A sermon preached at John Knox Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri on October 27, 2013.
NPR this week offered an expose on the Canadian band Arcade Fire.
They’re a bit of an indy favorite these days, Arcade Fire,
and they even won an Album of the Year Grammy in 2011
for The Suburbs.
So they share that honor this decade with such luminaries
as Taylor Swift, Adele, and Mumford and Sons.
I really wish I could like them more,
but its not really my style of music.
Not enough acoustic guitar, perhaps.
But my pastor friend Marci was reflecting with me on this[i]
text from Luke, these ongoing biting, incisive,
deeply exposing parables of Jesus
that are recorded in Luke,
and she was listening to the song City with No Children
when she heard this parable coming through the lyrics…[ii]
You never trust a millionaire
quoting the sermon on the mount
I used to think I was not like them
but I’m beginning to have my doubts
my doubts about it.
When you’re hiding underground
The rain can’t get you wet
But do you think your righteousness
could pay the interest on your debt?
I have my doubts about it….
I used to think I was not like them, but I’m beginning to have my doubts..
* * *
The Parables of Jesus evoke no small amount of introspection.
They help us see the world in a new way.
They encourage us to take stock of our own lives
our habits, our relationships, our hopes, our faults
and to reorient them so that they
can better serve God’s purposes, God’s realm.
If it is true, as we said last week,
that the parables offer to us an opening into the Realm of God
and some teaching for us about what it means
for the Realm of God to dwell in our hearts
and in our world,
then this parable, perhaps,
encourages us to pause and reflect and perhaps
take a deep breath.
This text comes immediately after last week’s reading about
the unjust judge and the persistent widow
that persistent widow…reflecting perhaps the
amazing persistence of God
the one who welcomes and redeems
and renews and cleans our hearts and our spirits.
the widow whose ongoing determination
brings about justice…
And where THAT parable, Jesus told us
was about the need to keep on praying, and to not lose heart,
THIS parable offers what might be seen as a caveat:
Simply put: prayer just for prayers’ sake is not Jesus’ point.
Not any old prayer will do:
It does NOT count to pray that the Chiefs win this afternoon.
It is NOT Jesus’ point that we pray for the success of our lotto pics.
Even prayers of CELEBRATION that we passed that exam
or scored that big sale
or even that our guy or gal
won the big election
may be suspect.
Pray with perseverance, YES, says Jesus
but….be CAREFUL about how you pray and what you pray for.
* * *
Now, that corrective, that warning, might take us a bit by surprise.
Some of us might think that any publicity is good publicity, right,
so any prayer must have something good about it.
The very act of prayer acknowledges God, does it not?
It turns to God and desires communication with God.
It might even praise God, ascribe to God all glory and praise and honor.
What could be so wrong about that?
* * *
So there is this Pharisee, says Jesus,
and then there is this Tax Collector.
And, again, Jesus immediately sets the stage with two
very clear stock characters:
To Jesus’ audience: the Pharisee is the devoted one,
seeking to follow the law, the TORAH, in every aspect of his life
and he works to encourage YOU and ME to do so as well.
This is a noble motive, is it not?
To be moved by God’s Word and inspired by God’s vision
and DEDICATED to making it a reality
not just through lip service but through actual practice.
The Pharisee, the faithful one,
the one who is very likely persistent in prayer
the one who fears God, unlike that pesky Judge
the one who yearns for a holy life, holy living.
That’s the Pharisee.
Then there’s the Tax Collector.
What Good could there be to say about the Tax Collector?
Who likes Taxes?
And more to the point, who likes ROMAN taxes?
These collaborators with the occupying state
walked with the imprimatur of Rome,
with the weight of the Roman army behind them
to extract the levy due, and often a bit more for themselves.
They were often seen as venal, unscrupulous, and dishonest.
Not at all the upright citizen or exemplar of faith that the Pharisee
stuffy as he might be, is considered to be.
Sure, the tax collector is also a member of the faithful of Israel.
Sure, the tax collector is headed up to pray at the temple, too.
But, lets be real here for a second:
who do we really, truly think God FAVORS in this scenario?
* * *
And right THERE, that’s where we begin to get in trouble, I think.
Jesus uses these presumptions and turns them on our head:
the Pharisee, posing for the crowds in the middle of the temple
raises his voice and thanks God for his Goodness.
For his ability to keep the torah:
to tithe and to fast.
“Thank you that I am not like other people”
the tax-collector, privately, weeps and beats his chest
and wont even countenance God
when he asks for mercy…
And the latter, Jesus says, the tax-collector,
the reviled and disrespected one, HE earns God’s approval.
Not all prayer cuts it, Jesus suggests to us,
certainly not self-righteous, self-aggrandizing, self-lauding prayer.
* * *
Now, it helps to be a bit nuanced here.
These kinds of texts are often misunderstood
as calls to put ourselves down.
Worse yet, sometimes they are used by powerful people
to tell others to put themselves down
or sometimes they are seen
as calls for us not to worry about our behavior
as long as we’re contrite in the end,
or some use them to shame others,
thinking that other people need to feel
broken or rended of heart
so that they tearfully call for mercy.
I don’t think that’s what’s going on here,
nor do I think that helps us very much.
The Tax-Collector has his own issues, to be sure,
but its his acknowledgment of God’s mercy
and lack of self-righteousness that is lifted up here.
The point, perhaps,
is more about what attitudes WE harbor
what presumptions WE bear
where is OUR heart when we pray.
Does PRIDE cloud our relationship with God?
Does PRESUMPTION lead us to
assume that we are in the right and THEY are not?
Does JUDGMENT keep us from kindness and empathy and love?
* * *
And when put in those terms,
this parable, more than many others, convicts me.
As Arcade Fire sings,
I used to think I was not like them but I’m beginning to have my doubts.
This week, alone,
I’ve thought the following:
I am so glad that I parent the way I do,
and not the way THAT KID’s parents choose to parent.
I am so PROUD that I have my act together
wouldn’t it be good for others to do what I do?
I am so tired of those who don’t seem to be working
as HARD as I seem to be working
or caring as DEEPLY as I seem to be caring
I’m tired of THEM getting all the glory.
When we ponder it,
I think it is really easy to see the ways
in which we sometimes act like the Pharisee.
Without even noticing it.
Laura Sugg, in her analysis of this text, asks:[iii]
Who are you, a Pharisee or a tax collector?
It is hard to read this parable without placing yourself
in one role or the other,
or hearing oneself in both people.
Which of us has not felt a bit self-satisfied
on a Sunday morning?
“O Lord, I thank thee that I am not like other people:
my next-door neighbor who is enjoying a round of golf
right now instead of attending worship;
my friend in the other political party
who does not understand your will for our nation;
or even that scruffy-looking taxi driver
sitting two pews over.
I am here every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening.
I pledge faithfully;
I serve on three important church committees.”
The point ISN’T that these things are BAD—making good choices
being good people
participating in God’s work.
The point is really one of PRIDE:
how seductive is it to move beyond celebration to hubris
how easy it is to hide behind the trappings of faith
PRAYING and FASTING and GIVING and SERVING
and presume that these ACTS
make us right with God
and, worse, BETTER than those other folk.
When, in truth, we are already, all of us,
PHARISEE and TAX-COLLECTOR
ACTIVE MEMBER and TOO BUSY PARENT
DEEPLY FAITHFUL and STRUGGLING, WRESTLING believer
TEA-PARTY and LIBERAL and those IN-BETWEEN
we all, my friends, are ALREADY made right with God
because of God’s love in Jesus Christ
and God only wants us
to have thankful, holy, humble hearts in response.
* * *
The good news is that God knows this tendency of ours
and apparently is persistent enough
to keep working on us until we get it.
And God gives us reminders from time to time
that all good things come from God,
that we should be careful about self-righteousness
and should work on cultivating GRATEFUL hearts instead.
But it does pose a question for us:
What does a heart filled with GRATITUDE look like?
Is it in selfless acts of caring,
a million-tiny deeds of thankgiving
from opening a door for someone
to saying thank you to your Starbucks barista
who OBVIOUSLY is having an awful day
to sending that get-better-soon card
to your sister you’ve been fighting with?
to a silent acknowledgement that
all our success and all our accomplishments
are built on gifts given to us by others
lessons handed down from teachers
opportunities given to us by bosses
and ultimately all these things from God?
Could it be in stopping to smell the roses, to use a cliché
that actually has something to teach us in our
too busy, too hectic, too stressful world
so that we stop to really look at others
and to see God working in them
with their flaws and their shortcomings
just as God is working in us with ours?
Does it sing with echoes of thanksgiving,
like we hear from the psalmist today:
You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
What do you think? How would you answer?
What does a heart filled with GRATITUDE look like?
* * *
We are going to be exploring THAT question some more
in the next several weeks,
as we enter a season of Thanksgiving
and a season of stewardship.
We will ponder how WE live with blessing in abundance
God’s provision of life and love and hope and all sorts of gifts
so that we can be God’s hands and feet and heart in the world.
And we will work to point to GOD as the source of all these good things,
and we will celebrate God working in us and in others
so that God’s LOVE may be shared deep and wide.
For today, as we ponder what it means to approach God in prayer
not just persistently but with grateful and humble hearts
asking for God’s mercy when we get it wrong
celebrating God’s initiative when we get it right
may we always be seeking ways to join in what God is doing
so that God’s will may be done and not our own,
that God’s glory may be lifted up and not our own.
And may we look for the surprising ways in which
those we may least suspect are joining in that work too…
May it be so.
[ii] See http://www.metrolyrics.com/city-with-no-children-lyrics-arcade-fire.html (accessed October 27, 2013)
[iii] Feasting on the Word. Citation forthcoming
(Image The Pharisee and the Publican by JESUS MAFA under creative commons license. Note: JESUS MAFA is a response to the New Testament readings from the Lectionary by a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa. Each of the readings were selected and adapted to dramatic interpretation by the community members. Photographs of their interpretations were made, and these were then transcribed to paintings. See: www.jesusmafa.com and www.SocialTheology.com. See http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48268)