Sunday, October 23, 2016

Phil Kniss: The path down to the mountaintop

Between Exodus & Promised Land: Yielding Oneself
Luke 18:9-14

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We continue along our path through the wilderness—
    both in this worship series,
    and (need I point it out?) in our daily lives in this world.
And again today I have the audacity to tell you,
    that God invites us to embrace the wilderness, not escape it.
    We are called not only to survive the wilderness, but to thrive in it.
        To find real life here.

And we continue to look to Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke,
    to ask the question,
        “How do we live well in the wilderness?”
        “What kind of posture will be life-giving?”

In these four Sundays, looking at Jesus’ life and teachings,
    we find four postures, or four life attitudes—
        gratitude, persistence, humility, and release.
    We’ve spent one Sunday each on gratitude and persistence.
    Now, humility.

Richard Rohr, the contemplative Franciscan friar
    who writes and speaks widely,
    coincidentally, this past week,
        focused his daily meditations, which some of you read,
        on what he calls, “The path of descent.”

Religion, he says, typically prefers the way of “ascent,” or attainment,
    and that is what our human ego is drawn toward,
    even though that sort of striving nearly always defeats us.

Jesus represented a different way,
    in what he taught, and how he lived.
    And it’s still hard to wrap our minds and heart around it.
    We argue our way out of believing Jesus,
        who tried to train his disciples in the path of descent,
        and ego-stripping instead of ego-attainment.

As Richard Rohr puts it,
    “Jesus tells us to love more,
        rather than to idealize anything except God.”

We are deeply formed by our Western culture’s ideals
    of progress and winning and gaining power over.
But the biblical model looks different.
    Throughout scripture, and culminating in Jesus,
        we learn that the true path of ascent is Jesus’ path of de-scent.
    Jesus reflects a “bias from the bottom,”
        he teaches that the “first shall be last,”
        he invites his disciples to “take up their cross,”
        and demonstrates ultimate vulnerability facing death himself,
            in his own downward path to the top of the hill.
    Jesus knew human beings
        need to be taught a different way of winning.
        We win by losing.
        Or, maybe more precisely,
            we win that which has eternal value,
            by losing that which has temporal value.

Rohr’s path of descent means letting go
    of self-image, titles, status, public persona.
    He points out that the first commandment teaches this,
        when Yahweh says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
    It’s not just false images of God we need to avoid.
    False images of ourselves also get in the way of worship of God.

This is not self-immolation. This is not self-hatred.
    This is the path to a more true self.
    It leads us to deeper and truer self-respect.

Realizing we are human (a word derived from humus, soil),
    and recognizing that this very earth from which we come, is sacred,
        has come from God and is returning to God,
    puts our true self in perspective.

We discover a different kind of power in ourselves,
    knowing we are God’s beloved creatures,
    that we come from God and return to God,
        and that’s enough.
    As humans, we are a small part of creation,
        only particles that reflect a fragment of God’s glory.
    And yet that’s enough.
        Enough to be loved by God.
        Enough to love ourselves.
        Enough to be loved by others.

The great spiritual illusion is that
    we need to accumulate and acquire and attain—
        more and more and more—
    in order to have self-worth.
    But Jesus says, we don’t need to acquire what is already ours.
        We have inherent value
            because we participate in God.

And speaking of what Jesus said, let’s turn to another one of his stories.
    Last Sunday, when Moriah opened up to us
        the parable of the widow and the judge,
        she pointed out that parables rarely comfort and reassure.
        They have a sting in their tail, she said.

    Or, as Will Willimon once said,
        Jesus’ stories are meant “more to dislodge than explain.”
        They dislodge us from our settled place
            of complacency and security,
            and take us into a journey
                of struggle and growth and discovery.

The same is true of today’s famous story,
    about the Pharisee and tax collector.
    On the one hand, it’s a very simple story.
        No plot. No twists. No tension. No crisis.
    Actually, it’s more a scene, than a story.
        Two men are praying in the temple.
            One man prays this way.
            The other man prays that way.
                One way is better than the other.
        End of story.

These two men were stereotypes to first-century Palestinian Jews.
    And all of Jesus’ listeners recognized them immediately.

They are stereotypes to us, too.
    Except, we get the stereotypes wrong.

We see the Pharisee as
    a stereotype of prideful arrogance and wealthy pomp and pretense.
And the tax collector as
    a stereotype of an earthy, humble, repentant, and pure heart.

You’ve seen old paintings and illustrations of these two—
    the Pharisee in regal robes, chin jutting out,
    and the tax collector in sackcloth, cowering in the corner.

Jesus’ listeners had a different picture in mind, I’m certain.

Let me paint their picture of the Pharisee.
He was a highly-esteemed,
    and beloved leader of their faith community.
    Public opinion toward Pharisees was consistently high.
        They were the heroes of the common people.
            Not like the Sadducees, who were more elite.
        Pharisees were in the line of Moses and the prophets.
        Sadducees were identified with priestly status and privilege.
    In fact, the priests—most of whom were Sadducees—
        would make special accommodations in temple worship,
        to stay on the good side of the Pharisees,
            because they knew Pharisees had the support of the people.

    Pharisees were respected, because they were thoroughly good.
    Pharisees cared deeply about purity and holiness,
        but not in a bad way,
        not because they were stuck-up or prideful or arrogant,
        and not because they hated those who were ritually unclean.
    They simply cared about honoring Torah, the scripture.
        They were all about spiritual renewal, returning to their roots.
        They believed if Israel could achieve true holiness,
            if they could attain to spiritual purity,
            then God would take notice,
                send the Messiah,
                and deliver the people from Roman occupation.
        They were good people.
        And they did it all for the people.
            They did it for the hope of salvation.
            And they were admired for it.

On the other hand,
    the tax collector was truly a scoundrel.
    When he called himself a sinner, he wasn’t kidding.

If you think our government’s tax system is burdensome,
    be glad you weren’t a subject of the Roman Empire.
    The Empire, spread out as it was,
        outsourced tax collecting.
    They contracted with big private entities,
        whose task was simply to deposit a certain amount
            of money into the Roman treasury,
            and to get it by whatever means necessary.
        It was a pyramid system.
            The one at the top made the deposits to Rome.
            And he had regional managers under him
                who had to come up with the money.
            The important thing was getting the money,
                not how it was gotten.
            So everyone, from the top down,
                had a lot to gain, and got wealthy.
            Overcharging, bribing, extorting their own people—
                that’s the way business was done.

    So this tax collector was the worst kind of sinner,
        and traitor to his own people.
    He was hated equally by everyone.
    He represented everything evil
        that the Pharisee spent his whole life working against.

Now, keep these two pictures in mind—
    the good, respected, honorable, God-fearing Pharisee,
    and the traitorous man who robbed his own people.

Is it surprising that the Pharisee
    would have prayed this heart-felt prayer?
    “Thank you, Lord, that I didn’t end up like that man over there.”

We hear that prayer, and take it to be the height of arrogance.
    I think the prayer was a sincere expression of gratitude.
    Kind of like saying, when you observe some unfortunate soul,
        “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
    That’s the same prayer.
        And a prayer you and I often pray,
            in thought, if not in words.

The Pharisee in this story is not a religious hypocrite
    who gets some kind of crude pleasure
    out of condemning other people.
        He really was grateful to God that he could live a good life—
            that he had ordered his life in such a way,
            that he kept himself from becoming a wretched sinner.
        He was—I must admit and so must you—
            a lot like us.

The Pharisee’s sin, and our sin,
    is how we position ourselves in relation to the other.
    This posture, and corresponding prayer—
        “thank you, God, that I am not like that”—
        is a way to separate ourselves from the other,
        to make a distinction between ourselves and sinful persons.
    When we do so, we cannot see the common human connection
        that might form a relationship,
        that might be trans-formative for us both.

If I thank God I’m not like someone else,
    I’ve just written that person off.
    I’ve undermined my ability to ever connect
        and have a transformative relationship with that person.

How often have we made that sort of comment?
    or at least had that sentiment?
    especially in this divisive political season?
    But doing so drives us away from the other,
        it creates distance, it reinforces our enmity,
        and worst of all, it blocks the grace of God.

To innocently say, as I often have, “There, but for the grace of God . . .”
    implies that this other unfortunate person
        missed out on the grace of God.
And I have done exactly what the Pharisee did,
    stood upright, back turned, created a safe distance
        between my own sin and depravity,
        and that of the other.

When I create spiritual distance between myself and those near me,
    I undermine the grace of God.
    And I participate in the same divisiveness and enemy-making
        that our secular culture is so good at.
    Our whole cultural discourse is built around that statement,
        “Thank God I’m not like them!”

    It’s a prayer we pray all the time.
        But it’s a prayer, I submit, that is spiritually toxic.
        It blocks the grace of God in our lives.
        It keeps us from, as Jesus put it, “going home justified.”

    That’s how Jesus described the tax collector,
        who lowered himself,
        who became vulnerable,
        who expressed his utter dependence on God’s mercy.
    That man—the one who chose the “path of descent,”
        the one who decided to cease acquiring and accumulating,
            and cease securing his own position—
        that man “went home justified.”

    The Pharisee remained in his place of isolation,
        in his pure, holy, and antiseptic state of . . . sinfulness.
        He went home unchanged.

I believe the prayer we must learn to pray—
    against our intuition,
    against the tide of culture—
        is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

That is the prayer that will not only put us right with God,
    but will be a foundation upon which we can build
    a transformative relationship with those around us
        who are sometimes so difficult to bear with,
        so hard to understand, or
        so challenging to love.
If we pray this prayer of repentance often,
    we will find ourselves more at home with it,
    and we will find ourselves increasingly at home in our wilderness,
    and we will find ourselves growing in respect of our true self,
    and we will find more joy in our connections with the other,
    and we will find a deeper and richer life immersed in God’s grace.

Sometimes, the path to the mountaintop, spiritually speaking,
    runs downhill.
    And that’s when Jesus’ words are fulfilled,
        the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

This is as much about attitude and posture,
    as it is about words.
    Our words may sound like mere fragments,
        not fully fleshed-out.
    That’s how prayers from the wilderness often sound.

So I invite us into a time of praying, and contemplating,
    by singing some words, and by offering some wordless song.

Let’s turn to HWB 347, “Through our fragmentary prayers.”
I’ll read two of the verses . . .
    Through our fragmentary prayers and our silent, heart-hid sighs
    wordlessly the Spirit bears our profoundest needs and cries.
    Let our jabberings give way to the hummings in the soul
    as we yield our lives this day to the God who makes us whole.

—Phil Kniss, October 23, 2016

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