Though I have been your pastor now for nearly 10 years. I think many of you know that Greg and I moved to Saugatuck, 18 years ago. We came here because we bought a bed and breakfast on the Hill in Saugatuck. And when we were first getting started, we became aware of another bed and breakfast in West Michigan, that was embroiled in a bit of controversy.
At the time, a couple had reserved a room in advance at the bed and breakfast. But when they showed up, the bed and breakfast owner told them they could not stay there. And she said to them, I see now that you are two men, and ours is a Christian B&B. And I cannot allow you to stay in a bed together.
Now the woman had every legal right to deny them service. There wasn't anything the men could do legally. But they posted about their experience online. And the B&B owner commented. She said, “I will be praying for you.”
And as I read that, I wondered what that meant. I wondered what her prayer was. Was she at her bedside going, ‘God? Please make these two guys not be gay? God, please don't let them love each other anymore? God, please change their hearts and minds?’
But is that the purpose of prayer? Is the purpose of prayer to change other people's hearts and minds? Or is the purpose of prayer to change our hearts and minds? Now I share that story with you because, as we heard in today's Gospel reading for the 23rd, Sunday after Pentecost, Jesus offers that line, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled. But all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Now, we're reading from Matthew's gospel, but this same exact line, word-for-word also appears in Luke's gospel. After Jesus tells one of his parables, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. So people go into the temple and the Pharisee prays out loud, you know? He wants to be seen. So he looks up, “God, thank you so much for not making me like these other people – sinners. I fast twice a week, and I give my salary as a tithe to the temple.”
Okay? Very showy.
But then we see a tax collector at prayer, just someone in the corner and he's not looking up. He's looking down. And his prayer is, “God, have mercy on me, transform my heart and mind.”
So one is a prayer of self righteousness. And the other is a prayer of humility.
Another modern example might be a woman who says, ‘I cannot go to my brother's wedding, I am a good Christian woman, and and he's marrying a man. I cannot support that.’ And she prays ‘God, please change my brother.’
Or let's say there's a good Christian couple whose child is transgender. And they say, “You cannot be in this household, we disown you. Get out.” And they pray, “God, please change my child.”
But the prayer of humility isn't about changing others. The prayer of humility is “God, change me. Transform my heart and mind about this matter, this situation, this person.” That's what prayer is.
Now, in Jesus's parable of the Pharisee you may wonder, “Who were the Pharisees? Well, the Pharisees were the holy people. They were the people who knew scripture backward and forward. They could quote Scripture chapter and verse. They were considered the upstanding citizens.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were considered lowlifes, the scum of the earth.
So, what Jesus did in that parable was so amazing! He actually made the Pharisee the bad guy in the story. And the tax collector, the hero. As Jesus did in a lot of his stories, he flipped the script.
You know, if you read the gospels, the teachings of Jesus, in 95 percent of them, he criticizes the righteous, the holy, the Pharisees, the people who were considered the upstanding citizens. Ninety-five percent of his criticisms are for them. Jesus called those self-righteous people the hypocrites.
And yet what's so amazing to me is so many Christians in America today wear their self-righteousness as a badge of honor. They equate self-righteousness with being right. They say ‘I have the answer! We found the answer! Not just for us, but for everybody.’
And that's not righteousness. That's arrogance.
Can you imagine how arrogant it is? To say to the world's half a billion Buddhists, to the world's one billion Hindus, and to the world's 1.6 billion Muslims, ‘You're all wrong. I have the answer. I'm following the right way. I'm saved. You're not!
Jesus tells a story in Luke 15, about 99 people who are so certain of their righteousness. And Jesus says they're all wrong. He says, “True wisdom comes not from certainty, but from humility.”
I shared with you last year a quote from the contemporary Christian writer Anne Lamott. She said something similar. She said,
“The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.”
When you are so certain you have the answer. That you're right, and they're wrong, that's the opposite of faith.
So then, what does it mean when we read in the Bible about righteousness? When it tells us to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to follow the path of righteousness? What does that mean? Well, as I mentioned at the top of the service, when we were honoring Leslie, the Buddhist monk, I learned so much about the path of righteousness from the Buddhists.
The Tao te Ching, which was written by Lao Tsu, centuries before Jesus ever lived, talked about the path of righteousness. They call it dharma. And what it means is, the path of right thinking. And what right thinking means is, we are to expand our thinking, to question our beliefs, to look at things from different perspectives.
In our scripture, in Romans 12, it tells us, “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, of your thinking.” And on that path of right thinking, the fruits of it will be peace. The prophet Isaiah says in Scripture, “The path of righteousness will lead to peace.”
So that's what I want to say to these Christians who deny service to somebody. I want to say to the woman who won't go to her brother's wedding or the parents who disowned their their child – is the path of your righteousness leading to peace? Is there peace in your community and in your family? The path of righteousness should lead to peace.
Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote A Wrinkle in Time, said, “We will lead others to Christ not by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are. We lead people to Christ by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their heart to know the source of it.”
That's what we as Christians are called to do. Not to go tell people of other faiths that they're wrong. Not to tell people who have a different lifestyle that they're wrong. Our purpose for being Christians is to shine a light into the world, a light of love, peace and joy, that's so lovely that everyone wants to know what the source of it is.
So that's what I invite you to focus on this week. That's your homework. Jesus said that you are the light of the world. So go forth this week and be that light. Be that instrument of peace, in your family, in your community, and in the world. For when we do as Jesus did, when we love people unconditionally, forgive people instantly, serve the least of these in our midst, we begin to love people more dearly. We begin to see them more clearly. And we begin to follow in the footsteps of Jesus more nearly.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration and Guidance
Mary Ann Brussat
A story is told about a man who asked his rabbi why people could no longer reach high enough to see God’s face. The rabbi replied, "Learn to bend, to bow, to kneel and you will be able to see God face-to-face." This story reminds us of another saying: “The door to the kingdom of God is exactly as high as you are when you walk on your knees.” If you are standing tall, full of pride, you can't get through. You see, the spiritual life is not about upward mobility, but about downward mobility. When Jesus’ disciples were arguing over who among them was the greatest, Jesus knelt before them and washed their feet. He was demonstrating to them what it means to be humble. With humility, we accept our place as equals among others. We recognize that we are no more important than anyone else. In our culture, the opposite behavior is often promoted. You can't get ahead, we're told, unless you climb the corporate ladder and make it to the top. And, there are still many of us who equate humility with low self-regard. But as a slogan from Alcoholics Anonymous puts it, "The challenge is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less often." Humility means not putting yourself either above or below others; it means not thinking about your position on a scale. Humility comes naturally to some people, but usually it needs to be learned. We become humble by being around humble people and by consciously acknowledging that we are not number one. Humility is an essential quality we all must have if we wish to grow spiritually.
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