23 Pentecost C—10/23/16
Jer. 14:7-10,19-22; Psalm 84:1-7; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Pr. Scott Kramer
“There but for the grace of God go I.”
In response to another person’s misfortune or tragedy, have you ever found yourself saying or thinking these words? “Sucks to be you!” is how we might put it in contemporary language. This is the spirit of the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, a man who has ordered his world into familiar categories of good and bad. I thank God that I am not like those people, he prays. Our prayers may not sound exactly like that but the spirit of the Pharisee is powerful. Are we not also tempted to believe that we, and people like us, are recipients of God’s favor, and others are not? But God’s love, friends, is for all people regardless of circumstances, no matter what!
Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves–that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. Jesus’ parable speaks to us 2000 years later in a campaign season in which contempt is front and center! A campaign in which women are treated with contempt, minorities are treated with contempt, the constitution, the rule of law, and the election process itself are treated with contempt.
But Jesus was not talking about presidential candidates only. He was speaking to some (you and I can fill in our names here) who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. Why do you suppose tens of millions of Americans are drawn to the phrase, “Make America Great Again”? Is this not a variation of the prayer the Pharisee prayed? God, I thank you that I am not like other people…
Jesus had his own definition of greatness: On one occasion he said, Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant. And in today’s gospel he warns, All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Last Sunday we began a short study on Lutheran beliefs called, Baptized We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life. A couple of the class participants voiced their discomfort with what they perceive might be excessive pride among Lutherans concerning our identity. Well, thanks be to God they spoke up! Yes, the word “Lutheranism” itself should be a red flag, because any “ism” can become a false god. The prophet Jeremiah warns in today’s first reading against the idols of the nations. Nationalism, patriotism, capitalism are held by some to be sacred, even while we know from history—our own included—that they can become just as ugly as racism or sexism. God, I thank you that I am not like other people.
How different from the tax collector, who took pride not in his goodness or his own identity but found faith and courage to confess how he was like every other person: God, be merciful to me, a sinner. The prophet Jeremiah, likewise, refuses to take pride in who he is, and goes even a step further: We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, the iniquity of our ancestors.
As hard as it may be to recognize and confess our own sin, it may nevertheless be easier than acknowledging the sins of our ancestors. We are taught, “Don’t speak ill of the dead!” This is understood in our culture to be a sign of respect, but is it not just a form of ancestor worship?
What we don’t talk about is what controls us. Do we really honor those who have gone before us by denying their full humanity, by ignoring or glossing over their sin? When we put our ancestors on pedestals we practically guarantee that we will perpetuate their sins for generations. The rampant racism, sexism, and excessive nationalism of our own time is related to our failure to renounce the sin of our ancestors, to confess our own complicity, and our failure to choose a different way.
Greatness, according to Jesus, is not defined by how we are better than others but how we are like them. There is one teaching in particular from Luke’s gospel that might be especially helpful. One day Jesus said, The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves (Luke 22:26). I wonder if becoming “like the youngest” might be a key to following Jesus in our own day.
Much has been said about how one presidential candidate in particular is not so much running for president as promoting his personal “brand.” Whether or not you agree, no doubt we can all agree that brand loyalty is not what it used to be! Many of us remember a time when life-long loyalty to one’s company, political party, church denomination, country, race was just a given. There is great value in commitment, of course! On the other hand, it can become a sort of blind faith, to the point of ignoring evil when it appears: Well, he might be an SOB but he’s my SOB. That’s not Christian faith. That’s the Pharisee speaking!
Younger people today are not as attached to brand loyalty. Critics point to a lack of commitment, and there may be some truth to that. But when Jesus says that the “greatest must become like the youngest,” in our day it may be an invitation for Christians to spend less energy on loyalty to a certain “brand” and more energy on recognizing and celebrating the power of God wherever we see it. What if the Pharisee had done this? Would he have prayed as he did? Would he have had contempt for the tax collector?
Several stories in the news this past week point to moral courage that goes beyond loyalty to one’s own brand. You heard about the International Association of Chiefs of Police president apologizing for historic mistreatment of people of color in the United States. As some have pointed out, words are only as meaningful as lasting structural changes, but a public apology by a powerful person, like the words of our confession on Sunday morning, can be an important starting point for healing and reconciliation.
Some are trying to put such words into practice. I was in the dentist’s office this past week, reading the latest issue of Time magazine, and I noticed an article about former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr. Sheriff Rahr is receiving national attention for training new police recruits to be not warriors but guardians of the community, emphasizing de-escalation instead of resorting to firearms.
Such a shift, of course, is controversial, as most significant changes are. Chancellor Angela Merkel has led the people of Germany to accept hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees. The city of Hamburg alone has accepted half as many refugees as the entire number that the United States accepts in one year (National Geographic, October 2016). This is the same Germany that only 75 years ago was in the business of not only excluding but exterminating whatever was different from the German Aryan “brand.” They were the much-reviled “tax collector!”
Dear friends, Jesus presents us with an invitation to choose. From where do we draw our inspiration: from the heart of the Pharisee, or the heart of the tax collector? In what ways does each of us distance ourselves from what is different? In what ways do we think of ourselves as special, or better than others? How is the Holy Spirit moving among us, raising up leaders who are willing to take risks for the sake of compassion and reconciliation?
And the question for us ordinary folks: How will God’s people recommit ourselves to being Christ to the world?