Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sermon: Humble and Grateful

Luke 18:9-14

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is simple.

There are only two characters. The Pharisee who thinks he is better than others, and the tax collector who thinks he is worse than others.  They are both praying, and we get to see into their hearts for just a moment.

The Pharisee thanks God that he is glad he is not like other people, who are crooks and evildoers. He then brags about his religious practices. So it is easy to dislike the Pharisee. Anyone that treats us like we are dirt, and at the same time believes that they are super-religious isn’t very likable. It is easy to say to ourselves, I don’t want to be like that. Even though he is showing gratitude to God, he is doing it in a way that simply sounds like overgrown pride.

On the other hand, the tax collector acts like he has just committed the worst sin in history. He can’t even look up to heaven, but simply begs for mercy for himself, believing that he is nothing more than a sinner. This man is easier to like because he is humble, and most of us have had times in our lives when we have made a mistake and we feel like dirt. But here is the thing, I don’t really want to be like him either – because I don’t want to go through life beating myself up. He doesn’t seem to see the good in life that God has gifted him with, which is what we have talked about the last couple of weeks.

Now, you probably know, that this month we are focusing on the theme of gratitude. In this parable the Pharisee is actually more grateful than the tax collector. But this highlights one of the challenges of gratitude -- that it can become an attitude of pride. For example, it is one thing to say: “God, I am thankful that I have a roof over my head and shelter from the storms.” It is another to say, “God, I am thankful that my house is nicer than my neighbors. They don’t have stainless steel appliances or new landscaping like I do.”

Now that may sound ridiculous, but it is a pretty small step to move from simply being thankful, to being thankful that we are not like others: Which is why the example of the tax collector is important in this parable. He serves as a reminder that our religious practices, even our gratitude, can become misguided. What was once good, actually becomes twisted and wrong. It is a warning to us, that as we serve God, as we strive to be religious, we can get off track, and become self-serving.

There is an Irish legend about St. Eloi, that before he became religious, he was a smith. He was very proud of his skill and often boasted that the never saw anything that another man could do that he could not match. One day a mounted traveler stopped at his forge and asked simply to be allowed to use the forge and fasten a loosened shoe on his horse. Eloi was then surprised as the man twisted the front leg of the horse out of joint, placed it into the forge and refastened the shoe. Once done, he twisted the leg back, patted the horse on the shoulder and all was done.

Eloi not to be outdone called for one of his horses to be brought, and twisted the fore leg out – unfortunately there was tearing of muscle and skin. He then beautifully shoed the horse; however, when finished the horse was lame, lied down and was near expiring. Eloi then realized that his pride and vanity had probably killed the horse. The stranger seeing that Eloi was cured of pride, explained that he had come from God to cure him of the vice, touched the horse on the shoulder healing it, and then vanished.[1] After this Eloi becomes the patron saint of horses and farriers.

Eloi’s skill was a good thing, but he allowed his pride in himself to twisted into that which caused harm to his horse.  In a similar way, it isn’t hard for our thankfulness to lose track of humility. So Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector serves as a reminder.

As I thought about it, I asked myself: What if we could be the best of both of these men? What if we can be humble, like the tax collector, and grateful like the Pharisee? What if we know that we depend upon God’s mercy, and are grateful for it?

Let me share with you the story of Rob Stephens in A Life of Gratitude Day 21. Rob shares that from early elementary school he was in trouble with the law. At age 21 he was living his life in and out of prison. He describes himself as a thief with an anger problem. He actually had come to see himself as a bad person with a bad future.

But a family stepped into his life that began to change him. What happened is that he stole a car phone from them (remember those things with the antenna on your roof?) – sorry youngsters, you will have no clue! Anyway, a police officer saw him carrying the antenna in his hand and was pretty sure he had stolen it, but couldn’t prove it. So Rob decided that he would go to the house where he had stolen it, and convince them to lie for him. Have them say he was fixing it or something innocent like that, and beg his way out of going to jail.

When he knocked on the door, Sandy answered with her hair in curlers and a big smile on her face. She invited him in. Her husband walks down the stairs, it is obvious he is blind, and they sit and talk. After a while, it is clear the couple he met had no intention of lying for him, and Rob ends up telling them his life story.

Here is where grace comes in. The couple still press charges for the theft, but at court, Paul speaks and convinces the judge and prosecutor that there was still hope for this man and had his sentence reduced to 30 days in jail. Paul then offered to let Rob live with them, helped Rob find a job, and invited him to attend church with them.

Unfortunately Rob fell into temptation again, and his relationship with them was broken. He was so disappointed with himself that he considered suicide, but God wouldn’t allow him to take his life. I quote “The fact that I have not stolen anything since that time and that Christ has continued bringing me ever so close to Him gives me a heart so full of thanks and gratitude. And the blessings continue to flow since this was only the beginning of my path towards our awesome God whom we serve. This is my personal thanks to God … my gratitude for what he has done for me.”[2] You see, Rob knows he is not perfected yet, but he is grateful for what God has been doing for him.

I think this is a good balance between gratitude and humility.

And in many ways we need to see ourselves like this all the time. We need to be humbled to the point of change, and grateful for the opportunity to change. We need to be humbled by the goodness of God, grateful for it, and mindful of the fact that we sin. We have to be willing to lay aside our pride and accept the help that God offers to us.

That was what the Pharisee lacked. He no longer saw himself as a person in need of change, he no longer saw the sin he committed, no longer saw opportunities for bettering himself or bringing himself closer to God. He had forgotten his need for God’s grace, for God’s goodness, for God’s help.

On the other hand, the tax collector was desperately aware of his need of God’s mercy, and his need for God’s grace. He knew that he needed to change, and that he needed God’s help in doing just that.

And Jesus says, “I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

Christ wants to lift us up. His goal is not to beat us up with the things we have done, but rather to take us from the places in our life where we know we are not doing what we should, and lift that part of our soul beyond its the dusty imperfections. He wants to pick us up, clean us off, and restore to us the image of God that has been planted deep within us from the dawn of creation.

Our response to that should be one of humble thanks, thanks for the transformational love and power of God’s grace, humility in knowing that without God’s grace we would not be able to change. Humility in knowing that there is still much more that we need to change – that we are not yet perfected, and thanks that God walks along side us as we strive to make those changes.

As I said earlier: We need to be humbled to the point of change, and grateful for the opportunity to change. We need to be humbled by the goodness of God, grateful for it, and mindful of the fact that we sin. We have to be willing to lay aside our pride and accept the help that God offers to us.

[1] Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, Patrick Kennedy
[2] A Life of Gratitude: 21 Days to Overcoming Self-Pity and Negativity. Shelley Hitz.

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