Life is a Long Lesson in Humility

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October 27, 2019. Pastor Stephanie preaches on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Luke 18. We like to categorize people as “good” and “bad.” But people are more complex than that. We will all have setbacks and situations that humble us, and it’s better to accept the value of humility.


*** Transcript ***


Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


Some of you, I have learned, are fans of pneumonic devices and short, pithy phrases that capture the essence of a theme. I’m also a fan of such things. I appreciate simplicity, especially for abstract concepts whenever possible. Over the past several months, I have employed the technique of selecting a six word phrase and repeating it throughout the sermon in an attempt to leave an imprint of the main theme of the sermon. On Easter Sunday the well-known credo “Jesus is risen from the dead” was said several times throughout the message. I repeated that technique a couple of other times since then, with the result of several of you talking back to me at the conclusion of the service in your own six word messages. I love the way you engage in worship with me and with one another.


So today I’m going to stretch your memory just a tad by utilizing a seven word phrase. Are you ready? This one comes from 20th Century author James Matthew, better known as J. M. Barrie. He’s the guy who captured the imaginations of millions with his stories of the boy who refuse to grow up, Peter Pan. In a lesser known work of his entitled The Little Minister, he tells a tale of which the essence is stated like this: life is a long lesson in humility.


Isn’t that the truth? We learn and we grow and we achieve, and think that that should lead us from one success to another. Instead, we find out along the way that what we know and what we accomplished, while important, are not the be all and end all. We will have setbacks, and we will have situations that humble us. Better to accept early and often the value of humility, according to Jesus.


Luke 18 says that Jesus told the parable that we read today to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt. Reading that reminded me of the propensity that some have of labeling some people in the “good category” and others in the “bad category” according to our own viewpoints. When I studied educational psychology in college, my professor was very fond of Lawrence Kohlberg’s theories of moral development. So we studied those carefully. In Kohlberg’s theory, people who label others as clearly being one or the other, good or bad, are actually functioning at about a third grade level of moral thinking. As you might guess, people who have fixed those labels on others are usually doing that based on what? Outward behavior, outward appearance, qualities or actions. The longer we live though, friends, connected to God’s wisdom, the more we see that people simply cannot be lumped into these categories as easily as we thought. None of us is wholly good nor wholly bad. We are all far more complex than that. The highest level of moral development thinking is level 6, and Kohlberg attributed that to those who operate by values associated with Jesus’ teachings on The Sermon on the Mount, including the Beatitudes: Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers.


While the longer we walk with Christ and have our own sharp edges softened, it is also true that none of us can live at level 6 all the time. It becomes more clear to us that we will never be righteous in and of ourselves.


Life is a long lesson in humility.


Two people went to the temple to pray. One, a pious, devout religious person, a Pharisee who prayed, “God I thank you that I’m not like other people: extortioners, murderers, adulterers, or like this tax collector. I fast. I pray. I tithe all that I have.” Now, no one here is going to say that not being an extortioner, a murderer, or an adulterer is a bad thing. Those are good things to avoid being. And certainly no one on council is going to say there’s anything at all wrong with tithing. Instead they’re going to say, “Bring it on!”


So we can probably all agree that the one labeled the Pharisee was actually refraining from doing harmful things and actually doing things that were very good. But his attitude, oh my. There is the problem. He’s pretty proud of himself, and we just don’t like that in other people, do we? Especially when one’s pride is so excessive that it leads to utter contempt for other people. The problem, I think, is that a little bit of that is inherently within us as well. We just don’t see it in ourselves as easily. Imagine for a moment instead of thinking about a Pharisee who often gets labeled as holier-than-thou, imagine you are seated at your sweet grandmother’s table as she prays before your Thanksgiving meal. “Dear God, we are so grateful that we are not like other families we know. People who don’t know enough to offer thanks to you. Families that have fallen apart. And so they never gather around tables anymore. We rejoice that we went to church this morning to do what all good people do: we offered our thanks to you as the giver of all good gifts.”


Now, since this is Grandma, who’s always been so good to us, we might inwardly roll our eyes a bit, but we wouldn’t think of her as stuffy, as we’ve come to believe that Pharisees were. But that’s the problem. The Pharisee in the story is described with some severe hyperbole, but he and Grandma, and you and I, are all prone to think of others as a little bit worse than we are, or ourselves as not as bad as those people.


Periodically, we get the chance to correct our assumptions when we meet someone in a category of which we’ve been dismissive, and we actually learn of their struggles and of their stories and of their common decency. Then, if we are wise, we will eat humble pie and admit that we were wrong about them.


Life is a long lesson in humility.


Jesus’ story continues. The tax collector could hardly even pray. He beat upon his chest crying, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” He is the one Jesus describes as humble. Now, the word “humility” is related to our word “humus.” The earth. Earthiness. To be humble is to be close to the ground, near the bottom. The tax collector wasn’t trying to be humble. He was humble. He knew he was down pretty low. He knew he was a sinner. He wasn’t trying to act like he didn’t know what to do in church. He really didn’t know what to do in church. He wasn’t acting like he didn’t know how to pray. He honestly did not know how to pray.


And yet he did. Ironically, his cry for mercy has become a prayer that is now used by pilgrims and penitence disciples who know that they do not have the words to use, but know enough to call upon God for mercy. It’s called the Jesus prayer. “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The good news is that when we are empty of ourselves and our own abilities, and acknowledge our dependence on God, that is precisely when God meets us. Jesus is telling us in this parable that two people could be in the same church on any given Sunday. One person could go home thinking, “That was okay. Nothing special. Nobody seemed to notice or thank me for all the things that I’ve been doing for the church. I didn’t really care much for the music, and the sermon didn’t do much for me either. Maybe next week will be better.”


Another person arrived, hoping for something to fill the ache inside, and this person stayed seated long after the benediction, aware of something trembling inside of him. What was this wondrous thing? It seemed like a mixture of joy and curiosity. He simply could not explain what had happened to him during the service, but he knew that somehow he’d been touched by God.


Today is Reformation Sunday. Martin Luther recognized that he and others, who had devoted their lives to the church, could easily have prayed the boastful prayer that the Pharisee had prayed. But he came to see himself in reality like everyone else: more like the lowly tax collector, undeserving of God’s grace. No religious acts or pious talk would merit the extravagant grace, given through the cross of Christ. Free, undeserved grace is given to all of us because of God’s love. As we baptize Maleyah and Levi today, we affirm that they need to do nothing to deserve God’s grace. It is freely given to them and to us all.


This parable, and indeed the entire Reformation, was and is an attempt to shift our attention from ourselves — our piety and our passions, our faith or our failure, our glory or our shame — shift that attention to where it belongs: to God. To the God who delights in justifying the ungodly, welcoming the outcasts, and healing all those who are in need. It’s never been, nor ever will it be, about us and our righteousness. It’s always about God, who makes us righteous through Christ. This too teaches us that life is a long lesson in humility.


Pastor Will Willimon might be someone you’ve heard of. He’s an author and speaker in many places. He’s a pretty good person. He served for many years as dean of The Chapel at Duke University. His list of credentials is long, and the admiration he gets from many is wide. He relates this story:


“I got talked into being on the board of this fraternity at Duke. They had been on probation ever since I had been on the staff there. They developed such a bad reputation that the dean of students only occasionally let them serve tea. They were banned from any parties on campus.


“Well, they called a board meeting one Palm Sunday afternoon, one of our biggest church days of the year. So I was less than pleased to find myself over at their frat house for what turned out to be a two-hour meeting. ‘What was going on when the sofa caught fire?’ they were asked. ‘Oh, it was all a misunderstanding,’ they said. Such was the level of conversation. I’m sitting there thinking, what’s a person like me doing among people like this on a Sunday? I’m a preacher, not a probation officer.


“Finally, the meeting ended. As I was headed for the door, I passed by this somewhat unkempt looking guy propping up a wall who says to me, ‘That was a killer sermon today, pastor.’ I stopped in my tracks. I turned and I looked at him and managed to squeak out, ‘You were in Chapel today?’ ‘Sure, I’m there almost every Sunday. Sit in the back row.’ He gestures toward this equally raggedy looking guy in an inappropriate t-shirt standing next to him saying, ‘George goes with me. George said he liked your sermon a couple of weeks ago better than today, but I needed the one you preached today. God really spoke to me.'”


Willimon concludes, “Two men went to the chapel to pray that day. One a preacher, the other an unshaven sophomore in a T-shirt. Two men walked out the door after worship. The latter was justified, made right by God. But the former, he still has a lot to learn about God.”


Life is a long lesson in humility.


Thanks be to God for the grace that none of us deserve, yet we receive it in abundance. Please stand as you are able as we offer to God our hymn of the day.


*** Keywords ***


2019, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, Jeremiah 14:7-10, Jeremiah 14:19-22, Psalm 84:1-7, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 2 Timothy 4:16-18, Luke 18:9-14, Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector