Proper 25c, October 27, 2013

October 28, 2013

Reconciled By Grace
Luke 18:9-14
9 He 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. 11 The 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But 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!’ 14 I 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.”

Personal exaltation has never been a big issue for me. It’s not that I’m actually humble, but self-promotion isn’t my style of sin. I certainly harbor an inordinate amount of pride, but I’d rather hear other people expound on my virtues than to enumerate them myself. Of course if I was as meticulous as this Pharisee about fasting and contributing I might be more inclined to lift myself up as an example of righteousness, but I’m not so disciplined. So I’d rather not call attention to the actual details of the spiritual disciplines I practice – you’re more likely to be impressed by the illusion than the reality.

Of course humility isn’t a foreign concept for me. If you looked through my school pictures you would see that I was well acquainted with the need for humility at an early age and for an extended period of time. And I have been equipped with an ample supply of self-incrimination throughout my life. In fact I heard a term the other day that I understand very well. It’s a condition that was identified by Catholic priests many centuries ago – it’s called scrupulosity. These priests discovered that some of their parishioners had an inclination to confess far more than was necessary.

People who have scrupulosity are compelled to be overly judgmental of themselves. Of course people can be saddled with various degrees of scrupulosity. Some people are marginally troubled by nagging thoughts of perpetual misdeeds while those who have a strong case of scrupulosity have a hard time making any kind of decision in fear of committing a sin. What those early Catholic priests identified as scrupulosity is what psychologists now call Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

I’m not sure how far on to the OCD spectrum that I make it, but I would identify myself as having a degree of scrupulosity. I don’t have enough of it to actually keep me on that proverbially straight and narrow path, but I’ve got this internal meter that reminds me of how far off of the path I am at any given moment. A little bit of scrupulosity can keep you from being overly proud of yourself. People who harbor some scrupulosity understand what this poor tax collector was feeling about himself. We know we aren’t good enough. But a little bit of scrupulosity can put you in touch with some Pharisaism as well. A person who is overly self-judging can identify the shortcomings of other people pretty easily as well. I know I’m not doing everything within my power to glorify God and ease the burdens of my neighbors, but at least I’m not as self-serving and conniving as some other people I know. I don’t know how some of those people sleep at night.

Yes, I can hear myself speaking the repentant words of a tax collector one day and the judgmental words of a Pharisee the next day – maybe even later the same day. I’m not really qualified to identify the psychological profile of myself or anyone else in regard to this issue of scrupulosity or OCD or whatever it is we all suffer from to some extent, but we have these two really distinct characters in our scripture lesson this morning, and I’m guessing that most of us can identify with either of them on one occasion or another – maybe even both of them on a daily basis.

It’s interesting for me to think of how these two psychological profiles match up. We’ve got this one man who has no sense that he is deserving of any form of kindness from God, and we have this other man who is so impressed with his spiritual prowess that he expresses his gratitude to God for enabling him to be such an exemplary human being.

While we don’t often see that degree of personal spiritual exaltation, it’s not unusual for people to confess their frailties and failures with others. Of course the Catholic Church turned confession in to a sacrament, and before you can take communion for the first time you have to make your confession to the Priest. I understand one of the family jokes of my son-in-law is how long he spent in the confession booth before he took his first communion when he was in grade-school. I can’t really imagine how long it would take him to get through that process now.

We Methodists have just built confession in to our communion liturgy. I think we basically want to remind ourselves that we aren’t supposed to exhibit the self-satisfaction of a Pharisee. But Jesus didn’t make up this character. Most self-righteous people are smart enough to keep from actually speaking of themselves as this Pharisee did, but this is an attitude that exists in real life. And we need to be careful not to allow that attitude to gain a foothold in our lives.

Jesus clearly identifies the behavior of the tax collector to be the more spiritually desirable way to live, and this is good information for us to have. It’s not hard for us to understand that it’s better to be self-critical than to be self-satisfied, but that form of spiritual pathology is an insidious invader of our souls. We have the good sense not to behave like a Pharisee, and we can be so proud of ourselves for not being that way.

Now the truth is that this congregation has a good reason to be proud of ourselves. We took the bold step three years ago to be the first UMC in Arkansas to obtain the status of a church that is affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network – which as most of you know is an advocacy group that is seeking to eliminate the barriers that exist within the United Methodist Church and other Christian denominations for people who are not heterosexual. There is this language within our United Methodist Book of Discipline that prohibits non-heterosexual people from ordination. Also, I, as a pastor, am prohibited from presiding over a same-sex marriage, and we as a church are prohibited from allowing any kind of same-sex ceremony to take place in this facility.

These are unrighteous statutes. They need to be eliminated, and I’m really proud that we have affiliated ourselves with the right people on this issue. There is a sense in which I feel like we are playing the role of Jesus in this situation. Our church, along with other churches and individuals and Sunday School classes are pointing out the way in which our denomination is harboring the attitude of a Pharisee in this situation. Pharisees weren’t all bad, but they had a tendency to define righteous behavior too narrowly, and because they were so focused on what they considered to be righteous behavior – they didn’t understand Jesus. They just didn’t get him, but he got them, and he considered this tax collector to be more righteous than they were.

We don’t really have a position in our society that is equivalent to a Palestinian tax collector. I mean nobody really likes to pay taxes, but the tax collectors of Jesus’ day were considered to be dirty people – impure people. The tax collectors of Jesus’ day were despised people, and they often earned their reputations. They could be very heavy handed in the way they extracted the tax that the Romans required, but you had to have these people. The Romans were going to extract revenue from the Jews in some way, and it’s hard to imagine that they could have created a payment method that the Jews would have liked, but the tax collectors were despised for doing this essential job. And Jesus identified the attitude of the self-critical tax collector to be far superior than the attitude of the self-satisfied Pharisee.

So while I feel like we are doing the righteous work of identifying the way in which our denomination is behaving like a Pharisee – I also have to say that we’ve got to be careful. I don’t know if the tax collector in our parable ever felt anything other than his need to repent, but there’s some chance he came to develop some pride in not being like that Pharisee who was so clueless in regard to the things that really matter. I’m not saying our tax collector was ever anything other than authentically grateful to Jesus for recognizing his pain and his desire to repent and to please God. But I am saying that we human beings are never far from that slippery slope of self-satisfaction. It’s never very hard to fall away from the quest for true righteousness – regardless of the rightness of our work.

My belief is that it’s always a gift from God to be reconciled with God. It was interesting for me to read this week that what is commonly referred to as the Sacrament of Confession in the Catholic Church is technically called the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This sacrament is practiced by making confession, and what strikes me about this is the importance of identifying a problem in order for that problem to away. I think there is some wisdom here. It’s God that does the healing, but we have a role to play in the holy work of reconciliation.

I think our affiliation with Reconciling Ministry Network is an effort to bring attention to a problem within the UMC. We need to keep attention on this problem, but we must always remember who actually does the work of reconciliation. It’s by the grace of God that we ever do holy work. It’s by remembering this that we avoid the nasty attitude of the Pharisee, and embrace the redeeming spirit of the tax collector, who knew in Whom to trust.

There are so many ways that we get distracted from the path to wholeness and reconciliation with God. We all have our demons with which to do battle, but there is no personal condition or institutional policy that is beyond the reach of the grace of God, and I give thanks to God for that. Amen.


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