(Lk 18:9-14; Joel 2:23-32)
The sermon title for this week – “No Spiritual Rigor, Please!” – may seem a bit odd or confusing. Most of us think of rigor as a good thing. When we’re rigorous we’re disciplined; we’re toeing the line; we’re working hard – we’re acting in a way that is usually considered admirable. So, we would think that spiritual rigor would be a good thing. Spiritual rigor calls to mind the monks of the Middle Ages, who would get up in the wee hours of the morning to pray, then go to work, then pray again, then work again, then pray again, then work again, breaking only for meals, until it was time to go to bed, only to get up the next day and do it all over again. They displayed what we think of as a rigorous spirituality.
But there’s another definition of rigor, and that is the one I’m using. It’s the physiological definition of rigor, which is: “A state of rigidity in living tissues or organs that prevents response to stimuli.” We see this in its most extreme form after death, when a body has rigor mortis, which, in its original Latin, means “stiffness of death.” After death, all of the tissues and organs of the body become rigid. So, we could say that a sign of death is rigidity in the body.
If we apply the physiological definition of rigor to our spiritual lives, the definition of spiritual rigor would be: “A state of rigidity in our spiritual organs that prevents response to God’s stimuli”. Now, you might be asking what our spiritual organs are. The answer to that question is found in what Jesus said is the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37). Our spiritual organs are our hearts, our souls, and our minds. When these are spiritually healthy and functioning well, they are flexible, and are thus able to respond to God’s stimuli. But when these are spiritually unhealthy and not functioning well, they are rigid, and are thus not able to respond to God’s stimuli.
A well-known example of a person with spiritual rigor is the Pharaoh of the story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt (Ex 6-12). Whenever Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh on God’s behalf to request that he let the Hebrew people go so that they could worship God and Pharaoh refused, he was described as having a hard heart. In other words, he had a rigid heart. He would not listen to God and do what God required of him. He suffered from spiritual rigor. And, I might add, if you remember, he paid the price for it. Egypt and its inhabitants suffered numerous plagues, while the Hebrew people were freed to leave Egypt and worship God.
When our hearts, souls, and minds become rigid and are unable to respond to God, we suffer from spiritual rigor. As was stated above, rigidity is a sign of death. Rigidity in our spiritual organs is thus a sign of spiritual death. If we’re unable to respond to God with our hearts, souls, and minds, over time we die a spiritual death. Eventually, we have spiritual rigor mortis – in Latin, “stiffness of spiritual death.”
I don’t think any of us want spiritual rigor or spiritual rigor mortis! We want to be spiritually alive, not spiritually dead. So we need to learn what the symptoms of spiritual rigor are so that we can recognize when our hearts, souls, and minds are becoming rigid and we are on that slippery slope toward spiritual death. The parable that Jesus tells in the gospel passage for today reveals to us the symptoms of spiritual rigor.
Jesus tells the parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (18:9). His teaching is directed toward the self-righteous, the proud, and the arrogant. The parable is about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisees were a group of particularly observant and influential Jews, while tax collectors were considered ritually unclean by Jews because they had contact with Gentiles. The taxes they collected were for the Roman Empire and so they had to deal with Roman officials – that is, Gentiles. Tax collectors were also known for their tendency toward theft, fraud, and corruption; after all, they handled money and we all know that money easily corrupts.
The parable begins with the Pharisee and the tax collector going to the temple to pray. One of them is righteous (the Pharisee); the other is not (the tax collector). The righteous one stands by himself, away from the tax collector so that he will not be polluted by him – remember, the tax collector is ritually unclean – and he prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector”(Lk 18:11). And then he lists his spiritual accomplishments: “For I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Lk 18:12). He is extremely pleased with himself – one might say overly pleased.
The unrighteous one, the tax collector, prays very differently. He won’t even look up to heaven. His eyes downcast, he beats his breast in anguish and prays a brief prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk 18:13).
Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “I tell you, this man” – the tax collector – “went down to his home justified rather than the other” – the Pharisee – “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk 18:14).
Jesus makes it clear that the essential ingredient in our interactions with God is humility, not righteousness. The dictionary definition of humility is: “The quality or condition of being humble; lack of pride.” And the dictionary definition of humble is: “Marked by meekness or modesty in behavior, attitude, or spirit; showing deferential or submissive respect; unpretentious.”
Humility is essential because it keeps our spiritual organs flexible and prevents them from becoming rigid. It enables us to receive and respond to God’s stimuli. The tax collector was humble and so was open to God. Humility is both the vaccine that prevents us from contracting spiritual rigor and the antidote to it once we’ve been infected.
The Pharisee was clearly infected with spiritual rigor. He had already decided, by himself, that he was righteous – he just wanted God to confirm what he thought he knew about himself. Instead of coming to God in prayer to hear what God had to say to him, the Pharisee told God what a wonderful religious person he was. His heart, soul, and mind had become rigid in a posture of self-righteousness, pride, and arrogance. He couldn’t receive or respond to God’s stimuli. He was on that slippery slope toward spiritual rigor mortis.
The symptoms of spiritual rigor – which, unchecked, lead to spiritual death – are self-righteousness, pride, and arrogance. I’ve given you the definition of humility so that you can foster it in yourselves and remain spiritually healthy. It’s only fair that I give you the definitions of self-righteousness, pride, and arrogance so that you can recognize them in yourself and root them out. Here they are:
- Self-righteousness: “The state or quality of being piously sure of one’s own righteousness; moralistic.”
- Pride: “An excessively high opinion of oneself; conceit.”
- Arrogance: “The state or quality of being overly convinced of one’s own importance; overbearingly proud; haughty.
Regardless of when in history we are alive on the Earth, there are threats to our well-being. Each time in history has it’s own challenges. Currently, we are in a historical period marked by terrorism and the War on Terror. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, faithful people of all religious traditions have been plagued with serious spiritual questions, the answers to which are not always obvious or forthcoming. Personally, I’ve been torn by questions about just war vs. pacificism; forgiveness vs. retribution; grace vs. justice; and the kingdom of God vs. the kingdom of this world.
I am acutely aware that I worship a messiah who chose to die rather than return evil for evil – and in so doing defeated evil – and I wonder what that means for how I, personally, and we, collectively, should respond when evil is at hand. I worry that though we may fight and win the physical war in which we are engaging, we may lose the spiritual war that is constantly raging in each of us and in the world as a whole. I wonder how it is we are to contribute to the building of God’s kingdom on earth rather than to its tearing down. The larger question that hovers over all of my questions is: “What would God have us do at this time and at all times?”
The only way that we can be assured that we are doing the best that we can to discern God’s will during a time when it is difficult to do so is to remain open to God. And the way to remain open to God is to be humble. We are not to go to God in prayer and tell him what wonderful religious people we are, how sinless we are, how much we deserve his approval, as did the Pharisee. Instead, we are to go to God with the awareness that we fall short of what he requires of us all the time; that, sometimes without even knowing it, we contribute to the pain and suffering of his world in countless ways; that, often, we are unsure of what we are to do; and that we beg him for his mercy and guidance, as did the tax collector: “Deliver us, O God, from our own sins and the sins of others.” Or, as we say in the Lord’s Prayer every week, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” The kingdom and the power and the glory are not ours – they are God’s, and we must turn to God for deliverance and guidance.
Martin Luther King, Jr., during another difficult time for America, when our nation was struggling with its sin of racism in the form of segregation, asserted that, “God is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming better men and women. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.”
God is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. God is able to do that. And the way that we allow God to do that is to keep our spiritual organs – our hearts, souls, and minds – healthy and flexible. We must recognize the symptoms of spiritual rigor and root them out: self-righteousness, pride, and arrogance. It is when our hearts, souls, and minds turn to stone that we are in trouble. A stone is hard, and God can’t fashion it into what he wants it to be. When God is faced with a heart of stone (like the Pharaoh’s heart), he must break it open and begin again, and that is a painful process. But when God is faced with a living, breathing heart, he can breathe his Spirit into it, fashion it into his instrument, and give it to the world as a gift. The prophet Joel reports God as saying: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old people shall dream dreams, and your young people shall see visions” (Joel 2:28). We are always in need of those dreams and visions, at this time and at all times.
Many atrocities have been done throughout history in the name of religion because people suffered from spiritual rigor: the Crusades; the Inquisition; the acceptance and support of slavery; the acceptance and support of apartheid; the attacks of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks that have followed – the list goes on and on. During the thick of a battle it is difficult to keep our vision clear and our minds open in order to see and understand the bigger picture. But the bigger picture is God’s picture, and it is the only thing that will save us. We need to see it and we need to understand it so that we can participate in it and contribute to the building of God’s kingdom on Earth.
And so, I beg you: no spiritual rigor! We must exercise our spiritual organs and keep them healthy with humility. We must approach God with a flexible heart, soul, and mind. Then God can breathe his Spirit into us and make us his instruments and give us as gifts to the world. Perhaps, then, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, tomorrow will be a brighter day. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, October 23, 2016, the Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost.