The Humble Heart of Gratitude

3rd week of Gratitude Season
Luke 18:9-14; 18-30    
27 October 2013
Elizabeth M. Deibert    

We are in gratitude season and our first week we heard the story of the ten lepers and how only one went back to thank Jesus.  Last week we read Deuteronomy
and Mark – two stories where the people are warned not to forget what God has done, what Christ can do.   Today we read passages from Luke that teach us that the value of a humble heart.

These two stories are not usually read together – the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and the Story of the Rich Ruler.   Usually we take them on their own because there is certainly enough in each story to keep us thinking.  But it dawned on me as I was reading the whole of chapter 18 several weeks ago that they are similar.   In both the problem Jesus is addressing is arrogance or self-sufficiency.   

But first, let’s pray:  Give me a humble heart, a heart of gratitude.   Lord, fix my heart and my mind and my attitude.   For we’re not worthy of all these blessings.  Spirit of God, please lead and we’ll follow you.    

Luke 18:9-14, 18-30
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But 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!’
14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’” 21 He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 He replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”
28 Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” 29 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.
Jesus told this parable to those who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt.    Now as soon as we hear Pharisee, we think “bad guy” but for the Jews hearing this story, they are thinking prominent, respected leader, above reproach.    When we hear tax collector, we think “hard-working government number cruncher, but they think “Traitor, thief, who steals money from the poor to pay Rome and to pay himself unfair wages.”   You have to know how Jesus’ audience heard the story in order to appreciate the way Jesus turns it around.

So the Pharisee is thankful to God for his blessings but in being thankful he also expresses this attitude of superiority, while the Tax Collector says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”   By the way, the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Is a wonderful spiritual discipline.  This simple, set prayer which we used as our prayer of confession today has been recited for most of the history of the church, particularly by Eastern Orthodox Christians.  Clearly its origins are in this prayer of the tax collector.    
What we learn from the tax collector is the value of a humble heart, eager to be transformed by God.   All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.   That’s the moral of this parable, which we remember was told to those who trusted in themselves, believed themselves to be righteous, and regarded others with contempt.   Be humble or get humbled – that’s our choice.   I mean the Pharisee gets what’s coming to him for being so arrogant in his prayers.   Can you believe he said what he said?   I’m sure glad I’m not like the Pharisee.   Oops, see how easy it is for our prayers to become words of contempt for others.   
Now let’s jump to the story of the rich man.  (image on screen)  He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.   Now remember that eternal life from a Biblical point of view is not just what happens when you die.   It is fullness of life, everlasting life.   It is now, as well as later.   So Jesus says, “You know the commandments” and how does the rich guy respond?   With a note of  superiority.  Yes, I know the commandments and not only do I know them, but I have kept them since I was a kid.   Jesus doesn’t like arrogance.   “Oh you have, have you?   You’ve kept all the commandments for all of your life?   Well, I’ll tell you one more thing you should do because it seems to me you are arrogant and that you have a lot of stuff that you have not chosen to share with others, and so why don’t you give up all of those possessions that make you think you have your life so together.   Give those up and give more money to the poor, because you know, loving you neighbor means caring that your neighbor is suffering and doesn’t have enough to eat while you are driving that fancy camel across the desert with all the latest and greatest stuff.   
While you’re living in that fine house, someone else whom I love just as much as you has no roof, no shelter, no protection, nothing.”
(image of camel on screen) Jesus says it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom that a camel to go through the eye of the needle – something which seems impossible if it is a real needle, and very difficult if it is a narrow, short gate called the Eye of the Needle.  Perhaps the reason Jesus says you need to share your riches and become more poor is because wealth makes us arrogant and makes us look with contempt on those who have less than us.  
Sometimes it is impossible for mortals to get rid of their wealth, but it is possible for God to make that happen.  Be humble or get humbled.  Remember the guy who kept building bigger barns?   Nobody goes to heaven with their moving truck.  Though, please dear God, we hope to take our moving truck over to the Hwy 64 property.   We will never look down on a church that lives in a temporary home.  Be merciful to us who have carted stuff to a warehouse this week.  We have not done everything we should have.   We have not followed every commandment nor have we tithed like we should have, but we will continue to grow in our generosity.
We are eager to serve you, and we will count ten thousand reasons to bless your name and not be finished there.  Yes, we know that none of us are taking our bank accounts, our fine houses and cars when we go home to You.   We are trying to grow in faith and practice, trusting you, giving over control of our lives to you.   We are aiming to simplify more, give more to the poor.   In just a couple of weeks, Lord, we will all make commitments of our treasures to you.   We will trust you enough to make pledges to the church for 2014.
We know we are like the Pharisee  and the Rich Young Man.  We think too much of ourselves.  Actually, it’s more like C.S. Lewis said. “It’s not that we think too much of ourselves, but that think of ourselves too much.”  We compare ourselves to others and think that we’re not too bad.  We pretend to have it together, or think we have it together when we don’t.   We all need you, God, but we don’t admit how much we need you.  We like to feel like we have control, rather than trusting you completely.
“Humility is a strange thing.  Once you think you’ve got it, then you’ve lost it.”  (E.D. Hulse)  Repentance is not about feeling bad about ourselves, about feeling guilty.  It is about feeling needy.   We might be braggadious like the Pharisee about giving away 10% or about fasting twice a week, but we do sometimes give thanks that we have so much, rather than praying for the courage to give it away.
We do compare ourselves to others and find ourselves in a good, comfortable position.   We want to put a check mark in the “been good enough” box.   But these stories teach us otherwise.  No, we are never good enough.  Unless we are talking to God out of a sense of neediness, in a humble position with God, we have not arrived where we need to be.   Unless we rushing back to Jesus regularly to say “thanks” we are not where we need to be.   Unless we have become like a child, who gladly sits at Jesus feet, we are not where we need to be.  Unless we have given away enough stuff to make us a little needy, we are not where we need to be.   Unless we are praying, God, please be merciful to me, a sinner, we are not where we need to be.   
I missed Bob Seiter’s birthday party in the hospital on Friday afternoon.   I had told Sue that morning I’d be there.   I wanted to be there.   I got distracted by many things and missed it.   It’s not the first time I have failed  to be a good pastor, nor will it be the last.   But I sure felt like the tax collector, instead of the Pharisee Friday afternoon.  With things progressing well on the property purchase and feeling proud that we are reaching this milestone, I can become Pharisaical, thinking that this had something to do with me.  But really, I know this wonderful moment in the life of Peace Church is purely gift from God.  So I need and we all need more of those “God, please be merciful to me, a sinner” moments – not to feel bad about ourselves, but to build a heart of gratitude, a life of humble generosity, a life that is quick to recognize our own faults and willing to give up whatever is keeping us from putting God first.