October 23, 2016
Luke 18:9-14, Joel 2:23-32
Each week a group gathers to read the scriptures for Sunday. After reading them there may be instant questions or comments, but sometimes there is just silence. The reading from Joel this week left everyone silent for a few moments. Then we began to weigh in and it was clear that we had two camps in the room. Some heard good news in that text and others heard bad news. That is because there is both good news and bad news in that text. I reflected on the glass half full or half empty analogy and immediately I realized that is too simple. It seems to be a human tendency to make quick judgments and ignore the layers that lie beneath the surface. How often do people become caricatures of themselves? Someone makes a comment and it goes viral. Suddenly we know that person only as the one who said _______. A football player refuses to stand for the National Anthem and immediately we start proclaiming him right or wrong. I understand that the presidential debates are intended to give us better insight into the candidates, but it seems to me that they leave us with one-dimensional glimpses of the issues and name-calling. The same is true of the gospel reading this morning. It is a story of two people and when the story is over, one is a hero and one is a villain. The real truth is that when the story is over, there are two people. Period. It is an important story for us to hear, but in order to hear it, we need to open ourselves and be willing to take out a mirror to see this story as a reflection of us.
There is a Pharisee – a religious leader who worked hard to lead a good life. This man fasted and he tithed. Before we write him off because we heard how the story ends, we might reflect on how hard we work to live our faith. The story turns when he begins to pray “I thank you God that I am not like those low lifes. I fast and I pray. Thank you for making me so much better than everyone else.” He was on the right track until then. It is easy to make fun of this guy and his arrogance, but be careful. How often do we feel glad that we are not like _____ - you fill in the blank? He is genuinely trying to be faithful to God and he’s living it everyday. Somewhere along the way, he lost track and started feeling superior to others. It seems as if he has lost all sense of dependence on God. He feels like he is being faithful all by himself.
The other person in the story is a tax collector. Tax collectors were despised because they were responsible for gathering taxes any way they could get them. They could amass as much as they wanted as long as the government got its share. Tax collectors were known as the corrupt people in society because they could resort to any means necessary to collect whatever they could assemble. The tax collector was already written off by most anyone who heard this story. This man is not known for his ethics. No one would call him fair. In this story, he kneels to pray and begs for God’s mercy because he knows he deserves nothing. What is beautiful is his change of heart. It is beautiful to witness him recognizing the pain and suffering he has caused and knowing that he needs God.
As you hear this story, do you identify the Pharisee or the tax collector? My guess is that you are both. This is the place where we can all use a mirror to see ourselves through God’s eyes. Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to simply be yourself, you will become more than yourself.” (Luke 18:14, The Message)
Remember the glass half full and half empty distinction? There is a quote that stops me up short when I try and narrow anything into an either/or: “People who wonder whether the glass is half empty or half full miss the point. The glass is refillable.”
Is Joel good news or bad news? The answer of course, is “yes”. Is the Pharisee or the Tax collector the hero? Which one is the villain? Again, the answer is “yes”. Years ago, my youth group used a litany by Paul Thompson and Joani Schulz (The Giving Book, p. 133) that went like this:
“We are neither good nor bad, we are both.
And because God loves us, let us love ourselves.
We are neither strong nor weak, we are both.
And because God supports us, let us support one another.
We are neither guilty nor innocent, we are both.
And because God forgives us, let us forgive ourselves.
We are neither perfect nor imperfect, we are both.
And because God cares for us, let us care for one another.
We are neither pure nor impure, we are both.
And because God accepts us, let us accept ourselves.”
Our task as people who follow Jesus is to listen a little longer and look a little deeper so that we can embrace the many layers that make up a human being. It is why we have small groups. We need to tell our stories. We need to listen with hearts open. We need to stop putting people into simple categories without taking the time or energy to recognize the fullness of who they are. We need to do the same with ourselves.
Part of the Pharisee’s downfall was comparing himself to others. We live in a competitive world. We want to do as well or better than the people around us. We compare ourselves all the time. Clergy are always measuring themselves against each other. We wonder why attendance is better at another church or wish we had the financial resources the church down the street has. Often when clergy come together to support each other, they find themselves trying to paint a picture that is better than reality. There is something scary about being seen in all our humanness. The program I directed for ten years was a spiritual renewal program for clergy. I learned early on that it needed to be ecumenical. When clergy from the same denomination came together, they would compare themselves to one another and didn’t feel safe being vulnerable or honest with each other. I want to be part of a community where we can lovingly embrace the fullness of our shared humanity. I don’t want us to pretend we are more than we are or fear sharing our vulnerability. Christ meets us in our vulnerability and that is where the healing begins. So this text is not about us and whether we are going to show our half full or half empty side. It is an invitation to remember that God can always refill our glass.
We believe in a multidimensional God. If we can embrace God’s many facets and we understand that we are made in God’s image, perhaps we can accept with compassion the many layers of our humanity. Perhaps we can make room for imperfections – others’ and our own. Perhaps we can celebrate success when it comes to others. Perhaps we can ask for help when we need it. Perhaps we can take a long look in the mirror and see that God is in each of us, which means that there is so much more to love about ourselves. It means that there is so much more to love about our neighbors. It means that there is so much more to love about the world and God knows we need that now more than ever.