one who “in the beginning created the heavens and the earth”. The one to whom Moses and the Israelites sang, “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders? ”Who David proclaims, “is our shepherd, we shall not want”. The one Isaiah proclaims, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you”. Who John tells us loved us so much, that he sent his only son; God incarnate; to live and to die so that we might live! Who Paul proclaims that though the power of the Holy Spirit, “we were all baptized into one body, so that there is now neither Jew nor Gentiles, slave or free, but we are all one in Christ”.
With this focus, perhaps we can look at our neighbor, both those we agree with and especially those we don’t, not with judgment but with a more generous eye and recognize a fellow forgiven sinner for whom Christ died.
Thanks be to God!
Let us pray: God, we thank you for your Word which goes before us to lead, to guide, and to illumine our path. Help us to be doer’s of your Word and not just hearers. In Christ Name, Amen.
*Sermon Note: Substituting Osama Bin Laden for the tax collector in this parable by no means lends support to the activities of Osama Bin Laden or to any terrorist organization. The objective is for the 21st century listener/reader to have their preconceived ideas turned “upside down”; in the same way that the 1st century listeners would have been challenged.