A Season of ThanksGIVING: Giving Ourselves
Lectionary Texts: Luke 18: 9-14, 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, October 23, 2016
- Not Putting Ourselves First
So, I found this story about a fourth grade class in which the teacher introduced a game called “balloon stomp.” A balloon was tied to every child’s leg, and the object of the game was to pop everyone else’s balloon while protecting one’s own. The last person with an intact balloon would win.
The fourth graders in the story entered into the spirit of the game with vigor. Balloons were relentlessly targeted and destroyed. The entire battle was over in a matter of seconds, leaving only one balloon inflated. Its owner was, of course, the most disliked kid in the class. It’s hard to really win at a game like balloon stomp. In order to complete your mission, you have to be pushy, rude and offensive.
The writer goes on to tell that a second class was introduced to the same game. Only this time it was a class of mentally handicapped children. They were given the same explanation as the first class, and the signal to begin was given. But the game proceeded very differently. Somehow they processed the instructions differently. The one idea that got through was that the balloons were supposed to be popped. So it was the balloons, not the other players, that were viewed as enemies. Instead of fighting each other, they began helping each other pop balloons. One little girl knelt down and held her balloon carefully in place, like a holder for a field goal kicker. A little boy stomped it flat. Then he knelt down and held his balloon for her. It went on like this for several minutes until all the balloons were vanquished, and everybody cheered. Everybody won.
So who got the game right? In our world, we so easily tend to think of another’s person’s success as one less opportunity for us to succeed. And the notion of humility seems to sort of drift away. For me, I think this story implies that humility, thinking of others first, thinking of ourselves last, is the natural way to be. Perhaps that means that we somehow learn greed and self-sufficiency as we grow in this culture. C. S. Lewis once said that “humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” But that’s a struggle for us as individuals. And sometimes it’s a struggle for us in the church. The truth is, we are always called to serve God in the name of Jesus Christ and the best way to do that is to elevate others, to maybe help them along, and to humble ourselves.
- The Parable of the Persistent Widow
So, hopefully with some degree of humility, we read the parable that we read this week. It begins by giving us a sense of what it’s about. We are told that it is being told to some who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt. In The Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrases it as “some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people.” Ouch. Keep in mind. This is the eighteenth chapter of Luke. Are you getting this sense that as we spin toward the end of Pentecost the messages are becoming more pronounced, more directed toward us? The Scriptures that we’ve read the last couple of months have been more and more difficult for us to digest because they are lessons that we need to hear. For the writer of Luke, the story is becoming more and more centered on God and what that means for salvation. And that means we have to change, which is always a little uncomfortable. Ernesto Tinajero said that “if you read the Bible and it does not challenge you, then you are reading yourself and not the Bible.” It’s a wake up call for all of us.
So then Jesus goes on with the story. He tells of two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector, who “went up” to the Temple to pray. By itself, that doesn’t sound that unusual. But keep in mind that tax collecting, a job that would have required reporting to the Roman government and participating in their practice of over-taxing the Jewish residents and then pocketing some for himself, was absolutely forbidden to Jews. So, we would expect the Pharisee to enter the temple but not the tax collector. The Pharisee would have taken Jewish tradition seriously. He would have followed all the rules laid down in the Torah. The Pharisee would have lived a life of purity before God. And then he finds himself standing with this undesireable.
And at that point, the Pharisee’s prayer turns back on himself. He speaks in the first person, perhaps in an effort to prove his piety to God and maybe even to himself. He asks nothing of God. He presumes that he is already pious and faithful and that God sees him that way. He gives no evidence of humility before God. In fact, he presents himself as above others, as better than others, and apparently wants to remind God of his standing. Now don’t take this as a statement about all Pharisee’s. We tend to use the word “pharisaical” to describe someone who is self-righteous. But this was not the way Pharisee’s normally were. This is out of character for one who professes to be a Pharisee.
The tax collector, on the other hand, standing far off, feels his unworthiness before God and simply asks for mercy. “Have mercy on me, O God, a sinner.” Nothing more is said. There is no outpouring of his sins or his remorse. He simply puts himself in God’s hand. His humility was a sign of faith. In his prayer for mercy, he reveals the depth of God’s forgiving love that is not limited by what is perceived as righteousness in this world.
The interesting thing is that the parable serves up two behaviors that are both out of character—a self-righteous Pharisee and a scoundrel who asks for mercy before God. And then it leaves it up to us to figure it out. So, which one was the righteous one? Who is seen as faithful in the eyes of God?
III. The Call of the Humble Heart
The parable turns all of our carefully-crafted rules for life on their ear. No longer can we rely simply on getting what we deserve. We find that righteousness is not about following the rules. To be righteous is to be one “whose aim is true.” That implies that it does not depend on who we are but rather on how we continually respond to God.
But then we find ourselves sort of getting caught by the story. It would be so easy to elevate the status of the tax collector, put him out there as an example of how God can work in our lives, show him to everyone as an example of one who has cleaned up his life and found God. It would be so easy to find ourselves thinking, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!”, which, of course, would make us no better and somehow suck us into the story.
The truth is, we only get a part of the story. The Pharisee is the faithful church member. He knows this stuff. He obeys the rules. He’s been here for years. Here’s an earth-shattering thought: the Pharisee is one of those on whom the church relies. He is always there every Sunday, sitting in his usual pew. He will be the first to offer prayer or volunteer to help with the myriad of repairs that are on the Trustees’ “to do” list. The Pharisee gives his share. In fact, the Pharisee tithes, giving the perfunctory 10% of his hard-earned income. We owe that Pharisee something. Right? Does that sound familiar?
And the tax collector? Well, the tax collector had to go back to his shady job. He had no other choice. He had gotten himself so trapped in life that he couldn’t find a way out. Tomorrow he would collect taxes, turn the bulk of it over to a foreign empire that persecuted people and kept them down at the bottom of the economic ladder, and pocket what he could to support his family. And the whole time, he would be begging God for mercy.
To see one as good and one as bad is to read something into the story that is not there. The story says that “two men went up to the temple to pray.” They both had their shortcomings. It’s another story of God’s reversal, of God raising up the lowly and stripping away the very foundations of those who might feel like they’ve arrived.
It is a story of humility, of realizing that we all need God’s mercy, we all need God’s forgiveness, we all need God’s way of redirecting our lives and the way we respond to God. Being righteous is not about following rules; it is about walking a Way that we’ve been shown and leaving room to see God’s grandeur in our lives. It is a Way that reminds us over and over again that we do not walk alone. We are accompanied by a God who loves us on the days when we are sinners and the days that we get it right and the days (which is probably most of them) when we don’t know which we are.
- Humble Giving
Well, you know this is another stewardship sermon because we’re still in that mode. I’m willing to bet you are expecting me to pick up on that tithing thing that’s mentioned in the Gospel passage. Well, you’ll be surprised. This is not a sermon on tithing. The truth is, I don’t care if you tithe or not. I don’t think God does either. See, tithing is a rule, a rule created by humans. It’s a guideline to sort of help us think through our own faithful response. The truth is, in the Old Testament, it was a standard. I will tell you, it’s meant to be a minimum standard, so you can take that however you want.
The truth is that generosity and humility are inextricably linked. Desmond Tutu said that both come from seeing that everything we have and everything that we accomplish comes from God’s grace and God’s love for us. There is a South African notion called Ubuntu, which is the act of realizing that we could not be alive and we could not accomplish anything without God and God’s love shown through others.
So, righteousness becomes a way of humbly redirecting your life, of, in the words of C.S. Lewis, perhaps thinking of yourself less and less as you journey nearer to the heart of God. So, keeping with our October theme, why do you give? What makes you fill out this pledge card or drop money in the plate? Is it a sense of responsibility, sort of following the rules? Is it because of an overwhelming sense of gratitude for what God has done in your life? Or is it that you see what God can do and you want to be a part of it?
Those are all valid things. So, I want you to think about exactly what it is you give. I would say that there are three types of giving. The first one is to give humbly. That means that you give with no strings. That means that you give toward the mission of the church and you trust that through prayer and faith God will use the leaders of the church and the staff of the church to use those gifts in the way that God calls us to use them. Some of it is not glamorous. Some of it is paying the electric bill. Some of it is paying copier rental or the color copies (at 9 cents a page). Some of it is paying salaries and all the IRS filings that go along with that. And the rest of it is trying to fulfill a budget that is in line with what God is calling us to do. I’m going to be honest here. Our budget is a little out of whack. Somewhere along the way, our children’s, youth, and mission budgets were sort of relegated to designated gifts. We need to change that. We need to reel some of that back in so that our budget reflects who God is calling us to be. It will take some time and some redirecting of our resources to do that.
The second type of giving is contributing toward specific projects or ministries. You know, God gives us wonderful passions for certain things. So, designated giving is what goes toward those passions. It is a little bit of “giving with strings”. And when you have something that you can give over and above your normal giving, those God-given passions are a good thing. Listen to them. But they are not your pledge to your church.
The last type is what most non-profits call planned giving. I think I like the term “legacy giving” better. Have you ever thought of leaving something in your will for the church? Most of you know that I use to work with a church endowment and I pray that is something that we will talk more about. It’s a wonderful way of leaving a legacy. Most of you know that Jeanie Merka did that. This church was given a wonderful gift that is allowing us to position ourselves to do God’s work. We have given a much-needed facelift to the youth area, we bought a new van that has already been used a lot, we just added a carport-type cover for both vans (did you see it?), and, thanks to Linda Sayers, you will soon see new lighting in the sanctuary. But I will tell you, none of it is going to the operating budget. I think people may have thought we had money and they didn’t need to give, but that is not the case. Legacy giving propels us forward; operating giving sustains us. I will tell you that I just redid my will and left 10% of what could be divided to FUMC, Wharton. I would love to talk to you about doing the same.
John Ortberg tells the story of the first time he beat his grandmother in Monopoly. She had taught him to play and had taught him along the way how to get better and better at it. He ways that it happened at Marvin Gardens, when he first wiped her off the board. And as he relished in his victory, she taught him a far more important lesson. When the game is over, it all goes back in the box. It’s something to remember.
But the point is that this pledge card is the first type of giving. It has no strings. It is what sustains us as we do the work that God is calling us to do. I have to tell you that we’ve had some people that have redirected their pledge toward their passions. And that has hurt us. This is what you give to the operating budget. And we will work together to get that budget where it needs to be, where it truly reflects who we are—where it gives us a chance to support our children’s and youth ministry, our missions, and even our worship and music ministries. But we have to work together.
So, think about what you will put on this card. This is your humble response to all that God has done. This is your way of being a part of what God continues to do. I will tell you. I will tithe. You can figure out how much that is because you all know what I make. But I feel strongly that I cannot ask you to do what I am not willing to do. So, I pray that this might be a time of redirection for us. It will take some time. But look around—we are the church. We are the righteous Pharisees who sometimes get too comfortable and we are the scoundrels who are welcomed into the mercy of God when we’ve done little to deserve it. And all of us are called to respond as we are called. That’s the story we need to understand.
Deliver me, O Jesus,
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being extolled,
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire of being approved,
From the desire of being popular,
From the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being suspected.
from A Simple Path, by Mother Teresa, p. 37.