A Pharisee and a Tax Collector Walk Into a Bar...

Inspired by Luke 18:9-14

Jesus said, “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” If I didn’t know better, I’d think that was the beginning of a joke. A Pharisee and tax collector walk into a bar and… Jesus had a sense of humor right? Ok, so it’s not a joke, Jesus gives us yet another parable to chew on. And this one is on the same topic as last week’s, prayer. Last week we had a parable about praying continuously, faithfulness, and justice with that unjust judge and the widow. This week we get to see our two characters in the very act of praying. What is usually a very private act, is here on display for all to see and hear. It kinda makes me feel like a bit of a creeper, as we listen in on this very intimate moment between God and these two children of God.

But boy am I glad we get this opportunity because listening in to these conversations is so telling, of who these two characters are and how they see their relationship with God and with the world around them. So, as you have probably come to expect from me, I’d like to take a different look at these two guys and I’m going to lay my cards our right here at the beginning. I don’t like either of these guys!

As your pastor, I don’t want you using either of these characters as a guide, as a model of the Christian life! Now that’s obvious when it comes to the Pharisee right. We’ve been trained since Sunday school to identify characters like this Pharisee as the enemy. But the tax collector, that’s a different story. Traditionally we have lifted these characters up as models of the Godly life. But I don’t think he’s in a very healthy place either.

So let’s take a look at these two guys separately. On one end of the spectrum, we have the Pharisee. Luke begins this section by writing, “Jesus told this parable to certain people [wink wink] who had convinced themselves that they were righteous [wink wink] and who looked on everyone else with disgust [wink wink].” We are now in the eighteenth chapter of Luke, so by now, if we the reader have been paying attention, we now this is insider language for the Pharisees right? Luke doesn’t even have to mention them by name and we know who he’s writing about.

Then the Pharisee prays, about himself mind you, “God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector [point to other corner]. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.” Clearly this guy thinks very highly of himself. If he were running for president of the United States the next thing out of his mouth might be, “No one does religion better than me God. No one. Believe me.” Now, here’s where it gets interesting, and where we can find some redeeming qualities in this guy. There’s no reason to believe that this guy is lying! He’s a Pharisee, which means he’s a religious leader, but that doesn’t mean he’s a liar.

So he’s probably telling the truth when he says he’s not a crook, an evildoer, however he defines that, or an adulterer. And he probably does fast twice a week and give a tenth of everything he receives. And Luke states that this all happens in the temple, so he’s a worshiper on top of all of that! I mean, if we could have a congregation full of people that could truthfully make these claims? Imagine the ministry we could do! But that’s not this guy’s problem is it? His problem is his approach, his posture as a fellow member put it at Thursday’s Faith & Froth, or his attitude as another put that night as well. This Pharisee is approaching God with a posture that relied on all the good things he has done, rather than on who God is and what God has done.

So let’s now turn our attention to our other character in this parable. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the tax collector. This poor guy has a strike against him already by just being a tax collector! They were known for being crooks, being evildoers because they were the evil empire’s hired thugs, taking money from their own people! They were the furthest thing from being godly people. But then he prays this very simple, heartfelt prayer, “God, show mercy to me, a sinner.” And that is the point where we put this guy way up on a pedestal and say look at him, aspire to be more like him. But let’s pump the brakes here. Before we put him on that pedestal, let’s be honest about the assumptions we’re are making by doing that.

At no time does this guy say that he’s going to change his ways. At no time does he say he’s going to stop being a crook, that he’s going to stop taking advantage of his own people, that he’s going to stop working for the very institution that is keeping his people down. At no time, does he say that he’s going to be any less of a despicable character tomorrow, than he was that day. And his posture, his attitude, the way that he approached God in this prayer is equally as disturbing as the Pharisee’s. Rather than a look at how great I am kind of approach, the tax collector, can’t even look up to heaven as he prays, cannot even lift his head to look God in the eye as he prays. The tax collector can’t even stand close to the temple the way the Pharisee is, but he feels like he has to stand at a distance.

To make matters worse he strikes his chest, he hits himself, in humiliation. He doesn’t need an evil empire, or any other institution to beat him down. He’s doing a better job at that than anyone. If he was running for president, he’d probably say “There is no one more humble than me. No one. Believe me.” Only he’d be speaking the truth! But is this kind of humility that God calls us to? The kind that keeps us down, keeps us at a distance, keeps us from looking God in the face when we talk to God, makes us feel like we need more pain, more humiliation, in order for God to love us? If so, then let’s call it what it is. That is an abusive relationship.

The end of this sermon made me summon my inner RuPaul.
(See video below) We all have one right?
That is not the kind of relationship that we are called to be in with our God. Neither of these gentlemen are paragons of faithful living. Neither are healthy role models for us. So then what do we do? Well, like most things in life, we find balance, balance between these two characters. Though we are not called to think of ourselves as the greatest thing the world has ever seen, we are also not called to think of ourselves as worthless beings. What are we called to? To love God with all our being, and love our neighbor as ourselves. And if we’re gonna love our neighbor as ourselves, we’ve got to love ourselves right? If we’re called to find value in our neighbor, we have to find value in ourselves. If we’re called to respect our neighbor, we have to respect ourselves.

Why? Because you are created by God and God does not create worthless things! And that is something to be celebrated! That is something to be honored by and to feel pride in! Yes, Lutherans can feel pride! But not too much! My prayer for you is this, when you pray, however you pray, and on Thursday night we learned that we all pray in very different ways, but when you pray, my prayer for you is that your posture, your attitude, your approach to God, is one of worth, of value, of love, of humility, of faithfulness—because that is how God approaches you. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Bonus Content!

A member told me that my sermon reminded her of an old hymn (below) from her childhood that her daughter didn't like. She'd exclaim, "I'm not a worm mommy!" This low anthropology is still alive and well in our theology today but we are making progress. The first version of the Isaac Watts hymn below is the original, the second one is the one we use today. Notice the difference?


God Is Not A Jedi

Inspired by Luke 18:1-8

Luke writes, “Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged.” I would love to know what precipitated this parable. What was it that led Jesus to tell them a parable about prayer and discouragement, and justice and faithfulness? So I naturally took a look at how the previous chapter ended and came across a passage that was not only enlightening but was unfortunately skipped by our lectionary. As you know, we are reading straight through the Gospel of Luke until Advent but there are a few passages we skip. Normally it’s not a big deal, many passages are repeated in other gospels after all but this section that we skip is important because it sheds some light on this week’s reading.

Towards the end of the last chapter Jesus says, “God’s kingdom isn’t coming with signs that are easily noticed. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ Don’t you see? God’s kingdom is already among you.” God’s kingdom is already among you. Whenever Jesus speaks of God’s kingdom it is almost always in the in the present!

Not in some far off place in some far off time, or after we die like we always imagine it! It is now, it is here, and it comes with, like most of our faith lives, with some challenges. Which leads us to our Gospel reading for today—because it’s easy to feel discouraged when Jesus tells you, “God’s kingdom is already among you” and we look around the world and see so many horrible atrocities among us like: poverty, homelessness, misogyny, hunger, xenophobia, disease, mental illness, lack of healthcare, war, and the list goes on.

And yet, Jesus says, God’s kingdom is already among us. What in God’s name does he mean by that? And more importantly how is praying consistently going to help? So he tells this story about an unjust judge, which is a contradiction of terms right, and a widow who has been consistently asking for justice. Now we don’t know what her case is or who her adversary is but there are a few things we can safely assume about her.

She was probably not old. When we think of a widow today we naturally think of an old person but in Jesus’ day, life expectancy was 47 and that was only among those who could make it to their tenth birthday. Another thing we know about her is that she had no one to advocate for her. The only way that a woman would even be allowed to speak to a judge was if she had no male advocate in her life—no adult son, no father, no uncle, no male cousin, no one to speak for her.

So, she was already at a disadvantage, not only in the eyes of this unjust judge but in the eyes of society. But that doesn’t mean that she was alone. Odds are, she was not just fighting for herself and her own well-being. Odds are, she had children, whom she was speaking for, fighting for, on their behalf, for their well-being as well. So of course she’s persistent, of course she’s not going to give up, of course she’s not going to back down, because there’s a lot riding on this, for her this is probably a matter of life and death, why else would she risk so much, as a woman in a male-dominated, misogynistic society?

And the unjust judge finally gives in. The unjust judge had enough of her persistence and her continuous pleas for justice and gives her whatever it was that she was asking for. Now, here is where I am going to turn this parable on its head for you so buckle your seat belts. For some reason, we assume that this judge is like God, and we are like the widow praying to God for answers to our prayers. But this is problematic for me for multiple reasons. One, Jesus calls this judge unjust! Is that what we call our God? No, we use words like righteous, loving, merciful, just, to describe God. Not unjust! And two, do we think God answers our prayers because God is annoyed with us, bothered by our requests, because God just wants us to go away? Of course not.

So if the unjust judge isn’t God, who is he supposed to represent? Jesus did not tell us this story for us to identify with the widow. Jesus told us this story as a way of pointing out the choice we have in this life. Are we going to respond to the world’s needs with the heart of the unjust judge, or with the heart of God? And notice that responding to the world’s needs is not what’s in question here.

Responding to the world’s needs, to the world’s prayers, is what we are here for, it’s what we were made for, it’s what we are called to do as the gathered body of Christ. And the needs of this world are many, the prayers of this world are abundant, and they do not go unheard, they are not ignored, God has indeed responded! God has responded with you and I, the gathered body of Christ in this world. God’s answer to the prayers of this world is by sending you and I and the whole church into the world.

This is why the tagline, the motto, the mission statement in a nutshell of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which Bethlehem is a member of, for many years has been, “God’s work. Our hands.” God’s work. Our hands. If we believe that God’s work in this world is to answer the many prayers that are cried out continuously by this world, then the means by which those prayers are answered is us, the gathered body of Christ for this world.

How many times have you prayed and the answer to that prayers has come through another human being? God is not a magician! God is not a wizard! God is not a Jedi! God is not a superhero! But rather God calls to God’s church, pleas to her, urges her, gathers her, advocates on behalf of the world to her, constantly prays to her to answer the prayers of God’s people on God’s behalf—and to do it quickly and faithfully, unlike the unjust judge who allowed the widow to suffer.

God’s work. Our hands. The hands of God in this world our our hands. The voice of God in this world comes through our lips. The paths of God through this world are traveled by our feet. The love of God in this world is poured out by our collective heart as the body of Christ called to answer the prayers of this world. Please grab the hand of the person next to you and let us pray.

God of mercy and justice, your love knows no bounds, your heart cannot be contained, you will not be silenced, your pulse runs through the very hands that we are now grasping. May your cry for the poor become our own cry. May your hunger and thirst for justice become our own desire. May the kingdom of God among us, be made known through us. May the kingdom of God among us, be us. In Jesus’ life giving name we pray. Amen.


What Makes Your Pastor YOUR Pastor?

Having a pastor can be a very special gift. Since I no longer have one (because pastors really don’t have a pastor), this has really come to the forefront for me. But what does it mean to have a pastor? Well, I know it doesn’t necessarily mean:
  • since my church has called a pastor now I have a pastor.
  • since I go to worship and shake his/her hand now I have a pastor.
  • since I donate to the church now I have a pastor.
  • since I listen to him/her preach now I have a pastor.
  • since I follow him/her on social media or his/her blog now I have a pastor.

Don’t get me wrong, these are all great things to do, but they don’t necessarily equate to having a pastor. Because having a pastor means having a relationship. And as you know, relationships take work, by all people involved. What kind of work?
  • Spend quality time with your pastor. Sunday morning handshakes and chit chat is just not enough.
  • So, invite your pastor to your home, to coffee, to lunch, to your children’s sports event/recital/play, to see your own hobbies/work, etc.
  • Talk to your pastor about last Sunday’s sermon! They love this!
  • Share your own passions with your pastor and how you’d like to use them through the work of the church.
  • Pray for your pastor and tell your pastor that you’re doing so.
  • Ask your pastor how he/she is really doing. Just be prepared for an honest answer!

1880 Pastor Over for Dinner in the South
These are just a few ways you can help make your pastor YOUR pastor. And of course it’s a two-way street. Pastors have their own work to do in this relationship.

What would you add to the list? What are other ways you have fostered your relationship with your pastors over the years? Likewise, what are some creative ways that pastor's have reached out to you? I'm always looking for new ideas!

Stop Making Everything About You

Inspired by Luke 17:5-10

Well this is without a doubt one of my least favorite bible passages in all of scripture. And that’s saying something because there’s a lot of em I don’t like. But this one, I’d like to just scratch out of every Bible in the world. Let me explain. This passage has been used to guilt and shame people into faith for way too long. Taken by itself, it seems to scream at us how inadequate we are, how faithless we are, how worthless we are—in fact, most translations even use that word at the end of this passage, “worthless”.

But that’s not the way that we are supposed to read scripture is it, though we do it all the time, we are not supposed to take a verse or two, read it in a vacuum all  by itself, and then draw conclusions from it! But we do this all the time, I catch myself doing it too! So, whenever dealing with difficult passages, which is most of them, the question should not be, what does this mean? But rather, in light of the rest of the Bible, and in the shadow of the cross, what does this mean?

Our passage begins with, “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” That should be red flag number one for us—because let’s face it, the apostles, were not the sharpest tools in the shed. They are constantly getting things wrong, and the Gospel writers intentionally portrayed them that way. It was kinda like their way of saying, “Don’t be like these guys! Please, whatever you do, learn from their mistakes!”

Now don’t get me wrong, the apostles got a lot of things right as well, we are standing here today because of them, but boy it took them a long time to get there. And that’s intentionally meant to give us hope on our faith journeys as well. But back to their request, “Increase our faith!” So, if their missing the mark on most everything else at this stage in their faith journeys, the reader, us, should already be asking, I wonder if they’re getting this wrong too.

And the answer is a big resounding yes! Their request, to increase their faith, is proof that they are coming from a perspective that needs a serious adjustment, and Jesus then attempts to do just that. And in typical Jesus fashion, he does it with all the snark and sassiness that we have come to know and love in Jesus. So he says to them, if you had this much faith, you could do miracles.

Now we could interpret that to mean, so apparently y’all don’t have any faith! That might make an interesting sermon but I don’t think that is what Jesus is saying here. What Jesus is saying here to the apostles is that this is not about you! This is not about how much faith you have. This is not about how fast your faith is growing. This is not about what your faith is going to allow you to do. This is not about any miracles that you are going to perform. Stop making everything about you, you silly apostles!

If the American brand of Christianity is guilty of anything, chief among them has got to be this individualistic, self-centered view of faith. Somewhere along the way, and I won’t bore you with a history lesson on the 18th century American Great Awakening, but “somewhere along the way”, Americans got it in their heads that this faith business was all about “me” and what I have to do to be saved or what I have to do to get to heaven. And we’ve come up with all kinds of answers: I have to go to church enough. I have to behave enough. I have to give enough offering. I have to read the Bible enough. I have to believe a certain way. I have to decide who I’m going to follow. I have to. I have to. I have to blank.

And Jesus says no to this idea! Scripture, taken as a whole, says no to this idea! And that’s good news! That’s the gospel! Because if it’s left up to us, if it’s left up to our faith, if it’s left up to our beliefs, if it’s left up to our church attendance, our offerings, our behavior, our anything, we’re doomed! That’s why this is such good news! That’s why it’s good news when Jesus says if you had this much faith you could do miracles! So thank God it’s not about our faith at all, but God’s faith. Thank God it’s not about our faith, but God’s faithfulness to us and to all of creation. If that doesn’t take a load off our shoulders I don’t know what will! And that’s the whole point here. We spend our faith lives worrying about all the wrong things, just like those apostles in our story.

And Jesus, who is always ready to carry the load for us, says stop worrying about yourselves. I’ve taken care of you. Stop worrying about your own fates. I’ve taken care of you all. Why? So that you can take care of each other. So that you can take care of the world. It’s no accident that the rest of our gospel reading is all about being a servant. At first glance it may look like Jesus goes on a bit of a tangent but no, he speaks of servitude very deliberately here.

Because to follow Christ is to be a servant, not a servant to Christ, Christ doesn’t need our servitude, what would the ruler of the cosmos need? No, we are expected to be a servant to each other, to Auburn, to this nation, to the world. And not so we can get more faith and be saved. Remember, that work, is already taken care of by Christ. We are already taken care of. Period. Thanks be to God. Amen.