The Challenge Of Spiritual Humility

Can I just say that humility is one of the hardest things to preach on?  Because short of getting up there and inappropriately over-sharing all the stuff in my life that I’ve done wrong, it’s tough to balance the call to be humble without actually stumbling down the path of spiritual pride and doing exactly what the Pharisee did.  I’m not sure how well I walked the line, but one of my church members walked out (she works as a drug/alcohol abuse counselor) and said, “I kind of felt like I was at a meeting!”  So hopefully I was able to find a good balance.  Enjoy!

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
October 23, 2016

Luke 18:9-14

The Challenge of Spiritual Humility

Many of you may remember the news story from this past summer when a toddler was tragically killed at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa by an alligator in shallow water.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how the news is different today than it used to be. It is constant, it is easily accessible and – thanks to commenting systems and social media – it is open to a lot of opinions and commentary. 20 years ago, I might have seen a story like this once or twice on the morning or night news, but not given it much thought and moved on.

Things have changed a little bit. As the Internet gets larger, the world seems smaller. Local news is no longer necessarily more relevant; all news is. And no sooner did the news of this alligator attack break than the comments started.

Where were the parents when this happened?
What kind of parents would let their children wade in shallow water by themselves?
Why couldn’t the parents have stopped this attack from happening?
Those parents never should have let a two year old out of their arm’s reach.

Commenters were ruthless as they tore apart these parents who had just suffered an unspeakable tragedy. There was no compassion, no love, and no grace; only blame, hate and pointed chastising.

Frustrated by the commentary on this story, a friend of mine took to Facebook and posted the following status:

Can all of the perfect parents please let me know when your books drop?
When Vincent was 2, he drank half a bottle of ibuprofen.
When he was 3, he ate a marble.
Just yesterday, I looked down and found [Harper] 20 yards away on the field while at Vincent’s baseball game. I thought she was right next to me.
There but by the grace of God go I.
Spread love.

This post got 43 comments, each one by a mom or dad, humbly and honestly sharing their imperfect journey of parenting. I was so touched as I read through them all because they reminded me that we are all connected. In the church we talk about this as the Body of Christ. When we attack one person, we attack us all. When we judge one person, we judge us all.

This morning we read the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. This story is fairly straightforward: There are two men, one Pharisee and one Tax Collector. At that time, Pharisees held fast to literal interpretations of scripture and observance of Torah and Tax Collectors were seen as the opposition, collaborators with the Romans.

This story encourages humility; it sets up the harsh dichotomy of the Pharisee, who you think should be the more spiritually humble person, and the Tax Collector, who, by tradition, did not follow the path of faith and law. But, in fact, in this story the exact opposite happens; the Pharisee points fingers and passes judgment on the Tax Collector while the Tax Collector offers an honest and humble confession before God.

At the heart of this parable we see the sheer danger of spiritual pride and we see it in a surprising character – the Pharisee, not the Tax Collector.

I think it is easy for us to read this parable and quickly chastise the Pharisee. It is pretty clear the point Jesus was trying to make; which character in this story was more spiritually humble. In fact, I could probably safely stand up and say, “Everyone get it? Be humble,” and move on with the service.

But I think if I were to do that, then I might have missed the whole point. Because if I rambled on about how the Pharisee was in the wrong and how I know why the Pharisee was in the wrong, then how am I any different from him?

Humility is a tricky thing.

Do you ever wonder why we do a community Prayer of Confession during our Sunday worship? This might be one of the most common questions I am asked.

Why do we say a prayer of Confession?
It is so negative; it only focuses on the bad stuff!
Why can’t we focus on positive things?
What if I didn’t actually do the things the prayer says I did?

The best defense of community confession I ever read came the book, Standing Naked Before God, by the Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette, when she said:

We are only as sick as our secrets. But if we can let those secrets out into the light, God can get at them. If you went down in your basement and discovered you had a mold problem, found all your treasures covered with toxic sludge because it was living in the perfect environment for the glop to grow, what would you do? You would drag everything upstairs and outside on a hot, sunny day. That is how confession works on our souls and our selves. God is sunlight, even if we can do the hard task of making our whole selves visible to Her.[1]

This is why we confess our sins. We bring our sins to light so we can create space for God’s grace.

Notice that I said, “we bring our sins to light” and not, “we bring the sins of others to light.” The most powerful piece of this parable is NOT realizing the shortcomings of the Pharisee; the most powerful piece of this parable is actually seeing yourself as the Pharisee.

We all judge others; we all see the sins of others a little bit easier than we do our own. We all point fingers and we all gossip; we might not mean to, but we do. I think this parable is more than simply a call for spiritual humility; I think this parable is an opportunity for us to see the Pharisee in ourselves.

I cannot speak for everyone here, but when I look honestly at myself in the mirror, I see a heck of a lot of Pharisee at times.

Sometimes it is so much easier to point out the wrongdoings of others than to confess our own sins to God. But this parable boldly asks us to look inward at our own faults and shortcomings and seek reconciliation and redemption for ourselves.

We have to stop looking at others and judging them and focusing on their faults, shortcomings and sins. This is not what Jesus calls us to do. Jesus calls us to look inward at ourselves. Jesus calls us to confess our own faults, our own shortcomings and our own sins and to humble ask God for forgiveness.

We must bring our sins to light so that God can shine light upon them. This is something that we must do for ourselves; no one can do it for us and we certainly cannot do it for someone else.

We need to be lifting each other up instead of tearing one another down; now, more than ever. We need to hold others in a spirit of love and not a spirit of judgment. We need to work on ourselves before pointing fingers at others. We need to make a commitment to be spiritually humble and then work on that commitment every single day.

This is where we find grace.

I am not saying we are all awful people and need to spend our lives thinking about our sins and beating ourselves up for them. But I am saying that we need to stop judging others for what they are doing and take a hard look at what we are doing.

Doing this will not hold us down, either; it will free us. We live in a heavily filtered and photo-shopped world and so often we judge others because feel like we have to give off this impression that we have it all together. But this is so far from the truth. Jesus wants us to be the most authentic version of ourselves, even if that means owning up to our sins and shortcomings.

So give yourself permission to be the Pharisee, to freely admit that you struggle with spiritual pride and it is something that you are working on. Other people need to see you working on these issues so they know it is okay for them to work on them as well.

I said before that the powerful piece of this parable is not that we should not be like the Pharisee, but that we should see ourselves as the Pharisee. But even that is not the best part of this story. Do you know that is? The fact that even spiritual humility is not where the story ends.

Grace is where the story ends. Always does.

If we take those first steps on this road towards a more humble life, we are likely going to trip, stumble and fall flat on our face at some point on the journey.

But I guarantee that God’s grace will be there to pick us up.

I reached out to my friend to see if she would mind me using her Facebook status in my sermon and she said in her message back to me, “Sure! I could make a longer list.”

I think we all could probably make a longer list about various things. And I think we should. Because I think a renewed focus on spiritual humility might open us up to a new depth of spiritual living.

So do not be afraid to look in that mirror; do not be afraid to dig, to see yourself as the Pharisee. Bring your sins into the light of God and create room for grace. And let that process transform you.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] Baskette, Molly Phinney. Standing Naked Before God: The Art Of Public Confession. Page 22.

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