They say that confession is good for the soul. And do ya know what? They’re right! Confessing ones transgressions, ones misdeeds, confessing the moments when we were weak or lost our temper or sharpened our tongue too quickly; confessing one’s sins releases us from our guilt and shame, it cleanses our spirits, and confession, I believe, is the beginning of restoration; restoration of our relationship with God and other people. Yes, I agree with those who say, “confession, indeed all prayer, is good for the soul.”
Dr. King once said, “…to be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”[i] Prayer has sustained us, shaped us, formed us, and led us to this point on our journey of life and faith. We’re connected with the Sacred from the very core of our being through prayer. “Prayer is an occasion for honesty about oneself and generosity toward others.”[ii] And this honesty flows from openness: an open heart, an open mind, a life opened to God and to transformation.
But, how and what we pray reveals a significant amount about our relationship to God and others. For some, prayer is about bringing our list of needs — a.k.a. wants — to God. But it’s pretty clear through parables like this one that we have before us today, and through our own experience, that prayer is not going to change God or God’s mind, but rather, it’s about changing us, our perspective. Prayer has the potential to bring us closer to God and to one another. It’s a means of restoring the image of God within us. And this is key to understanding our text for today.
The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like those other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of my income; in our contemporary vernacular he’s saying, “I’m da bomb.” But was his prayer answered? I would say, in a round-about way… yes. Why? Because when it comes right down to it, what did the Pharisee ask of God? Nothing. So, what was his purpose in going to the Temple and uttering his reflections to God? Who knows? Vanity? Social expectation? Duty? Whatever his purpose, it didn’t seem to include an openness to being transformed or seeking any kind of a right relationship with God or justice for his neighbor.
“But the tax collector,” the parable continues, “standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his chest and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Now, was the tax collector’s prayer answered? Again, I would say yes. Yes, because the tax collector prayed for mercy. While aware of his shortcomings, he understood, or at least hoped for a bit of understanding, of the vastness of God’s mercy and came humbly to the Temple to seek God’s grace.
And this is important to us in our context as well. It’s important because whether we distance ourselves from God or from one another because of an abundance of self, or whether we are distanced from God and God’s creation because of lack of self, our telos, our purpose, is to seek to restore a right relationship with God, by being in right relationship with neighbor and creation.[iii] And this process begins and continues all throughout our journey of life and faith through prayer, through confession, through lessening our dependence on self, …through humility.
And that’s the crux of this parable. Humility. True humility contributes to the dynamic of faith allowing the power of God to work through us.
I was reminded of this once again as I watched the celebration of life in the capitol for Rep. Elijah Cummings this past week. Rep. Cummings demonstrated true humility in this life and in his lifelong struggle for justice. The evidence of this, for me anyway, came in the form of remembrances given as his body lie in state. Republicans and Democrats alike, white and black men, white and black women, all, all, spoke of his dedication to community, and to this nation, and of his humility.
Mark Meadows, a Republican congressman and close friend of Rep. Cummings, said, “Elijah has left his tent to go to a mansion, to a better place. Perhaps this place and the country would be better served with a few more unexpected friendships.” Carly Fiorina, a former Republican presidential candidate, encapsulated the mood of the day when she said, “Elijah Cummings was a man known for his decency, humility, character.” And one thing she remembered most about him was his frequent use of the phrase, “What can we agree on?
You see, it doesn’t matter if you’re conservative or liberal or somewhere in-between, humility, true humility comes in seeking unity; in seeking those things we can agree on. Humility doesn’t signify weakness, but rather the strength to look first at our own shortcomings, ask for forgiveness, and then begin the process of restoration, of finding unity.
Richard Rohr writes, “It’s not addition that makes one holy but subtraction: stripping the illusions, letting go of pretense, exposing the false self, breaking open the heart and the understanding, not taking my private self too seriously.”[iv] And finally, it was Emerson who said, “A great man is always willing to be little.”[v]
And this is where we find ourselves today. You see, it’s not enough to stand on the sidelines and talk-up God. God calls us to be agents of divine grace by demonstrating humility instead of arrogance, by offering the love of God to all people instead of just a few, and by working for creation justice. And none of these virtues can be pursued if we stand and beat our own chest, proclaiming our own greatness. But, but if we lower our heads, if we assume a posture of humility, if we are willing to listen rather than yell, then unity, then the process of restoring right relationship will be possible. If we accept Christ’s invitation to humility, we can find those things that, “we can agree on.”
They say that confession is good for the soul. And that’s true! But just as the soul benefits from confession, so relationship, right relationship, benefits from humility.
In the name of the One who humbly went to the cross to challenge the unjust social structures of his day, we offer our prayers.
Amen & Amen.