St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
October 27, 2019
The Reverend Rick Veit
They figured it out. It took a near death experience, but they figured it out. With about twenty members left, they were slouching toward extinction. They kept worship and prayer as their center, but parishioners decided if they were to die, they would die well. So, in addition to worship and prayer, they took ‘loving thy neighbor’ to practical extremes, knowing that many Christians found loopholes that led to judgement in this second commandment. This church decided to walk away from their traditions of rigidity regarding the rules, especially rules that had taught them to discriminate against any class of people. They repented and decided to welcome all people regardless of race, religion or no religion, age, sexual identity. Breaking denominational policy, they even decided to elevate women towards leadership positions. One day, a whistleblower from out of town came to church and ratted them out. But they continued in this new movement of worship, prayer, and radical ‘loving they neighbor’, no strings attached.
Peace Lutheran began leafletting Lauderdale, Minnesota, offering to roof houses, fix plumbing, repair anything in need, free of charge. There would be no litmus tests, no income requirements, no concern if you were Christian or atheist. The idea was to deliver neighbors from the duress of big-ticket bills, the kind that leave families punished by debt, or unable to pay at all. People would get your furnace running, make your kitchen handicap accessible, ensure your car started in time for work. “Your quality of life can be improved if the toilet works,” said one parishioner.
They knew at first that many people would be suspect, perhaps fearing proselytization or judgment that so often comes with religion. There were only a few takers at first, but they stayed at it, cleaning homes for shut-ins, building chair lifts for the disabled, rewiring old houses. There would be no expectation that recipients come to church. They were there to simply help. If an elderly widow’s furnace broke on Christmas Eve, Lauderdale came to know that the first move was to call Peace Lutheran.
One of the main points from last week that Jesus was teaching was to always pray and to not give up, to persevere in turning to the Lord and find practical ways to love people. It was the framework for the rest of the parable about the judge who did not want to follow the wisdom of the Spirit nor care for people in need. The judge as well as the widow needed to pray and not give up. How easy it is to not pray. In our lives filled with random or not-so-random busyness, prayer gets pushed back to once or a few times a week rather than saturating our entire lives, our every movement, breath, exercise, saturating us when we work, play, eat, and when we are on our knees at night or at the breakfast table to formally pray. While it is easy not to pray, juxtaposed, it is quite easy to…give up, to give up in life, give up with relationships, family, work, anything we are doing, even give up on church. Not so with the dying church that I just mentioned.
Last week, Jesus was talking with his disciples, his closest followers. This week he is talking with people, broken leaders within the faith community who were overly righteous, trusting only in themselves. He is talking with people who look down upon others, regarding others with contempt. It is an extension of the same message from last week to pray always and to not give up.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” The first thing to notice is that both are going to pray. Both are doing what God has commanded them and us to do, to pray always and not give up. “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying, ‘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 will say that the Pharisee is following the rules of the faith community. They were supposed to fast, or give up something that they were holding on to too tightly. They were supposed to give a tenth of their income to the faith movement, a message that continues for us as Christians today. The tax collector was corrupt. Also, both the self-righteous Pharisee and the lowly and sinful tax collector are praying, not giving up. Both of them begin by identifying and reaching out to the one to whom they are praying, God. It is the correct starting place (Episcopal liturgy). The Pharisee then follows up by thanking God. Yet again, another great way to pray. Acknowledge and praise God. Then thank God for everything. Be filled with gratitude. But then darkness ensues for him.
A side note, but isn’t that just like what always happens in life? We are on a good track, doing things right, treating people well, loving,…and then it all comes tumbling down inside of us and sometimes all around us. Sin quickly creeps in. Notice how the Pharisee is standing by himself. This is symbolic, as he stands filled with temptation preparing himself to look down upon others. And his path begins to crumble, this good and faithful servant quickly becomes filled with sin. “God, I thank you…that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like….this (scummy) tax collector. (Look at how good I am God. Good work God. Now if you would just fix all of those other people so that they can be like me, the Savior….I mean – oops – I didn’t mean to say that. Wait, yes I did). His prayer quickly becomes a self-serving prayer, one that only builds himself up in the end, yanking the focus away from God who is great.
The tax collector humbles himself.
Ironically, both are right and both are wrong. The Pharisee is correct in trying to purely follow the way of love, the way of the Lord. The Tax Collector humbles himself before God when he has done wrong. At the same time, the Pharisee becomes filled with self-righteousness and then does not have a contrite heart. And we have to recognize the obvious, the tax collector has done damage to the lives of people. He has hurt other people. However, again, the tax collector repents.
Today we are reminded to pray always and to not give up. And we are also reminded that we are both filled with good and filled with temptations to act in hurtful ways. And whether we are acting good and faithful or failing miserably, wreaking havoc in people’s lives, we turn back to God and acknowledge him as God, especially a God who loves us and forgives us when we cause damage. And God loves us and then inspires us to go out and love in practical ways. IN the end, the corrupt tax collector was the one who humbled himself and began serving the Lord. The Pharisee, who thought he was serving the Lord faithfully, instead became filled with discrimination and judgement.
This parable reminds us that we are all susceptible to sin, to not following God’s will. It reminds us that God is a loving and forgiving God. And lastly, it reminds us that God is there to inspire us to continue worshipping, praying, and especially loving our neighbor’s as we would ourselves.
Who are you, the Pharisee or the Tax Collector? Of course, as soon as you answer one way or the other, you will be proven only partially correct. Because we are both! We do things wrong and we do things right. And, quite often, when we do things right, we are as vulnerable to pride and self-righteousness as the Pharisees. Jesus ends the parable today by saying, “..for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
As we humble ourselves before the Lord, then go and be inspired, just like the people of Peace Lutheran in Lauderdale, that’s Minnesota, not Florida. Be inspired to love thy neighbor in very practical ways.
You are already worshipping and praying in church. That is the first priority. So, what way will you serve? I will leave that between you and God. But meanwhile, people, all of us, continue to suffer. What will be your response…in practical ways?