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Faith Puts You In Your Place

Faith Puts You In Your Place (mp3)

Luke 18:9-14

The Great Dizzy Dean

When I was a kid, which was a long time ago, our little TV set picked up three channels — NBC, CBS, and ABC. On Saturday afternoon, in addition to the Army’s Big Picture, The Baseball Game of the Week came on. Now that doesn’t sound like such a big deal because you can see baseball just about any day of the week now. But that was long before cable, and long before Ted Turner started televising all the Braves games.

The commentators for The Game of the Week each Saturday were Pee Wee Reese, former shortstop for the Dodgers, both in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, and Dizzy Dean, Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher for The St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs. Pee Wee was the play-by-play guy, and Ol’ Diz was the “color” commentator. And was he colorful. Jerome Hanna Dean was from Mississippi, and slaughtered the King’s English. The St. Louis Board of Education tried to have Dizzy pulled off the air, and the commissioner of baseball once said that Dizzy Dean wasn’t fit to be a broadcsast announcer. To which Dizzy replied, “Let the teachers teach English and I will teach baseball. There is a lot of people in the United States who say ‘isn’t’ and they ain’t eating.”

To go with his horrendous butchery of the English language was an ego the size of, well, Mississippi. He once said, “Anybody who’s ever had the privilege of seeing me play knows that I am the greatest pitcher in the world.” But the quote I like most is what Dizzy said after someone accused him of bragging. “Podnuh, it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up,” Dizzy replied.

Confident of Their Own Righteousness

We’re amused at the confidence Dizzy Dean had in his baseball ability. But in Luke’s Gospel today, Jesus has a word for those who are confident of their own righteousness. And it’s not a good word, either. I can imagine that after Jesus told the story of the persistent widow, the purpose of which was to say that “they should always pray and not give up,” I am sure there were some smug Pharisees standing there who were giving Jesus the equivalent of a first century, “Amen, brother.” Followed, I am sure, by their pronouncements about how much and how often they prayed.

“Why,” one Pharisee might have said, “I’m down at the Temple three times a day praying. Not like those merchants who refuse to close their stalls and take time to pray.”

Another chimed in, “That’s right, and I’m right with him. We always pray. We don’t ever quit praying like some around here.”

I imagine at this point, Jesus just smiled and said, “Let me tell you a story.”

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Now, Jesus wasn’t being rude to our imaginary Pharisees who were bragging on their prayer life. No, he was just pointing out that being proud of our spiritual practices — like praying, going to church, giving — is not the right attitude. But, in Jesus’ day, there was absolutely nothing wrong with public displays of piety. It was expected. So, the leading Pharisees made a big show of praying publicly and loudly, or dropping their offerings in the Temple collection jars with great fanfare, and of generally informing everyone within earshot of their faithful devotion. After all, isn’t that what God wanted?

On the other hand, there were a whole group of folks who couldn’t brag about their righteousness, because they couldn’t measure up. The shepherds were one group. The shepherds were considered “not righteous” because they had to tend the flocks. They couldn’t rush to the Temple three times a day. Plus, they were dirty (after all they slept out with the sheep), and certainly not ceremonially clean. That’s why the shepherds are “out in the fields” when Jesus is born. That’s why it’s such a big deal that shepherds appear at the birth of the King of Kings.

Of course, shepherds weren’t the only unrighteous Jews. Tax collectors were also among this despised lot. Tax collectors were hated by everyone. They were dishonest, first of all, because the tax collector made his fortune by charging more than the real tax he was supposed to collect. This usually showed up as interest, or penalty, or some other fabricated charge, all to line the tax collector’s pocket. Plus, the tax collectors were the enforcement arm of both Herod and Rome. They were collaborators, to use the language of World War II. They were traitors to their own people, and in league with the hated Roman empire.

So, it’s significant when Jesus calls a tax collector to “come and follow me” as he does with Matthew. And, one of our favorite stories of Jesus is the story of Zacchaeus, a short tax collector, who wants to see Jesus so badly that he climbs up in a what? — sycamore tree — just to get a glimpse of Jesus, this amazing rabbi that he’s heard about. Little does he know that Jesus will spot him, call him down from the tree, and go home to dinner with him that day. And Zacchaeus will be changed. He’ll become a follower. He’ll become honest. He’ll refund money that he cheated folks out of. And, of course, the Pharisees will spread the word about Jesus, “He eats with tax collectors and sinners.”

The point that Jesus makes by doing all this is — “Don’t brag about your own, self-made righteousness. Be humble before God. Then, God will lift you up.”

Some Thoughts About Humility

Now, of course, even in our culture, humility is a good thing. I remember being told by my mother, not to brag about something I was proud of. “Don’t toot your own horn” was the instruction all mothers gave to their children. And, even today, children are still encouraged to be humble. I was looking at an education site for teachers of 3-to-7 year-olds the other day. The lessons were on respect and humility. And they even had some catchy little rhymes to help the kids understand the concept of humilty —

Others are good,
And so am I!
When we’ve listened to each other,
We’ll have some pie!

He is smart,
And so is she,
And all us smart ones
Can sit in a tree!

I can feel good,
Even when you brag,
Because I know,
You’re not a cad!

Okay, so maybe this isn’t great poety, but the point is to help the kids realize that humility is a good thing, even if others aren’t humble.

But, in case you think that humility is just a childish idea, Jim Collins, in his groundbreaking book, Good to Great, identified humility as one of the leading traits in what he calls Level 5 leaders. Level 5 leaders are those who took average companies — companies that were “good” — and turned them into “great” companies that sustained their greatness over an extended period of time. Not just a flash-in-the-pan success, in other words.

“James C. Collins loves to tell the story of Darwin E. Smith, someone most readers have probably never heard of. As Smith was ending two decades at the helm of Kimberly-Clark, maker of Kleenex and other personal-use paper products, he was asked what had driven him, what had he done to make his company so successful over time.

“I was just trying to become qualified for the job,” Collins quotes Smith as saying.

Smith’s statement is at the heart of Collins’ latest management study, which finds that leaders of great companies have genuine humility and self-doubt but also the singular drive to make their companies succeed.” Published: June 20, 2001 in Knowledge@Wharton

Collins went on to say —

“We looked at a factor we called the Window and the Mirror,” he said, noting that Level 5 executives tended to look in the mirror and blame themselves for mistakes. But when things were good, they would look out the window and either proclaim how everyone in the company was wonderful or how factors of fortune caused success. When he asked Circuit City’s Wurtzel about his company’s success, Wurtzel replied that 80 to 100% of it was that “the wind was at our backs.” Collins faxed him charts showing how much better his company did than others in the field. “I told him they all had the same wind,” said Collins. ” ‘Gee,’ was his response. ‘We must have been really lucky.’”

“Yet most people don’t appreciate how lucky they are to have Level 5s among them. “We live in a culture that doesn’t pick Level 5s as subjects of admiration,” said Collins. “We pay attention to the 4s.” And that’s unfortunate for the business world, as well as the world at large.  It’s important, Collins added, not to settle just for good leadership, but to strive in every field for greatness.”

— Published: June 20, 2001 in Knowledge@Wharton

So, even in the business world, humility is a trait of great leadership. And, humility is not just a personal characteristic. Humility is vital to groups of people, like countries and organizations and even churches.

Dan Kimball, pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, has written a book titled, They Like Jesus But Not The Church. The book is the result of Kimball’s years as a youth pastor, and now pastor, engaging people outside the church in conversation. Especially young people.  And, here are the objections that teens and young adults have toward evangelical churches now —

  1. The church is an organized religion with a political agenda.
  2. The church is judgmental and negative.
  3. The church is dominated by males and oppresses females.
  4. The church is homophobic.
  5. The church arrogantly claims all other religions are wrong.
  6. The church is full of fundamentalists who take the whole bible literally. (From They Like Jesus But Not The Church, Contents pg.)

Listen to Maya, a 27-year old hairstylist —

I actually would want to be told if I am doing something that God wouldn’t like me to do. I want to become a better person and be more like Jesus. But that isn’t how it feels coming form Christians and the church. It feels more like they are trying to shame you and control you into their way of thinking and personal opinions about what is right and wrong, rather than it being about becoming more like Jesus and a more loving human being. — They Like Jesus But Not The Church, pg 104

And Maya is not alone. Jenine, a mother and small business owner, said —

I did grow up in a church, but now I am a Buddhist. When I became a mother, I wanted my daughter to have a spiritual upbringing. However, I didn’t want her to become like the Christians in the church I knew. They were always so negative adn complaining about everything, and I wanted my daughter to be in a positive environment. I became a Buddhist since they are much more loving and peaceful people than those in the church. — They Like Jesus…, pg 96

Ouch. That hurts. Now, if you’re thinking — “Well, that’s a bunch of hippies in California. What do they know?” I’ve got more bad news for you. David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group, and Gabe Lyons have just come out with a new book titled, unChristian: What A New Generation Thinks About Christianity…Any Why It Matters. The Barna Group is kind of the Gallup Poll for evangelical Christians. Kinnaman and Lyons spent three years surveying and interviewing hundreds of young adults, 16-29 years old. Here’s what they found —

As the generations get younger, fewer are involved in church or embrace Christianity. They are “outsiders” as follows:

    • 61yrs+: 23% are outsiders.
    • 42-60: 27% are outsiders.
    • 16-29: 40% are outsiders to the faith.
  • 16-29 year olds feel the church is —
    • Hypocritical
    • Too focused on getting converts
    • Anti homosexual
    • Sheltered
    • Too political
    • Judgmental

Sounds like Dan Kimball’s book doesn’t it? The biggest complaint, according to Kinnaman and Lyons, among 16-29 year old is that the church is ARROGANT. Imagine that…the church founded by the humble carpenter from Nazareth has turned into an arrogant caricature of itself.

A Modern Day Parable

If we reframe the time for Jesus parable, bringing into the 21st century, we might hear the following:

“Two people went up to church one Sunday, one a born-again, evangelical Christian leader who pastored a large megachurch; the other, a young businessman who was forced to compromise his convictions just to keep his job.”

“The pastor stood up and prayed about himself: Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people — people who aren’t as blessed as I am. I’ve read the Bible through 10 times, I go to church 4 times a week, I give a lot to the church, and people admire me. Young preachers want to grow up to be just like me. I’m successful, well-known, in-demand as a speaker. Oh, and thanks for letting me get my new book published this spring.”

“The young businessman sat alone in the back of the sanctuary, and would not even look up. Head in his hands, he prayed silently, “Lord, help me. My life’s a mess. I compromise my principles. I need this job, but I’m so miserable. Help me. Have mercy on me.”

Jesus might say — “I tell you that the businessman, rather than the preacher, went home right with God that day. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Mind Of Christ and the Mercy of God

Paul said,

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.   — Philippians 2:5-11

If we want to be like Jesus, if we want to have the mind of Christ, it all starts with humility. And seeing our humility, God says, “I love you. I love you just as you, where you are. I love you so much that I gave my Son, everything that I loved, so that you might sit where He sits — in my presence.”

Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Faith, interviewed Charles Templeton. Templeton was one of Billy Graham’s contemporaries in the early days of Graham’s ministry. He was a powerful preacher and evangelist like Graham, but ended up doubting his faith, and leaving the ministry. In addition to that, Templeton wrote a book titled, Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.

When Strobel interviewed Templeton, he asked him his opinion of Jesus. Templeton responded, “In my view he is the most important human being who ever existed….He had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history. There have been many other wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus.” 

 Then, he paused and said, “And if I may put it this way, I…miss…him.” With that tears flooded his eyes and he shielded his face, Strobel said, as his shoulder shook with sobs. (They Like Jesus…pg 57)

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Sermon for Sunday, Oct 28

I’ve just posted my sermon for Sunday, October 28, 2007.  The title is Faith Puts You in Your Place and the lectionary text is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector from Luke 18:9-14.  Have a great day Sunday!