Good morning friends. How nice to preach on this parable from Luke’s gospel today, full of such poignancy for me personally, for our church, and for the world. In some ways such a simple message about humility, there’s no need to complicate it, much. Tax collector: humble: good. Pharisee: self-righteous: not so good. Simple.
Simple, but not easy. How do we live humbly, open to God, in this world of ours, in this culture so intent on building walls, dehumanizing others, and rewarding self-promotion? And how do we manage the task of humility in the complexity of self, where we may feel more like Pharisee one day, more like Tax Collector the next? No, not easy at all.
The Pharisee, a pious man of some standing, and an interpreter of religious law, does all that is asked of him. He gives of his time and his wealth, he fasts, and he prays as his faith instructs him to. He wants God to see his goodness, and he believes that by following the edicts of his religion he is favored above those around him. He embodies what the Franciscan Richard Rohr would call “dualistic thinking.” The Pharisee is right, God says so, and that makes him better than others.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is despised as an agent of the Roman Empire, complicit in his people’s oppression, and he arrives at the temple completely broken down. He has reached the point where he has no answers. Helpless, hopeless, he turns to God in despair, asking for mercy, and he “returns home justified.” What a mysterious paradox: through his brokenness he is healed.
Where I work, at the Gifford School, we train our staff in how to help kids in their most fragile moments, when they have become overwhelmed with stress and anxiety, and have gone into all-out “fight or flight” mode. In one of these training sessions last spring our facilitator taught us the “protective stance,” a way to shield ourselves from potential injury. In the protective stance you stand at an angle to the agitated person, left foot in front of right, and hold your hands in front of you, like this.
As part of this demonstration he slid two fingers down the front of his body from his forehead to his waist, said, “always protect your midline. That’s the most vulnerable region you have.” And then he drew his fingers across his chest, saying, “and watch out crossing the midline, too. That’s also a real threat.” Throughout that day he came back to this theme, “watch out for the vulnerable midline.” And I thought to myself, “gee, that looks familiar.”
In the most concrete way I understood that our faith invites us, by the sign of the cross (and in many other ways), to open up to our vulnerabilities, to expose and cross our midline, and that this is the most counterintuitive thing we can do. Our automatic response as human beings, for good reason, is to go into “protective stance,” to cover up, hide, and shield our soft parts.
In fact this is what I like best about today’s gospel. Jesus addresses his parable not to some pure group of followers who has already got this lesson right, but to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” Jesus isn’t warning us NOT to become like the Pharisee, he is acknowledging that we may already have.
In his daily meditation this past Thursday, Richard Rohr points this out. He writes, Humans are so hardwired to think dualistically… The ego desperately wants to feel pure, saved, moral, significant, and superior. We cannot allow God to come down to us, which is the meaning of the Incarnation, we think we’ve got to go up to God.
Rohr continues, Religion normally begins by making a distinction between the pure and the impure, the good and the bad. Yet Jesus does the opposite: he finds God among the impure instead of among the pure! He entertains the lost sheep instead of comforting those who think they are not lost.
Luke’s Gospel is an invitation to do something that goes against our natural inclination in its exposure and vulnerability: to acknowledge our brokenness, rather than to proclaim our holiness. To come to God with our midline exposed; to assume what I would call the “unprotective stance.”
I imagine that the tax collector didn’t wake up that morning with an intention to be broken open by his own shame and remorse. More likely his despair welled up quite unintentionally. Maybe he had been wrestling with these feelings for some time, or perhaps he’s kept them stuffed down inside. But in today’s gospel his vulnerability opens him to the mercy and love of God, and he is changed. He leaves the temple justified. To “justify” means, of course, to make right in the eyes of God. But justify also means “to center” as on this page of text. The tax collector leaves to go home and he is justified. He is centered.
When we come to worship in vulnerability, ready to expose and cross our midline, and to get honest with God about our brokenness, it’s transformative. God doesn’t keep us stuck in shame and despair. We are not called to wallow in our pain, but rather to be moved out of suffering. We acknowledge our sin so that we may, as the prayer says, “delight in his will.” Humility, the conscious acknowledgement of our vulnerability, is dynamic and hopeful, and by it we are changed. This necessarily fraught and imperfect process centers us. In another of his daily reflections from this summer, Rohr writes,
Spirituality isn’t about perfection. The journey of human and spiritual development isn’t a straight line forward. The only perfection available to us humans is the ability to include and forgive our imperfection. But the ego doesn’t want to believe that. The ego doesn’t want to surrender to its inherent brokenness and poverty. Yet the truth is, realizing your imperfection is the beginning of freedom and grace.
Part of the Good News for us here, is that we engage in this practice of humility and vulnerability every time we walk through those doors. Every Sunday when we begin the service, “to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid,” we answer Jesus’ call to come before God in the “unprotective stance.” Each week we bear witness to loss, addiction, mental health struggles, economic insecurity, racism, disability challenges, and trauma, both at Good Shepherd and in the world. Opening our hearts to all that would be so easy to try and protect against. Simple. Not Easy.
On some days we may fall into the all-too-human trap of thinking like the Pharisee, believing that we have the answers, that “those people” are wrong and we are right, the trap of dualistic thinking. On other days we may feel more remorse and self-doubt, a bit broken. In either case, coming into this space and opening our hearts is transformative.
For me personally, as I follow along with you on this vulnerable journey I get better at recognizing where I am, usually in the middle, somewhere between despair and dualism. I am more able to forgive myself if I get a bit self centered, understanding that this is a natural response to stress. If I swing the other way, I find it easier to remember that grief and pain are touchstones, opportunities for me to be changed. It is an imperfect process, which is exactly how it should be. It can’t be anything else.
One thing is for sure. Wherever I am on that continuum between self- righteousness and suffering, after we say a final blessing and I walk down the driveway of Good Shepherd to head home, I invariably find myself, like the Tax Collector, centered. Amen.