October 27, 2019 – 20 Pentecost C – Proper 25
Jer. 14:7-10,19-22; 2 Tim. 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Last week we enjoyed Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. The air was electrified and part way through his sermon, he left the pulpit and wandered in the aisle talking about the love of God. I’ve never left the pulpit at St. John’s on a Sunday morning but, at my last parish I used to do that about half the time. The day that the search committee from St. John’s visited, I decided to abandon notes and just get right down there and preach from the heart. It went well enough and the search committee eventually asked me to come here but the feedback from Mary Ward was not so highly complimentary. She has pretty high standards for the preaching event and she was really hoping we would get the call to come to St. John’s. She greeted me at the door on her way out of church and said, “You could have at least tried.”
“…all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Life is designed to humble us. And when we are humbled, we grow closer to God.
Jim Walter, the first in a long line of remarkable Associate Rectors here in the past 25 years, used to tell a lot of stories. Often he would begin by saying, “If I’ve told you this one before, don’t stop me because I like telling it.” I’ve recounted the following event before but it’s worth telling again.
The first time I ever walked a labyrinth was in my first couple of years here at St. John’s. I was at an Episcopal Church Women’s gathering in north Alabama and the host parish had a new labyrinth that we were invited to use. Most of you know that a labyrinth is a meditative walk. It’s roots are ancient, prior to Christianity, but Christian churches have long embraced them. We have the best one I’ve ever seen right here on our city block.
When I approached the labyrinth walk that day, I was irritated to see that there were many others already walking it. Somehow in my mind I had pictured walking it alone so I quickly had to adjust to the notion of sharing the space. I was with Alice Tyson and that made things easier. We entered the labyrinth, Alice in front and me right behind her, and I began to think about walking in her footsteps. I I admire her and if I could follow Alice’s lead more often in my life, things would be much better I thought. So, despite my initial irritation, the walk got off to a good start.
But then, after a few minutes, I noticed that there was a priest ahead of us on the labyrinth that I had absolutely no respect for. He was sort of the antithesis of what I thought a good priest should be and there he was on the same path and, as we wound back and forth on the labyrinth, I kept seeing him over and over again. My positive thoughts about following in Alice’s footsteps were replaced by disdain for this schmuck interfering with my prayer time. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” especially this schmuck. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled.” And I was.
A labyrinth walk doesn’t take too long but we were there a good 15-20 minutes. I kept seeing Alice and this other fellow ahead of us. I wasn’t hit with a lightning bolt that day, though I certainly deserved it. But something happened as we wound back and forth on that path. By the end of the walk I began to consider that, in God’s eyes, Alice Tyson and that crummy priest and I are all of equal value. We are all on the same path. Like we do with our children, God loves us all differently but in equal measure. The people I admire, the people that disgust me, and I myself, are all loved and cherished by the God who made the stars and the moon and each of us.
I wish I could say that this lesson stuck with me but I have often forgotten it. But the great thing about forgetting spiritual truths is that life is designed to keep reminding us. We forget that we are loved. We forget that the people we regard with contempt are loved. But life keeps humbling us and teaching us the truth of God’s love.
Our gospel lesson today is about prayer. A few chapters ago in Luke’s gospel, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. He taught them the Lord’s Prayer and told them to persevere in their prayers. “Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” A little later, Luke shares Jesus’ parable about the widow and the unjust judge that we read last week. That parable, Jesus said, was “a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
And then, without taking a breath, Jesus tells them the parable we have in front of us today, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It’s a parable about humility. It’s a parable about our need to stop comparing ourselves to others and simply describe ourselves honestly to the God who made us and loves us.
We hold others in contempt because we have yet to learn in our core that we are loved. We hate in others what we hate about ourselves but have yet to admit. We tell ourselves we are better than others because we continue to deceive ourselves. We put others down because we are so low ourselves. While we are comparing ourselves to others, putting them down, God is trying to pull us up higher. God’s response to all of us is a deep and abiding love. God is loving each of us into our potential which is pure goodness.
Two poles of unhealthiness are self-righteousness and shame. At the pole of self-righteousness we look so harshly at others that we cannot see their value. At the pole of shame, we look so harshly at ourselves that we cannot see our value. Humility is that warm center in between those two poles where we don’t look so much at ourselves or others, where we look more to God and how God holds all of life together. Humility is not just thinking less highly of ourselves but it is thinking less about ourselves and more about God. It does involve self-awareness but that is different from being self-absorbed. Self-awareness is true prayer. It is being honest with ourselves and with God. And it leads to the great truth that we are loved just as we are and accepting that love is going to move us along on our path of transformation.
Take time each day to sit with yourself and with God. Describe yourself to God honestly. Admit your struggles. Sit in God’s presence and let that holy silence bring you into the kingdom. Seek that warm center of humility where you look to God and how God holds all of life together.