Thank you for the three-month sabbatical you granted to me from July through September. The best part of my time away was our family trip to Europe. We spent 5 days in Munich, and then traveled to Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland where we spent another 5 days.
One day we took a cog train up to the Mt. Jungfraujoch and we walked on the Aletsch Glacier that covers about 30 square miles and has the thickness of 1 kilometer. At 11, 300 feet above sea level I had a deeper understanding of what the word breath-taking means. Frequently I had to stop to catch my breath and at times wondered if I would ever get to the destination, but I did. The vistas were awe-inspiring, Mother Nature showering us with such spectacular beauty—it was such a gift to behold. Our family will never forget this day.
When we were finished walking, we returned to the building that has a huge viewing area, an ice palace, shops, and restaurants. We were a bit tired and cold so we got a cup of coffee and treats before getting back on the train. As I looked around, there were crowds and crowds of people—all at the “top of Europe.” Feeling a bit put off, I thought to myself, “wow, there are so many tourists here.” But then I realized I was one of those tourists! I might as well have said, “wow there is so many of me here.” The temptation to define myself as separate from all these other tourists showed up almost without conscious thought. Yet I couldn’t have been more like them—I desired what they desired, to be up on Mt. Jungfraujoch—to be at the “top of Europe.”
In the passage in Luke, we are given insight into our human nature—this tendency to want to define ourselves as different from others. The first sentence of this story immediately gets my attention: “Jesus told this story to some who trusted themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” I know what Jesus is talking about here because I know myself. Jesus gives the example of a religious leader who is filled with gratitude because he claims not to be like other people. This person defines his own perceived goodness by comparing himself to people who are “bad” and then admiring the distance he sees between him and others.
But if you notice, the passage doesn’t say that Jesus is surprised by this behavior. He seems to know that it is part of our human condition and he wants us to be aware of it. Like so many stories told by Jesus, he first explains a facet of our human condition and then invites us to a new way to behave. In the Beatitudes, we see this a lot. Instead of repaying evil with evil, Jesus says not to resist an evildoer. Instead of only loving our neighbor, we are to also love our enemies. In this story Jesus says “Don’t pray like this, instead pray like this.” Jesus’ desire is that we rise up out of this self-inflicted rivalry and our notions of self-righteousness and discover a new way to be good. We are to be people who ask for mercy, because as God fills us with mercy, our lives in turn, will ooze with mercy.
Now maybe we wouldn’t be as bold to say the prayer that the Pharisee offered but I do think we know of times when we have entertained similar notions—times of comparing ourselves to others in order to feel better about who we are. For instance, I wonder if the 21st century version of this prayer by the Pharisee might be the statement “I’m spiritual but not religious.” When we say that, what is it we are trying to communicate? Who are we trying to distance ourselves from when we use this phrase?” Can we see how this leads to an us vs. them mentality? Again, Jesus is not surprised by our human desires to describe ourselves over and against others. He names it and doesn’t label it as good or bad. Instead he shares how we are to face this about ourselves. His solution is prayer.
I love this. Jesus invites us to change through the act of prayer. Jesus doesn’t give us a 10-step method to rid ourselves of this behavior. Jesus doesn’t tell us to simply try harder and this tendency will go away. And very importantly, Jesus doesn’t shake his finger at the Pharisee or us and say “You bad person!” Jesus, our rabbi still, invites us to change through prayer. And it is a simple, one sentence prayer. When these creeping notions arise in us—the temptation to define ourselves as separate from others, we are to pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That’s it!
But as simple as this prayer is, it can accomplish a lot. By praying this we remember who we are and whose we are. By praying this, we remember that we are always in the process of being forgiven which drives us deeper into following the desires of Jesus and forgiving others. This prayer leads us away from the cycle of violence and into the cycle of forgiveness.
From this story and throughout the Gospels, I find the following themes in Jesus’ teachings:
- Our human propensity leads us to be in rivalry with others where we define ourselves as different and separate from others which creates an us vs. them mentality.
- We are lured into a false identity based on how we see ourselves as different than others.
- Jesus’ life, death, resurrection draws us into a new identity; causes us to see that God’s love is non-rivalrous. God’s love is not revengeful, hateful, and therefore is not involved in the cycle of violence in any way.
- As God’s love sinks deeper into us, it brings about a collapse of our own identity because we stop defining ourselves over and against others. “It is a process by which we find ourselves learning who we are in the degree to which we discover a similarity with others which can be very painful. It will feel like a loss of identity. It will feel profoundly destabilizing.” (James Alison)
I was deeply challenged by the ideas of Alison and in particular, the words “the collapse of identity” pierced by innermost being. Using an old religious word, I felt “convicted.” And here’s why. I have a family member who I’ve struggled with for decades. Someone who has been very difficult to be with—someone for whom I’ve felt intense feelings of dislike and hatred towards. Throughout the years, other family members and I have spent a good amount of time talking about our dislike for this person and as we did this, it made us feel better. We had a common enemy and this gave us an identity that made us feel close to each other. Learning from Jesus, our rabbi still, I saw how my own self-righteousness continued to cause hurt and pain. Reading James Alison’s understanding about the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, woke me up to seeing my role in this relationship and how I was perpetuating a cycle of animosity and disdain toward this family member. The description that Alison shared of a collapse of identity was terrifying to me. Who would I be if I no longer identified this person as my enemy? I wish it was as easy as pushing a reset button, but it was not. Letting go of my tightly held beliefs about this person was extremely difficult to do. Yet, it made sense that Jesus, my rabbi still would be moving me in this direction. To move towards reconciliation was to follow the desires of Jesus.
I love the placement of these two stories in the Gospel of Luke, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector and then the story of Jesus welcoming children in the book of Luke. The simple prayer uttered by the tax collector is exactly what Jesus means by entering God’s kingdom like a child. As we utter this prayer, we sense and recognize our vulnerability and our need for God. Entering God’s kingdom is all about receiving mercy and grace. Entering God’s kingdom is about living in the non-violent, non-rivalrous love of God.
Recently I was watching a PBS show that was about the Himalayas which included some focus on Mt. Everest. One of the final statements made in the show was “Mt. Everest is still in the process of being created.” Now, of course that makes sense and something we all know. But for some reason that statement caught my attention and gave me joy. And I also thought about human beings—and how this understanding certainly applies to all of us. We are all in the process of being created. Through God’s acts of mercy and forgiveness, we continue to grow and change. We continue to sink deeper into the desires of Jesus—desires that lead us away from rivalry, hatred, revenge and violence and move us toward reconciliation and new life. We are in the process of being created.
My hope is that we find ways to learn from our rabbi–the one who invites us to emulate his ways, to embrace his desires, to seek the path of mercy and forgiveness, and see what unfolds. Jesus, our rabbi still. Amen.
Sermon Text: Luke 18:9-14