Luke 18:9-14; Matthew 6:1-8
The Reverend Tom Herbek
January 24, 2016
Richard Rohr, in his book, Falling Upwards, says: “The shape of evil is much more superficiality and blindness than the usually listed “hot sins.” God hides, and is found, precisely in the depths of everything, even and maybe especially in the deep fathoming or our failings and failures. Sin is to stay on the surface of even holy things.”
Jesus makes it quite clear that, when we stay on the surface, we miss what is only found in the depths. If we want to be content in life, the last thing that will give it to us is to compare ourselves to other people. As Joan Chittister says: “If you want to be happy and calm, quiet and contented with life as you know it, stop comparing yourself to everyone else. Only by comparing ourselves to others do we have the data for disappointment. To refuse to give in to comparisons, we find ourselves enough for us.” (In God’s Holy Light)
Jesus said it very clearly: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” It doesn’t mean, as it is often said to mean, that if we judge others, God will judge us. I think the meaning is much different than that. If we stop judging others, then we will also stop comparing ourselves to them, and we will then stop judging ourselves. It is the only way to for us to go deep, to go beyond the superficial – the rules, the tradition, the failures that we all have – and begin to understand God’s acceptance of us, God’s compassion for us.
It is this understanding that I am not perfect – and don’t have to be – in order for God to love me, that is what we find in the depths. When we begin to understand this, it is only then that we become free, and then we can respond to those around us freely and compassionately. When we are able to go beyond the superficial ideas of what is important, we no longer need to judge others, and we no longer need to make ourselves appear to be better than they are.
Joan Chittister tells the following story:
It happened on one of my early visits to England. I was a Westerner with an exalted sense of British history and a great love for the pomp and circumstance of it all. To walk streets where the kings and queens of England had walked was still a very, very heady brew. This was history alive and functioning; this was the living glory of glorious dynasties. And we were all a part of it yet. We were all being carried on the backs of greatness. Certainly such continuity gilded us all with the starlight of the past and the glow of a starched and proper present.
And then I heard the story that changed my mind about both culture and sanctity. It seems that at a great state dinner hosted by the queen, political commoners from every end of the globe sat sprinkled among the Royal Family. Unaccustomed to formal dining, they struggled with the multiple forks and spoons, water glasses, and wine goblets that characterize high society and public propriety. A particularly uncomfortable delegate to the left of the Prince played aimlessly with the small water dish by the side of his serving of oysters. Meant to rinse away the odor of fish on the user’s fingers, it came with a piece of lemon and a small linen cloth. Suddenly, obviously nervous, the guest glanced, picked up the little finger bowl and drank it.
The Prince sitting next to him and about to rinse off his fingers in his own little water dish hesitated for only a moment. Then he picked up his own finger bowl and, like the commoner before him, he drank it.
It was a gesture of ultimate humanity and genuine humility. The Prince did not embarrass the commoner; instead, he chose to become a commoner himself. It is the essence of good manners, he had been taught, that you do not make other people uncomfortable.
I would add that it is the essence of good religion, good spirituality, that we find ways to be genuinely humble, and enjoy our part in the compassionate table of humanity. As Gandhi once said, “We must become the change we wish to see in the world.” But we can only become the change we wish to see in the world, when we stop living on the surface, and see the deeper meaning in life.
For me, I sometimes am embarrassed to tell people I am a minister, because it means – for many people – that I am judgmental, haughty, arrogant, and rigid. So, most often, I prefer quiet faith, not street corner preaching, letting people get to know me before they find out I am, indeed, one of those dreaded characters: a minister.
I believe that what we are all called to be is to be a blessing to each other, to let those around us know and believe that they are accepted and loved, without any pre-requisites, and “if – only’s”, any comparison or judgment. To go deep into what is holy is sometimes the most simple endeavor. Dr. Rachel Remen describes the person that taught her this:
On Friday afternoons when I would arrive at my grandfather’s house after school, the tea would already be set on the kitchen table. My grandfather had his own way of serving tea. There were no teacups and saucers or bowls of granulated sugar or honey. Instead, he would pour the tea directly from the silver samovar into a drinking glass. There had to be a teaspoon in the glass first, otherwise the glass, being thin, might break.
My grandfather did not drink his tea in the same way that the parents of my friends did either. He would put a cube of sugar between his teeth and then drink the hot tea straight from his glass. So would I. I much preferred drinking tea this way to the way I had to drink tea at home.
After we had finished our tea my grandfather would set two candles on the table and light them. Then he would have a word with God in Hebrew. Sometimes he would speak out loud, but often he would close his eyes and be quiet. I knew then that he was talking to God in his heart. I would sit and wait patiently because the best part of the week was corning.
When Grandpa finished talking to God, he would turn to me and say, “Come, Neshume-le.” Then I would stand in front of him and he would rest his hands lightly on the top of my head. He would begin by thanking God for me and for making him my grandpa. He would specifically mention my struggles during that week and tell God something about me that was true. Each week I would wait to find out what that was. If I had made mistakes during the week, he would mention my honesty in telling the truth. If I failed, he would appreciate how hard I had tried. If I had taken even a short nap without my nightlight, he would celebrate my bravery in sleeping in the dark. Then he would give me his blessing and ask the long-ago women I knew from his many stories – Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, and Leah – to watch over me.
These few moments were the only time in my week when I felt completely safe and at rest. My family of physicians and health professionals were always struggling to learn more and to be more. It seemed there was always more to know. It was never enough. If I brought home a 98 on a test from school, my father would ask, “And what happened to the other two points?” I pursued those two points relentlessly throughout my childhood.
But my grandfather did not care about such things. For him, I was already enough. And somehow when I was with him, I knew with absolute certainty that this was so.
My grandfather died when I was seven years old. I had never lived in a world without him in it before, and it was hard for me. He had looked at me as no one else had and called me by a special name, “Neshume-le,” which means “beloved little soul.” There was no one left to call me this anymore. At first I was afraid that without him to see me and tell God who I was, I might disappear. But slowly over time I came to understand that in some mysterious way, I had learned to see myself through his eyes. And that once blessed, we are blessed forever.
Many years later when, in her extreme old age, my mother surprisingly began to light candles and talk to God herself, I told her about these blessings and what they meant to me. She had smiled at me sadly. “I have blessed you every day of your life, Rachel,” she told me. “I just never had the wisdom to do it out loud.”
- My Grandfather’s Blessings
Certainly, I am an advocate for a quiet faith. And certainly, I am an advocate of what Francis of Assisi said: “Wherever you go, preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”
But there are times when we do have to “do it out loud,” as Rachel Remen’s mother learned. May we be people who do not judge, and thus have learned what it is truly like to live a life filled with God’s grace, compassion and blessing.
May we live a quiet faith, except when it is necessary to do it out loud, in order for those we meet to know they are not judged, but are, indeed, blessed!