Proper 25c, October 23, 2016

October 24, 2016

Graceful Falling

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’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 like many people, I’ve always been equipped with an ample supply of self-incrimination. In fact there’s a condition that was identified by Catholic priests many centuries ago that I think I probably have – 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 probably 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 whatever you want to call it that causes us to be a little obsessive about our personal operations. I suspect many of us church-goers have been conditioned to keep close track on how we measure up on the righteousness scale. I don’t have enough scrupulosity to actually keep me perfectly perched on that straight and narrow path, but I know I’ve got this internal meter that reminds me of how far off of it I am at any given moment.


I don’t think this is all bad. 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.


And that’s not such a bad thing, but a little bit of scrupulosity can get you in trouble as well because it can put you in touch with what you might call, Pharisaism. Speaking as a person who engages in a good amount of self-judging, I can testify that it’s not that hard to identify the shortcomings of other people 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 I suspect some other people are that I know.


When you think the objective of our faith is to live as a perfectly motivated and activated person it’s hard not to engage in an unhealthy degree of criticism of yourself and others.


Fortunately, the gospel of Jesus Christ does not require us to live perfectly crafted lives. Living in relationship with God isn’t dependent upon our ability to meet a clear set of expectations. Our relationship with God is primarily dependent upon how open we are to the grace of God, and in this parable it is the tax-collector who has the most spiritually fertile attitude. The self-righteousness of the Pharisee served to sort of seal him off from being touched and redeemed by the grace of God.


I don’t believe the point of this parable is to encourage us to go about our lives with a sense of groveling before God, but it is an essential thing for us not to think it’s our virtues that give us access to God’s love. I believe God created us to live with a sense of dignity and self-respect, but the truth is that we aren’t capable of living flawless lives. We make mistakes. We take wrong paths. We make bad choices. We pursue false idols. We serve unholy masters, and we find ourselves in ugly places.


You might think these are the things that would disqualify us from living in relationship with God, but these are the very things that can soften our souls and put us in touch with the grace of God.


I think I may have mentioned this writer before, but I’ve recently become enamored by the writings of Father Richar Rohr. The book I’m most familiar with is entitled, Falling Upward, and I think the primary point that he identifies in that book is the way in which we have the most vivid experiences with God during those times when we are the most vulnerable and needy. He points out that it’s not so much when we are at our peaks of performance that God is most present to us. He argues that it’s often when we fail that we experience the purest form of God’s love and grace. And he illustrates this point with the way in which God is portrayed in the Bible. Bad things happen to people in the Bible, and people do bad things, but God doesn’t abandon people during those times. In fact, God becomes most visible during those times.


And Jesus didn’t chastise the official sinners of Israel. Jesus got upset with the people who thought they were living such exemplary lives. This is the very point of this parable. Jesus doesn’t even say that the tax collector repented and left the temple with the conviction to change his ways and become a humble shepherd or engage in some other less scandalous profession. Jesus didn’t condemn the tax collector’s behavior – Jesus simply honored his attitude of knowing that he wasn’t a perfect person.


Father Rohr says that in God’s kingdom, in what he calls: the economy of grace, sin and failure become the base metal and raw material for the redemption experience itself. And what that means to me is that God isn’t as interested in our ability to live perfect lives as God is interested in our ability to be open to God regardless of what’s going on in our lives. The interesting thing is that the times that we generally find to be the most painful often turn out to be the experiences that provide us with access to the sweetest forms of grace.


This is the most beautiful thing about our faith. What this says to me is that there’s nothing that we can do or that can happen to us that God can’t redeem. God doesn’t expect the world to go perfectly, but God is there for us when those terribly imperfect things occur and cause terrible disruptions. And the only thing that can truly separate us from God is for us to harbor attitudes that eliminate our need for God.


The Pharisee was untouched by God because he didn’t think he needed anything from God. He was perfectly self-satisfied with himself, and that’s fine. Anyone who has no need for God in their life is welcome to live their life in that way, but it’s delusional to think you are somehow living in relationship with God while you harbor the attitude that you have no need for the grace of God.


This means a lot to me because there was a time in my life when I thought my relationship with God WAS dependent upon my ability to be good enough for God. I would say that as a young man I had an equal amount of love and fear of God. I loved God, but I was also very fearful of what God would do to me if I didn’t live up to all of the standards that I imagined God had of me.


And that’s not all bad. That probably motivated me to behave pretty well during my early teenage years, and I was basically a happy person for the first eighteen years of my life, but there came a point when my life experience called for a more compassionate understanding of God. Meeting all of the expectations that I assumed God had of me became harder and harder to accomplish. In fact I think I became clinically depressed by my inability meet all of the expectations that I understood God to have placed upon me. My scrupulosity became a bit pathological.


I won’t burden you with the extended version of my current understanding of my former psychological profile, but it wasn’t pretty. I was a terribly unhappy young adult, and something had to give. And it did give. I broke.


Luckily I didn’t break in a tragic way. I don’t have a dramatic story of wayward living followed by a return to Christ and a newly redeemed way of living. But I was upside down for a while. I think I would characterize that period of time in my life as a time where I didn’t understand anything. And I knew I didn’t understand anything. I was confused, and it was dark, but I wasn’t alone. I think that was a time when God was particularly attentive to me.


It was also a time when I came to meet some new people, and I came to appreciate some people who I might formerly have seen as unworthy of my attention. I moved from thinking that God expected perfection from me to believing that God embraced me with compassion, and that changed everything for me. It reduced the pressure, and it increased the pleasure of seeking to live in relationship with God.


None of us like to fall down. We like to think of ourselves as always knowing what we are doing and of having the capacity do what we think we aught to be doing, and we all do our best to hold those things together. It’s great when everything is going as we want it to and we are living up to the expectations of ourselves and of our neighbors and maybe even of God, but it’s hard to keep all of that going for long. Some people might be able to keep all of that going for a good amount of time, but most mortals have some trouble along the way.


Breakdowns happen. And breakdowns are terrible. Breakdowns are painful and humiliating and costly and distressing. Breakdowns are the worst times of our lives. And they can also be the best times of our lives. It’s during those moments in our lives when nothing seems to be going right that God can miraculously let us know that we are ok. In fact it’s often during those times of profound self-doubt and failure that God enables us to understand how perfectly we are loved.


It’s hard to shake our tendencies to judge ourselves and other people. I’m thinking I’ll probably go to my grave with an overabundant amount of concern about the ever-present list of things that I have failed to get done. I’m sure I’ll also have some pride about how much shorter my list was that some other people that I know. But I thank God for not letting me live my entire life thinking that God expected me to live like a Pharisee.


I tried to be as good as a Pharisee, but I failed, and I’m so grateful to God for preventing me from being so successful. I failed to be the kind of religious person that I thought God expected me to be, and I’m so happy about that. God succeeded in showing me the value of compassion, and for that I’ll forever be grateful.


Thanks be to God. Amen.


One Response to “Proper 25c, October 23, 2016”

  1. Earl Jones Says:

    Right on Thompson, compassion for a Christian gotta be #1.

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