Written by Pastor Ed
It Depends on Where You Start From
October 23, 2016
Jer. 14: 4-10, 19-22
Luke 18: 9-14 – The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
(Walk to right)
Thank you God that you have blessed me with many good things and I am proud of my accomplishments. I lead a clean life. I go to church most Sunday and I am against all those nasty things like gay marriage and abortion. I stand for what the Bible teaches, plain and simple. I give my offering and support worthwhile charities that uphold my values. Thank goodness I’m not like those liberal Christians who are wishy-washy, or like those godless people who want to remove you from everything.
(Walk to left)
I am but a humble person who understands that you, oh God, love everyone and want peace and justice for all. And I work hard to make that a reality here on earth. I give money to causes that support the rights of everyone and work for peace and justice. I don’t condemn people because of their actions, but rather try to understand what makes them the way they are. I am certainly glad I am not bigoted like that guy –
(Walk back to centre)
“Lord, be merciful to me a sinner”
When we hear the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, it’s very easy to get sucked in to what one commentator called the “trap” of this parable. As he says, “Because the minute you decide to take this parable to heart and “be humble” like the tax collector, it’s pretty hard not to also be grateful you’re not like that Pharisee.” How easy it is to fall into the ditch on either side of the road and begin to compare ourselves to others. And when we do that, we get ourselves into trouble.
It is interesting, and not coincidental, that Jesus places this parable at the temple. The temple had very clear lines drawn as to who could be where. If you were an insider, a Pharisee or other good religious person, you could go into the temple. Anyone else had to stay in the outer court. It was clear where you stood, and who was in and who was out.
And in some ways, our Anabaptist theology, at least in the past, has tended to do the same thing. One of the critiques of the 16th century church by the Anabaptists was that you really couldn’t tell who was a Christian and who wasn’t. Since everyone, at least in Europe, was baptized as an infant, everyone was considered a Christian. But the Anabaptists said that becoming a Christian was a choice that people needed to make on their own and the church should be made up only of those who had made that choice. Thy wanted a “pure church” with clearly defined borders.
While we still believe that becoming a Christian is a matter of choice, not to be forced on anyone, for the most part we have abandoned that insistence on a pure church, for the very reason that it led to so much conflict and division. You see, if you want to have a pure church, then you have to keep a sharp eye out for what the other people are doing, because if they are doing something wrong, well then, they can’t be in the church. Unfortunately that led to some congregations being reduced to only a few people.
And the real problem is that it puts the focus on the wrong place and that makes all the difference. The Pharisee in our parable was probably right. He did tithe and fast. He was a good church goer, following the rules well. But his focus was primarily on himself, which meant he could count himself superior to others who had to stand outside the temple. He could easily dismiss them as not worthy.
The tax collector, in contrast, compares himself not to other people, but to God and so begins from a different place than the Pharisee. And where you start from makes a great deal of difference in how you view God, and other people. If you start from a stance of superiority, feeling that you are somehow better than others because of who you are, or your background, or status, then it becomes very easy to categorize people and feel superior.
But if you recognize that we are all part of the same sinful humanity, always in need of God’s grace, then your attention turns not to other people, but to God who provides that grace and forgiveness that each of us needs. We are reminded again and again in scripture that we all have sinned, and we all continue to sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,” says the writer of I John. If we recognize that as our starting point, then we will be far less prone to divide people into “us” and “them.” Even when we are certain that “us” is better than “them!”
As another commentator stated, “Anytime you draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side.” So we need to beware of putting our trust in our own goodness and not recognize that we all must turn to God.
Which brings us to the tax collector and his prayer. It struck me as I was pondering today’s sermon that perhaps one of the reasons, along with our idea of having a pure church, that we have sometimes tended to think of ourselves in the church as better than others, is because we have also lost, at least in our tradition, the idea of confession. Oh, we talk about it sometimes and how confession is good for the soul, and during Lent or Advent we might include some prayers of confession, but unlike the more liturgical traditions, confession is not a regular part of our worship.
I recall growing up when our church had a special meeting before communion Sunday where the congregation met together and time was given for anyone who needed to confess something, or make thing right, could do so, so that communion could be held. I think those were dropped after a while because they became rather dramatic at times and some people seemed always to have long emotional confessions. It was also a practice, if someone did something obviously egregious, that they needed to make a public confession in front of the church. However, it seemed that generally happened only to girls who got pregnant before marriage – I don’t remember any guys having to do it. I think for the men it was only if they had joined the military, then they had to confess.
Whether those were good or bad practices, I’m not sure although they tended to focus on only a few obvious sins, and were often misused I believe, and so were dropped. But perhaps we lost something important in the process.
There’s a section in our hymnal with the heading “Confessing/Reconciling” -it goes from 128 to 153. Now I think I’m acquainted with a fair number of hymns in the hymnal, but when I look in that section, I realize I don’t know very many of the confessing songs. I know the songs about grace that are in this section, and we like to sing those. But we rarely, if ever, sing our confessions. And for us, what we sing says a lot about our theology and what we believe. Perhaps we need to learn some of those confessing songs to balance our theology.
This past summer at Bridgefolk, Catholic-Mennonite dialogue we attended, at one point the discussion turned to prayer and numerous Mennonites noted that they never really learned to pray, other than rote prayers for meals or bedtime. On the other hand, the Catholics routinely have corporate prayers as part of their liturgy, and also noted that the Psalms serve as examples of prayer that we could learn from. The monks and sisters of the monasteries read the Psalms over and over in a regular cycle, which include praise and thanksgiving, as well as confession and lament.
And confession is not just an individual thing. The passage we read from Jeremiah is a corporate prayer of confession, for not all of our sins are individual. We also participate in the systems of this world that sometimes oppress others, that create divisions in society and decide who’s in and who’s out, who is deserving and who isn’t. One of the things I recall someone saying many years ago about the prophets like Jeremiah, is that they didn’t stand apart from the people, condemning them for their sinfulness, but rather the prophets identified with the people, and the cries of confession were on behalf of all the people, including the prophet themselves. Just so we can’t just condemn society, because we too are a part of society and contribute to the sins of society, even if we don’t recognize it.
By including prayers of confession from week to week in worship, perhaps we would be more fully aware that before God we are all on the same level, and are in need of God’s grace again and again. And we would, perhaps, more readily appreciate that God’s grace is available for all.
And that’s really the point and the focus. It we go to the opposite extreme of the Pharisee and only focus on our sinfulness, how truly wretched we are, then we again have the focus in the wrong place – on ourselves. Luke says this parable is about those who focus on themselves. Rather we need to focus on God, which first of all should call us to repentance and confession, recognizing that all of us fall short and miss the mark, and then rejoice that God’s grace is sufficient and God’s love reaches to us all.
And so I invite us to do just that – to join, first in a prayer of confession and then in a song of praise for God’s love.
Join me as we pray together a prayer of confession, #690 in the Hymnal. You will notice there is a time of silence in the middle of the prayer for each of us to insert our own confessions. Let us join together.