In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself – October 23, 2016

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Peter Thompson.websiteSermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
October 23, 2016

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8; 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.

Whenever I come across the parable we heard this morning, I can’t help but think of a song from the 1996 Disney film adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The song, called “God Help the Outcasts,” takes place after the persecuted gypsy woman Esmeralda claims sanctuary in Paris’ Cathedral of Notre Dame in order to escape capture by the city’s guards. Anxious and uncertain about her own fate, and despairing for the poor hunchback whom she had just seen be so cruelly treated by a crowd of people, Esmeralda wanders around the fringes of the church’s interior, stares into the blankness of the statues and windows, and turns to the only person she has left: God.

Her prayer begins with a frank admission of her own inadequacy and doubts. “I don’t know if you can hear me,” she sings, “or if you’re even there; I don’t know if you would listen to a gypsy’s prayer, Yes, I know I’m just an outcast; I shouldn’t speak to you.” Then she goes on to make her plea for everyone like her—for the hungry, the poor, the cast out. In the middle of her prayer, the song turns its focus to the worshippers in the center of the church, decked in fine clothes. Their prayer is very different: “I ask for wealth, I ask for fame,” they sing, “ I ask for glory to shine on my name. I ask for love I can possess. I ask for God and his angels to bless me.” As the orchestra accompanying them reaches a thrilling crescendo, Esmeralda’s clarion voice is heard again, over the others. “I ask for nothing,” she belts emphatically. “I can get by. But I know so many less lucky than I.” Ironically, the members of the upper crust—the rich, the famous, the powerful—who take the position of honor at the center of everything, thirst for more of what they already have, yet Esmeralda, stuck on the fringes, who has been marginalized and attacked and who is in need of so much, is the one who says she needs nothing.

Likewise, in the parable Jesus tells in this morning’s Gospel reading, the person who already benefits from tremendous standing wants more and more reassurance of his own status, while the person currently rejected and shunned by others chooses to neglect his own needs even further. The tax collector, because of what he does for a living, is already a figure who has been derided and hated by many of the other people. By standing “far off” in the temple and not even daring to look up to heaven as he proclaims his sin, the tax collector boldly embraces his isolated position within society and reveals a willingness to exercise humility even in the face of hardship and opposition. Meanwhile, the Pharisee, a prominent and respected religious leader within the Jewish society of Jesus’ time, uses his prayer solely to justify his own goodness, specifically by comparing himself unfavorably to those he considers not as worthy. One figure focuses tremendously on his own shortcomings, anxiously awaiting God’s forgiveness for what he must have done wrong, while the other doesn’t seem to display even the slightest awareness that there might be any issue with him at all.

In general, Pharisees are basically synonymous with bad guys in the Bible, but this parable especially seems tailor-made for Pharisee-bashing. Before we even hear the parable itself, we learn that Jesus tells the parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” At the end of the parable, Jesus emphasizes that the tax collector “went home justified rather than” the Pharisee “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The message Jesus seeks to tell us seems clear: Pharisees are awful. Don’t brag about yourself, Jesus is saying to us, don’t ridicule others; and whatever you do—don’t be a Pharisee.

The problem, however, is that in real life the line between the Pharisee and the tax collector is often fuzzy. Many of us who think we are the tax collectors might be more like the Pharisees than we would care to admit. Pharisees typically have every reason to think that they are in the right, that they are beyond reproach. You heard the Pharisee in the Gospel: “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of my income.” This is not some egregious hypocrite: this person knows how to deny himself; this person knows how to give away a significant portion of his earnings; this person pays attention to what he is supposed to do; he follows all the rules, and he probably earnestly desires and works towards closeness with God. Why shouldn’t he feel better than thieves, rogues and adulterers—or even the tax collectors, who were despised because they worked for a tyrannical empire and exploited the less fortunate? These people that the Pharisee feels superior to understand what they are doing; they know that they are no saints; they deserve what they get. Why should they receive any special favor from God?

And if you think that you’re never like the Pharisee, that you never look down on others because you feel you have moral authority over them, I challenge you to remind yourself of what you’ve thought and felt over the course of this election cycle. I suspect that only the very rare person in this room has never conceived of those other people or that other candidate as misguided and problematic or even ignorant or evil. Making moral and ethical judgments about others is something we all do all the time; often, we think what we are doing is not only justified, but also right. In making judgments about others and acting in ways informed by those judgments, we can help construct a caring and law-abiding society in which citizens behave with respect towards one another. But we can also dance on the edge of danger.

After all, when you are constantly judging the attitudes and behavior of other people, you can easily forget about how flawed and fallible you yourself can be. You can decline to examine the gaps in your own thinking; you can overlook your own weaknesses and prejudices; you can let slide your own mistakes, however small or big. I should know: Judgmental is practically my middle name. It is all too easy for me to enjoy the dramatic falls of those whom I think deserve it, to critique someone else’s efforts with bitterness and panache, to scrutinize the work that others did with unrealistically exacting standards. And then all too often I have to be hit over the head to understand my own imperfections and failures.

Earlier this week, I went online to watch the Beecher Lectures, a prestigious lecture in preaching at Yale Divinity School that has been given annually since 1871. Like many graduates of my seminary, this has become an event I’ve looked forward to every year: I’ve watched, in person or online, the lectures from the past few years, and read in print form a number of others. The lecturer this year was a famous author and preacher who was a former professor of mine. I tuned into the lectures not because I felt he had anything left to teach me, but because I watched them every year, and I didn’t want to miss the latest contribution to the canon. In his second lecture, my former professor began to say something about how the confession of sin is still relevant to preaching today. And as he made the initial outline of his argument, I could feel my sense of superiority almost literally rise within me. “Oh, here goes the old curmudgeon again!” I thought. “Just another ancient preacher who can’t get with the new times.” But as he continued to speak, my own wrongs over the previous few days flooded into my mind—the ways in which I had chosen to foment unnecessary conflict, the ways in which I had casually dismissed others, the ways in which I had put myself above everything else—and I realized he was talking to me. Yes, there was still was something this old professor of mine had left to teach me. It didn’t take me long to realize that he was right—that I was far from perfect and that I still had much to confess.

As part of his lecture, he shared a poem that really spoke to me, and as I end this morning, I’d like to share with it you. It’s by the Polish Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska and is called—brace yourself—“In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself”

The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn’t know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn’t understand remorse.
Lions and lice don’t waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they’re right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they’re light.

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

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