A Sermon for 27 October 2019 – Reformation Sunday
A reading from the gospel of Luke 18:9-14. Listen for God’s word to us.
“Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
I learned the story this week of two women. Mrs. R. and Ms. M.
Mrs. R. had a beautiful-looking life! Born and raised in a picture-perfect suburb with sprawling lawns and quiet streets just east of a mid-sized, mid-western city. Mrs. R was proud of her 6-bedroom home. One for her and her prominent lawyer-husband. One for each of her 4 teenage children. One extra, for just in case. Every afternoon, her children gathered in their large bonus room around their huge flat-screen TV to watch the latest my-baby-daddy-done-me-wrong talk show. Mrs. R. was proud of the fact she had spent her life in the beautiful little borough in which she had grown up. All was right with the world because her children attended the same AP-class-offering high school which she did. They too were on track for whatever ivy league college they wanted. It was true that her youngest child was a constant bother to Mrs. R., but that had more to do with her daughter’s stubborn, break-the-rules nature, Mrs. R. reasoned, than with the fact they almost lost her as a preemie. Unaware, somewhere deep-down in her unconscious, the anxiety of those early months still haunted Mrs. R. So that any who might have known their whole history easily would have seen it was a classic case of attachment disorder – something primal seizing Mrs. R. to protect herself from the potential of the greatest loss. Mrs. R. had aspired to be a reporter – she liked to be in the know. She had all the makings for a promising career – had it not been for the even deeper desire to build a beautiful-looking life with a successful man who was able to provide a stable income for Mrs. R. to be able to do what her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her great-grandmother before them did. Make a home from her home so she’d be there every moment for her children in their youngest years. Only when they got older would she venture out to try writing for the suburb’s local newspaper instead of following any dream for something like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Sometimes she fantasized of having followed classmates to jobs in the big city. But for the most part, Mrs. R. felt safe in a prescribed pattern. She liked the rules. She believed everyone else had to follow them too. Everything thing from what color the homes in their neighborhood were allowed to be, to who got rewarded with opportunities due to their connections around town. Like her, for instance, who because of her upbringing knew pretty much everyone who was anyone. She hosted them each year at her annual Christmas party – to be sure they all kept well-connected. Just in case the need ever arose to call in the kinds of favors Mrs. R. routinely called in. She reasoned it was so she might find out the truth she needed to know – for her reporter job, of course; not for any gain of her own. She pursed her lips at others a lot and never really knew what her teenagers were up to. They didn’t come to her often. Mrs. R. never even noticed. Not that it really mattered – at least to her. Everything looked beautiful. They had it all! Until the day it all came tumbling down.
She would trace the trouble back to the day her path crossed with Ms. M. Ms. M. who was an artist – what sort of profession was that, Mrs. R. often wondered!? Ms. M. had no roots. Well, she actually did; but Ms. M. was the kind of person who preferred to move around. From a young age she had shown interest in taking pictures. She loved to capture those moments that would take your breath away. She was daring and bold so that she did things with photographs few would think to do. She dove into her work – spending hours at a time on each project. Working a few odd jobs on the side to provide enough money for food, rent, utilities. An occasional splurge at the local thrift shop for a new-to-her shirt or pants for her budding, bright teenage daughter. Ms. M. never talked of a father. Had actually never been with a man, but had come by the pregnancy of her daughter in a bizarre twist of financial desperation while at art school that started her down the path of becoming a surrogate for a wealthy couple who had crossed Ms. M.’s path years before. No one knew this, however, least of all her daughter. Everyone just assumed Ms. M. was a free-spirit. Had a bad break up. Or was just another unwed mother. Ms. M. kept pretty much to herself so that no one ever learned the truth. The interesting thing was, Ms. M. was interesting. She had the sort of quiet, unassuming confidence that drew others to her. Time and again, Mrs. R.’s own children turned to Ms. M. After all, Ms. M. never judged, as Mrs. R. always did. Ms. M. was never preachy, as Mrs. R. always was. Ms. M. just provided space. The kind of acceptance that allowed teens who were trying to figure out life, a place where they could tell the truth – the whole truth about why they did what they did. What really was going on. How their hearts were breaking and that for which their young spirits hoped. To the outsider – and especially to Mrs. R., it looked like Ms. M. was a dismal failure – hardly scraping by in their unfurnished, rented duplex. We’re talking mattress on the floor for Ms. M.’s own bed. Overstuffed pillows instead of a couch. No TV and only a rickety old table in the kitchen with two brightly colored chairs so at least they could eat the latest concoction Ms. M. whipped up from whatever sale items she found at the grocery. Mrs. R. roller her eyes in disdain every time she thought about life in that little duplex. Ms. M. just meandered along. Not really worried about what anyone else thought. Ensuring those who turned to her for help always found welcome as she had when she was young and needed it the most. . . . Two very different women. Which one, do you think, climbed in bed each night fully satisfied?
Until we are humbled, something in us seems almost innate, doesn’t it? To look upon others. Seeing them, judgmentally, as others – not nearly as good as ourselves. Jesus told a story about that. A parable, unique to the gospel of Luke, in which Jesus tried to drive home a point about “some who trust in themselves that they are righteous and regard others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). Two men, Jesus’ story starts. One a Pharisee. Another a tax collector. One a perceived saint. Another a perceived sinner. So much has been written about Pharisees. Ones with which Jesus appears to be in conflict over and over again in the gospels. Did you know that the name Pharisee is believed to have it’s roots in a Hebrew word meaning separate or detached (https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/pharisees). Christian history has done a poor job by pointing fingers at the Pharisees – a sect of Jewish religious leaders during Jesus’ day. Thinking they were a big problem. I can’t believe Jesus’ protest of them had anything at all to do with their being Jewish. Jesus himself was Jewish. Nor must he have cared that they really cared about the rules. It’s recorded in the gospel of Matthew that he himself once claimed he came not to banish the law but to fulfill it – to show how to live its essence. The First Century historian Josephus writes that “the Pharisees maintained a simple lifestyle, were affectionate and harmonious in their dealings with others, especially respectful to their elders, and quite influential throughout the land of Israel although at the time of Herod they numbered only about six thousand” (Ibid.). I can’t believe Jesus had a problem at all with Pharisees who went about living in such a way. The problem, according to Jesus’ parable, just as with Mrs. R. and Ms. M., has to do with the blindness of the particular man proud of his separateness. So exalted in who he believed himself to be that he stood in the Temple for prayers proclaiming: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people” (Luke 18:11). God, I thank you that I am separate. Special. Better than others like thieves, rogues, adulterers, you fill in the blank. Can you believe such a prayer?
Christ lived among us to show us the way God sees. No matter our human tendency to categorize, separate, cast judgement; the Christ sees inter-connection. A web of human life. The Divine Spirit of God living in all and through all. Certainly, we can block the Spirit of God from flowing through us – with things like our unbridled anger, our out of control fear, our inner shame, and our bitter feelings towards others. With these at the helm, we literally find ourselves cut off from others and God and our deepest selves. We separate ourselves through our own attitudes and actions. In the Christian tradition, we call that separation sin. The travesty that breaks the right, inter-connected relationships for which we were made. It’s one thing to try to live rightly, God knows we won’t always get it right. It’s another thing altogether to dwell in the disposition of the man who gave thanks to God that he wasn’t like others. To be puffed up as something separate. Missing the truth altogether.
No matter the cacophony of cultural voices trying to convince we’re not like one another. Honesty about our inter-connection is the consciousness to which we are called. It’s a different way of seeing the world. Another lens through which we are to look. Jesus did his best to teach us in all he said and did. Maybe someday we’ll get it right and at last enter into the joy of the eternal kingdom. The Way to which all are called.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)
 To see what happens to Mrs. R. and Ms. M, read the novel Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng.