Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
There were two men. One was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. They were mostly the same, separated only by minor tweaks around the context of their birth. What they had in common was an iron will, and this iron will was what made them both successful. They were proud of their success, as they should be. Today’s sermon is about pride.
The Pharisee knew the law, and more than that, he conquered it. His conquest was known by the mastery of his body and the command of his possessions. He fasted twice a week. It was by his iron-will he told his body not to eat when it wanted to. And he gave ten percent of his income away. It was by his iron will he commanded his possessions to serve him, and not the other way around. That is hard to do- not to be a slave to your stomach or your stuff. But the Pharisee was able to do it, because he had an iron-will.
The Tax Collector also had an iron-will. To be a tax collector in the Roman Empire required sharp political savvy, an incredible mind for math, and the determination to break heads if need be. The Tax Collector was very successful, because he had an iron-will.
Jesus sees them both at the Temple where he is teaching. He points the Pharisee, up near where the priests are making the sacrifices. And he says: “Do you see that Pharisee?” And everyone nods. “He is knocking those prayer out of the park, I bet.” And everyone nods. “God must love him?” And everyone nods. “More than other people?” And everyone nods. God must love him more than other people because God loves the law, and God gave him an iron-will capable of keeping the law.
Like I said, today’s sermon is about pride. And here is where I stumble into a problem, I’m preaching to a room with more than a few of people who have iron wills. Which is why you have so often achieved what you set your mind to. And that is worth being proud of. It is the reason I am proud of you. An iron will is a thing to seek, honor and revere.
The Tax Collector had an iron will. Jesus turns to him, as he says to the crowd: “How about the Tax Collector over there? Do you see him, way over at the edge of the Temple square?” People sort of look that way. Jesus continues: “the well-dressed guy, with the two big dudes standing behind him so no one sheaths him in the back. There, on his knees, pounding his chest, and imploring God to hear his prayer. Do you see him?” And they do now. “Does God love him?” And everyone says, “No!” And Jesus says: “That is the guy you want to be like.” And that is what I’d like to say to all of you iron willed people: that is the guy we want to be like.
Here is why: for some reason that guy was able to reach through the iron-clad walls of his will, by magic or grace, to a place beyond himself, a place that is wide open beyond the closed confines in which his will resides.
Something happened to this man; something that provoked him to seek power beyond his own capacity. He reached the end of his wills strength and then it broke. It always does. That always happens. The iron will that got us to where we are, at some point breaks. And when that happens, may our response be the same as the Tax Collectors.
There is tension for me preaching this sermon: between my desire for your good and ease and success, and yet knowing also that a broken and contrite will is so very good for the soul.
Which brings me to the intention of this sermon: to plant in your mind the peril of pride, so that when the day of struggle comes, when you are on your knees, and beating your chest, and crying to God … you may see this as a opportunity (maybe) to reach through the iron clad walls of your will into the unfathomable love of Christ.
C.S. Lewis helps us remember how pride cripples the soul in his book Mere Christianity. He writes: According to Christian teachers the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere flea bites in comparison: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind…it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.1
If this sounds like exaggeration, it helps to know that Lewis is not simply giving us his private opinion but summarizing the thinking of the greatest saints and sages to ever live: people like Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther.(www.cslewisinstitute.org)
But pride takes first place among the deadly sins, because it is the sin that says: “I can do it myself. I am capable and competent, and my will, my iron-will, is sufficient.”
Pride takes first place among the sins, because it was the first sin. At the beginning of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, chapter three, it was pride the serpent played upon in the heart of Eve in the garden Eden. It was pride that lead Adam and Eve to the east, where their life was plagued by hard earth and hard childbirth.
And so they numbed themselves with other sins like unchastity, anger, greed and drunkenness. These are the sins that separate us from one another. But pride is the sin that separates us from God. It is the sin that says: “I can do it myself.” “I am capable and competent, and my will, my iron-will, is sufficient.”
Which brings me back to the tension in this sermon…between my desire for your good, and ease, and success, and yet also knowing that a broke and contrite will softens the heart, which, as the prophet Jeremiah says today, is what God hopes for us… a soft heart.
So let’s return to the Tax Collector on his knees. What we find here is a Jesus inversion, where he flips conventional wisdom by not only including the Tax Collector, but claiming his state as the preferred status in the Kingdom of God. And then Jesus goes one step further by claiming this status requires no quid pro quo with God.
This gives us an profound insight into how the Kingdom of God works. We don’t hear Jesus demand that the Tax Collector change his ways. In fact that Tax Collector may leave the Temple and do something nasty that very day.
But here is the insight, life in the kingdom of God is not a one-time event, it is a process. It is not a closed system that we figure out and master, like the Pharisee seeks to do; it is an open system that we step back into again and again and again.
And each time we do it is a new beginning. Each time we become a little softer, a little more open, a little bit more willing to reach through the iron clad walls of our will, to the unfathomable depths of Christ; for it is here that our eternal soul soars beyond the confines of our own capacity and self-sufficiency.
What might that soaring look like? Let me leave you with a story. It is Peter Snow’s story of when he was at Taize, France, and had a chance to spend 15 minute with Brother Roger, the founder of the Taize movement.
Peter told me that Brother Roger was the most humble person he had ever met. I asked, ”how did he knew that in 15 minutes?” To which Peter responded… “by the way he listened.” He listened as if in all the cosmos it is was just me and him and God.
And this made me wonder: Is it listening like that, which liberates us from our iron-wills? Is it listening, like in all the cosmos, there is only you and me and God?