Archive for October 25th, 2010

Exalting Ourselves–Luke 18: 9-14

Grace and peace, everyone. What follows is the sermon from the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“Exalting Ourselves”

Luke 18: 9-14

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

October 24th, 2010

I really should wear a sign around my neck when I travel saying, “Beware of what you say around me.  You might end up in my next sermon.”

Last week while I was waiting for my flight to Illinois, I just happened to be standing near a group of “elite” fliers – those people who have racked up so many frequent flyer miles that they get to walk red carpets, board the plane early, and enjoy services that the rest of us schmoes only dream of.   Among this group of elite travelers was a woman who caught my attention because she wanted my attention.  She was about my age, attractive, dressed professionally, perfect teeth.  She was the type of woman you look at and want to be.  And I think she knew this because, speaking loud enough for everyone around her to hear, she struck up a conversation with nobody, or anybody, by saying, “Well, I’ve got a half a million miles on one airline and a half a million on another, but I don’t have a million on one, so I can’t walk down their silly red carpet!”  She caught my eye and smiled as if I would understand her plight…I smiled back even though I, as someone with zero miles, really had no way of understanding.  Getting little encouragement from me, she then zeroed her conversation in on one of the other elite fliers standing near her.  I heard him say to her, “You don’t want to walk down their silly red carpet, you don’t want another half a million miles, because then you’d never get to see your family.”  To which she responded by laughing and then declaring with obvious pride, “I already don’t see my family.”

After overhearing this conversation, I boarded the plane, pulled out my bible to prepare for this sermon and read Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted, said Jesus Christ our Lord.

There is a new form of exaltation in our society today.  I’ve been noticing it more and more lately and the woman boarding my airplane to Illinois reminded me of it.  More and more I keep hearing people who exalt themselves by declaring that they are SO busy.  I am so busy, they say.  I have so many miles.  I never see my children.  I am always on the go.  And when they say these things, like the woman boarding the airplane, they say it in a sort of mock lament….like they lament the fact that they are so busy….but you can tell by their tone that they are actually pretty darn proud of it.  They are proud of being busy because our culture has taught us that being busy means being important…it means you are valued and needed and wanted….it means no one else can do what you do…and therefore you must do everything.  So being busy is a source of pride.  Flipping open our calendars and showing off all of our appointments is today’s form of exaltation.

Now to make sure you understand that this is a sermon that includes myself I must make a pulpit confession here.  And my confession is that on occasion I catch myself doing this.  On occasion I catch myself rolling my eyes, flipping open my calendar, and exclaiming for all to hear, “Oh!  I am so busy!”

Now in my defense, I need to say that there are a lot of misconceptions, a lot of assumptions about how a pastor spends her time during the week.  You’ve all heard the jokes about the pastor only working on Sundays.  I’ve heard them too…again, and again, and again, I’ve heard them.  So sometimes you just feel like you need to justify what you are doing…you feel like you need to justify your own existence.

For instance, I have this certain someone in my life, a certain someone who really doesn’t understand what I do for a living.  She is also a certain someone who has a knack for calling at exactly the wrong time and then saying exactly the wrong thing.  “Oh, you’re busy?” she’ll say after I have grown impatient with her poor timing.  And then she says these words that simply send me over the edge… “Well…what do you have to do?”

What do I have to do?!  What do I have to do?!  I’m so upset by her asking that I can’t even think of what I have to do!  And so I just say, in a prideful and exalted tone, “I am busy…I am just SO busy….I can’t talk right now…because I am SO busy.”  Her words and her tone make me feel like I have to justify myself, justify how I am spending my time, justify my very existence.

Thinking again about that woman who I met in the airport, I wondered what was missing in her life that made her feel the need to justify herself and her existence to a group of strangers who really couldn’t have cared less.  What is missing from our lives that makes us need to exalt ourselves?  Do we need more attention?  Maybe.  Do we need some affirmation and some recognition?  Probably.  Do we need to be understood and known and loved by the people around us?  Most definitely.  But we don’t always get our needs met by the people around us.  So we seek to meet our own needs by exalting ourselves.

But according to Jesus and according to his parable for us today, this approach simply doesn’t work.  We don’t get our needs met by exalting ourselves.  We don’t feel better about ourselves.  We don’t feel affirmed and encouraged.  We don’t feel understood or known and loved.  And we don’t justify ourselves and our existence.  Who knows what that Pharisee needed that day in the Temple.  Who knows why he felt the need to exalt himself in such a grandiose way.  The important lesson for us to learn is that he did not leave the Temple justified.  As hard as he tried, he simply could not justify himself.  And neither can we.

The tax collector took a different approach.  The tax collector was honest…with himself and with his God.  He had apparently done a lot of soul searching the night before and he knew exactly what he needed.  He also wisely knew that he couldn’t meet those needs by himself.  So he went to the Temple to pray.  He poured himself and his needs out to God.  He needed mercy.  He needed attention.  He, like all of us, needed to be understood and known and loved.  So he was honest and he was humble and in the end he was the one who left the Temple justified.

Justification is a big word in our Christian language that means “to be made right.”  When we have been justified, we have been made right with God.  Our relationship with God (which is often not right) is made right through justification.  Justification is not something we can do for ourselves.  It is something that God does for us.  Justification, then, is a gift to us, an unmerited gift, offered from God’s infinite grace and unconditional love.

The tax collector left the Temple justified.  He received the gift.  His relationship with God was restored and made right.  But the Pharisee tried to justify himself.  He was trying to do what only God can do.  He was playing God.  Therefore he went home at odds with God and with God’s desires for his life.

Just like this Pharisee and this tax collector we, too, come to God’s Temple today full of needs.   We are in need of mercy.  We are in need of attention.  We are in need of being understood and known and loved.  Our scripture lesson today reminds us that we cannot fulfill these needs on our own.  We cannot play God.  But the good news of the gospel is that we don’t have to.  All God asks is that we come and that we are honest.

So let us search our souls today and lay our needs at the feet of our Savior.

Are you in need of a little attention?  Do you need to be recognized for all that you do?  Do you feel like no one notices and no one cares?

Come and lay your needs at the feet of your Savior.

Are you in need of someone who knows you, who understands you, who ‘gets’ you, and genuinely loves you?

Come and lay your needs at the feet of your Savior.

Are you in need of someone who will tell you the truth, who will be honest with you when being honest is really hard, who will tell you that you are wrong in a way that doesn’t demean or devalue you?

Come and lay your needs at the feet of your Savior.

Are you in need of a new lease on life, of a new beginning, a fresh start?  Are you in need of a new life, of restoration, of renewal?  Are you in need of hope for the dark and dreary days that lay ahead?

Come and lay your needs at the feet of your Savior.

Come.  Come to the Temple.  Come and be honest before your God.  My friends, there’s no need for us to exalt ourselves.  There’s no need for us to feel like we have to justify ourselves and our own existence.  There’s no need for us to play God.  Because God is here, for you, for me, for all the humble souls willing to acknowledge their needs.  God is here to give us the gift that we cannot give ourselves.  God is here to make things right.

Now to this God, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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