Powerful Mercy: Thoughts On Humility

Here is my sermon from last week – it spurred a lot of discussion.  Enjoy!

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Luke 18:9-14

Powerful Mercy: Thoughts On Humility

“Parables are like fishing lures,” one of my commentaries read this week. “They are full of attractive features – feathers, bright colors – and they end with a sharp little barb!”*

I have to be honest with you all – I hate preaching on parables. I always feel like the message is already spelled out for us and there really is not much left for me to say.

When I first look at this text, I thought about writing a sermon titled, “Living Humbly”. I was drawn to the last line, Jesus’ words – “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” It seemed to me that this text gave me the opportunity to put together a nice little spiritual handbook, something that could provide a tangible roadmap towards humility.

And while that does sound great in theory, I have to admit that I – indeed – got hung up on that sharp little barb on this fishing lure of a parable.

First of all, here is what the commentary had to say about why this particular parable can be tricky.

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is just such a parable. On the surface, it is a straightforward and bracing story about the dangers of spiritual pride and the benefits of confession. The careful preacher, though, will craft a message that draws hearers to the bite of truth, just as this parable does. In order to do so, it will be important to bear in mind certain pitfalls that await one who works at an interpretation of this text for contemporary listeners.*

So – we are the contemporary listeners, I (supposedly) am the careful preacher and we all are trying to avoid the potential pitfalls – the sharp barb of the fishing lure – of this parable.

The commentary goes on:

On its face, this seems to be a simple story that encourages humility and condemns spiritual pride. How does one preach on humility without succumbing to spiritual pride? Surely this is one of the greatest spiritual paradoxes. “Be humble!” As soon as we have arrived at a suitable state of humility, we are tempted to take pride in our accomplishment.

Confess your sins before God, and you, like the tax collector then cries out, “God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee!” How difficult it is to be truly humble, to confront, without flinching, as the tax collector does, our own sins, to beg God’s mercy without excuse.*

So here is the conundrum that I found myself in this week. How do I (the careful preacher) preach on humility without being a little bit like the Pharisee, a man who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”?

You know, Jesus had the right idea. He probably knew that it would be almost impossible to speak literally about humility without contradicting his own message. So he spoke using a parable.

Unfortunately, we are called not just to speak the Gospel, but to live it out as well.

And that is where our challenge begins today.

Parables may not always give us succinct answers, but they do force us to think about and talk about some of the issues that we – as human beings- struggle with on a daily basis.

Who here has struggled with humility at some point in their lives? Look around! You are in good company.

So let us think about and talk about humility. We may not be able to put together a perfect roadmap, but we can start a really important conversation; one that I believe Jesus intended for us to have when he told this parable so many years ago.

Here are some of my thoughts on humility – coming both my reflection of this parable and from the community and world that we are living in.

Thought #1 – We Will Never Be Perfectly Humble

We will never be perfectly humble – so we need to get that out of our heads right now. Perfect humility is an oxymoron. We are – by nature – imperfect human beings touched by the grace of God. Perfect humility should never be the goal; humility full of grace should be the journey.

Thought #2 – We Will Contradict Ourselves

We will contradict ourselves – in both our words and in our actions.

We all know that we should be humble – right? We all probably say that we should be humble – right? But go back to Thought #1 – perfect humility is an oxymoron. We can all probably reflect on our lives and see a time when we could have or should have been more humble. We may say one thing and do another.

Jesus gave us the ultimate contradiction in this parable! We have a man – the Pharisee – who was extremely pious, but who was not humble in his words and in his prayers. Perhaps Jesus was not simply point out his wrongdoing, but also point out that sometimes we, too, are like the Pharisee. We try to be good people – we are good people. And yet sometimes we fall short.

Acknowledge those times; reflect on those times; learn from those times.

Thought #3 – Look In A Mirror; Not Through An Open Window

It is so much easier to look at someone else’s shortcomings than our own, isn’t it?

It is easy to think to yourself – or, say out loud in some cases, “I go to church every week, I put money in the offering plate and I serve on five committees. Good for me! It is a shame that I am surrounded by a bunch of unhelpful heathens who do not do as much or give as much as I do.”

Here is the thing about this parable – in theory, the Pharisee had every right to say what he said about the tax collector. Tax collectors often stole money from the people that they taxed and pocketed the money; they collaborated with those who oppressed their people; and they accepted bribes. From a cultural standpoint, the tax collector lived a life of sin; the Pharisee did not.

But God does not need us to point that out.

Focus on the ways that you can be more humble; demonstrate with your actions and the people around you will follow.

Thought #4 – Mercy Is Powerful

I read a reflection this week that focused on the role of God’s mercy in this parable. If a tax collector can receive the mercy of God, the commentator pointed out, then there is hope for all of us. No one can be excluded from God’s mercy.

Perhaps this is not simply a reflection, though, but a charge; a charge for us. If no one can be excluded from God’s mercy, then no one should be excluded from our mercy as well.

Forgiveness is another sermon for another day, but I think it is important to point out that with humility comes grace, forgiveness and mercy. And I know those things are not easy to live out in your day to day lives, but they are so important. We have to try.

Thought #5 – Prayer Can Be A Really Awesome Tool

When I say that prayer can be a really awesome tool, I am not talking about the type of prayer that the Pharisee said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”? I am talking about the type of prayer that drops you to your knees as you ask God to help you be a more humble person. I am talking about the type of prayer that allows you to admit your mistakes and to see other’s imperfections signs of grace. I am talking about the type of prayer that opens your eyes and your mind to the world around you that God created. I am talking about the type of prayer where you pray for yourself and the people around you and see all of your faults and shortcomings as equal. I am talking about the type of prayer that draws you closer to God, to your friends and to your enemies.

The Prophet Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The key word in that passage is not “humbly” – it is “with”. We are called to walk with God on our journey. Jesus called us to be humble, but he never said that we had to do it alone. We need to allow God to help us on this journey. It will not be perfect; in fact, it may get messy at times. But, oh, what a beautiful journey it will be!

We may never get this whole humility thing figured out, but I do believe that our journey can be spirit-filled and overflowing with blessings.

We have thought about and talked about humility. Now let us hear the choir sing about it. Hear first the lyrics of the hymn, “If My People’s Hearts Are Humbled,” based on a passage from 2 Chronicles:

If my people’s hearts are humbled, if they pray and seek my face,
if they turn away from evil, I will not withhold my grace.
I will hear their prayers from heaven; I will pardon every sin.
If my people’s hearts are humbled, I will surely heal their land.

Then my eyes will see their sorrow, then my ears will hear their plea;
if my people’s hearts are humbled, I will set their nation free.
If my people’s hearts are humbled, if they pray and seek my face;
if they turn away from evil, I will not withhold my grace.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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*David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor | Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4, Pages 212-217

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