” Suspended in a Sunbeam”
A Sermon by`
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
October 27, 2019
The topic today is humility.
“Great job on the presentation today, Sarah.”
‘Oh thanks. I’m not sure it went very well.”
“No, it did. Really.”
“I should have done more research.”
“The research was fine.”
“My voice isn’t very commanding.”
“Really? I don’t know…”
Sarah is not being humble.
Sarah is being difficult.
Don’t be like Sarah.
Humility is out of favor today, deferring to confidence, “feeling good about ourselves,” and what the writer Barbara Brown Taylor calls “The Great American Myth” that anyone willing to work hard can win first prize. “Which might be true,” she says, “if everyone were standing at the same starting line. As it is, some start so far back that they can run until their lungs burst and never even see the dust of the front runners.”
At the other extreme from mega-confidence is what is called “Imposter Syndrome,” primarily plaguing successful women. This is a strong sense of self-doubt and the worry that they will be found out to be far less than people think. Of course, this is amplified by the inevitable comparisons all of us make, and intensified by social media.
Many of us see humility as an admirable if elusive trait (think Jimmy Carter), something kind of embarrassing to think about in relationship to ourselves or irrelevant. So, we look to our faith to give us an empowering, realistic and relevant definition, and today’s Gospel does not disappoint. It is The Parable – actually the prayers of – the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
The Pharisee, standing alone in the Temple, lists his accomplishments: he fasted regularly, he tithes. He doubtlessly reads the Scriptures, prays, pays his pledge, maybe even volunteers for Temple Outreach? Taylor says, “His is the kind of steady, law-abiding discipleship that has kept the great ship of the church afloat for thousands of years.” Most of us can identify with this part of the Pharisee.
But he is also condescending, entitled, and critical. A spiritual narcissist. And while he offers up his gratitude for his superiority, his prayer does not change him; he doesn’t aspire to living a better life. He offers nothing to God except his good record.
The Tax collector also is right about himself. He works for the Romans, collecting their taxes but also adding on a healthy surcharge for himself. Tax collectors oppressed the poor; they were thieves, and were considered the scum of Jewish society.
But the tax collector does have humility. He confesses that he is a sinner, desperately in need of God’s mercy. He beats his breast in self-loathing. Jesus says that the Tax Collector went home “justified” even though he makes no promise of living a better life or changing his ways. This is puzzling.
The basis for “justification” here seems to be humility, and acknowledging a dependence on God. But the parables are never simple and in this one the Pharisee who speaks about his contempt for other people is not excused or “justified.” While the Tax Collector whose actions demonstrate contempt by swindling people, is given a pass. This may be because of the audience for the parable: the self-righteous who have contempt for other people.
There is a clear insider/outsider theme here. Pastor David Lose writes,” On the grounds of the Temple, you were always intimately aware of who you were, of what you had, of what you could expect from God.” There were rules about where you could and could not pray, what entrance you could and could not use, how and when and where you could or could not make sacrifices. There were places for insiders and for outsiders.
But when Jesus dies, Lose points out, all of this changes: “On Good Friday, the Gospels report that the curtain of the temple is torn in two (Luke 21:45), symbolically erasing all divisions of humanity before God.”
Taking a closer look, I think that most of us today can identify with both of these characters. I know I can.
Like the Pharisee, most of us here live relatively privileged lives. No matter our annual income in the U.S, it places us in the top 1% of the people in the world. Most of our jobs don’t demand that we directly exploit other people. And we have credentials! It’s sad if we’re still quoting our GPA’s or SAT scores after age thirty and I’ve completely forgotten the only “C” I ever received, in the second quarter of high school chemistry from Mr. Mills who was very short and I used to wonder if as a tall person I threatened him, but we might be proud of where we went to school or where we work or have worked; or of our successful kids or that we’re in good physical shape. It’s not so bad that we mention these things, in fact, living without any way of justifying our existence can make us feel extremely vulnerable. However, privilege can insulate us from the problems of people who do have it, what we do; our zip codes can insulate us; our educations might insulate us; our skin color might insulate us.
Like the Pharisee, we also may be critical of others, not having contempt exactly, but close. Some may deserve our criticism: terrorists; murderers, racists; those whose lies cause the innocent to suffer; those who steal from the needy; those who abuse children. It is only God who can include these human beings in the circle of his beloved.
A side note here about niceness and silence. Our desire not to hurt anyone’s feelings and to keep the peace can extract a terrible price. The Benedictine Sister Joan Chititiser wrote about this recently: “We were raised to be nice. We taught our children to be nice. But today ‘nice’ is the conversational path to nowhere. No opinions. No new ideas. No conversations that were once scintillating, educational. Now talk jut trails off into nothingness. Niceness guarantees to make hypocrites of us all. When there is no possibility of discussing difficult things together there is no relationship to save. The better the distance the better the pseudo-relationship. “
For forty years I have gathered four times a year with three other women on our birthdays. We have seen each other through three divorce, illnesses, and children growing up, but now differing political conviction have become the elephant in the room. It has affected our friendships but we are completely nice about it.
But recently we stumbled onto the issue of gun control and one person said, “Well, the bad guys will always have guns,” implying that everyone else should be able to have them, too. Without checking myself, I asked why? “Would this mean that there could be gunfights in the street? That we arm teachers? That scares the heck out of me.”
Then instantly the Niceness Factor kicked in and we all just pretended nothing had been said, instead of trusting each other enough to have a respectful conversation. A lot had been possible at that moment – new understanding; growing closer as friends; increased respect for each other’s opinions. It might have been risky but choosing to grow usually is. We kept the peace. We were nice.
The tax collector makes no attempt to be specific about anything. His head is down, he beats his chest, he is all humility. He needs mercy; he is totally dependent on God. Jesus praises him for this.
However, will he be back the next week in the same posture with the same prayer? He has not demonstrated any amendment of life; any desire to make restitution; any desire to change his ways. It’s kind of like the first step of AA, about admitting that you are powerless over an addiction and that your life has become unmanageable and ignoring the other eleven. Still, we can identify with the tax collector, I think, when we recall all of our own rote, generalized prayers that we rush through and don’t change much, especially ourselves.
We are called to neither the perpetual arrogance of the Pharisee nor the perpetual browbeating of the tax collector. Neither embodies a humility that is convincing.
One definition of humility is groundedness, since the root “humus” means dirt. Being humble means to keep your feet on the ground, judging your deeds and everyone else’s by the same standard. However, the best definition I’ve heard is from the writer Simone Weil who says that, “The virtue of humility is nothing more or less than the power of attention.”
Most of the spiritual teachings of Jesus focus on paying attention: pay attention to the world, to other people, to your life, and in so doing you will find God. Look and see what is right in front of you. If we pay attention to what is before our eyes, we cannot help but respond with gratitude and empathy. Even in times of searing pain, we may sense a presence with us. I know that I have.
Four weeks ago, I had cataract surgery on one eye and on the other two weeks ago. My distance vision is now 20/20, but my up-close vision is problematic. So for now I have to adjust, to glasses on, glasses off,
But with one barrier removed, the colors are glorious (this room is white? I thought it was a grayish yellow); the beauty of the fall has been magnified to perfection. Not to force a metaphor, but perhaps this is similar to our spiritual lives when the cataracts of fear, constant judgment, and self-doubt cloud our spiritual lives. I will need glasses to read but I’m newly aware of what a gift it is to be able to see what I do.
Of course, we see not only with the eyes but with the heart and mind, and the greatest cause for humility is when we look at the really big picture, when we take the time and have the courage to see where we really are as human beings on our endangered planet.
In 1977 when the Voyager spacecraft captured that grainy photograph of mostly empty space, Carl Sagan called Earth a “pale blue dot” in the immensity of space. He wrote that “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives” on this ”mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam.”
Finally, these words from the poet Maya Angelou. Watch for echoes of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector – and yourself:
“We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth….
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world..”
Dan Clenendin, Journey with Jesus, October 16, 2016.
David Lose, Commentary on Luke 16, Working Preacher, October 26, 2016.
Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, p112.
Joan Chititser, “Anger: A virtue for our time because silence is not working,” National Catholic Reporter, Oct, 23, 2019.
Maya Angelou, “A Brave and Startling Truth” in Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry, 1995.