Where, we might ask, is the line between bragging and self-confidence? The issue is how we balance self confidence with humility.
When you hear the story of the two men in the temple that Jesus told in today’s Gospel reading, it might bring to mind images from a presidential campaign. A braggart holds forth on how good he is.
But for me, the presidential campaign this calls to mind is not the one we are in the midst of right now. It’s a campaign from the 1970s. Actually, two campaigns from the 1970s. And I think the stories from those campaigns might shine some light on how we think about the two characters in this story today – and on the call from the prophet Joel to let visions shine forth in the midst of hard times.
In 1972 – yes, that was very long ago – there were 16 candidates in the Democratic primary. I know – that sounds like a lot, but not quite the 17 that were in the Republican primary this year. It was a fascinating mix of characters.
There was Shirley Chisholm, a Congresswoman from New York, was the first black candidate to seek a major party nomination for president. There was Patsy Mink, a member of Congress from Hawaii, who was the first Asian American to seek the presidency.
There was George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama. There were mayors – John Lindsay from New York and Sam Yorty from Los Angeles.
There were senators – oh, were there senators – Birch Bay and Fred Harris, Henry Jackson and Vance Hartke, Ed Muskie and Harold Hughes. And, of course, George McGovern, who won the nomination.
I mention all these names because they play a critical role in the story. As they campaigned, they were seeking support all across the country, of course. An important stop was Georgia, where the young governor there – a fellow named Jimmy Carter – was being hailed across the nation as emblematic of the New South, rejecting the segregationist past and building a new economic powerhouse in the region.
That’s why many of the Democratic candidates visited Carter, spent the night at the governor’s residence. Carter took their measure. And in the midst of that, he looked at himself and said, well, I am as at least as good and as qualified as any of them.
As one of Carter’s aides in an interview this year, he never lacked self-confidence.
Where, we might ask, is the line between bragging and self-confidence? You don’t run for president of the United States without having a healthy portion of ego. The Pharisee in the story today surely had a healthy portion of ego.
“God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.”
So hold onto that image of Jimmy Carter sizing up the 1972 presidential hopefuls and deciding that he could be better than any of them. Right there were the seeds of his campaign four years later.
Now we flash forward to the 1976 campaign. One of the distinctive things about Carter was that he was quite open about the fact the he was a “born-again” Christian, a Southern Baptist, and this was a bit disconcerting to folks who were not used to religion playing such a prominent role in a presidential campaign.
One of the most infamous moments of that 1976 campaign was an extended interview Carter had with journalist Robert Scheer for Playboy magazine that appeared just before the election. It seemed like an odd venue for someone whose Christian faith was so much a part of his persona, but Carter’s advisors later explained that they chose Playboy for this to show that while his faith was deep, he was not some kind of goody-two-shoes prude.
That was the interview where Carter said, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do–and I have done it–and God forgives me for it.”
That was a quote that got a lot of attention. It was actually a quote that caused Carter’s standing to plummet in the polls in the last weeks of the campaign. But it was also an interesting insight into Carter in the role of the other character in our story today – the sinner in the back of the temple.
The issue is how he – and we – balance self confidence with humility.
And here’s a little-known facet of that Playboy interview. What led into Carter’s discussion of lust was this comment from the president-to-be: “What Christ taught about most was pride, that one person should never think he was any better than anybody else. One of the most vivid stories Christ told in one of his parables was about two people who went into a church.”
Yup, that’s today’s Gospel story.
Carter went on: “The thing that’s drummed into us all the time is not to be proud, not to be better than anyone else, not to look down on people but to make ourselves acceptable in God’s eyes through our own actions and recognize the simple truth that we’re saved by grace. It’s just a free gift through faith in Christ. This gives us a mechanism by which we can relate permanently to God.
“I’m not speaking for other people, but it gives me a sense of peace and equanimity and assurance. I try not to commit a deliberate sin. I recognize that I’m going to do it anyhow, because I’m human and I’m tempted. And Christ set some almost impossible standards for us.”
This is not the normal sort of conversation with a candidate for president. But keep in mind that at age 92, Carter is still teaching Sunday school every week at his home church in Plains, Georgia.
In that interview, even though Carter was setting a standard for himself of confessing even lust in his heart, he also was very clear that he was not judging those who may have acted on their lust.
He said, “The guy who’s loyal to his wife ought not to be condescending or proud because of the relative degree of sinfulness.”
All of this provides, I think, a fascinating meditation on pride, which we might think of as a negative, and self-confidence, which we might think of as a positive; on humility, which we might think of as putting ourselves down or which we might think of as having a realistic view of ourselves as people with both strengths and weaknesses.
I know I struggle with that balance. I suspect many of you do, too. That’s why the pairing of the Gospel today with the words of the prophet Joel are fascinating for me. We most often hear the key section of Joel on Pentecost Sunday, when Peter, the leader of the Apostles, talks to the crowds that have gathered outside after Jesus’ followers were propelled out by God’s Spirit.
Peter paraphrases Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams.”
Joel’s original words that we heard this morning were in the context of the Israelites going through another tough time in their history and coming out of it with new hope – hope in their future, hope in God’s grace working in their midst.
We know those tough times, too, in our personal lives and in a year when the political discourse in our nation seems to be going off the rails. We worry about the potential for tough times ahead. And we seek God’s Spirit to guide us though it all.
If we are to be the young seeing visions, the elders dreaming dreams, how do we do that with both self-confidence and humility?
I don’t think Jimmy Carter is necessarily a model of perfection – his self-confidence mixed with a stubborn streak was not always appealing. Yet it allowed him to make a significant difference in our world, not only as president but in the 35 years after his presidency.
But he also had the good sense to always re-examine who he is and what he believes. During that Playboy interview, he also drew on the wisdom of one of the great theologians of the last century.
In Carter’s words: “One thing that Paul Tillich said was that religion is a search for the truth about man’s existence and his relationship with God and his fellow man; and that once you stop searching and think you’ve got it made–at that point, you lose your religion. Constant reassessment, searching in one’s heart – it gives me a feeling of confidence.”
Some of you around here have heard me quote one of my mentors, Dave Michael, the former pastor at Lake Edge UCC on the east side. I have tried to adopt one of his sayings as words to live by: “This is what I believe – but I could be wrong.”
I think that’s a great blending of confidence and humility. I think that offers us a way to have a vision and to shade it with humility.
Maybe in the weeks ahead, as the nation picks its next leader and we try to figure out where we will be in the future, that’s a phrase we can all hold on to – and trust in God’s mercy, since are all imperfect people.
So we ask God to take us as we are and let us be of service to our world. Let’s join together in a hymn that speaks to that – it’s #448, “Take My Life, God, Let It Be.”