Sermon: Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble

28 October 2007

Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
October 28, 2007

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble

Luke 18:9-17

Prayer:   May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

        This is such a familiar parable, this story Jesus told about those “who trusted in themselves … and regarded others with contempt.”  We shake our heads and smile at the self-righteous Pharisee, who sets himself apart in the Temple and prays, “O God, I thank you that I am not like other people .”  And we assume this parable is not about us.  We’re so proud of our humility, we Christians – in fact, it’s one of our finest character traits!   Most of us would happily sing the old country song, “Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.”  Like the Pharisee in the parable, that type is such a caricature we’re tempted to laugh it off – and let ourselves off the hook. 

        But don’t most of us secretly believe we’re pretty good people?  We came to church today, after all!  Some of us serve on all kinds of committees; some of us attend weekly prayers and Bible study; some of you wonderful saints were even here working at church yesterday – just one week after putting in tons of hard work running the Yankee Fair.  But I’ll tell you a secret: it’s a dangerous thing to be too good.  I know, because I’m a very good girl.  I’m a pastor, after all.  I spend my days toiling in the vineyards of the Lord – visiting the sick, studying the Bible, praying, doing all kinds of holy church paperwork. 

        And yet, I can be really grumpy with people asking for help – whether it’s somebody collecting for a good cause on the phone or at my front door, or whether it’s just one of my poor children needing help on homework or my dear husband wanting a hand with dinner.  I have such a righteous job, I can honestly say to people, “I gave at the office.  Heck, I just put in a long day for GOD – when I get home I deserve to just sit on my couch and vegetate.”  Self-righteousness is a strong and addictive drug for us churchy types. Annie Lamott, a Presbyterian author from Northern California, in her latest book, Grace (Eventually), has a great essay about a spiritual struggle that threatened to sweep her away when she tried to return a rug she’d bought for her Sunday School class. 

        When they had unrolled the carpet remnant, it turned out to be stained with mold, and the owner wouldn’t give her a refund.  She records her indignant response: “‘I’m from a SUNDAY School.  This is for little children.’  For good measure, I added, ‘With asthma.’  He … waved me away, like a servant, or a bee.  This wasn’t fair! I wanted to wail, self-wounded and righteous.  … I was as furious as I can ever remember being, thinking about the innocent little children at our Sunday School, the asthmatic little children, scampering about on the mold, seizing up.  … I was trembling.  You could have cracked walnuts with my self-righteousness.  …He waved me away again. The door to the most primitive place inside me opened up … As we glared at each other, I found it heady, like a drug. … I fell right past my fixation with being right, into the dark, swampy underside of human discourse.  I found a weird nourishment in our exchange.  I was very focused.  I saw myself choking the man with my bare hands ….”

        It’s such a rush to know we’re more righteous than someone else. I think that’s one reason we secretly enjoy it so much when celebrities get exposed in the tabloids – we can feel so smug by comparison.  I may not look like a movie star, but I don’t get caught shoplifting at Wal-Mart.  I may not be famous, but at least I’m not in and out of rehab this week.  I may not be a star athlete, but at least I know how to love and care for my dog.  And the very best kind of exposé?  You know: pious TV preacher caught in a motel room with somebody who’s NOT his wife, and maybe who’s not even female! It’s delicious to bash those easy targets – the adulterers and gamblers and drunks and petty thieves.

        But in this parable, Jesus is warning us not to look down on anyone.  Look to your own sinfulness, like the tax collector, he’s always reminding us.  Don’t work on the speck in your neighbor’s eye so hard that you neglect the log in your own!  You see, the real risk of self-righteousness is that when we forget humility, we run the risk of thinking we can do it ourselves, without God’s help. Accepting Christ’s new covenant of grace is to admit we couldn’t have done it without God’s self-giving love, shown to us by Jesus on the cross.  That love is freely given to us, not earned. 

        Believe me, though I had good things to say last Sunday about God’s law, and Christ is working to write the Law of Love upon our hearts as Jeremiah promised – I was NOT advocating that we all go back and live under a covenant of Old Testament Law.  Jesus, like the great prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures who went before him, was calling people to the kind of obedience to God that comes from knowing just who we are – God’s beloved children, stumbling through our lives, just barely figuring it out well enough to keep going.  Our obedience comes from gratitude for all the help we’re getting, not from fear.  It is obedience rooted in a bond of steadfast love – in Hebrew, chesed, a familial love so strong nothing can break it. 

        That is why I had Joni read the section that immediately follows this parable – the story about Jesus welcoming the little children. That part wasn’t officially in today’s lectionary, but I think it helps us better understand what went wrong with the Pharisee’s prayer when we see it in this context.  “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” is one of the most familiar and beloved verses in the Bible.  We remember it every time we have an infant baptism.  It speaks to the special place children have in God’s Reign of Love, in Christ’s church, and in our own hearts.  But it can be easily sentimentalized.  Anyone who has real, living children knows that to say we’re to enter heaven like a child might well mean we’re to enter yelling and fighting with our siblings or hopping on one foot while whistling!  What Jesus, it seems to me, is saying matters most is that the way to our salvation lies in letting go of our adult pretenses to perfection and admitting (like a child) to our own helplessness to do much of anything right.  We need to remember what’s painfully obvious to a child – that we would have nothing, and be nothing without the love of a parent, especially our Heavenly Parent.  That’s the secret of true humility.

        The conclusion Annie Lamott came to in her story about “The Carpet Guy,” was this:  “[Talking about] Sunday School made me remember to pray – Help!  Help!  I got my answer: Start behaving well and you will feel better.  This is what Jesus would want, and he had to be there in the rug store.  Maybe he was being embarrassed to tears, like when your kid has a tantrum in public.”  Is that how we’ll enter the kingdom of heaven, like whiny kids being dragged into the rug store by a long-suffering mother?  Some days we don’t even have the good sense to accept the grace that’s offered us – that’s offered to every last one of us, even the MOST impossible sinners or the most obnoxious Pharisees. 

        Lamott writes: “Jesus doesn’t hold this [that is, our childish misbehavior] against a person.  His message is that we’re all sort of nuts and suspicious and petty and full of crazy hungers, and everything feels awful a lot of the time, but even so …You know how big God’s love is?  The answer is it’s very big.  It’s bigger than you’re comfortable with.  … We’re invited more deeply into this mystery on a daily basis, to be here as one-of; a mess like everyone else, and not in charge.”

        I learned this lesson in seminary, because it turns out coming face-to-face with the Great Mystery is a very humbling experience.  It was in my last semester of seminary, in an advanced preaching seminar, that I failed in front of everyone in a particularly embarrassing way – and after the class had ripped up one side of me and down the other, leaving no mistake unnamed, I did the unthinkable.  I started to cry. 

        Mercifully the teacher, who was a woman, and my best friend (another woman), changed the subject and tried to create a diversion.  Women pastors, like women doctors and firefighters, have a responsibility to our entire gender to hold it together at all costs.  So far, I’d done that pretty well – even in my Christian Ethics class where one of my Lutheran classmates had called me a mean name, for questioning Martin Luther.  But nothing was stopping me at this point – I was sobbing like a baby. 

        So the teacher tried a new tack.  “You know, class,” she said with finality.  “The greatest thing about taking a SEMINARY class is that when things go terribly wrong, we get to pray.”  And she led us all in a prayer – asking for God’s grace, for healing, for wisdom, for world peace, for whatever else she could think of while I dried myself off and picked myself up.  But you know I didn’t pick myself up.  It was Jesus.  He picked me up and kissed my boo-boo and made it all better.  Just like that.

        That’s when I knew, beyond a doubt, that no matter what miserable mistakes I might make in ministry – no matter how terrible the sermon I preached, no matter whom I accidentally offended, no matter what the Grand Jury said about me, at least I could always turn to God for help.  I had a hard job ahead, but unquestionably the best boss in the world.  And that has always stuck with me, especially when the going was tough.  Ever since then, prayer has never seemed any sort of duty, but a privilege.  We’re Christians.  We get to pray – even down on our knees if we feel like it.  Lord, have mercy on us all.

        Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


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