Have you ever had an idea for what you thought could be a great sermon? I did this week. Or at least I thought I did. There are never any guarantees that ideas that seem great on Monday turn out to be a great ideas let alone great sermons by Sunday. Or much of the time, even a good ones. But this week was different. Just a few days before I had planned to sit down and write, my great idea was preempted by someone else?
Here’s what happened.
A couple weeks ago I carved out some time to look ahead at our Sunday morning schedule and to think about what was already being planned for upcoming Sundays, and to reread portions of the Bible and to think about the questions that are pushing up against your life and mine. It is that creative and sometimes challenging intersection of a passage in the Bible and something I have read or the headlines in the news which catches my attention and creates a space for new ideas to take root. Sometimes it is what I know about or read in the Bible that starts that process. Sometimes it is the headlines in the news. This week what caught my attention was this story in the Bible. From Luke’s Gospel. This story which the writer of the Gospel tells about Jesus.
[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying, thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
If this were a Bible study instead of a sermon we could research the role of the Pharisees and talk about who the tax collectors were and how they were viewed by others. We could discuss whether a prayer at the Temple or how one says a prayer in a sacred space matters more or less than what one does when one returns home. All of that would be an interesting discussion, but as I read this story none of that really caught my attention. But, one sentence did. It was this:
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people…
And, if I can extend the thought and paraphrase the Bible,
“Especially like that person over there.”
It is this sentence from scripture which intersects our lives today.
Because we are living in a time of name calling and finger pointing.
Not just in the chambers of Congress and on Pennsylvania Avenue.
And, not just in state houses and on news programs.
But on Main Street and my street and your street, as well.
Too many of us have a tax collector over there who we look at and say,
“Thank God I am not like them.”
And, I am here to say to you…
We need to stop doing that.
We need to quit calling one another names.
We need to quit shouting at each other.
We need to quit using hyperbole to describe positions and issues.
We need to quit doing what we would never let our children do and yet we turn around and do it ourselves.
We need to find a better way.
Because we are, or at least we can be, better people than that.
And our shouting at each other…
And our name calling…
Is not only unraveling our political fabric, it is unraveling the fabric of our communities as well.
And, I am not the only pastor who thinks this way.
The person who preempted my sermon is the Rev. Barry C. Black.
A Seventh-Day Adventist pastor.
A former Navy rear admiral.
And, since 2003, the Chaplain for the United States Senate.
He, too, is concerned.
“I see us playing a very dangerous game,” he said.
“It’s like the showdown at the O.K. Corral. Who’s going to blink first? (NY Times, Monday, October 7, 2013)
Each day, as the Senate begins its work, the Rev. Black, even though his office has been closed by the government shutdown and his paycheck withheld, leads the Senate in a time of prayer. It was a prayer he wrote and gave last week that made the rounds online and found its way into an article which appeared in last Monday’s New York Times. We used a portion of that prayer to begin our worship this morning.
Have mercy upon us, O God, and save us from the madness.
We acknowledge our transgressions, our short comings, our smugness, our selfishness and our pride. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable. Remove the burdens of those who are the collateral damage of [our] government shutdown transforming negatives into positives as You work for the good of those who love You.
Turning back to the Bible for a moment…
The underlying issue in the parable which Jesus was told not about roles or about who was good and who was bad or about words used or not used. The underlying issue was and is arrogance. An arrogance that looks down on another and says, whether out loud or to oneself:
I am not like you.
I am better than you.
You are less important than me.
You are of less worth than I am.
Thank God I am not like you.
All of which flies in the face of the deepest and best wisdom of the Bible.
All of which flies in the face of our deepest and best understanding of that which we know and name as God, and that which we know and name as humanity.
I don’t know the best way through the political mess we are living through right now. Like the Rev. Black, I hope that cooler heads will prevail.
I have my own views of what I think is important.
I know others whom I respect have a different point of view.
I am pretty sure they don’t know it all.
I am absolutely certain I don’t know it all.
That being the case…
Maybe the best thing we can is to hold onto the deepest and best values of our faith tradition which reminds us over and over again that we are to love God and love neighbor and treat others as we would like to be treated. And hold tight to the deepest and best values of our nation which longs for liberty and justice for all.
And do our best to live up to those values;
And to demand better of our elected officials.
And, maybe, also, to say our own pray that might go something like this:
In all things, O God, both large and small, save us from the madness of thinking and believing that our way is the only way. Save us, too, from a pride and an arrogance that demeans and demonizes those, who in Your broad compassion and mercy, are named as our sisters and brothers. Deliver us from the hypocrisy of speaking without listening and listening without hearing and yet saying we understand. Turn us then in the direction of Your Kingdom come…for one and for all. Amen.