Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sermon: Falling into God's Love

Luke 18:9-14
Falling into God’s Love
James Sledge                                                                                       October 23, 2016

Many years ago, I preached a sermon from today’s gospel reading where a couple of members helped me do a dramatic reading of the parable with just a little updating. The Pharisee became an upstanding church member and the tax collector was a drug dealer. The first change is obvious. Pharisees were the upstanding Protestants of their day. The second change perhaps needs more explanation.
Tax collectors in Jesus’ time were not civil service employees. They were part of a bizarre, corrupt system that permitted tax collectors to pry as much money as they could from those in their community. The Romans did not care how much they collected as long as Rome got the prescribed amount. Tax collectors could keep everything else for themselves. Tax collectors often used intimidation and threats to get as much as they could, often preying on the most vulnerable in society. And they became wealthy while helping out an occupying, foreign power. They made modern slum lords look charitable by comparison, and they were rightly despised.
And so in church that Sunday years ago, an upstanding church member thanked God that he was not like robbers and thieves and other sorts of low life. He certainly wasn’t anything like a drug dealer. He tithed and then some to his church. He served on committees and session and never missed a worship service if he was in town.
The drug dealer didn’t dare come up to the front of the church. He stayed off to the side and never looked up. He pulled at his clothes and hair as he said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And you’ve already heard the parable so you know what Jesus said next.
A few days later, I got a letter (email was still fairly new) from a church members not at all happy with my sermon. Who would keep the church running, or pay my salary, he asked, if not upstanding church members like the one I had substituted for the Pharisee? It certainly wasn’t going to be drug dealers or others of that ilk.

I couldn’t argue with him there. Churches are often dependent on a small portion of their members for a huge share of the giving. Those who tithe are rare and getting rarer. Of course Jesus is the one who really starts the trouble here. It’s his story, not mine. I just tried to update it a bit. It’s not like I wanted Jesus to condemn a tither during stewardship season.
I don’t recall many details of the conversation I had with the letter writer. I probably reassured him that the issue in the parable wasn’t that the man was a upstanding church member or tither, but that he assumed this made him better than others in God’s eyes. Whatever I said, he calmed down, though he was still a little miffed about the drug dealer comparison. I suspect a lot of people listening to Jesus felt the same about the tax collector.
Maybe that’s why the gospel writer thought that he needed to say something before letting Jesus speak. He writes, (Jesus) also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Luke says that this parable focuses on two issues. Where do you put your ultimate trust? And how do you regard others? And the two questions are intertwined.
Religiously inclined people generally trust their way of being religious. That’s unavoidable, I suppose, but often it moves beyond that. Often our ways can take the place of God. You can often figure out what’s really holy in a religious community by what people get worked up about or fight about. There’s an old joke about the biggest fights in congregations being over the color of the sanctuary carpet. In my own experience it’s often other issues of style: the order of worship, the sort of hymns to sing, the style of music to use. And there’s often a Pharisee like judgment involved. “We don’t do that kind of music here,” “that” referring to whatever style we think inferior to the one we prefer.
Now we Presbyterians typically don’t label those we disagree with as sinners. But we know of Christians who insist their way is the required way. Don’t follow it and you’re going to hell. We sometimes explain that we’re not that kind of Christian. Thank God we are not like them… said the Pharisee?
Jesus’ parable tells us a bit about the Pharisee but almost nothing about the tax collector. Why is he even there, praying in the temple? Clearly he has decided that getting rich and having power are the things that really matter to him. He’s made his choice to pursue wealth at any cost. Money and possessions are the things that will make life good and meaningful. Yet there he is, off to the side, hiding his face, flailing his chest, begging for mercy.
We have no idea what happened or how it happened, but the objects of the tax collector’s trust have failed him. He has grown wealthy and has many possessions, but his gods have not fulfilled their promises. He finds himself adrift, broken, alienated, without hope; and in an act of desperation, he turns to God, throws himself on God’s mercy. Stripped bare, he entrusts himself totally to God. “Be merciful to me, a sinner.”
C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books, Mere Christianity, and many others, went through a faith crisis when his wife died, something he wrote about in A Grief Observed. He spoke of how devastating the loss was. Nothing could fill the void. He did not want memories of her, knowledge of her, photos of her. He wanted her. But through this struggle he came to a deeper faith, understood more fully that images of Christ, knowledge and understandings about Christ would not do. They might even get in the way of what he really needed, Christ himself.
He writes, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence?”[1]
I wonder if Fr. Richard Rohr isn’t speaking of something similar when he writes of true transformation happening only via the “path of descent.”[2] We must go down to go up. We must find ourselves stripped bare, the images and paths we trusted shattered, so that we can truly entrust ourselves to God and be made new. But O, how that scares us.
If you’re a member here, or if you’ve looked through the bulletin with any care, you likely know that it’s stewardship season. That means this was supposed to be a stewardship sermon. I intended for it to be. I had thought I would be able to make some connection between where we place our ultimate trust and how that shows up in our giving and service. But sermons sometimes have minds of their own, and this one ended up where it wanted to go.
But it strikes me that if we somehow find ourselves in a place like that of the tax collector, if we somehow, intentionally or by accident, stumble onto the path of descent and fall into the love and grace of God, we will surely be changed, even transformed. And then, surely our lives will reflect the theme the Stewardship Committee chose for this year, “Inspired to give as beloved children of God.”

[1] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, (New York: Seabury, 1961, p. 52.
[2] From “The Sign of Jonah,” Richard Rohr’s daily devotion. See the Center for Action and Contemplation website.

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