Sermon, October 23, 2016

The Power of the Humble Truth    
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
October 23, 2016   Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 84; I Corinthians 1:17-31; Luke 18:9-14

Psalm 84 says,

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars.

Those words are so beautiful and comforting when we think of them meaning the church. We love it when a church feels that good to us. It gives us joy to help create a beloved community that can be a home and warm nest to us all.

The words have an even deeper and more powerful meaning than that, though. Our hearts are the dwelling place of God, too. We each have in us a place where we can go where we find our home and nest, where we sing for joy. That place is the core of our deepest, truest self.

That heart’s core place is where we find the Holy Spirit rising like a spring of living water. It is where Paul would say we find God’s foolishness that is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness that is stronger than human strength. We find intuition there, and we find love—unconditional, universal, all forgiving love. In other words, we find Christ living within God’s dwelling place in our heart.

Jesus told today’s parable as a map for us to follow to find God’s dwelling place. It begins with two men going up to the temple to pray. The temple was a logical location to start looking for God’s dwelling—it was the holiest of holy places.

One of the men was a Pharisee, which meant someone who was serious about his religion, careful to follow the law and do what God commanded. Pharisees were respected members of the synagogue and church. You would expect that if anyone could be a dwelling place of God, this man would be.

The other man was a tax collector, and you would expect him to represent Satan’s dwelling place, because tax collectors were known to be heartless, selfish profit seekers, oppressors of the poor and traitors to their people. They violated God’s commandments of mercy and justice for those who are vulnerable and in need. Tax collectors were outcasts in the synagogue and society.

We would expect Jesus to advise us to be like the Pharisee in the temple, the man who was most at home and respected in the dwelling place of God and who worked diligently to make himself holy. Jesus does the opposite. He praises the man in the temple whose presence there was blasphemous and a sacrilege.

What makes the difference between them is the relationship they each have to their inner truth. The Pharisee is turned away from his heart’s core. He shows none of the unconditional, universal, all-forgiving love found there, he shows none of God’s foolishness and weakness, he is all about appearing wise and strong, he is all about gaining esteem for his outer qualities and maintaining of traditions. He thinks he is self-sufficient, that he doesn’t need God’s grace because he has earned righteousness by his own works, yet if he looked honestly and humbly at himself he would see selfishness, hatred and pride —qualities every bit as bad as the thieves and rogues he boasts he is not like.

The tax collector is turned inward. He has gone up to the temple but looked down into his heart, and there he sees how separated from God and his neighbors he has been. He sees that his only hope of changing and saving his life is to turn back in metanoia to the merciful grace of God.

The wisdom saying that concludes the parable is, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This is the map to the loveliness of God’s dwelling place within us, the map to the joy of home and a warm, safe nest. The way of Christ is to go down, down into the humbling truth of our foolishness and weakness and faults, down into the truth that the only true way up is by the grace of God, not by our own worthy actions. Exaltation happens when we stop seeking it and seek instead to see, understand and love God’s presence within us and within everyone around us. That is the life-transforming power of the humble truth.

We saw a miraculous example of this last Sunday afternoon in the vestry. The Diaconate hosted a presentation and discussion of one of the most divisive issues in society and churches today, sexual orientation and gender identity. The twenty or so people in the circle deserve our admiration for their courage. They also deserve our gratitude for learning about this topic so that they can cast a more informed vote on November 20th. That is the day we will decide whether to study what it means to be officially Open to and Affirming of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

They did a great thing just by showing up, but given the quality of political discourse in our nation these days, the conversation could have been like the posturing of the Pharisee who said, ‘Thank God I am not like those people.’ The circle could have been a battleground of opposing viewpoints, neither side listening or understanding, and both sides judging and condemning.

Instead the circle was a moving testimony to how much this congregation has learned about healthy communication and beloved community. People not only listened respectfully but also opened themselves to be changed by what they heard. It was much more like the tax collector than the Pharisee. People looked within and saw the truth of their own struggles with these issues and talked honestly about them.

One of our presenters was Joyce McKeeman from the Thetford Hill Church. She sent an email afterwards to thank the Deacons for including her. She wrote, “I just want to say how moved I was to be in the circle with the Bradford church yesterday.  I was in a circle of grace as everyone there seemed to be willing to hold their hearts open to contemplate another way of viewing what some might think is a problem.”

Joyce wanted to say how moved she was, I want to say how proud I am of this church for engaging with this issue and for approaching it with the unconditional, universal, all-forgiving love you showed last Sunday. I know it sounds contradictory to say that I am proud during a sermon about humility, but as Jesus said, “All who humble themselves will be exalted.” We can be proud of how truly humble that circle was.

I cannot tell you how to vote on November 20th but I can tell you that the way to find the right path is to keep going down into your own heart and the dwelling place of God within you.

As the Psalm says, “Happy are those…in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” The highway to God’s dwelling place is here. You can get on that road right now, you can go down into the humble truth within you, just as you are, and it will fill you with God’s wisdom and God’s strength to love and serve, and you will make the valley of desolation around you into a place of springs.

Let us look within our hearts in silence, trusting that we will find God there, and find the right path ahead as individuals and as a church…