Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | October 23, 2022
One day when I was three years old, I found a penny on the floor. I held it in my hand. I put it in my pocket. Two doors down there was a corner grocery with penny candy machines outside. I needed to get over there. In the meantime, I put the penny in mouth.
It didn’t taste so good; like copper. My mother saw that I had this penny in my mouth, and she told me to spit it out. “You don’t know where that’s been!” she yelled.
She said some sick person could have had that penny in their mouth. Only, she used a racial stereotype for which I had no frame of reference. I didn’t know there were different kinds of people. But the way she said it made it seem like the possibility of the penny in my mouth having been in this particular sick person’s mouth, well that would be a very bad thing.
From then on, I was wary of putting things found on the floor, the ground or the sidewalk in my mouth. And in the subtle notion that one is better than this, i.e. putting found coins in my mouth, I was better than this particular type of person; whatever “this” may be.
Sometimes that’s the way it starts – thinking that we’re better than that. Like one small seed planted that grows into a big forest. Like one tiny brick that’s part of a big wall. My age, gender, race, country, ethnic heritage, sexual orientation, mental abilities, physical condition, education, marital status, economy, culture, religion. Better than all the rest.
Over this past year we have looked at stories from the gospel according to Luke. The writer of Luke told the story of Jesus in a certain way. Jesus challenged assumptions; Jesus broke down walls of separation; Jesus welcomed people into his inner circle that proper society wouldn’t touch. Jesus told stories describing God in ways that folks had not thought possible. A loving, merciful and welcoming God.
He revealed images of God that we take may for granted; but for the people who had never heard such things it was a radical departure from everything they thought they knew. So much so that some people said he told lies about God.
If someone was on the outside looking in, then Jesus didn’t just bring them in. He changed the boundaries that defined in and out. He enlarged the circle of inclusion. And it seemed that no matter how often he did it, no matter how low he stooped, he always encountered some new way in which people defined their exclusive rights to God.
One time he told a story to people who it says, “where confident of their own righteousness and who looked down on everybody else.” A fairly general audience; meaning, it could be anyone in that audience. We tend to assume that when Jesus pokes fun at the self-righteous that he is talking to Pharisees, the high-profile religious professionals.
He often pointed out how they were bound up in the fine print of their religion. His language was colorful. He said they were like tombs – whitewashed on the outside but rotten on the inside. He said they were like someone who could swallow a camel whole but were constipated over something the size of a gnat. The everyday, common folk loved it. Nothing like putting the high and mighty in their place.
But not in this story. Any one of us might at some time qualify for that audience. Any time we think we’re just a little cut above the rest, that our laurels are just a little greener, that our halo glows just a little brighter, then we are sitting front and center for this parable.
These two people were praying in the temple. The first one happened to be a Pharisee.
He started out well by saying, “thank you God . . .” but then he shifted. “Thank you that I am not like other people, rogues, thieves, adulterers, or heaven forbid, that tax collector over there. I do all these good deeds for you, like fasting twice a week and giving you a tenth of all my income.”
The prayer that Jesus described is one that seeks to control God. I am good, I prayed the prayer, followed the rules, I’ve done what I’m supposed to do, I believe the correct doctrine, therefore God owes me. God is obliged to give me salvation.
“Look at all those other people God, and you’ll see I’m on top of the heap.” We might as well just tell God, “Here’s my bill for services rendered.”
Then the tax collector prayed. He just stood off to the side, didn’t even look around and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
A tax collector of all people. He might have just that morning taken some poor widow’s last denarii. He might have had an appointment that afternoon to sell some poor farmer’s children into indentured servitude. Yet, Jesus said, he was the one who went away made right with God.
Why? Because he stood before God in open honesty. He realized completely who he was. He knew there was no way he could make up for his mistakes or undo his sins. There was no way possible that he could earn what God had to give and he certainly didn’t deserve it. He knew and God knew, and he knew God knew. His only hope was to pray, “Lord, have mercy on me, for I am indeed a sinner.”
Jesus said the tax collector went home right with God. The Pharisee we may assume went home alone.
The frustrating thing about this story is that no matter how times the Pharisee came back with that same attitude he would leave the same empty-hearted way. And no matter how many times the tax collector came back having sinned his way through the week, yet with a humble heart seeking forgiveness, he would go away forgiven. It just doesn’t seem fair.
If we keep this story within the bounds of religion, then it doesn’t require too much of us. There aren’t any Pharisees around here and no one is looking down on anyone else. We tend to think of ourselves as no better than the next person and just as good as anyone else.
A while back I was at a high school football game in small town Minnesota. It was homecoming at the school where my son teachers and there were more people at the game than lived in the town. School colors were everywhere. The bleachers were full, so we were standing off to the side next to the field.
My son said to me, “Don’t turn around real quick, but take a look at the t-shirt behind us.”
I managed to let my gaze wander back there, and there was a guy, maybe in his 20’s and he was wearing a t shirt with the picture of an assault rifle on it, and the slogan, “Gun Lives Matter.”
I pondered on it. When we were driving home, I said to my son, “When I see something like that guy wearing that t shirt, what I really feel is pity.”
He said, “Yeah, me too.”
It’s not pity like, “Oh, I’m so much better than that,” as in the penny in the mouth self-righteous pity. And I have no issues with guns or people owning guns. It’s pity as in life could be so much more than the things that divide us. That we would have to wrap our identity around some cheap slogan that’s meant to get the point across with insults. Pity that we might see people who have different ideas, opinions and convictions as our enemy.
A friend of mine in Australia is a minister named Rex Hunt, who said about our story today –
“The reality of our life together is to be inclusive. The presentness of God breaks down the barriers we call ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. Our behaviour or orientation in life, rather than our moralisms, determines our status.
From both the story it would appear the Pharisee had enough religion to be virtuous, but not enough to be inclusive. As a result, his religion drove him away from the tax collector rather than toward him.
So perhaps a couple of ways we can hear this story today is by: accepting our common, shared humanity, with those around us, and to live life beyond the narrow spaces, in all its fullness.
Both these responses are expressing a belief in people and their future. They are about saying ‘yes’ to each other. Everyone of us can do that. It is one of the core acts of behaviour when we are freed to go on the journey that Jesus chartered.”
Our common, shared humanity. There’s the real challenge. The challenge is to avoid becoming just a different kind of Pharisee. One of the challenges in this story, for me at least, is to recognize the Pharisee in myself. That’s where the story has to begin. The best approach, with God, or the universe or other people, is simply to put my hand on my heart and pray, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” And then maybe to look around and try to be at peace with everyone else who is standing on that same common ground. Amen.