That bigger picture is much harder to grasp when we only get one tiny slice of the pie on a Sunday morning -- God’s redemptive work is cannot be encapsulated in the simplistic teaching to “be humble.” Keeping the greater context in our hearts and minds this morning I want to work with the short gospel scene and consider how it would sound coming from a Christian person in our time and place...
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
The Lutheran stood by herself and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: I don’t want to be a democrat for they are reckless and naive. I don’t want to be a republican either for their selfishness and fear-mongering is tiring. Thank you God that you clearly bless my political leanings so I can celebrate the line between us and them and never have to cross over.
God, thank you that I am not another sect of your church because I like not having to worry about good works and I like the way we interpret the bible and I’m pretty sure other churches get it wrong and so I’m happy you’re here with us and not over there with them.
God, thank you that I am not like other people who have criminal records that will haunt them all their days no matter how much corrective work they have done. Thank you that I do not come from a broken home which would make it harder to come to church every week, thank you that I fit the perfect little model of the family you intended -- a real, one-size fits all family is what you meant, right?
Thank you God that I am not like the tax-collectors or other people who serve corporate greed, oil companies or any other evil structures on this earth. I’m a self-made human, and would never be complicit in injustice never mind where my clothes come from or the fact that I guzzle so much gas each day without a second thought. God, I thank you that I am not like other people but rather am here, in your house on a Sunday morning (unlike the heathens who stayed in bed or did other activities on this holy day), I am righteous because I’m so darn good, a shiney Christian in my nice clothes and upright living. Thank you God that I don’t even need to ask you for anything because I’ve got it figured out -- the answers to faithful living are so black and white, I’ve made all the right choices, I’ve kept your law to the very letter, I attend worship every week and tithe the perfect 10% of my income to support the church. God, I thank you that I am not like other people. Amen.
Now, this contemporary take on the Pharisee’s prayer is laced with an exaggerated smugness. We know we are not to pray or think like the arrogant, independent Pharisee -- he is clothed in religious hypocrisy! But who among us hasn’t ever thought, “I’m glad I’m not like….” and then we can fill in the blank with the people group or label that is irritating or threatening us most at any given moment. And in that phrase, “Thank God I’m not like other people” I believe we hit on the deep sin of this prayer. The Pharisee, and so often the contemporary Christian celebrates the lines between us and them. Even though this scene from Luke’s gospel is very short, the author took the time to tell us exactly where both the Pharisee and the tax collector are...the Pharisee is “standing by himself” set apart from the whole community to his self-righteous prayer. And he thanks God for the distance between himself and those who are not like him -- especially calling out those that society has deemed dangerous and wrong. From the Pharisee’s vantage point on his high-moral pedestal, God was with him, he was righteous because he had earned it through proper living and good choices.
This very religious man drew lines around himself, drew lines to divide the worshipping community and tried to draw lines around God Almighty.
In this election year our country has become obsessed with line drawing. Social media posts are filled with self-righteousness and opinions, political rallies filled with moral superiority and smug attitudes. It seems to me that the citizens of the nation have allowed themselves to be drawn into tiny corners and taught to celebrate the lines that divide.
As God’s children, as people of the cross, we have a unique and important voice in our nation. We get to share a story that God began and continues to write through the lives of all God’s children -- we get to share the story of a God who absolutely cannot be contained to a political party, or to a moral box that is black or white, we get to share the love of God that is blurring the lines we celebrate and working salvation in the lives of those we call dangerous and wrong.
In sharing the story of God’s love we are called to be marked with persistence, humility and reconciliation. And in the next few weeks our neighbors, no matter what sign they have stamped in their yard or how humble or arrogant we may be...our community and our very souls will hunger for a story like the story God is telling here today.
I saw this story take on flesh and blood this week. On Monday night nine people gathered in our fellowship hall in front of the fireplace. Five people were from this church, four people were from the Islamic Society in Woodbury. I heard about the beauty and mutual appreciation that was born out of the “Meet Your Neighbor” even that happened here last summer. Two very different faith communities came together to celebrate something, and it wasn’t the lines that divide (and there are lines that divide) but instead the celebration lifted up all that unites! I heard about fear of the unknown, but also about the comfort of knowing our neighbors. Lines were blurry and community was cultivated.
So we, the Lutheran church of Memorial will continue to attempt to tell the story of our God. We’ll tell it to our neighbors and we’ll tell is alongside our neighbors. And lest we believe that our righteousness will come from our own good works or thoughtful behaviors, we must remember the prayer of the tax-collector as well this morning.
The prayer of the tax-collector from our story is this, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” and if we were to set it in our contemporary setting, making it unique to every political, racial, religious, moral situation we all find ourselves in...it would sound like this...“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
The prayer of the tax-collector is timeless, the prayer from mortal to Divine speaking the truth of our nature to the truth of God’s nature. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” With a repentant heart we learn more about the unfolding story of God’s love and unfailing mercy that we are called to share and so we say, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.