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Claim the Victory Now

God winsPentecost 23 on Luke 21:5-19 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Even though Jesus is speaking about the future in our passage from Luke his words sound very present—not only to his audience in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, but they sound very contemporary to us today.

Every generation, from Jesus’ time to 2022 lives with calamity, war, and illness. For the first century it was the tyranny of the Roman empire that led to exploitation, violence, poverty, Jesus’ crucifixion, and eventually the destruction of the Temple that the disciples so admire in our text.

Today, we too hear of wars and insurrections, great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. I do not need to detail or review the evening new for you. 

However, none of this means we are living in the end times. Every generation thinks they are living in the end times, because in every time there is suffering, illness, pain, conflict, war, and natural disaster. It just feels like it beccause WE are the ones going through it. But I daresay sin and human need today is not worse than the Holocaust, or the Spanish flu on the heels of World War I or the black death of the Middle Ages, to name a few.

This passage from Luke is descriptive of reality, not necessarily predictive of what will happen in the end times. But there is a message in this and other apocalyptic passages in the Bible.

We look at around at all the heartache and destruction happening in the world and like the disciples do, we too, want to find our center, we want to find what will last, what gives us peace, what feels stable, what brings beauty and hope in the midst of turmoil.

The disciples look around at their oppressed, violent, exploited society and as they behold their Temple, they say, “here it is! Here is what is beautiful, and stable, here is our center, and the structure that will give us peace, hope, and strength and something to count on.”

Can you blame them? The Temple had just gone through 80 years of expansion and renovation by Herod the Great. It had immense 67 foot by 12 foot slabs of white marble. Blue, scarlet, and purple Babylonian tapestries made of fine linen formed a veil at the entrance. Herod had installed gold and silver-plated gates and gold-plated doors throughout.

It felt secure. It represented not only strength, and beauty, and worship, but also the gifts of the devoted faithful—surely this is something Jesus could affirm as a sign of goodness and stability, in the turmoil all around them.

But Jesus says, “No! You’re looking at the wrong thing! You are looking for temporary structures to offer supernatural protection; you are looking for earthly strength to battle spiritual powers; you are looking for a temporal creation to offer an eternal dwelling place. The things of this world will crumble—they are not the source of your strength, power, or hope.

“Yes, life is hard—it will be hard for every generation who chooses to follow me in this fallen world – for there will always be a battle with evil, and war, false teachers, hardship, and those who are against you, so you cannot look to a temple, a building, the structures of this world—be it a physical edifice, or a religious system, a governmental system, an elected official, or a great leader to save you…

“You are on the right search, but you are looking in the wrong place. You have to look higher! Higher than the marble walls of the Temple, higher than the blue, scarlet and crimson tapestries, higher than the mountains themselves..

“You must look to God, you must trust in God the creator of the universe to give you hope and strength and power. And you must look to Me whom God sent, who will be with you in all things, no matter what. I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to with or contradict…

"For in the midst of your turmoil this is the most important thing for you to know: 'not a hair of your head will perish.'

Not a hair of your head will perish.

"God has got you. God will save you. God wins! No matter how awful the world looks—God always wins in the end. The kingdom comes. The kingdom is here because I, Jesus, am here.”

So, siblings in Christ, do not look at all the destruction and think that evil is taking over—Jesus is just describing reality until the kingdom comes in it’s fulfillment. We knew this already, it’s always been this way. Stop being surprised by sin! It's the same story over and over--we learned it in world history in high school. There’s nothing new under the sun. Different characters, countries, names—same story, same sins: war, insurrection, disease, power through violence.

The real story is this: God wins. All apocalyptic passages in the Bible including this passage and the whole book of Revelation can be summed up in these 2 words: God wins. “Not a hair of your head will perish.”

We get all caught up in “when? and is this time and is it now? and who’s predicting it? and should we drink the koolaid, ride a comet, and are we going to be Left Behind?" and and blah, blah, blah. I am so sick of this BS (can say BS from the pulpit?!) Don't read those books and stop wasting your time and energy!

That’s not the point! It does not matter! Scripture tells us at least 5 times (Mark 13, Matthew 24, 1 Thessalonians 5, 2 Peter 3, and the book of Revelation) that no one knows the day or the hour that Jesus will return at the end of time.

All we need to know is that God wins the battle with evil –Jesus Christ descended to the dead for 3 days and defeated Satan and he has risen victorious and given us his Spirit, so look to Christ and claim his power over evil. Look higher to the God of all creation and the Son he sent to save us, to persevere through hard times claiming the victory of Christ over sin, death, and the devil.

• We look at the world, and we see the end, but Jesus sees beginning!
• We see destruction and Jesus sees fulfillment!
• We see things falling apart and Jesus sees God winning!

So if you want more than 2 words, “God wins” to explain this passage and apocalyptic passages, I will give you 3 sentences:
• Life is hard in a fallen state
• Persevere in the power and hope of Jesus Christ who already defeated death
• God always wins

God calls us to participate through the power of Jesus Christ in doing good and expanding love and manifesting the kingdom. Do not allow the enemy to have its way. Always remember that not a single hair of your head will perish because God always wins.

This is why in our baptismal liturgy and when new members join the church, we ask the question about renouncing evil, renouncing all the ways defy God and the powers of sin that rebel against God—because Jesus Christ has won the victory and we commit and claim to be on God’s side trusting that the victory is already won!

It is no accident that we had a ransomware attack on our computer system at the same time we had nearly 30 members join the church—when mission becomes successful, the enemy gets busy. If we were all "pew potatoes, the enemy wouldn't bother with us. But we all can remain faithful to Jesus and his power and the vision he has given us for a transformational mission in this church.

I cannot tell you how many times over the last 2 weeks I have said, “get behind me Satan, the battle is already won.” So when I say that we do not let the enemy have it’s way, that we look higher than the buildings to God, to the cross and the empty to tomb, and to the creator of all for whom the battle has already been won, I mean it literally, and I mean it in daily life.

We can joyfully and purposefully endure in our faith and building the kingdom because not even wars or hunger or ransomware can separate us from God or stop the kingdom from coming to fulfillment. God wants us to use these times to live according to God’s kingdom and power and not the world’s sin.

That’s why our capital campaign is not about the building—it is about making sure the building is a tool for the mission of Jesus Christ—for bringing people to faith—so others know that God has won the victory so they can have joy and peace and love and forgiveness especially when life is hard and painful.

That’s why our stewardship for 2023 is about being Together for Joy. Because when we come here, and experience the power of Christ together, we have the strength, the peace, the joy, the love we need to claim Jesus’ power with us throughout our daily life, and we develop the eyes to see God’s power at work in the world and to participate in the good, in the power of love where we work and live.

So know that the hairs on your head are counted, that Jesus has saved you and that the battle is already won. Don’t dwell on the problems of this world, but dwell on the victory that Christ has won and focus on where God asks you to show up as a person of love and hope who lives by the victory of the kingdom and not the anxiety of this age.

This week I want you to pray the news every day—Do not dwell on it and listen over and over--give up the 24-hour news cycle. Why give anxiety free rent in your rent. As you read, watch, or listen to the news once a day, and I mean once a day--one newscast—pray for those affected by headlines. Ask where is God at work in this situation, ask for faith in Christ’s victory over evil.

If there is one situation that breaks your heart, ask if there is an action God calls you take to be a witness for hope. At the end or your prayer, affirm this truth, “Not a hair of my head will perish, for I am risen with Christ for eternity.”

Nothing in all of creation can separate you or this world, from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God wins.

 

 

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Our Inheritance Today

All Saints Candle Cross 2022Please pray for my dad, Roger who has been in the hospital in both Oct. and Nov. He's home now and we hope for a full recovery! I am trying o catch up to Advent on my posting! Thank you for your patience and prayers! :)

All Saints, Ephesians 1:11-23 and Luke 6:20-31. St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

One of Hollywood's favorite plot devices is the reading of the Last Will and Testament. We have witnessed this scene dozens of times: the family is gathered in a law office, a lawyer, usually a man in a dark suit with glasses, begins to read. There’s a familiar cadre of family members leaning in to learn what their fate will be. There’s usually a much younger, often gold-digging spouse, a dead-beat kid, an over-achieving kid who did everything right, often the kid who was never good enough, and lastly there are the hangers-on—a stepchild, a long lost brother, a bitter business partner–all showing up to get their due.

They all hope to find out not just about the money, but how much they were loved. And we cannot wait for the surprise twists:

  • It may be to settle a score: “I have always known that you were cheating on me, and now I leave you nothing.”
  • It might reveal unexpressed love: “I have always loved you and regret I never had the courage to tell you. I leave you my beach house in the Caymans.”
  • Often it’s a way to reveal secrets: “The maid who tended me so faithfully is actually my love-child, whose mother I met while on tour with the band.”
  • Or it offers a redemptive twist: “I now regret that my millions were made at the expense of poisoning the ocean, so I leave my entire estate to Greenpeace.”

These dramatic ploys are popular and effective because they play on our own deepest anxieties: Will I be remembered? Do I make a difference to others? Will there be enough for me? Am I loved? Is there a more powerful moment of explicitly hearing approval, of knowing for sure whether or not we were loved, than the reading of a Will?

The issue with these worries and anxieties, is that it seems like a zero-sum game. This scene often happens at the end of the movie or TV episode—there is only so much money to go around; there is only so much love to be shared. There are winners and there are losers. No wonder everyone is full of anxiety.

The very first chapter of Ephesians includes the reading of a Will and Testament—it's God's Will and Testament for us. But this Will and Testament is far different from the ones that we encounter in the movies. Ephesians does not contain a LAST will and testament that is only revealed at the end of our lives; no, this is a FIRST will and testament read at the beginning of the letter to the Ephesians. Indeed, it is shared with us at the very beginning of our lives of faith.

Paul in Ephesians says: In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.

Paul is saying that God has made us God's own heirs and that everyone is guaranteed an inheritance. Why say this up front? Why put this at the beginning of the letter rather than the end? Because the Christian faith is not designed to leave us in the dark, to keep us hanging, anxious and worried about God's love and intention for us, but rather our faith and relationship with Jesus is to free us up for joyful and hopeful lives, here and now.

God sent Jesus that we might have life and have it more abundantly-- not if we behave, not if we are perfect, not if God is in the right mood.

No, God has made us children of God and has given us an eternal inheritance in Jesus Christ so we have no doubts, no anxiety, no worry about whether we are loved and forgiven, or about whether we matter to God or whether our life makes a difference. We will not be sitting in a stuffy office to find this out.

This isn't a “let's wait and see if we are good enough to earn God's love” gospel.
This isn't a “we can never be sure if we are on God's favored list" gospel.

This is a “God’s love for you in Jesus Christ is boundless and given without reserve” gospel.
This is a “God loves you so much that God wants you to know that NOW, upfront, FIRST, with no hesitation” good news!
This is a no-suspense, no anxiety, no drama FIRST Will and Testament!
There is only God's love and the hope that it provides–not just for you, but EVERYONE in abundance–a limitless well gospel!

God answers the questions: Will I be remembered? Do I make a difference to others? Will there be enough for me? Am I loved? before we barely have a chance to ask them!

The answer is:
have no worry or anxiety,
God made you and loves you,
God sent Jesus to make sure you know that you matter to God,
and your life makes a difference because Jesus’ love and God’s presence shine through you.

Our life in God’s care is signed, sealed and delivered in our Baptism–which we receive at the beginning of our life of faith–it’s our First Will and Testament.

So we receive God's lavish and overflowing inheritance, love, forgiveness and abundance up front, first and foremost,

  • so we can know it’s true deep down to our soul and into our bones
  • so we can live joyfully and free from anxiety and
  • so that we can share it with others,
  • so we can help bring about God's Kingdom on Earth.

And in case we missed this reading of the will early in this passage, Paul reemphasizes the point: I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

This is an inheritance that enriches us here and now and finds its ultimate fulfillment when we die and are born into eternal life.

Today we celebrate the saints who have gone before us in the faith–don’t you imagine they would tell the inheritance that matters–the one to expend our energy on is the inheritance of our life in Jesus Christ, the blessings of which we experience here and now?

As we remember them, we do so affirming that they have received the fulfillment of their inheritance in Christ. Not because they were good or faithful or hard-working or committed – even though they may have been.

They have received their crown of righteousness, not because of who they were, but because of who God is.

And even better – they haven’t used it up! This is an inheritance that cannot be used up or given to one at the expense of another because it is rooted in the immeasurable, unlimited greatness of God's power and love. There’s no zero sum! There is still an abundance of grace, forgiveness and eternity left for the rest of us!

The news of this inheritance is not just offered once, but is shared with us over and over again:

At our baptism, and every time we remember our baptism in the Forgiveness of sin that we hear every Sunday, in Passing the Peace of Christ which we share with each otherm
in receiving Communion together at the Table of our Lord, in sharing the light and love of Christ with other in relationships– in prayer, love, listening, support, joy, conversation, assistance, laughter, and community.

So this frees us up to live as Jesus calls us to in the Sermon on Plain as it’s called in Luke. We don’t have to compete with others, we don’t have to hoard possessions and resources, we don’t have to win, we don’t have to earn it.

We are released from anxiety and worry, so we can live in hope and share our blessings with others, because our abundant God is going to provide what we need. Every time I tithe and give away resources something else comes my way–I am always provided for. We can love our enemy and do good to those who hate us. Why? Because they need to see and hear through us, of the inheritance available for them in Jesus Christ.

God calls us to be the messengers of this great inheritance through our behavior in the world. We can rejoice with those who already know the blessings of this inheritance. We can witness to those who are full, and rich, but still racked with anxiety about whether they are loved, have purpose or will have enough.

We can share that they too, have this great inheritance already, so all their stuff, and all their worry does not need to get in the way of true joy, and real love, and being freed by the deep acceptance of undeserved forgiveness and relationship with Jesus Christ.

I love movies for entertainment, but God’s First Will and Testament says there is an infinite supply of grace, love and hope in Jesus Christ. You will be remembered, just as we remember the saints today; for your name is already written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

So live lives of joyful hope, freed of worry and anxiety, and invite others to share with us the abundant inheritance we all receive now in Jesus Christ.

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A Reformation of Relationship

luther 19464cOn Reformation Sunday, we baptized 2 adults, received 21 others into membership in addition to 6 children for a total of 29! Many are new to the Lutheran tradition so this Message reviews some of the many gifts of the Reformation given to us by Martin Luther. It was a good review for me, too! Based on John 8:31-36. Romans 3:19-28 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas.

Last night I attended a wedding where my husband, Dan, a Presbyterian pastor officiated, and this lovely couple met online. Since the onset of the internet, many of the weddings we have performed have been for people who have met on a dating site or app.

Of course, you can read everything about a person online–their likes, hobbies, family background and education, their favorite music and movies, what kind of work they do, what they look like, and whether they like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain, but at some point, you have to swipe right and meet them in person. You do not know if you are a match until you build a real relationship. You can be a perfect pair on the computer, but in person, there might be no chemistry, or they might be boring, or self-absorbed, or their interest in the Kardashians or the Cowboys might be a freakish obsession. Knowing everything about someone is not the same thing as having a personal relationship with them.

This is a great metaphor for understanding what happened to Martin Luther prior to the start of the Reformation in 1517. He was an Augustinian monk and priest in the Roman Catholic Church. He knew all about God and the rules of the church. He did everything he was supposed to do–he followed the rules of his order more perfectly than anyone else, he said the prayers at the appointed hours, did all of his studies, understood the doctrines, he even had a Doctorate in Theology. But he was so deeply troubled by his sin, he would sometimes spend 6 hours in confession! He was so stricken by fear before the majesty of God and his sinful nature, that he could barely say his first mass as a priest. But during his first trip to Rome as he climbed the Scala Sancta, the holy stairs on his knees to free his grandfather from purgatory, he heard a voice speak from the bottom of his heart, “the just shall live by faith.”

When he heard this voice of mercy rather than of anger, punishment, and fear, Luther was revived and returned home to study the Scripture with a new lens. A few years later, Luther wrote the following when reading the beginning of Romans:

The righteousness of God which is revealed by the gospel, is a passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.' Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. (Source: blog, Haykin)

In this moment, Luther shifted from knowing about God and all the rules of the church, to having a real relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ. He experienced grace and forgiveness of sins, freedom, release from the torture of 6-hour confessions, and worrying about missing a sin he did not confess. He experienced what we hear in our passage from Romans today, verse 23: since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

Making this relationship of grace and forgiveness freely available to everyone without barriers, fueled him and the other Reformers into first posting the 95 theses in 1517. Luther wanted everyone freed from the torment of sin and that sense of judgment and separation from God that he felt before Jesus found him and said, “you are saved by faith and grace which is a free gift of love–and through that love, you become new, you are transformed, you are freed from the torment, guilt and shame of sin.”

This is what Jesus means when he says in our Gospel reading, If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

Notice Jesus says, Word, not words. The Word is Jesus himself. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. We hear the echo of the beginning of John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Jesus is saying, If you continue in a relationship with me, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

This Word, Jesus himself, spoke the truth to Martin Luther, that it is a relationship with Jesus, not rules, not doctrines, not even right beliefs that bring us wholeness, life, light, healing, forgiveness, freedom, and truth.

So everything Martin Luther and the Reformers did was to help people come to this truth–to have access to, connect with, experience a relationship with Jesus, the living Word of God, the light of the world, the one who died so we can experience the free gift of grace, love, forgiveness, and union with God.

So for the sake of some of our newer members and Lutherans, we’ll look at some of the changes Luther made that help us deepen our relationship with Jesus, and experience grace and forgiveness:

Luther translated the Bible into German to get it into the hands of the people, so they could study Scripture for the first time ever. Through Scripture, the Holy Spirit brings us to faith. This is why bible study is so important to Lutherans–we encounter the living presence of Jesus when we read the Bible, and our relationship with the living Lord helps us understand the meaning we need for our lives today. In 1545, the year before he died, Luther said with resounding forcefulness, Let the one who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture.

The view of the priest changed: The pastor has a role in the Christian community, but you can pray directly to God and talk directly to Jesus without having to go through the priest. This deepens your own relationship with Jesus and experience of grace. (we didn’t ordain women until 1970, but hey, better late than never!)

Pastors can marry: Martin Luther married a nun, Katharina von Bora–they had 6 children!

Children: It was very important that children learn the faith and have a relationship with a gracious God so Luther wrote the Small Catechism. Catechism means to teach by mouth–usually with questions and answers. The family was expected to review the Catechism every week so everyone in the household, including servants, would learn the meaning of the 2 Sacraments, the 10 Commandments, the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. If he thought of it, he would have added children’s sermons, too!

Baptism: Every single one of us is a priest through our Baptism. Jasmine and Scott received the Holy Spirit today in their Baptism. He identified us as the

Priesthood of all believers: Luther rejected the notion of the ordination of priests as a sacrament and instead, affirmed that, Through baptism we have all been ordained as priests. As priests each of us are to pray for others, intercede with God, proclaim the word, and confess sins to each other. This means we are all to be little Christs to each other, and Jesus' hands and feet in our daily life.

New Members: Since Luther emphasized that all Christians are priests, and equal before God, we welcome our new members as equals in our community. As much as humanly possible, we do not deem anyone more important than another with regard to talents or service, years of membership, level of giving or any human constraint or measurement for we are all one in Christ; all sin and fall short of the glory of God; and all are saved by the same Lord Jesus Christ.

Music: Luther shifted the role of sacred music from professional performance to music that served the Word of God as sung scripture. The Reformation gave us the 4 choral divisions of Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass that we still use today. Music had to be in an understandable language and benefit the church, thus Luther started congregational singing. People who were illiterate learned scripture through hymns and could actively participate in culture and faith which deepened their relationship with Jesus and his love.
Both the words and the music of A Mighty Fortress is our God, our opening hymn– were written by Luther between 1527 and 29.

The Offering: Martin Luther protested the poor giving what little they had to the church in Rome for false certificates of forgiveness and the promise of heaven, so he began the Community Chest. This was a place for those with extra resources to provide a kind of social security fund for the support of those most in need. Such offerings became a source of social change during the Reformation as the community moved to care for everyone. Our relationship with Jesus moves us to offer ourselves and our resources to serve those in need, as well as to ensure the Gospel is proclaimed and lived out here in our mission. This is also why Lutherans have such large social service, refugee, mission, adoption, and disaster relief agencies around the country and the world.

Holy Communion: A final gift of the Reformation that we have expanded today is an open Communion table where everyone is welcome.

We can know everything there is to know about Jesus, but this is where he welcomes us into a relationship of forgiveness and love, constant presence and indwelling peace.
Because finally, God is not doctrine or denomination, (God is not even Lutheran!); God is not war, or law; God is not policy or opinions; God is love in a real relationship with Jesus Christ. And this Jesus is here now for a real relationship of love and grace. We don’t even have to swipe right on a faith app, we just come forward to be filled with grace and forgiveness, love and his promise to be with us always. For Jesus is here, in with and under these gifts of the earth in bread and wine. So come and get to know him, for he already knows you.

Come and be forgiven and freed by love, and know that he is always with you, to save you by grace and not by your own good deeds or worthiness. Let this truth set you free and lift your hearts as did for Martin Luther, and as it does for all of us today who share with you, the joy that God is fully and finally about a relationship of love.

 

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The Arrogant & The Awful

Cyear48gctpMessage on the Parable of the Pharisee & the Tax Collector Praying (Pentecost 20) in Luke 18:9-14 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

I have a small sticky note stuck to my computer monitor in my office—I don’t remember where I read this, so I cannot give the credit, but it as probably Fr. Richard Rohr, whose email devotions I read daily. This little sticky note says, “There is no manipulation in God’s love. This is why Jesus told parables—so we can see ourselves from a distance.”

Our parable today is a good example of this—a chance to see ourselves from distance—but the more time I spent in this parable this week, the more of a slippery slope I found myself on, the self I saw in me was not one I wanted to see., even from a distance.

The parable seems simple enough. The Pharisee is arrogant and self-righteous and that’s bad, the tax collector is humble and that’s good, so be humble. But, of course, there is much more to it than that. First off, we must be careful not to demonize the Pharisee, and therefore the Jewish religion, inadvertently promoting antisemitism by how we talk about these texts. Yes, Jesus had lively discussions with the religious leaders of his day, but Jesus himself did so as a Jew. We must read this parable as a corrective against self-righteousness of every sort, not just on the part of one type of religious leader.

Digging deeper: to first century ears, this parable would have drawn some laughter at its absurdity. The practices of this pharisee are truly over the top. “I fast twice a week”—nowhere in Scripture is there a requirement to fast twice a week, or even once a week, and not even once a month. The only required fast was once a year on the day of Atonement. Then there were other occasional fasts for special times of prayer—for illness or death of a loved one, for forgiveness, or the threat of war. But twice a week? No one ever even heard of that.

Then he says, I give a tenth of all my income—this is not just a regular tithe. He says he gives 10% of everything that passes through his hands or household, which would include gifts, favors, a pot of soup a neighbor cooked when he was sick. How would you even keep track of all that to give 10% of it? “ “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” He not only talks completely about himself, but has absurd practices of “spirituality on steroids.”

This makes us hate him even more so, because we are not even close to being that spiritually awesome, and we feel justified in judging him. Seeing ourselves from a distance—now who is arrogant? The listener who judges the arrogant ends up being even more arrogant. So where does that leave us? Like the tax collector perhaps?

Let’s look at him. Tax collectors were truly hated by others because they were seen as traitors. They over-collected taxes from their own people to pay the Roman oppressors and get a nice cut for themselves. What’s the equivalent today—giving an internet thief the password to your companies’ accounts, selling drugs in your own neighborhood or school, organized or white collar crime (Bernie Madoff, perhaps)—pretty rotten stuff.

The tax collector knows he is engaged in sin. Interestingly, his prayer does not admit wrongdoing, he does not promise repentance and a change in behavior, he does not seek a new life. He simply hangs his head low, and says, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

This elicits two reactions—the first, honestly, is to be offended that there isn’t more of a commitment to change on this tax collector’s part. His forgiveness is just as offensive as the super-spiritual religious man’s arrogance. Forgiveness without an admonition to “go and sin no more?” Is he just going to keep being a tax collector? Is this his only career choice? Nope, he’s just forgiven.

Well, this is no way to run a universe so I would like to give God some advice. It may not surprise you that I have tried this advice-giving to God. Now who’s arrogant? The answer I have gotten is, ‘how many times have I forgiven you, and you went ahead and did the same dumb things over and over again? I thought you didn’t like fire and brimstone.” (notice how it’s the religious leader who’s the arrogant one in this passage, perhaps we could read, "Lutheran pastor!")

Our second reaction is to do what the parable seems to want us to do, which is to be humble like this tax collector, regardless of our sin. The problem is that as soon as we try to be humble, we are right back to being arrogant with the Pharisee—because that makes humility a work, a job, something we accomplish, rather than a disposition of the heart that we allow God to work in us. “Yeah, I went to the gym this morning. Now I am working on humility…”

There is no “working on humility… there’s only willingness—there’s only getting on your knees and being the creature rather than the Creator, the child, rather than the Holy Parent, the servant rather than the Lord, the sinner rather than Savior.

Which is why I think Jesus’ conclusion to the parable is, “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.” Yet this leaves us still in the arrogant shoes, doesn’t it, because we are left still judging the Pharisee, which is in itself arrogant. Is arrogance the truly unforgiveable sin?

But even here, we have a new insight. Jewish scholar, Amy-Jill Levine in her book Short Stories by Jesus believes “rather than” is a poor translation of the Greek preposition here. She translates it, “alongside” instead of “rather than”. So, she concludes the parable this way, “I tell you, this man (that is the tax collector), went down to his home justified alongside the other (the pharisee).

She believes they are both justified—the Pharisee is not justified because of his works, but simply because he is there praying, engaged in a relationship with God. Perhaps our Protestant arrogance snuck into the translation of the text, for it leaves us judging the religious leader and limiting forgiveness. From Dr. Levine’s perspective, being humbled for the spiritually superior is not being denied forgiveness but rather, discovering that he is seated alongside a traitor, and other sundry rogues, thieves, and adulterers in his salvation.

This is one reason why Jesus tells us to love our enemies—it is practice for the heavenly banquet where we will be seated next to those we despise the most. What surprising dinner companions will you have at the heavenly banquet? A drug dealer? A murderer? A white supremacist? A childhood bully? Someone in your own family?

Yes, we do have moments when salvation by unmerited grace and unearned forgiveness seems like no way to run a universe. Perhaps it’s human nature that we all have people whom we think do not deserve forgiveness, but this parable frees us from this worry, because Jesus makes clear that this is God’s business and not ours.

But deep down, this is truly good news for us because it means that we, too are forgiven! As I was living with this parable this week a memory from childhood came back to me. When I was about 10, I remember trying to pray perfectly before I went to sleep at night. I had a picture in my imagination for each petition of the Lord’s Prayer, and I tried to say the words with the each picture in my mind straight through without a break in my concentration. If I didn’t get it done seamlessly without distraction or a break in concentration, I would start over. There were nights I would cry myself to sleep because I could not say my prayer from start to finish perfectly.

What a relief to learn there is nothing we have to get right to be forgiven. The pharisee and the tax collector go home justified alongside one another—the arrogant, self-righteous, spiritually superior one is forgiven alongside the extreme sins of a traitor to his people. And we are freed from judging the arrogant, and we are freed from striving for a humility that cannot be attained, but only knelt for.

We do, however, all have a common prayer. At the beginning of our day, and at the end of our life, each one of us is just like the tax collector, and it turns out that one sentence is all it takes: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

It doesn’t matter what our sin is—we can all say the same prayer. The great thing about kneeling for Confession and for prayers during our worship together, is it puts us all on the same level—all in the same stance before God—no one is better than anyone else, no one needs less or more forgiveness, less or more prayer than the next person.

I encourage you to pray this prayer this week, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” every day, and see what happens for you. Do it on your knees if you can physically. I heard a speaker once say that after she made her bed in the morning, she knelt by her bed to pray, and that’s how she remembered to do it every day. As long as her bed was made, she remembered to pray. If she ran out of time, and made it later in the day, that’s when she got on her knees and said her prayers.

“There is no manipulation in God’s love. This is why Jesus told parables—so we can see ourselves from a distance.”

Today we see that we are forgiven by grace, and it is a free gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ. You don’t have to say a perfect prayer, a have perfect practice, or live a perfect life. You are forgiven and loved and accepted alongside the arrogant and the awful. The clearest view of this free gift is on bended knee.

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The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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