Pastoral Prayer: Holy One, we gather to remember that you closed the gap between us and yourself in Jesus Christ. For some reason we think this increases the gap between us and our neighbors. The burden of proving we are closer to you than others is oppressive. Spirit of God, reveal the breadth of your Kingdom that is characterized by mercy and grace. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.
It is not uncommon to see new faces walk across the parking lot on Wednesday evenings as we begin handing out food boxes at our Food Pantry. As two young ladies approached me in blue scrubs, I was prepared to point them to one of our folks to take them to sign in for a food box. “Jessica told us we would likely be able to help volunteer here.” Jessica is a mutual friend.
I took the two into the Foyer and pointed them to Chrissy and Charlotte and said, “These two folks will know where you could best help.” I told Chrissy and Charlotte, “These two young ladies would like to help. Point them where you need them.”
We were quite busy that evening. Winding things up I noticed the two young ladies visiting with some of our folks. Hospitality is a great trait. I walked up and one of the young ladies asked, “You don’t remember who we are?” “Well, I did think you looked familiar when you walked up to me in the parking lot.” Ashley and Brooklyn. Ashley graduated with Tommie and her mother attended Snow Hill as a young person. Brooklyn came to Snow Hill as a youth. I had not seen either of these girls in about a dozen years. They had grown up. Yet, I should have recognized them, I told myself.
One wonders if after the resurrection of Jesus if some of those who were Jesus’ worst critics ever thought to themselves, “I should have recognized him.” Take the way Luke sets up the parable here in Luke 18,
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.
We won’t recognize the Kingdom of God when all we recognize is ourselves. If we hope to break free from a faith that feeds the enemy making machine, we will need to account for ourselves. We could read this parable as Jesus setting up the fault lines between people – Pharisees versus Tax Collectors. At that reading it would seem as though Jesus were setting out the guidelines for making enemies. However, the parable makes the point that the division between people comes from what is in our hearts. Remember, it was Jesus who said,
It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.
Let’s look at what came out of the mouth of the Pharisee. His prayer sounds quite a bit like, “God, you should be proud of me.” Five times he gives an account for himself and he is found measuring himself in terms of his distance from God over against how far he thinks the Tax Collector is from God. Look at the way Jesus highlights this feature,
The Pharisee, standing by himself . . . but the tax collector standing far off . . .
“God, you should be proud of me, I am not like other people.” As long as we are comparing ourselves to others, we will always find someone that might make us feel better about ourselves. But what caused the problem for the Pharisees, even the disciples, was when they compared themselves to Jesus, they came up wanting. It is too easy for us to fall back into the trap, even in reading this parable all these years later and think, “God, I am glad I am not like that Pharisee in the parable.”
Here is a rule of thumb. If you are reading the Bible and you find yourself like the hero in every story, you might be a Pharisee.
The scandal of the parable is that the tax collector is not so much the hero as he is the foil for any and all self-righteousness. That is, if we have decided on our list of sins we avoid, like the Pharisee, we will be exposed by those who admit their sin rather than look for cover. In fact, here is something we should keep in mind. Christians are the ones who need reminding of their sin. We need to be reminded. For it is generally us, we Christians, who feel better when compared to a world, others, who seem content in what we would refer to as their sin. This is how self-righteousness is undermined in us – to be reminded of our sin.
When the disciples heard Jesus say that it is what comes out of the heart that makes us common, unclean, they told Jesus,
Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?
Careful, for when we are reminded of our sin, Jesus offends us. Appealing to how close we are to God over against others is to miss that Paul wrote to Christians reminding them,
all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
All of us.
We won’t recognize the Kingdom of God when we regard others with contempt. If we hope to break free from a faith that feeds the enemy making machine, we will need to account for the value of others. Once we decide that we are closer to God than others, it is easy to hold others contemptible. “God you should be proud of me, I am not like those other people, the world would be a better place without them.” The language of contempt reveals our hearts. For the Christian, there really is no room for the use of “human scumbags” in our vocabulary.
Even more subtle yet more pervasive is the reference to “those people.” Sure, it sounds nicer. But, the designation is that we are here, they are there. Or better, we are here and we want them to stay there. And you think that is a subversive reference to immigration. While it could be, it is as much the language used as a way to avoid making a reference to a person of race. It is used in our community to refer to people who do not make as much as we may.
Just look at the list offered by the Pharisee – thieves, rogues, adulterers or even like this tax collector. The Pharisee, like us, has a list within a list. That means, let’s take the broad spectrum of human sin and narrow it down to the ones you or I don’t have any trouble with and then let’s stand before God and declare how righteous we are. What was it that made the tax collector so bad? I mean given the way the parable is told, a tax collector is worse than an adulterer. How is that possible? For you and I today it may not make sense. It is that the tax collector is viewed as being on the other side. He is the one that is a traitor to his own people. He collects the taxes imposed by the super power and then skims some to make himself rich.
Isn’t it interesting how today, we may begrudgingly pay taxes but most of us here would find it more injurious to be betrayed by a spouse than to fume over the amount of withholding we see on our pay stubs. In every era it appears that we Christians wrestle with the temptation to compare ourselves with others in order to feel more righteous before God, and of course our friends and neighbors.
Do you recall what God said to Peter when he was pointing our Peter’s error of dividing the world between us and them?
What God has made clean, you must not call profane [unclean].
Read in the context of Peter and his prejudice, God, the Voice, is not insisting that Peter’s heart issue is over bacon. Instead, when the knock on the door comes he is to be ready to go, even if it is a Gentile at the door, one of those people.
Recent Pew Forum polling data reveals that over the past decade that in America the number of adults identifying as Christian has dropped 12 percent. And, for the first time, Millennials have registered at less than 50 percent who identify as Christian. Everyone has an opinion as to what is behind the numbers. For Nicolas Kristof it is the sense that young people tire of the language of contempt used by Christians when they talk about other people. Or, Kristof points out the way contempt has given the impression to young people that the Church is an enemy making machine.
We may recognize the Kingdom of God when we accept we are all as far away as we may be but in Christ closer than we deserve.
If we hope to break free from a faith that feeds the enemy making machine, we will look for the work of the Spirit everywhere.
Under duress from the way contempt had worked against Israel’s future, the prophet Joel paints a picture of hope. It is an illustration of the power of words, particularly the power to recreate, to give hope and a new future. For Joel the corrective to the destructive patterns of the past is to take a second look at the world and consider the way God has been and is faithful.
We find Joel’s words ironically employed by Peter in his Pentecost sermon in Acts. When the Jesus people were accused of being drunk, Peter says, “Look again!” He references Joel 2,
28 After that I will pour out my spirit
your sons and your daughters
your old men will dream dreams,
and your young men will see visions.
29 In those days, I will also pour out my
spirit on the male and female slaves.
The *after that* comes after Joel has described God taking away the shame of the people for their past. Israel’s self-righteous contempt resulted in oppression and exile. Observers would wonder what had happened to their God. They themselves may have received the experience as God’s abandonment. Joel comes to remind the people that God will act to take away their shame. His descriptions are consistent with the vision that the people would understand. Rains would fall at the right time to produce successful crops. It would not, “God you should be proud of me, I am not like those other peo
That God would pour out his spirit on the male and female slaves is a direct undermining of self-righteousness. The people would never believe that God would work that way. Now it is clear that God tells the people, look for the ways and places my Spirit is at work and know that I am still taking away the shame oof people.
Surely, in Jesus Christ, we know the Spirit of God is taking away our shame even as he suffered the shame of death on a cross. Would you recognize it?
I generally take a manuscript with me to preach each week. However, the preached message is often a bit different than what you will find here. You may listen to the preached sermon here.