Monday, August 20, 2012

A Surprising Reversal

The following sermon was preached August 19th 2012 at Lighthouse Lutheran Church in Freedom, Pa.

It is a tremendous privilege to be here at Lighthouse Lutheran and invited to preach. As pastor Whalen said, I am a student at Trinity School for Ministry, and studying to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. I haven’t always been an Episcopalian though. I was actually raised as a Presbyterian, and my family is still active in the Presbyterian Church. I’ve visited quite a number of different churches before finally landing in the Episcopal Church. For a while I even attended a Lutheran Church. I found much to admire there and have learned that it has a lot in common with my own Anglican/Episcopal church.

Not only have I had the opportunity to experience a bit of the diversity of the Christian faith, but I’ve also sat in on a few services from entirely different religious traditions. I took a class in World Religions a few years ago, and our professor asked that we visit a variety of places of worship from outside the Christian faith.  His hope was that we would gain a greater appreciation for what it felt like to be an unbeliever or seeker visiting one of our churches. He wanted us, in a kind of reversal, to know what it felt like to be the outsider looking in.

Following these instructions, my wife and I visited Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Jewish Synagogue, on a Saturday morning. We certainly did feel like outsiders. At the door to the sanctuary there was a bowl full of yarmulkes. I awkwardly took one and fastened it to my hair. Inside there was hardly anyone there, accept a few worshipers. All of the prayers were being sung in Hebrew. I tried to follow along, putting my very limited knowledge of Hebrew to the test, but didn’t have much success. The service seemed to go on forever and eventually the sanctuary was full of worshipers. There was a brief lesson (given in English thankfully) and I began to feel a bit more comfortable, especially when I looked across the way (they met in the round) and caught the eye of a familiar face, a co-worker of mine who seemed extremely amused and bewildered to see the young man she knew from work who was studying to be a Christian pastor.

Although the service was largely in another language, I felt I could connect with the scripture readings, many of the prayers, and even a lot of the lesson. The biggest moment of cultural-religious vertigo came not during the service, but afterwards as I looked over the welcoming table in the lobby. There was a small stack of newsletters with a title that certainly raised my eyebrows. The name of their newsletter was “The Pharisee.”

My gut reaction was to think, “Don’t they know that the Pharisees are the bad guys? Why would anyone, especially such warm and friendly people as these, want to be associated with that vicious, arrogant, self-righteous rabble?”  In Christian circles we are accustomed to thinking of the Pharisees this way. When the Pharisees come up in a Gospel reading our programmed response is to boo and hiss saying, “I can’t wait to see how Jesus nails them this time!” Seeing the Pharisees lifted up as a standard of godliness and faithfulness seemed like a highly ironic reversal to me.

The original audience of today’s gospel reading would have had the opposite response.  Among the people of God who were serious about being faithful and living according to the Holy Scriptures, the Pharisees would definitely have been considered the good guys. They distanced themselves from the Temple establishment that had become corrupt and compromised by its association with the Pagan Roman Empire, and instead emphasized that fidelity to God was to be found in everyday actions such as gathering around the table and having a meal with family. They shared with Jesus a belief that the writings and prophets were holy scripture, along with the law, as well as a belief in the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and the age to come. Believe it or not, out of all the various religious movements of his time, Jesus appears to have most in common with the Pharisees! 

When Jesus tells a story about two men who went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, it would seem immediately obvious to his listeners who the good guy was and who the bad guy was going to be.  Pharisees were known for their piety, but one wouldn’t expect to see a tax collector in prayer at all. Tax collectors were notorious for being greedy colluders with Rome, traitors, and oppressors of the poor. Jesus, however, turns the people’s expectations on their heads.

The Pharisee is outwardly blameless. He does all the right things and then some. The Law requires the faithful to fast on the Day of Atonement, but this guy fasts twice a week! The Law requires the faithful to tithe on certain crops, but like a good Pharisee, this guy tithes on everything – even garden herbs. Everything the Pharisee says about his actions is true. The problem is the spirit in which it is said. The Pharisee does not come to God humbly acknowledging his utter dependence on him, but instead is full of pride in his own accomplishments. The Pharisee’s prayer offers praise to himself rather than to God! The Pharisee finds his justification, the validation for his standing before God, in comparison to other people. He isn’t like the wicked tax collector, he is one of the good guys, and on that basis he believes he can come boldly into God’s presence.  The Tax Collector, in contrast, stands far off and beats his chest.  He acknowledges that he is a sinner, and begs God for mercy.

At this point, we may be tempted to compare ourselves to both of these characters. You may say, “God, I thank you that I am not like this wicked Pharisee who seeks to justify himself on the basis of his good deeds, but I am a good Lutheran and know that I am justified by faith alone!”  Do you see how doing that would be another ironic reversal? We are more like the Pharisee than we care to admit, even if most of us wouldn’t be quite as blatant about it. It seems like an unavoidable part of our human nature to find our identity and justification by comparing ourselves to others. I once read a sermon by Debbie Blue that put it this way,

“We construct, we know, our goodness over against some other person or philosophy or way of being. How can we feel good if we don’t know what out there is bad, or define ourselves over against it? And it works better if there’s a bad that seems “out there,” something we think we are not really a part of (corporate America, fundamentalism, decadent living, worldliness, repressive government, whatever).”

We saw this principle illustrated well recently in the media. The president of Chick-Fil-A came out against same-sex marriage and in defense of traditional marriage, and suddenly it felt like everyone was scrambling to take sides. One side was congratulating themselves that they weren’t like those backwards bigots who hate gay people and the other side was congratulating themselves for not being like those liberals who don’t support freedom of speech and mock traditional values. For a couple of weeks it seemed like the whole nation was seeking to justify themselves on the basis of whether they did or didn’t patronize a particular fast food restaurant.

Jesus commends the tax collector because of his humility. The tax collector knows that his life is not pleasing to God. He doesn’t try to justify himself by comparing himself with someone more sinful than he is. He is remorseful and realizes that he has nothing to stand upon but God’s mercy. The Pharisee’s prayer tells us very little about God and much about himself, but the tax-collector’s prayer is rooted in his faith that God is merciful and gracious. Because of his humility, the tax collector’s prayer is accepted but because of the Pharisee’s pride and presumption, his prayer is rejected. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”(Luke 18:14 ESV)

Our justification lies not in our righteous deeds – how well we stack up against others, or with whom we associate ourselves.  It lies rather in the most dramatic reversal of all.  “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV). The very Holy One of God, God’s only begotten son, in whom he was well pleased, became despised and rejected for us. The wrath due to us because of our sin was poured out on him, and God’s blessing, love, and forgiveness was poured out on us guilty sinners. God the son humbled himself to become man, to suffer for us upon the cross, and even descend into Hell itself. Although he was laid low by the powers of sin and death, God exalted him through his resurrection and ascension, so that we too might share in his glory. It is to Christ and Christ alone that we should look for our justification.

God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

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