Preached: October 24, 2010
Gospel Lesson: Luke 18: 9-14
9Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
Sermon Title: A Self-Righteous Rant
I have a confession to make to you this morning. It’s not necessarily something I am proud of, but here it goes. When it comes to dealing with folks, I generally don’t have a problem. I don’t mind sitting down and talking to folks who might be considered "sinners." I rather enjoy hanging out with folks who don’t go to church for one reason or another. I enjoy building relationships with them and getting to know them. I appreciate their critiques of the church and listening to the reasons they say they don’t go. Generally, they aren’t in your face about anything, and even if they do become belligerent, it doesn’t concern me too much. I can argue with the best of them.
I also don’t have much problem dealing with Christians who are faithful people yet who are also very humble. Perhaps these Christians can be personified in the example of that tax collector we read about in our Gospel lesson. You know, the one who sat in the back of the temple, beating on his chest and saying, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner." I love hanging out with Christians who show this form of humility. They recognize their sinfulness. They are not quick to judge. They look at others who are struggling with life–who may be living in sin, with compassion, knowing at one point in life they were there themselves. Furthermore, such Christians, as exemplified by this tax collector, realize they are just one step away, one misstep from heading down that path of sinfulness. Such a realization gives Christians like this a sense of humility. They understand how much they are dependent upon God’s grace, and they are quick to show it to others. I strive for this in my own life, and I enjoy hanging around such kindred spirits.
But, there is one particular group of people that I have a real problem dealing with. There is one particular group of people that I almost can’t stand to be around. Every time I’m around someone like this, the hair on the back of my neck stands on end–not because of fear, but because I get angry. I know as a pastor who shepherds a flock of Christ’s followers, I am supposed to love all of God’s children in the same manner. I know I am to show respect to all who call themselves Christian, but I find myself really, really struggling to do just this with one particular segment of the church. Even though they are my sisters and brothers, I do not like hanging around with a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites who act just like that Pharisee in our Gospel lesson.
You know the type, don’t you? You’ve been around long enough to have experienced such a type of Christian, haven’t you?
Well, let’s look at that Pharisee one more time in our Gospel lesson. He’s standing right in front of the temple–by himself. Perhaps he considers himself too good to be standing with anyone else. He wants others to see him there. He wants them to see how faithful he is in attending worship and being at the temple. He’s less concerned with what God thinks of him and more concerned about what those who are worshiping in the temple think of him. And his mere presence isn’t enough. He’s going to announce to everyone just how good he is.
Talk about one of the most conceited prayers you could pray. "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." Now, it’s highly likely that everything this man says is true. He’s probably absolutely correct in that he is not like other people. He doesn’t steal. He doesn’t sleep around. He doesn’t try to cheat others like most tax collectors do. As a Pharisee, he literally does fast two times per week as a discipline, and he is required, so he does, give ten percent of all his income to the temple. He’s following all the steps of holiness, and he is proud of himself. Very proud. He’s so proud of his accomplishments, he’s up there telling God how good he is, and he’s thanking God, not for God’s blessings, but thanking God that he is such a good person. I can’t tell you how badly such a thing rubs me.
And it rubs me when I come across a Christian who acts in the same manner. It rubs me when I have to have a conversation with someone who is so dead set that they know all the answers; they know everything about God; they know how the church is supposed to operate; they know how every situation should be handled, and they want to either tell you how you should act or criticize every single move that you make. Ohhh, how such people tick...me...off.
I’ll share with you an example of such a person. When I first started working in my previous congregation, I came to work one morning to find a message from one of the local funeral homes. A young 19 year old woman was killed in an automobile accident by a drunk driver. They asked me if I would handle the funeral.
I met with the mom and dad of this young lady. They were in a state of shock. You could see the pain, devastation, frustration, and myriads of questions with a brief look into their eyes. We talked about funeral arrangements and planned out the service. I offered them my condolences and set out to write this girl’s funeral sermon.
How does one address such tragedy? How does one offer hope in the midst of despair? I hope the Spirit led me because I hit their questions right on. I opened my sermon with the words, "At times like these, one of the first questions that comes to each and every one of us is ‘Why?’." I then proceeded to say that it was O.K. to ask such a question, not only of us but of God as well. It was O.K. to ask Him why this happened and why He didn’t stop it. I told them right then and there, I couldn’t fully answer that question for them. Anything I would say at that moment would be inadequate to help them understand why this young lady had died.
However, I then talked of what I did know. I told them God had not deserted this young woman. God was present with her in her death just as He was now present with all of us who grieved. And not only was God present with us, He was now offering us hope. Through Jesus’ own death and resurrection, God showed us what the end result was going to be. The wrongs will eventually be righted. Death will not have the last word. God will, and it will be good. As hard as it might be at this juncture, we are called upon to trust that word–trust that God will follow through on His promise. Today, we would grieve, but we would not grieve without hope.
I know my words had an impact on the family. They actually took out an ad in the local paper to thank me for my kindness and providing them comfort in their grief. Made me feel pretty good.
But, I also got a letter. Yep, a few days after the funeral, I received a signed letter from some jerk in town who tore me up one side and down the other for what I had said in my sermon. This idiot said that I should never, ever have told folks to question God. He said it was my job at that point and time to convey to everyone the importance of their being ready to meet God. I should have used that tragic accident to scare the tar out of people so they would give their lives to God and be prepared–just like he was. Pardon me, but this guy didn’t give a flying flip about anyone else who attended that funeral. He didn’t give a darn about their grief, their agony, their pain and frustration. He didn’t care a bit about that mom and dad who had to bury their child; he only cared about himself, and he wanted to hear words that made him feel good about his own standing with God. I can’t tell you the name I had for this guy running through my head. I can’t stand Christians who act in this manner. Thank God, I’m not like them.
Wait a minute. What did I just do? Did I just become one of them? Did I just travel down that slippery slope and put on the same shoes as that Pharisee in our Gospel lesson? Yes. I did. Do you see how difficult it is to have true humility? Do you see how easy it is to point the finger at others? In a sense, I just stood before God and said, "Thank you God that I am not a self-righteous hypocrite like those others out there. I am not judgmental because I know I am forgiven." Yet the reality is, I have become just as judgmental and just as self-righteous. Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, so please teach me how it’s done. Amen.