Freed from Pride, Bound By Love - Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost (October 23, 2022)
Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 14:7–10, 19–22 | Psalm 84:1–7 | 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18 | Luke 18:9–14
“all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14).
In our parable today from Luke’s Gospel, God’s word brings to mind a familiar theme that runs right through the entire Biblical story: the contrast between Pride and Humility… and the story of which one will end up on top in the end.
It's a story we’ve heard many times before. One that has grabbed and even saturated our culture’s imagination… found in just about every novel, and drama, and narrative we create, a story we even expect to play out in real life as well as fiction. After all, pride comes before the fall. And who doesn’t cheer for the underdog?
But as familiar, and even cliché as this simple message may seem, it’s still needed today. The temptations to take the path of pride are certainly as potent as ever, with one strong example being the way so many engage online.
One of the simplest ways that pride is fed by social media is through how it encourages people to ‘self-brand’… to market themselves… to treat their online profiles like a constant advertisement, only revealing what we want others to see… the best pictures of ourselves… only perfect family photos… striving to make it look like we have it all together, all of the time… all the while hiding the messiness of life off camera, where no one can see. No one, except the people we actually share our lives with day to day.
Another way pride shows up online is through something called “virtue signaling”, where people make a point of showing off their ‘goodness’ in public to build up their reputation.
And consider “cancel culture”, the practice of publicly shaming those we feel don’t deserve any more attention… cutting off those we deem unworthy for the wrongs they have done in society’s, or our eyes.
In all these ways, people today are pushed into constantly comparing ourselves to each other… to figure out who’s in and who’s out… who measures up, and who’s best left behind.
Of course, all this has been around a long time, in one form or the other. Our online technologies and practices have just amplified and nurtured what was always at work in the human heart. But this online world is the world young people are growing up in. They’re breathing in this online atmosphere that they did not create for themselves… it was handed to them… created for, and basically forced upon them. No wonder so many of them are struggling, when this is the world as they have known it: only show other’s your perfect side, and don’t dare step out of line.
Do they have anywhere that they can be truly known, accepted, and loved? Would they even know where to look for it?
I know that many of us probably don’t spend that much time online, or worrying about social media, or self-branding, or cancel-culture. But this online world is just an amplification of this broken world we all inhabit. The world we have all had a hand in creating and breaking. The world we are handing onto future generations even now.
It's easy for us to look down on those who have very different experiences of life than we do. To dismiss or disparage those who have temptations and struggles that we will likely never know, or have to overcome. Lots of folks look down on young people today without a second thought for what they’re dealing with every day… the fears, the pressures, the uncertainty, and isolation and temptations we’ve never had to face.
And there are all sorts of folks that we do the same things to: people with struggles, and failures, and fights far beyond our experiences… people with stories we’ll likely never know, that we just dismiss as unworthy.
After reading our Gospel this morning, maybe we’re tempted to look down on that Pharisee? Have we ever wanted to say “God, I’m so glad I’m not like those self-righteous jerks?”
We can look down on anyone. We can tear down anyone in our hearts. So who are we tempted to look down upon today? Who are the people or groups that we find it easy to disregard?
Maybe we’re tempted the most to look down on ourselves… to see ourselves only with contempt. If we do, we’re certainly not alone. So many today are just about consumed with self-loathing and shame, hidden in all sorts of ways. Despising the person they see in the mirror more than anybody else.
And sadly, this self-contempt is sometimes held out as the cure for pride… the antidote for self-righteousness, some claim, is to hate yourself instead. For some of us, this is a much stronger temptation than looking down on those around us. But far from being the way to life, this self-hatred brings only more burdens.
Yet the Good News we hear in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who speaks to us in this parable today, seeks to set us free from the chains of contempt and pride… and show us another way. A way open to anyone who will truly seek it. To catch a glimpse of this way, let’s take a closer look at today’s parable, where Jesus invites his hearers to imagine two people approaching the Temple of God: one a Pharisee, and the other, a tax collector.
In that culture, it would have been perfectly clear to everyone who would be the hero of this story. The Pharisees were the moral standard bearers of their day, the ones who were by far the most devoted to doing what was right. And this Pharisee it seems is on the right track… and he knows it. So, coming to God’s Holy Temple, he thanks the Lord that he is such a good person.
And yet, Jesus tells us that something is deeply off with this Pharisee’s standing in God’s eyes. Something is standing in the way between him and the Lord.
Turning now to the obvious villain: the tax collector, infamous not only for taking people’s money, but for giving it to their Roman overlords. Tax collectors were seen as collaborators with those oppressing God’s people, and were often able to profit personally by taking more than their fare share for themselves. Right from the start, we know he’s no good. He’s chosen the way of selfish greed over his own community. If there’s anyone unworthy of our concern, surely it’s him.
And he knows it.
In contrast to the Pharisee, Christ paints this picture:
(Luke 18:13) “the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”.
He knows he’s made wrong choices. He knows he’s gone down the wrong path in life, wronged his neighbours and disgraced himself in their eyes. He knows it all. But he does not sit alone with his self-hatred… as hard as it must have been, he draws as near to the Holy Temple of God as he could… deeply aware of his very real faults and failures, weighed down with guilt and shame… he humbly asks for help. He asks for mercy. He pleads with God for forgiveness… not based on his own goodness, but based on faith… trusting that the Lord of all must know what’s right, and yet still might have mercy on a sinner like him.
And Jesus tells us that his prayer for mercy is heard in heaven, and he is forgiven. That amazingly this tax collector’s standing with God is on better terms than the Pharisee who did all the right things, but who only though about his own reputation. The lowly sinner is set free by God’s mercy, which was freely given to him.
This is the point of the parable: not just the general downside of pride, or the virtue of humility, but that the Living God is truly merciful to those who seek His help, and that God will not play along with those who seek only to puff themselves up with pride. It is God Himself who declares that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14), which is both a warning and invitation for us all to not go along with the prideful patterns and habits of our world, but to turn to Him and place our trust in His mercy and faithfulness alone. Whether we’ve kept our noses clean… or completely messed up our stories, we are all invited to be set free of the chains of contempt and be bound by His saving love instead.
Bound by His love.
That’s the freedom we need: freedom from fear… freedom from having to present the perfect self-image… freedom that comes from knowing we’re truly known, even the worst parts of ourselves, and yet still forgiven… still wanted… still welcomed. Bound by love.
Guarded and guided by God’s merciful love.
This is what Jesus Christ was up to all along: making the merciful love of the Living God known and available to us all. This is why He healed the sick and raised the dead, and ate with outcasts and sinners: making it clear by His teachings and actions that no one was too far gone for God’s great mercy to reach them.
This mercy led Him to take up His cross and face the full weight of our broken world… and to bare it Himself. To be publicly rejected and utterly shamed for all to see; the righteous Son of God humbling himself to the point of death on a cross. We held him in complete contempt, yet God raised Jesus from the dead and crowned Him in glory… exalting Jesus the Risen Lord to His Father’s side to reign forever.
And He did this all for us! To share His glorious life with our broken world… to spread God’s healing, forgiving, and freeing power through the Spirit at work in the lives of His people… not because we’ve got everything right… not because we’ve picked ourselves up… but simply because we have believed in Christ’s great mercy given once and for all at the cross.
In Jesus we’ve come to believe in the saving power of God’s love. Pride and contempt only get in the way of sharing this love… with ourselves, with each other, and with all those around us who desperately need it today.
So how can we actively work towards saying yes to God’s love, and no to our pride? Or to our temptations to look down on some of our neighbours who God has called us to love?
One way would be for us to learn to listen. To simply let others tell their stories, share their experiences, and work through their struggles without dismissing their concerns, or looking down on them for their choices, even when we don’t agree.
In other words, we can learn with the Holy Spirit’s help to look at others, and even ourselves, through Jesus’ eyes… through the eyes of His love… eyes that can see clearly that all of us are broken by sin, that we all need to receive mercy and help to turn back to God with all of our hearts. Eyes that looked out at those who were eagerly calling for His unjust death, and yet saw in them God’s own beloved children… whom He was willing to die for.
So may the merciful love of God we’ve come to know in Jesus Christ bind us, and keep us from falling to pride and contempt. And may his merciful love guide all we do, at St. Luke’s and beyond.
I’ll end now with the words of a well-beloved hymn:
When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them through his blood.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
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Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School