10/28/2019 1:29:55 PM
Thank God: knowing our story
[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.”
Pastor Marc's sermon on Reformation Sunday (October 27, 2019) on Luke 18:9-14. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
Today’s text from the gospel according to Luke isn’t the usual one we read on Reformation Sunday. Typically, when we commemorate Martin Luther posting 95 thoughts about God and faith on a church door in Germany, we spend time in the gospel according to John. But after consulting the texts and looking at our church calendar, it didn’t feel right to let Reformation Sunday interrupt our journey through Luke. For the last few months, we’ve been in the part of Luke where Jesus’ teaching comes fast and furious. Luke has dropped the descriptive sentences that we might expect as he narrated Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Instead, we get parable after parable as Jesus is confronted by religious leaders and his own somewhat clueless disciples. Last week, we listened as Jesus told a story about an unjust judge and a persistent widow who wouldn’t leave him alone. Eventually, the unjust judge allowed the widow’s quest for justice to be fulfilled. Luke saw in that parable an underlying concern for prayer - especially the prayers that feel as if they go unanswered. Jesus wanted those who followed him to stay persistent in prayer, to continue to talk to God night and day because God never stops listening. Prayer, then, seems to be the thruline that connects last week’s parable with the one we heard today. And instead of being only about prayer, today’s parable began with the two characters actually praying.
Now, since this is a parable filled with prayers, we might want to first look into the words of the prayers themselves. But before we do that, I think it’s important to first pay attention to their bodies. The act of prayer is always a bodily event. When we pray, have to use our bodies. And in today’s parable, before we even hear any of the prayers these two characters speak, Jesus first tells us something about their bodies. We begin first with the religious leader, the Pharisee, and the tax collector both going to the temple to pray. This wasn’t an abnormal thing to do as the Temple was always open for private prayer and had multiple worship services every day. Once they were both finally in the space or the building where they would pray, we learn that the Pharisee’s body was standing alone. We don’t know exactly where he was standing - maybe in the front, where everyone could see him or maybe somewhere a little more private. But we do know he created some physical distance between himself and other people. The tax collector, however, had a slightly different bodily experience. He wasn’t described as standing by himself. Instead, he’s far off - with his eyes refusing to look up, towards God. And while he prayed, he kept his hand clenched in a fist as he hit his chest over and over again. We don’t know anything else about this tax collector but these additional comments about his body do give us a sense of what his experience of prayer was like. And it also, I think, shows us a similarity between the two that we might otherwise miss. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector experienced and embodied distance in their prayer life. And that distance, I think, was also a major part of the life they both chose to live.
Yesterday, I was invited by our friends at Temple Beth Sholom in Park Ridge to participate in their weekly Saturday worship. They told me to get there at 11 am and to make sure I stayed for lunch. As if my custom, I showed up a few minutes early - only to be greeted by a locked door and security guard. After a quick hello, the guard let me in and I was greeted in the lobby by a congregant. The greeter showed me where the kippahs were kept, placed a prayer book in my hand, and helped usher me to a seat. He also let me know that worship had already been going on for an hour and a half but that I was on time for the main event. As I sat there, Rev. Larissa Romero from Pascack Reformed Church joined me as well as the mayor and several members of Park Ridge council. We were there, together, to be part of a small interfaith and community cohort standing with Temple Beth Sholom and all the other synagogues and temples who were commemorating the one year anniversary of the attack on Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. We, together, lamented that evil act. We also named the evil that is antisemitism and white supremacy and how it seems to be getting worse rather than better. I spoke of my personal anguish that the Christian faith, a faith that gives me so much life, is sometimes warped and twisted to justify anti-jewish acts. And I spoke of our ongoing work to speak out and confront the ideologies that believe that welcome, inclusion, love, and mercy should not be part of who we are. Throughout their worship service, I saw the Jewish community claim the fullness of their story - a story filled with unimaginable hardships and breathtaking joys. And as I watched them reasert who they were, all of us were invited to claim our full story too - one that is bigger, deeper, and larger than just our individual lives. The invitation to claim the fullness of who we are is scary because it requires us to reckon with the dark shadow that has been cast over others. But when we do that, when we struggle against the hate and evil we find within our own communities, we do more than make a difference in the lives of others. We also make a difference in our own. Because the act of naming, owning, and living through our own story is how we close the distance between us, our neighbors, and our God.
The distance the Pharisee and the tax collector surrounded themselves with came into being in different ways. The Pharisee had, as we see in the words of his prayer, grown into a person full of himself. His prayer is devoted to the pronoun “I” and he was thankful for what he is not. The tax collector stayed away during prayer because he, by his very vocation, was deeply embedded in the system that funded the Roman Empire. For him to earn any kind of living, he was forced to exhort extra funds beyond what the Roman Empire required. He was, in a sense, crushed by his own sins because he worked in an economic system that was sin itself. He was broken - and I imagine he struggled seeing himself living any other way.
The Pharisee and the tax collector, when they prayed, used their bodies to mimic the way they existed in the world. Both were distant because they struggled to embrace the fullness of who they were. And who they were wasn’t only centered in what they did, or how they worshipped, or measured by how much they gave away. Their story began with the One who created them and gave them a place to pray. They were, like all of us, made in the image of God. And through that act of creation, that’s where their relationship began - and was strengthened and reformed through the One who continues to break through the distance we put between ourselves, God, and each other. As Christians, Jesus invites us to accept the fullness of our story - the good and the bad. And we are also called to accept the fullness of other people’s stories - not as we imagine them to be but as they truly are. When Temple Beth Sholom invited a group of us into their worship space to pray, we found ourselves doing more than just offering support. We also saw, in real time, the distance we’ve put between us, narrow. We can, because of our faith, reform our relationships with ourselves and with our neighbors. And we can, through Jesus, grow to see all people as made in God’s image.