Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stumbling Blocks


I was honored to preach at my field site (Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church) on Sunday. Below is a transcript of my sermon. And, of course, the cartoon that I referenced. For it only being my second sermon, I actually wasn't that nervous! Classically, I didn't really give myself enough time to really develop my ideas, so I could have done better. But I think I got my point across. I really appreciate all of the support that my home church, McCormick, and the LPPC congregation gave me on Sunday!


Luke 18:9-14: Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘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.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

This might be one of the only times there was a projector in the sanctuary. I had a friend send me a cartoon a few days ago, that I think is perfect for this parable. Cyanide and Happiness is an internet cartoon, and one of my favorites. Now, I’ll be honest. Not all of their cartoons are “Sunday morning sermon” appropriate. But this one was just perfect! It is a 4-panel cartoon, with two friends talking.
Person 1: “I want to lend my friend money to help him out, but I’m worried he’ll spend it on drugs. Hmm…what would Jesus do?”
Person 2: “Say a bunch of stuff, then be misinterpreted by millions of people for the next few millennia?”
Person 1: “That’s not what I meant at all.”
Person 2: “So we’re off to a good start.”

Jesus is speaking to people who “have convinced themselves that they were righteous and looked upon everyone else in disgust”.  A Pharisee and a tax collector are going to the temple to pray. The Pharisees were the religious leaders. They were held in high respect by the public and indeed, were very much the public image of the religious class. Now, as someone who studied accounting in undergrad, I have a very different idea of what a tax collector is today compared to those in the first century. A tax collector could walk up to anyone on the street and tax them for what they were carrying. These men were typically Jewish individuals, working for Rome, and often would overtax people so they could keep some of the money. I don’t know about you, but I do not like the sound of that. The tax collectors were often put down and considered to be vicious, vile and degraded.

The argument could be made that both parties in this parable are correct. I think depending on the day you’re having, you can identify with the Pharisee or the tax collector. Days when I feel like I’ve really got it together, I can easily thank God by saying, “I am so glad I am not like them!” But those days when I feel as though everything is going against me, all I can do is act like the tax collector and beg for God’s mercy.

It is easy to interpret it in a straightforward manner. If you have even the slightest knowledge about Jesus’s life and the message he came to share, then seeing the Pharisee as Jesus’s nemesis is easily done. And the tax collectors were hated in Jesus’s day, again, another easy target. We see the surface-level messages of “be humble” or, “don’t be like the self-righteous Pharisee”. Which could be a valid interpretation of the text. But then we are left with possibly taking away the message of, “thank goodness I’m not like those people over there. Because I’m here in church, actively listening to Scripture, and have learned to be humble”.

This parable is a trap. We’ve been set up by the author of Luke to take the easy road – be humble and not boastful. Don’t think too highly of yourself, and you’re on the right path. I like to think of the author of Luke as a director who just looooooves plot twists. Someone like M. Night Shyamalan, who directed The Sixth Sense, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Now honestly the twist in this parable isn’t one that’s going to knock you out of your seats, send you running from the pews or leave you feeling like you don’t know whether or not you’re living in The Matrix. But the message, like so many of Jesus’s parables, is a twist nevertheless.

So what is going on here? Before we get into all of that, I just want to define a few terms for you. Because if I learned anything from high school debate, it was that you have to define the terms you’re going to use or else people might get caught up.

Righteousness – mostly concerning moral and ethical conduct. Historically, are you seen as doing the right thing in God’s eyes? Are you following the laws?
Justified – when one has been declared or made righteous in God’s eyes. This is more than just following the laws. I see it as are you following the spirit of the law, not just the words. Only then will you be justified: and be declared righteous.
When translating the Greek, you end up with 2 sets of words – just and right. Both of these words share a common root in the Greek, which can also be traced back to a Hebraic concept of the Old Testament – God’s gracious and covenantal relationship to the people of Israel. This root word was also used in the everyday Greek of the New Testament times to imply whether or not one was following the standard laws laid out in the Old Testament.

What is the real concern here? Being a Pharisee/tax collector or praising too loudly?
Everything that the Pharisee says in Luke is true. He is righteous, according to the laws, the standards that Luke establishes and even by Jesus who names him as righteous in this story. The Pharisee has set himself apart by faithfully adhering to the law. In verse 11 when he thanks God for not making him like everyone else, he is basically holding up his life to the 10 commandments. He fasts during the week, he tithes, he prays to God. The Pharisee doesn’t understand that the source of his righteousness is from God. What the Pharisee is confused about is not how he should be living his life, because he is already living a life of righteousness.

The tax collector’s prayer is not one that we would immediately think is the right one. He doesn’t say that he is quitting his job, or going to help those who he cheated. The tax collector hasn’t tried to start a better life, just admitted the one that he is living right now is not ok. The tax collector knows that his life is not a righteous one. He stood at a distance from the temple, not wanting to go too close. The tax collector was correct not because his prayer was humble, but because he knew that he hasn’t done anything to claim righteousness. The tax collector knows that righteousness is a gift from God, and did the only thing he could: ask for forgiveness and mercy. He depended on God.

This parable is being told to people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked upon everyone else with disgust. Finding righteousness in yourself is the problem.  The Pharisee is not claiming righteousness that he doesn’t possess, but he is claiming that all of his righteousness is from his own personal actions and choices. The Pharisee might be praying to God, but he is really thanking himself for making the right decisions.

One’s own accomplishments are not to be praised and are not enough stake a claim to righteousness through. That is through God and God alone. But the Pharisee takes it farther and, like the people Jesus is speaking to in this parable, is haughty enough to despise others within the context of prayer. 

Here’s the real crux of the story. The “Haves” vs “Havenots”. Instead of thanking God for his righteousness and approaching the tax collector as an equal, the Pharisee places himself above the tax collector in prayer. This goes against everything that Jesus taught. He came to break down the divisions that were put into place. This man, who was righteous, was not understanding. This is not ok in the eyes of Jesus.  At church there are still insiders and outsiders. We define them in different ways, but they still exist. I know that I am guilty of it. If I hear about a conservative Christian church doing something that I think is inappropriate or against the message that Jesus taught, I find myself saying, “Thank goodness I am not like them!” These divisions exist in conservative and liberal Christianity. We have just renamed the Pharisees and tax collectors. But there shouldn’t be these divisions. When Jesus died, the curtain separating the 2 groups was torn in two (Luke 23:45). There are no divisions before God. And prayer is not the place to only further instill these divisions in our head.

Back to the story - the Pharisee left and went to his home, maintaining his righteousness. He was wrong, but still followed the laws. So he had his righteousness. But the tax collector left the temple justified. Here’s this word, justified. His prayer was transformative. Jesus named him justified because he put his trust in God, not himself. The Pharisee left the temple the same as how he was when he came. But the tax collector was lifted up by Jesus and declared to be equal in the eyes of God.

This parable is really about shifting the attention we put on ourselves and our own actions to God’s great grace, mercy and love.

So what? How can we apply this parable to our lives today? This parable is perfect for stewardship season. How are you serving the church? Are you serving to maintain your righteousness? Are you serving so that you will be exalted by others? Do we serve to put ourselves in the ‘righteous’ group?

Now, I cannot really speak for this congregation, but I know that I have had problems in the past with accepting leadership roles because I wanted the spotlight. I wanted people to look at me and say, gosh. Look how many things Sarah is doing! About a year ago, I was beginning seminary. I didn't come to seminary blindly, but I also didn't come with the wealth of knowledge and experience that I assumed my classmates would have. So I was extremely nervous. I wanted to make a good impression and thought the best way to do that was to be involved in the culture of the school in a way that I was not involved in in undergrad. When I was nominated by my classmates to be a deacon representative during orientation, I was extremely flattered! However I didn't spend much time prayerfully thinking about accepting the nomination. I just thought about how much I wanted to be in a leadership role and accepted. Once a deacon, I almost immediately went for the most public position: the co-moderator. I cannot honestly say that I took on this role for selfless reasons. On the contrary, they were extremely selfish. I wanted people to put me in the righteous category, not the tax collector category. I was the person who was able to take a full load of classes, work 2 jobs and run the deacons. But I was trying to maintain my own righteousness. I wanted all of the glory. I loved the way that people treated me differently. But I should have been working to tear down the divisions instead of working within them.

While we are in the midst of the stewardship season, I want to challenge you to think about ways that you try and maintain your own righteousness. Are you serving because you feel called by God? Are you serving because you want to be seen as righteous and holy in the eyes of others? Or is your serving rooted in love? What are the ways that you can flourish, and help others to flourish? To be justified, like the tax collector, we need to remember that it isn’t just about doing the right things all the time. Our actions are not enough. We need to base our lives in trusting God’s mercy, seeking God’s love and remembering to love our neighbor. Don’t stumble over the easy interpretation or answer. Place your trust in God’s mercy, because no one is excluded before God.

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