Don't let your goodness go to you head

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Bless us, O Christ, with a desire to seek your blessing.  Inspire us, Holy Spirit, with an assurance that your blessings abound.  Amen.

One of the easiest traps for faithful Christians to fall into is that of feeling too good about ourselves for being faithful Christians.  And, not that there’s anything particularly wrong with feeling good about ourselves – I certainly don’t advocate for feeling depraved all the time – the danger is in feeling good about ourselves in comparison to others; feeling superior, feeling self-righteous.

We’re called to generosity, and if we’re not careful, the pride we feel from being generous can become like the high from a drug, negating the goodness itself – making the goodness a side-effect to our primary goal of bolstering ourselves.  It becomes a kind of idolatry – seeking our own praise over seeking to live our lives in praise of the God of all creation.

It’s one of the things that people outside the church most often point to as a reason to not join with us in being church.  It’s not that people don’t want community.  It’s not that people don’t want to do good things to support people in need.  It’s usually not even that people don’t have some understanding of God – some transcendence that gives meaning beyond our individual selves.  The real reason people usually report not wanting to find community in the church and channel good works through the church and worship God with the church isn’t because those things aren’t important, but because we have a long, sordid history of letting our own self-righteousness be our focus, instead of focusing where we should.

In very broad strokes, that’s the lesson we hear in the gospel reading today.  The Pharisee was the one who should have been a faithful, observant practitioner of the Jewish tradition.  The tax collector – regardless of his personal attributes or practices – would have been expected to be a scoundrel.

In practice, both men surprise us.  The Pharisee is praying to God, but when we hear the specifics of his prayer, it quickly becomes apparent that his prayer is mostly in praise of himself.  The tax collector, on the other hand, is genuinely contrite.  He holds himself in a way and in a place that shows that he is truly trying to seek God’s forgiveness.  The Pharisee, on the other hand, see no cause for forgiveness – only joy that he feels better than the tax collector.

Again – I really don’t think the goal of this story is to impress upon us that we should think terribly of ourselves.  Our suffering and sadness does not delight God.  We aren’t being called to self-flagellation and sackcloth and ashes.  Instead, what we’re being called to, is a more honest relationship with God.

The broader point of this story, however, is about these two men and the stereotypes that they represent.  A couple of weeks ago, I said something about how seeing the ways that Jesus opens up the gift of God to all people – even (and maybe even especially) to unexpected people, is a theme that recurs so often in the Gospels that is almost seems silly to acknowledge it.  It happens so much, that it’s easy to overlook it as normal, and forget that it’s a part of the truth that is revealed to us in scripture.

And this week, in this parable, we hear it and see it again.  The story is of two men who are typically lifted up as oppositions to both Jesus and the mission of God that Jesus is trying to bring about in the world.  A Pharisee – certainly a faithful Jewish person, but one who is often depicted as trying to entrap Jesus – to somehow catch him in a mistake.  The other is a tax collector – someone who is usually regarded as a cheat, and a lapdog to the oppressive forces of the occupying Roman empire.

It’s through the story of these two unlikely characters that Jesus finds a message and an ideal for all of his followers.

The message of avoiding self-righteousness and, really, self-idolatry, is significant and worthwhile to hear – but the bigger message becomes clear as we see this journey to Jerusalem unfolding from a step further back.  We keep hearing stories of unlikely heroes showing us unlikely paths to deeper and more meaningful relationships with God.  There was the dishonest manager.  The Samaritan.  Now it’s the tax collector and even the Pharisee.  Next week we’ll hear the story of one of the most infamous tax collectors – Zacchaeus.

Through all of these stories, the common theme emerges: God’s grace and love extend farther than we could have imagined.  Examples of the love of God come from corners more far-reaching than we ever could have imagined.

All of these people whom we had considered to be beyond the reach of Christ’s saving embrace are actually closer than ever.

There are two main lessons that emerge for us.  First, don’t be like the Pharisee.  Don’t judge those other people that you think are beyond the reach of God’s love, because time and time again we see evidence to the contrary.  They are not only within the reach of God’s love, but their lives are overflowing vessels of God’s love.  They have so much love from God that there’s no way they could have more.

The second lesson is like that, but with a tweak: don’t be like the tax collector.  Don’t count yourself out of the love of God, because you’re not.  You have more love from God than you can reasonably imagine.  That love is overflowing in and through and beyond you more than you could know.  There’s nothing in the world that you could do that could cause it to run out.  No matter how depraved you may feel, God still feels love and grace for you.

The vessel is full to overflowing.  There’s nothing we can do to fill it up any more and there’s nothing we can do to cause the level to fall.  We are made to be vessels of God’s love no matter how others see us and no matter how we see ourselves.  And the same is true for everyone else.  Everyone we hold at the margins is held by God at the center – living their lives as vessels of God’s never-failing love, mercy, and grace.

Think about how knowing that could change your life.  What would it mean to answer your guilt with an assurance of God’s love for you?  What would it mean to answer your frustration and anger at others, your judgement and disdain for others, your held-at-arms-length fear of others with an assurance of God’s love for them?

There’s nothing you can do to increase God’s love for them or for you.  There’s nothing you can do to spare God’s love from them or from you.

Our purpose is to be loved by God.

Our purpose is to be loved by God.

Even on the way to Calvary, God’s love poured freely through the person of Jesus – even where everyone else thought it couldn’t go.

It’s been two millennia since these lessons were first taught, and we’re still struggling to hear them.  And we’ve heard them so much that we miss how important they really are.  But our purpose is to be loved by God.  From the beginning.  Even now.  Even forever.

May we love in turn.  Amen.