[Insert Your Name Here] and the Tax Collector

Sermon, October 23, 2016 – Proper 25, Year C
Luke 18:9-14

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

In today’s gospel, we hear one of the most familiar parables of Jesus. This is one of the parables that we most enjoy because none of us imagine ourselves in the place of the Pharisee. Instead this seems to be a most enjoyable smack down by Jesus of an obnoxious and arrogant villain. The message – be humble, not arrogant. Next parable.

But wait. Not so fast. Let’s look at this parable a little more closely. On reading what the commentaries have to say about this parable I found one observation to be very surprising. I had always assumed that Jesus was making a bit of a caricature here of a Pharisee in order to make his point. I hadn’t thought that anyone would actually have prayed like that. But I was wrong. Scholars believe that the Pharisee’s prayer was most likely a standard Jewish prayer of thanksgiving from the time. The Jewish people to whom Jesus told this parable would not have been startled or unsettled with the story Jesus told until the very end, when Jesus told them that it was the tax collector that went home justified before God.

How can this be? Were people really so arrogant and smug back then? Or perhaps the proper question is this – are people so arrogant and smug now? I would venture to say yes, I think we are.

One thing to keep in mind is that this isn’t just a story of the school teacher putting the secretary down. Or the baker looking down at the car insurance agent. When you are imagining yourself in this scenario, don’t think of the other person being your friend or colleague. No, the characters in this story by Jesus are a Pharisee and a tax collector, and that is important.

Despite their very bad reputation to our ears, in the time of Jesus, Pharisees were looked up to in Jewish society. They checked off a lot of boxes, including being respected religious leaders, loyal to the Jewish people and not to the Roman overlords, pious, and very upstanding citizens. They were the sort of people who, if they visited our church on a Sunday, we would want to make feel very welcome and included because we would want them as new members.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were the scum of society. They were seen as greedy, unclean and traitors to the Jewish people since they collected taxes for Rome. These were the people who you did not want to associate with or seen to be associating with. Everybody looked down on tax collectors.

So let’s rethink this parable. Join me in a little thought experiment. Imagine if you will, one of the dumbest, most shrill, most irritating, most loud mouthed supporters of a candidate for president that you loathe. Not somebody who is a reluctant supporter, but an in your face, annoying, irritating, opinionated supporter. Imagine such a person. Perhaps they are in your Facebook feed and they keep posting annoyingly stupid posts. Or maybe you watch them on your cable news channel at home, making idiotic comments to the host. Or maybe you watch them on the evening news at protests or shouting down the candidate you like. Imagine that person. The person you have no respect for – who you think is foolish, gullible, stupid and about to betray your country to four years of horrible leadership.

That person is your tax collector in this story. You are the Pharisee. And now imagine that you are talking to your like-minded spouse or friend. Is it too hard to imagine the following conversation? “Thank God I am not that stupid. What a moron he is. How can she say such an idiotic thing? Thank God I am smarter than that.” I think that if we are all honest with ourselves, we would have to say that we either have had or could very easily have had just such a conversation. Now maybe this conversation for you wouldn’t be about politics. Maybe it would be about sports, mobile phones, television shows or any subject that we feel especially strongly about. The point is that we are not so different from the Pharisee in this story then we think.

And we might even be very sincere about our thoughts. What if the other person really is stupid, opinionated and loud? Should we not be thankful to God that we are have been blessed with clear thinking, brains and refinement? Shouldn’t we thank God for the gifts that we have been given? Isn’t that what we are called to do by God? Doesn’t Paul in 1 Thessalonians tell us “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus”?

Yes, but the problem here is with the attitude. Jesus was teaching people to pray. In the passage that comes just before today’s parable, Jesus taught that we should never give up heart when we pray. In today’s parable Luke tells us that Jesus was targeting “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” As I mentioned earlier, the Pharisees were very pious and followed the law. They were pillars of society. And they knew it and thought that, as a result, they had earned their own salvation.

The Pharisees thought that if they followed the law very closely and did all that the law required of them, that God would be pleased and reward them with salvation. And this is why they would thank God – for making themselves so good. But look how he thanked God – certainly not in a humble fashion, but rather by comparing himself to others. He said “God, I thank you that am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.” But that’s not all. He then goes on to tell God that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he gets.

This Pharisee is a man who has no need for God. He has no need for Jesus Christ to take away his sins. He has no room for mercy on others. He is a man who figures that he’s already there, on his own. The problem is he has no heart, either for God or for others.

Contrast this to the tax collector. Yes, he was a low life, traitor and a cheat. That’s what it took to be a tax collector. But the tax collector came to realize the truth about himself. He “stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” This is the heart of the Gospel. We are sinners and we need God to rescue us. We can’t do it on our own. All that we can do is approach God in all humility and confess our utter dependence on him.

It doesn’t matter how clever or smart we are, or how pious and nice we are, or how much we give to charity. These things are good, they are what God calls us to do, but they do not make us right with God. At the end of the day, we have no better claim to be right with God than anyone else. We all need God. We all need Jesus Christ to take upon himself our guilt and our sins. Which he has already done for us. We need to say “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

We do not justify ourselves. And that is what the Pharisee did not understand. It is only God who justifies us, and it isn’t until we acknowledge our need for God that this can happen. There are only two choices here – we either think we can justify ourselves or we confess to God that we are completely at his mercy. The tax collector understood this, and it was this acknowledgement that led Jesus to declare that he went home justified before God.

Let us pray, in words taken from Psalm 51.

Have mercy on us, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out our transgressions. Wash away all our iniquity and cleanse us from our sins. For we know our transgressions, and our sins are always before us.

Create in us pure hearts, O God, and renew steadfast spirits within us. Do not cast us from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from us. Restore to us the joy of your salvation and grant us willing spirits, to sustain us. Amen.

Healing on the Sabbath?

Sermon, August 21, 2016 – Proper 16, Year C
Isaiah 58:9b-14; Luke 13:10-17
Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

When you think about God, the Church and the Bible, what image comes to your mind? What image do you think comes to the minds of our neighbors? Do we picture a stern, angry God who says “Thou shalt not!”, “do it this way, not that way”, and “if you are going to get to heaven, you need to follow the rules.” Unfortunately, this is a picture that many have. Some embrace this image zealously and seek to make it very clear to their neighbors that they are following what they think is God’s law very scrupulously. Others are so turned off by this image that they reject religion totally and are so ensnared by this stereotype that they are unwilling to take a new and fresh look at God. Still others are turned off by this image but react against it by thinking that we can ignore God’s law and do whatever pleases us in the name of love. Or they will say that Jesus taught us that compassion should trump God’s law. In fact, I’ll bet that a lot of sermons preached today will say that in today’s passage from Luke, Jesus is teaching us that compassion should come before following God’s law.

I think that all of these responses miss the mark. Our Gospel story helps to give us a good perspective on this. I think that Jesus is teaching us that a proper understanding of God’s law is compassionate. It’s not a question of compassion vs. God’s law, but rather a proper understanding of the law. Let’s look at the story from Luke. For those of you who might not know, the Sabbath day was a very important part of Jewish religion in the time of Jesus. The fourth commandment is very clear: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

And so the story begins when Jesus was at a synagogue on a Sabbath teaching the people. Nobody had a problem with a rabbi teaching on the Sabbath, so no issues yet. But then Jesus saw a woman who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. Note that Luke, the physician, does not just say that the woman had a physical infirmity, but rather that she was crippled by a spirit. This woman is not just oppressed by old age or sickness, but by a spiritual being. This woman is in spiritual bondage which physically manifested in her being bent over and unable to straighten up at all. For eighteen years.

What does Jesus do? Ignore her spiritual bondage and preach to her about how God will set the captives free but do nothing to effect that freedom? Ignore her discomfort and pain and preach to her about how there is nothing God can do for her since it is the Sabbath and God doesn’t heal on the Sabbath? No. That’s not what the Gospel is about.

Instead Jesus looks upon her with compassion. He calls her forward and lays his hands upon her, telling her “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Let’s pause here and ask ourselves what Jesus did exactly. He laid his hands on her and declared that she was free from her infirmity. Last week, Pastor Barbara told us that one of the primary functions of a pastor is to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to the people of God, and to assure us that we are free from the consequences of our sin. Sin is our infirmity. The pastor stands before us and tells us “Man”, “Woman”, “You are set free from your infirmity.” And this is what Jesus did here. He told this woman that she was set free from her infirmity and she was.

Immediately after Jesus made this declaration and put his hands on her, she straightened up. She had indeed been set free. And her natural response was to praise God. After eighteen years of being bent over and tormented by an evil spirit, I’ll bet that freedom felt really good to her. And she knew who had set her free. That is why she praised God. Happy ending, right?

Well, not for everyone. The synagogue leader became indignant with Jesus. He was angry because he thought that Jesus hadn’t followed the rules. He said to the people “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” Just imagine – suppose you came up for healing prayer and just as Pastor Barbara was about to lay hands on you and pray for you, I said “Not now. Come back tomorrow. No healings here today. There are six days for that sort of thing. Today is a Sabbath. We leave people in their bondage and sickness on the Sabbath because God wants to take a rest.”

Do you think that Pastor Barbara would say “oh yeah, right. We don’t heal people today or tell them they are free from whatever is keeping them in bondage. This is Sunday and we don’t do that on Sunday.” If this is what it’s all about, then why not just pack it all up and head home? What’s the point?

What’s the point indeed? The synagogue leader had completely missed the point of the Sabbath. Jesus responded to him by calling him a hypocrite. He asked “Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

You see, Jesus was pointing out that it was considered acceptable to untie your ox or donkey and give it water on the Sabbath. Note very carefully – you could release your animals from the bondage of a rope and give them physical sustenance. This was considered perfectly okay. And so, Jesus says, should it not also be permitted to release a human being from spiritual bondage?

Jesus isn’t saying that the Sabbath wasn’t important, or that we can simply ignore it whenever it is convenient to do so, or that observing the Sabbath conflicts with a compassionate attitude. His point was that the synagogue leader completely misunderstood the point of the Sabbath and so this leader was using it to hinder the Gospel instead of to further God’s work. God did not designate the Sabbath day to be observed as some kind of arbitrary rule to be blindly followed without purpose. It was not meant to be one of a long list of rules for us to follow and thereby gain favor in God’s sight. No. God set the Sabbath aside so that we would take a day away from the hustle and bustle of work and life and rest and reflect on God, on what he has done for us, on how he has set us free from that which enslaves and binds us. And so to suggest that God should not set free someone who is in spiritual and physical bondage to an evil spirit because it is the Sabbath is to miss the whole picture. It is to fundamentally misunderstand who God is.

God wants to free us from that which enslaves us. That is why he called Abraham and set apart the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and why he sent Jesus Christ to become one of us. God did not give us His law to further enslave us, but rather to guide us. God knows that we are not capable of following the law on our own, and He doesn’t intend it as some sort of obstacle course for us to conquer and so win the prize. God gives us the law because He loves us.

In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah outlines how we should look at following God’s law, including keeping the Sabbath. Listen again to what he tells us:

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Following God’s law should always be about pointing ourselves and others toward God, reflecting upon Him, and following what God calls and commands us to do. This is the only way that we can bring true joy and freedom to both ourselves and those around us. God is not a stern old man telling us “thou shalt not” but a loving parent trying to keep us from hurting ourselves and guiding us to be the sons and daughters he is calling us to be.

Let us pray.

Lord give us a right understanding of your law, so that we will not see it as an instrument of burden or bondage, but rather as your loving guidance for us, leading us to freedom from the sin that enslaves us. Let us see that by following your laws and commands, we will become like a well-watered garden in a sun-scorched land. Let us see the Sabbath not as something to forbid your life-giving grace, but rather as something to delight in, where we can find our joy in you and through which we will feast on the inheritance promised us through your son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Keeping Up Appearances

Sermon, July 3, 2016 – Proper 9, Year C
Galatians 6:7-16

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

Last week, a church near where we live held its Vacation Bible School. The title theme for this year’s VBS was “Submerged” and the church was decorated like the ocean floor. The Bible text for the week was Psalm 139:23-24 which reads: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” The advertisement in the church newsletter read “Kids will discover during the week that Jesus saw people differently. He didn’t see just what was on the outside, He saw people for who they were on the inside…down deep. As kids learn to see themselves and others as Jesus sees them, they can realize that everyone needs a Savior – even those who look like they have it all together.”

Last week Sunday I was sitting in this church listening to a musical offering before the sermon and I was thinking about what I might preach on this week. I had just read through the Galatians passage in the pew Bible when I read the VBS advertisement. It occurred to me that the Galatians passage has a similar message to the VBS message.

One of the primary issues that Paul was dealing with in his letter to the Galatians was a conflict amongst early Christians between a legalistic Jewish group – possibly with a strong Pharisaic influence, and the apostles. A small aside here – the legalistic Jewish group was not representative of Jewish Christians generally, but was a sub-group. They made circumcision their main issue, and this represented their belief that it was very important for Christians to outwardly keep all aspects of Jewish law. In this, they were relatively similar to the Pharisees, who taught that it was important to keep the law and so make themselves worthy of salvation. The focus was on outwardly keeping the law.

Paul and the apostles, on the other hand, argued that Jesus made it clear that outward appearances were not important. What Jesus sought to reach was the hearts and minds of people. Paul is addressing this issue in today’s passage from Galatians. He says “A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” Paul equates empty, legalistic outward behavior with the flesh, and he equates pleasing the Spirit with transforming hearts and minds. And so what Paul means here is that if we think that we can keep God’s law simply by observing external legalities, we will miss out on the Gospel. We will miss out on the Gospel because that is not what the Gospel addresses.

If you are in the hospital in need of a lifesaving operation that only a doctor can perform on you, but instead of seeing a doctor, you instead go and trim your finger nails so that you look good, you won’t get the surgery you need, and you will die. What we need to do is submit our hearts and minds to Jesus Christ, recognizing that we have no power in us to save ourselves. Interestingly enough, the local church that held VBS this past week has also been doing a sermon series adapting the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step Program to the Christian life. The first three revised steps are as follows:

We are powerless over sin – that our lives have become unmanageable.

  1. We believe that only God could restore us to sanity.
  2. We make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.

The Gospel only works if we acknowledge that the only thing that can save us is God’s grace – given us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we accept this; if we “sow to please the Spirit” then “from the Spirit we will reap eternal life.”

After an interesting aside in which Paul comments on his own handwriting, he expands on his point. He writes “those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised.” In the Jewish religion, circumcision was a powerful sign of belonging to the group. The Old Testament was very clear that if you were a male and weren’t circumcised, you weren’t a good Jew. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ has moved beyond these outward markers. Paul is warning the early Christians about some individuals who were trying to convince them that outward appearance of being circumcised was what mattered.

This is an issue that has plagued the Church throughout all of history and across all types of Christians – old, new, liberal, conservative. It is part of the sinful human condition. We want to belong, to be liked, to be approved of, to be affirmed, to be part of the cool group. And so we are always tempted to adopt the requisite outward appearance to fit in. This can be wearing the right clothes, following the correct sports team, belonging to the correct political party, posting the right memes and opinions on social media, and adopting the pious church person appearance on Sunday mornings. But what does any of this brand identification get us? Fleeting approval from friends and social media friends? What happens when the winds of opinion blow the other way?

Paul says “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything.” He means that superficial social approval is worthless. It means nothing. It is fleeting. Your clothes will make you cool until the fashion changes. People who you impress with superficial outward behaviors, comments or appearances don’t care about you. What’s more, Paul tells us that the only reason they are concerned with appearances “is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.” We hide behind outward appearances to blend in with the cool crowd and avoid putting our lives on the line in following Jesus. Think about it. This is how bullies operate. Everyone wants so badly to be part of the cool group and fit in, nobody dares to stand up to the bully and defend the person being pushed around. This is part of the sinful human condition that Jesus came to save us from.

What is the solution that Paul presents? Let’s look back to the first three steps of the twelve step program. Acknowledge that we are powerless over sin. Accept that only Jesus can rescue us from our sinful condition. Decide to turn our lives and our will over to Jesus. Paul says this very thing in somewhat different words when he writes “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

Paul’s choice of words here is a bit difficult for us to absorb here. It’s not the way that we talk. Let’s parse it out. First, Paul writes “may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What he means by never boasting is that he won’t identify with or hide behind anything other than the cross of Christ. Not a certain kind of clothing, or the right political opinions, or a clever social media post, or pious Christian church jargon. The only thing that he will identify with is the cross of Christ.

When Paul refers to “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”, he is referring to the fact that we are sinful and unable to save ourselves, but that Jesus Christ has come to rescue us. And so Paul’s point is that he realizes that there is no point in our posturing or maintaining appearances. He is acknowledging that the only identity worth having is through Jesus Christ, as God’s own son or daughter.

Paul finishes by saying that it is in the cross “through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” What he means here is that once we have accepted the Gospel, our primary identity is as a son or daughter of God. What the world thinks of us no longer matters. What matters is that we are part of the kingdom of God.

Being part of the kingdom of God is not about wearing the right clothes, or having the right political or social opinions, or fitting in with the enlightened crowd on social media, or being part of the holy huddle at church. Being part of the kingdom of God is about a transformed heart and mind. It is about realizing that we have nothing to boast about in ourselves. We are powerless over sin. It is only with this acknowledgement and a humble heart that we can turn to Jesus and turn our lives and our will over to Him.

And in this humility and turning to Jesus will the Holy Spirit begin the new creation within us, as we become transformed into the sons and daughters of God and living the lives God has called us to live. Paul writes “what counts is the new creation.” So let us turn away from trying to prove something to others through ourselves and our appearances, and instead surrender to God, and admit that we are powerless over our sinful lives. Let us turn our lives over to Jesus in humility and let the Holy Spirit begin the new creation within us.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus Christ, give us the humility to acknowledge that we are powerless in light of our sinful nature. Let us understand what Paul understood and say with him “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” And in so doing Lord, we will become your adopted children through that cross of Christ. Amen.