Sermon: Enlarging Our Hearts

10.23.2016       Preaching Text: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)

It’s been said that the first casualty of war is the truth. And that would seem to apply to this year’s rather unseemly political season. When two sides are in a pitched battle, there’s rarely any room for compromise, much less the willingness to listen to the other side.

This is unfortunate for a variety of reason, not the least being our failure to consider another’s point of view. This leaves us arguing for the supremacy of our own particular views and blind to any errors in our own thought.

Next week most Protestant churches will commemorate Reformation Sunday. This refers of course to Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 Theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, which symbolizes the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and its eventual break from the Roman Catholic Church.

What’s not always appreciated is that this break was not necessarily inevitable, nor even desired. Luther, for one, never wanted to split from the Catholic Church. He was a Catholic monk after all.

His objective, instead, was to effect specific changes to correct what he and others believed had corrupted the church’s mission. Ironically, over the years since, many of these same reform measures have been adopted by the Catholic Church. And Protestant churches over the years have also accepted things from the Catholic Church the original Reformers rebelled against!

At the time, however, rather than listening to the Reformers’ complaints, the Catholic Church reacted defensively. But so did the Reformers. Each side hardened their positions to the point where a break became necessary, much to Luther’s chagrin!

A couple of years ago our Deacons held their annual retreat. At the start, we played an “ice breaking” game. I forget the exact details but at one point we were asked whether we would prefer to be a tax collector or a Pharisee.

Everyone in the group answered “tax collector” except for me. I said I’d rather be a Pharisee!

Why? Because the Pharisees were the good guys. They were very religious, very moral, and sought to live out their vocation with integrity and faithfulness.

It’s true that Jesus did occasionally lift up tax collectors and sinners as models of faith, over-and-against the Pharisees. But this was confined mostly to those instances where certain tax collectors and sinners repented, admitted their guilt, and earnestly sought forgiveness and mercy.

If truth be told, we at First Church are far more like the Pharisees than the tax collectors and sinners of Jesus’ day. We too try to live good, decent, moral lives and seek to avoid sin out of respect for God’s wishes.

But herein lies the rub. For anyone who seeks to live a life of moral goodness and faithful obedience, there is the attendant risk of becoming self-righteous! And that, in a nutshell, is the problem.

Today’s reading from Luke illustrates the point in spades. Here we have a self-righteous Pharisee feeling superior to the sinner who has come to confess his sins and be made right with God, the very same reason, at least in theory, the Pharisee is there too.

Jesus’ point is not that the Pharisee is a worse person than the admitted sinner, for his sins are likely far less egregious than the sinner’s, but that the Pharisee’s own particular brand of sin is that of pride, an especially pernicious evil. The sinner, after all repents!

Pride not only denies personal sin and accountability but tends to see sin in others only, while ascribing an almost godlike status to oneself. Pride is, in essence, a direct affront to God’s superior moral and spiritual purity.

Pharisaism is therefore the danger most of us face. The minute we achieve a higher level of morality than our neighbor, we risk losing sight of our own fallibilities, weaknesses, our own moral and spiritual blindness, just like the Pharisee in today’s story. It is for this reason that Pharisees have such a bad name, just as we do, at least as far as some of our secular critics are concerned!

Thus, to state the obvious, the minute we think we are superior, we lose our sense of humility, itself the key to genuine Christin discipleship.

About a week-and-a half ago, our Jewish brothers and sisters commemorated Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. It is their Day of Atonement, or day of reconciliation. On this day the faithful are commanded to repent of their sins in order to be reconciled with the God and neighbor.

For us Christians, this is a perfect reminder that we too need to seek the same sort of reconciliation. And for us, this call to repentance is often centered on our endemic pride.

Some Christians, like the Pharisee in our story this morning, think sin relates only to the most obvious crimes, murder, thievery, etc. Of course, as we know, sin’s truest meaning refers to “separation from God.” It is a relational term that affects us all. Any outward, specific act of sin, however small, is merely the by-product of our failure to honor our relationship with God, to abide with God, to take our direction from God.

This is where the often hidden sin of pride proves decisive. The problem with pharisaism is not that it is guilty of doing terrible things, or that it doesn’t seek to be faithful, but that it fails to recognize our radical need for God.

Too often we forget that membership in the church is not based on successfully following a bunch of rules, but on an awareness that we can never achieve God’s holy perfection. As such, we wholly depend on God’s mercy, which necessarily bequeaths humility, the essence to Christian discipleship.

When we lack awareness of our sinfulness humility, by definition, is lost, which produces pharisaic pride. It is this Jesus objects to.

Most battles and arguments, in politics as elsewhere, find their roots in a tragic loss of humility. If both sides were to step back and look clearly at the situation, they likely would find enough blame to go around. There would be no shortage of guilt on either side.

The precondition for atonement, or reconciliation, is an awareness of how we’ve personally contributed to the pain and suffering of others. Paradoxically, in receiving together God’s forgiveness and mercy, we and our enemy or opponent is united as one, both standing in need of God.

It’s not easy to admit our pride and error, yet God requires it, as do those around us, and as we ourselves require it as well. In the end, there is simply no greater joy, in heaven and on earth, than the grace born of holy repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Amen.