St. Paul’s Congregational Church, October 27, 2019
Proper 25-C: “Dreams and Visions”
Joel 2:23-32; Luke 18:9-14
Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Once upon a time, there was a Pharisee, you know – one of the good guys – a law abiding, observant, pious Jew who went to the temple to pray. He looked around, as we all do when we gather in worship – he couldn’t help but think that compared to others, he is a rather respectable person of faith. He prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like the other people – thieves, adulterers, rogues – I fast twice a week, give a tenth of all my income. Not like that tax collector there in the back of the temple.”
In the temple the tax collector sits – a despicable sellout, someone who trades his own kind to the enemy – the Romans – so he can make his wallet fat. It wasn’t too great an accomplishment for the Pharisee to be more faithful than the tax collector - at least that’s what he thought - but he was glad that he was. Anyway, the tax collector is there, stays at the back of the temple – he can hardly even pray. All he can get out is a cry, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The tax collector begged for mercy and it was granted. The Pharisee’s self-righteousness did not prove justifying – making him in right relationship with God.
Jesus’ hearers of this parable would have been shocked – and, honestly, we don’t really get the shock of all this. But for Jesus’ hearers, it is utterly stunning, ridiculous, even laughable to think that someone who does what the tax collector does would even pray for mercy. All such a person has to do is ask for mercy and it’s granted? This is scandalous to them.
For us, it’s old news that the tax collector asked for and received mercy. But let’s consider this scenario:
Imagine a drug dealing pimp slinking into the back of the church and praying for forgiveness while some of the people he has exploited stare at him, their mouths wide open. People might be thinking, yeah, right – how do we know the remorse is real? How long will this last? What about restitution for all the people he’s hurt? All he has to do is ask for mercy and it’s granted? How fair is this? It’s ridiculous.
Or perhaps a less dramatic example:
Two people were in church on Sunday. One, a lifetime member of the church, frequent Sunday School teacher, a member of committees, the Church Council, prayed, “God I thank you that my parents brought me to church, taught me the Bible as a youth, planted in my heart a love of and a strong commitment to your will. I give 10% off the top to the church, volunteer each month with Habitat for Humanity, tutor underprivileged children at an inner city school and never drink to excess.”
Another man, seated near the rear of the church, only muttered, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
That’s all he could say. You see, when his liquor store went broke, after his marriage dissolved, just before that unfortunate scrape with the law, he had begun coming to church. So far, he had not joined the church – even gone to coffee hour – nobody had invited him. He was lousy at prayer – he didn’t know what words to say. But he came to worship anyway.
These two persons then went home after the service. Frankly, the Bible believing Christian member of the Council didn’t get much out of the service. Something was missing. Nothing in the service touched his heart. He already knew the scripture of the day. Old hat. The music was a repeat of last week. The preacher was conventional. Oh well, he thought, maybe next Sunday.
The other man stayed seated in his pew long after the benediction, crying, overcome with joy or grief, he didn’t know which. He could not explain what had happened to him during the service. All he could say to anyone who would listen was, “God loves me.”
Here’s the thing – this parable isn’t about the Pharisee or the Tax collector. It isn’t about the pimp, the drug dealer and those he has hurt. And it isn’t about the lifetime member or the other man who was so affected by the worship. The parable is about God. The parable is an image, a picture of God. It’s not about how we should behave but about how God behaves. It’s a parable about God’s outrageous, amazing grace. That grace available to us – every one of us – a free gift. All we have to do is accept it.
We don’t like to think of ourselves as sinners, do we. Sin is such a harsh, dark word. But if we think of the definition of sin as anything that separates us from God and each other, we know inside of us that we indeed are all sinners. This parable is for us – it’s a parable of grace for everyone who feels at times that they haven’t made the grade. For those who don’t know how to pray. For those who don’t know what to say. For those who don’t know how to act. For those who are hurting. For those who are afraid. For those who feel alone. For those who are feeling overwhelmed, angry, frustrated. It’s a story about God’s amazing grace for all of us.
The reality is that we’re all the Pharisee at times. And we’re all the tax collector at times. But God is God all the time!
One day twenty women sat in a circle – 20 women from Integrity House, some in treatment for just 2 weeks, others for over 5 months. Some in recovery for the first time. Some back from relapse after being clean for a period of time. Some at Integrity as an alternative to jail, some released from prison to Integrity. Some who were self admits. All of them in the fight of their lives.
They listened to Max Lucado’s story “You Are Special” – a story about a community of little wooden people called Wemmicks who spent their days putting gray dots on each other if they thought there was something wrong with them – maybe their wood was chipped, the paint was peeling. Maybe they were awkward. But the Wemmicks who were perfect got yellow stars attached to them. One of the gray dotted Wemmicks was Punchinello who met another Wemmick named Lucia. The thing was, though, Lucia didn’t have any dots or stars on her – they just didn’t stick when others tried to attach them. Lucia encouraged Punchinello to go meet Eli, the woodcarver who had created them all. Eventually after spending time with Eli, one day when Punchinello left Eli’s workshop, his dots began to fall off.
I got to thinking, those yellow starred Wemmicks reminded me of the Pharisee – the gray dotted Wemmicks of the tax collector. And maybe when the dots and stars began to fall off the Wemmicks, that’s when they became vulnerable, became humble. When all the stuff fell away, that’s when they were open to receive that free gift of grace.
Humility – a tough concept for us I think. It’s pretty countercultural these days to be humble – maybe we need a shell around us to protect ourselves – competition is rampant, not only for us in our jobs but for our children. We have to make ourselves look better than the next person to get ahead, to get into the best schools, to be the best athlete. Now, there’s nothing wrong in doing all we can to be the best we can be – but at what cost? We can get so caught up in the competition, can’t we. Have you ever tried to be humble? You can’t. When it comes to humility, you either are or you aren’t.
The word humility is related to our word humus – earth, earthy. To be humble is to be close to the ground, near the bottom. To be humble is to open ourselves. To be vulnerable. Let the stuff fall away!
Those Integrity House women learned that! One of the young women in the group that day was very quiet for the beginning of our reflections on the story. She slowly began to speak – for four months she’d lived in a tent, homeless, no money, no family – deeply mired in her addiction. One day in a rare moment of clarity she looked around her and said, “I don’t want, I can’t live like this anymore.” And she came to Integrity House. She smiled a little and said, “It started to get cold – that was an incentive for sure but I knew I had to do this.” She entered the therapeutic community at Integrity and is on the road to recovery.
Another spoke: it was when I turned all of my stuff over to my higher power – God – that I began to heal. And I realized how God was always there – God was speaking to me – through other people. But I had to open myself to hear it. And when I did, I knew I was truly experiencing the miracle I’d always hoped for.
Now isn’t that a wonderful definition of grace – hope. A gift that’s ours for the taking.
You never know that God is all you need until God is all you have! Let the stuff fall away! Go ahead and be vulnerable! To be humble is to open ourselves to the power of God’s love, of God’s forgiveness; to be humble is to let the miracles happen; to be humble is to open ourselves to the amazing grace God offers all of us.
Maybe there are times when you are feeling on top of the world on Sunday morning: you can say the prayers, sing the hymns loudly and joyfully; times when you know the Bible story of the day, have a ready verse on the tip of your tongue – those are days to rejoice! Thank God you are in a good place today – that’s a real gift. Sunday worship becomes a time to celebrate your gifts, to count your blessings. You’re living in an attitude of gratitude – you’re feeling strong, joyful in your faith. Share that joy with others – not because you’re less of a sinner than they are – but because you realize you’re the beneficiary of that amazing grace and you can offer hope to your neighbor.
It’s not always like that, though, is it. There are other days when you come to church, not knowing whether or not you ought to be here. After all, you have secrets, you have fears. You’ve done things you should not have done. You’ve not done things you should have done. Some Sundays everyone else looks so righteous, so close to God, so near to getting it right. As for you, you’re feeling far from God. Distant. When it comes time for prayer, you don’t know which words to use. You’re down. Humble.
And the good news is this: that’s when God meets us. Blesses us. If you are humble, down close to earth, empty handed, unsteady, unsure this is your story too, rejoice. Hold out your hands – your empty hands – to receive the gift. The gift of grace – unmerited, free grace. It’s amazing. Don’t worry about what you ought to say to God. Listen. Listen for what God has to say to you.
Don’t trouble yourself about what you ought to do for God. Let God do for you.
This parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector bothers us church people a lot – maybe we want Jesus to say, “I’ve come to gather the good, to reward the righteous.” But what he says over and over again is this: I come to seek and to save the lost. I come to call sinners. I come to lift up the lonely.
Friends, let the gray dots and the yellow stars, all the stuff, fall away. Let God do for you!
If you come here empty, you’ll go home filled. That’s the nature of God’s grace! Free. Amazing. Filled with new hope.
Frederick Buechner confessed at a recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian church that he was no longer a regular churchgoer. “I hate to say this,” said Buechner, “but for many years now I’ve taken to going to church less and less, because I find so little there of what I hunger for – it’s a sense of the presence of God that I hunger for. It’s grace that I hunger for.”
Think back to the reaction after worship of the council member and the man overcome with joy – or grief – at the end of the service. Could it be that the unnamed man experienced the presence of God for the first time in a very long time? One man didn’t get anything out of the service. The other was brought to tears. What’s your experience of worship? What made their experiences different?
We hunger for that grace, that sense of God’s presence too, don’t we. We have heard the prophet Joel’s celebration of the saving presence of God, the freeing presence of God! When we are free to dream dreams and see visions. We yearn for that feeling, and it’s only by grace that we know that freedom, if we empty ourselves and if we’re open to it.
Let the gray dots, the yellow stars, all the stuff fall away. Ask God for mercy and know that you will receive it. Know that you are loved by God. Feel that love deep within you. Then go – go home transformed and go out into the world and share the awesome good news of abundant grace, that love available to all of us.
So may it be. Amen.