Holy Trinity Episcopal Church


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    Oct 27, 2019

    The 20th Sunday after Pentecost

    Passage: Luke 18:9-14

    Preacher: The Rev. Sarah Carver

    Series: Year C: 2019-2020

    Category: Pentecost


    Our parable today brings us to the scene of two men standing in the temple, praying to God. They couldn’t be more different from one another. The Pharisee is a respected religious figure, and he is not wrong about who he is. I’m sure he isn’t an adulterer, or a thief, and that he is telling the truth about his giving. He practices his faith rigorously, every day. The tax collector, is also not wrong about who he is: tax collectors were a part of the Jewish community, yet they served their Roman oppressors through collecting taxes from their own people. They were also widely regarded as corrupt—in part because they were. Tax collectors were known to take more in taxes from their community in order to keep a little for themselves. It may be fair to say that they were reviled. Luther Seminary’s Professor of New Testament, Matt Skinner, writes that the shocker of this parable comes when Jesus proclaims the tax collector as going away justified, while the Pharisee does not. This would have been a kind of stunning reversal for an ancient audience. In their minds it should have been the Pharisee who was worthy, and not the collector.[1] So what is the difference that mattered here? Humility. The tax collector could see his own brokenness and own it before God, and could therefore ask for mercy. The Pharisee, grateful for his good works, makes the mistake of forgetting his own flaws and shortcomings, and rather than ask for mercy, he expresses contempt for the tax collector.

                Humility has long been a virtue for people of faith—all kinds of faith. But we tend to bat the word around without really thinking about what it means and why it matters. Is it simply admitting we are sinners, without much thought or anxiety and leave it at that? Can we get away with the humble brag? Or should we wallow in our own perceived unworthiness—a dangerous activity for those among us suffering from abuse and oppression. What does a good and holy humility look like, especially in our modern society, which values everything but humility. Its far better, we see, to always come off as if we are winning, winning at life, winning at our jobs, winning with our perfect families, and winning with our flawless diversions which we document in digital detail to let the world know—all is well. Well, while humility has been known to faith for millennia, it seems it is fairly new to science. The New York Times did a short article on humility and the research behind it. In it, researchers identify humility as being one’s “ability to accurately acknowledge one’s limitations and abilities, and an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented rather than self-focused.” That sounds reasonable. What’s more, the science shows us is that those who are more humble, tend to be more curious, more reflective, more open-minded, less likely to be polarized around politics or ideology, less aggressive, and less judgmental and perhaps, surprisingly, more able to hold on to their convictions.[2]

    There seems to be a strange and gentle power at work in being humble. In the language of faith, we might talk about it as a power that frees us to see ourselves through a lens of truth—to see both our belovedness and our brokenness. To see where God has blessed us, and where we need God’s mercy. When we are humbled, we can, like the tax collector, own our brokenness, we can free ourselves from having it haunt us, stalking us while we try to run from it never able to rest, never able to love ourselves as God does, never able to see others as beloved. In humility, we can lay down the need to always know everything, always be right, to always be winning. And only when we embrace our wounds can we begin to let God transform them and redeem them, just as God extended mercy to the tax collector. But we have to allow ourselves to hold our own hurt and sinfulness and that is a painful place to be: Mary Oliver, in her poem Six Recognitions of the Lord reflects on this, writing:

    Lord God, mercy is in your hands, pour me a little. And tenderness too. My need is great. Beauty walks so freely and with such gentleness. Impatience puts a halter on my face and I run away over the green fields wanting your voice, your tenderness, but having to do with only the sweet grasses of the fields against my body. When I first found you I was filled with light, now the darkness grows and it is filled with crooked things, bitter and weak, each one bearing my name.[3]


    To know God is also to know ourselves fully. And when we come to those places where our wounds fester and harm us and harm others, where it is painful to look fully upon God and our own beauty and brokenness, we have to lean into the discomfort and allow God to heal us, allow God into that brokenness, allow God to transform us remembering that the story of God in Christ doesn’t end at the cross, but in the empty tomb. It is okay to not be okay. Pretending we are ok when we are not is akin to sitting in a burning house and denying the flames.

                Humility allows us to say: I’m sorry. I love you. I was wrong. I am going to miss you. I need you. I need mercy. Help me. Thank you. Humility allows us even to face death—the ultimate limitation, with grace. When we or a loved one is coming to the end of our journey, it can be tempting to carry on as much as possible as if nothing was wrong, nothing was different, to pretend all is ok. But in that space of losing the ones we love and even ourselves, we can embrace the gifts that lie there beyond the pain and fear. We can take that sacred time and name what is broken, and then mend it, to celebrate the joy of being in love and in relationship, no matter how imperfectly. We can take that time to own our wrongs and let them see forgiveness—to name our hurt and let it go forever. There is no more an intimate time for us to be with one another than when we know that that time will soon come to an end.

                But perhaps the most important thing about naming the brokenness is seeing that we are all connected by it—that we really are like one another—like the Pharisee and like the tax collector. Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and who has spent his career representing individuals who have been unfairly treated by our justice system, writes about the brokenness. After having his last conversation with a Mr. Jimmy Dill, a man he could not save from execution, Mr. Stevenson found himself bereft and overwhelmed in the face of an unjust justice system. He contemplated quitting and thought to himself, “I can’t do this anymore.” He writes:

    For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness…a broken system of justice. ..clients…broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism…torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol. Pride, fear and anger…judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice.”[4]

    But instead of the brokenness being just out there in those people, Stevenson understood that he was broken too. He continues:

    “We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt—and have hurt others—are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us.”

    Our shared brokenness connects us. When we can see that, how much more able we are to love and be loved, to offer mercy, and receive it. There is no better healer than the one who has known illness, no better companion in grief than the one who knows loss, no better supporter than the one who has known defeat, sometimes the best peacemakers are those who have known war. It is like Regina’s story. A woman who had spent years on the streets as a prostitute, she wanted out. So she threw a rock at a police car. Instead of taking her to jail they took her to a place called Thistle Farms, a place for women like her who had no where to go. It was run by a priest named Becca. Regina was suspicious because she only saw herself as a prostitute. What would she and a priest have in common? But she went, there were no other options. When Regina met Becca, she pointed out that there was a dividing line between priests and prostitutes. Becca responded by saying that if there is a line, it is a thin one. These days Regina is one of those who help lead women off the streets into a new life of hope and healing. Today, she is a powerful woman.

    Wholeness is to be found even when we see our selves as unfixable. Humility is leaning in to the despair, the mess, the unworthiness and asking God to come into all that. And God will. And you will be justified. Amen.



    [1] Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org/?lect_date=10/27/2019&lectionary=rcl

    [2] The New York Times, Bendict Carey, Be Humble, and Proudly, Psychologists Say, Oct 21 2019 accessed online.

    [3] Oliver, Mary. Thirst. Six Recognitions of the Lord.

    [4] Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption