Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sermon -- 28 October 2007

PROPER 25 / 22 PENTECOST — 28 October 2007
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 am
Joel 2:23-32 Ps 65 2Tim 4:6-8,16-18 Luke 18:9-14

© 2007 William S. J. Moorhead

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is, I assume, one of Jesus’ more familiar stories. We have listened to it being read on Sundays every three years for the last thirty years in late October, and before that it was read every Sunday along about mid-August. So we know this story pretty well.

Which may not be the same thing has having really heard it.

I suspect that when we hear this story — at least if “we” are anything like “me” — we identify with the tax collector. (Excursus: the tax collector was a notorious sinner, not because he collected taxes, but because he collected taxes for the Romans, and furthermore did so dishonestly to his own personal profit. End of excursus.) We identify with the prayer of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner! But I thank you, God, that at least I am not like other people like that hypocritical Pharisee bragging about how devout he is.”


Christians have often made the simple assumption that the problem with the Pharisees was that they were hypocrites — that is, they were phonies — they said one thing but actually did something else. Well, no doubt some of the Pharisees were hypocrites — on occasion Jesus really put it to them about their hypocrisy, although it was generally about more than just being phonies. But then, Christians can be phonies and hypocrites sometimes too. (This would include you, and me.) But in the case of the Pharisee in this story, there’s no reason to think he’s not telling the truth in his prayer. (Presumably a prayer to God, though it’s not entirely clear just who he’s talking to!) The Pharisee was a very good man. He really did tithe his income. He really did fast twice a week (and that meant no food until supper, not just giving up hamburgers).

Another excursus: In an early Christian writing called the Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, dating probably to a generation or so after the New Testament, it says to Christians: “Your fasts must not be identical to those of the hypocrites [i.e., the Jews, who by that time had become the spiritual descendents of the Pharisees]. They fast on Mondays and Thursdays; but you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.” Wonderful. Two generations into Christianity, and already the Church has acquired a “Doesn’t Get It” Society. End of second excursus.

The Pharisee thought he was religiously superior to other people. And he was. He was not a thief, or a rogue, or an adulterer (“greedy, unjust, adulterous” the text says). And especially he was not a betrayer of his own people, like the tax collector over in the corner. He really was better than others by all the usual religious standards; he obeyed the Law, he kept all the rules (and then some), and he thought this won him God’s special favor. Moral basket cases like the tax collector earned his contempt. And though he probably didn’t realize it, he was even contemptuous of God, or at least awfully arrogant. He thought God “owed him.”

Arrogant toward God; contemptuous toward his fellow human beings. Very “religious.”

The tax collector? All we know of him is that he cries to God for mercy. Does he then go home and give up his career of collaboration and extortion? We don’t know. We don’t know how or why he got into the tax-farming racket in the first place — and thereby incurring the hatred of his fellow Jews. Greed? Perhaps. Or despair? Maybe. We don’t know. (Why do people become drug dealers?) And what does Jesus say about this tax collector? “He went down to his home justified rather than the other.” He was the one declared righteous, the one in right relationship with God.

I suppose it has always been the case, but it seems to be especially the case these days, that “religious” people so-called, so-claimed, are highly vocal about “others.” This seems to be so among American Christians generally, but also within the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church.

Do you suppose there are some aspects of what we consider “religion” that “just don’t get it” as far as what the Kingdom of God is really about? And who God really is, and what God really cares about?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sermon -- 21 October 2007

Proper 24 / 21 Pentecost — 21 October 2007
St. Michael’s Mount Pleasant — 9:00 am
BCP: Gen 32:3-8,22-30 Ps 121 2Tim 3:14-4:5 Luke 18:1-8a

RCL: Jer 31:27-34 Ps 119:97-104 2Tim 3:14-4:5 Luke 18:1-8

© William Moorhead 2007

Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?

As you may recall, about three months ago in the Sunday Gospel reading we heard a strange little story that Jesus told about a man whose neighbor came to him in the middle of the night to borrow some bread to set before a friend who had shown up unexpectedly. And after a bit of whining and moaning, the man gets up and gives his neighbor what he needs. And Jesus ends up by making the point that if we who are evil still will meet the needs of others, how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.
[1] (If you missed it back at the end of July, you can check it out on my sermon blog, “Have Stole, Will Travel.”[2] Just Google it, or me.)

Today we hear what seems like a very similar story. And like the earlier one, it’s probably not as simple as it may seem. Luke introduces this parable as being about the need of the disciples to pray always and not to lose heart. Well, that’s part of it, but I think there are some other things going on as well.

The first character in the story is a judge “who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” That makes him problematic right from the start. In our society we like to assume that our judges fear God, or at least the law, and also have respect for other human beings, and on the whole I think we are justified in that assumption. In Israelite society the expectations for judges was just as high, if not higher. The task of the judge in Israel was not just the technical interpretation and administration of the law (Israelite law was a good bit less complicated than modern American law, but cases could still be very difficult), but the determination and dispensation of God’s justice and God’s shalom within the covenant community. By these standards the judge in this story is not a very good judge!

The second character in the story is a widow. Being a widow in any society in any age is always difficult for a variety of reasons, but in Israel as in most ancient societies, widows were in a particularly powerless and vulnerable position. They did not normally have any inheritance rights, and so if a woman’s husband died and she had no sons who could take care of her, she could be in a very bad way. A recurring theme both in the Old Testament and in the New is the great importance of providing care and justice for the widows and orphans. To abuse and exploit these powerless ones is to incur God’s wrath.

Apparently someone is taking some advantage of this widow in the story, and she appeals to the judge, who initially does not care. But she doesn’t give up; and the judge finally says, well, even though I don’t care about God and I don’t care about other people, this woman is driving me crazy, so I’ll give her the justice she demands or in the end she’ll come and smack me in the face (that’s the literal meaning of the Greek!), or (perhaps metaphorically) “give me a black eye,” or (even more metaphorically, and a bit wimpily as we usually now translate it) wear me out.

And Jesus goes on: See? Even a bad judge finally gives in to justice! All the more so will God give justice to his chosen people who cry out for vindication. And he concludes: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

This leads me to think, going back to the first verse, that “the need to pray always and not lose heart” is not primarily about “asking God to give us what we want,” though that may be an included dimension of what he is saying. Because the story Jesus tells is really about justice, and particularly justice for the powerless and oppressed.

During much of Christian history, we have had the notion that what Jesus was primarily about was teaching us a new religion. I’m not so sure about that — it depends on what you mean by “religion.” A lot of what passes for “religion” these days — not only among Christians but even among Episcopalians — doesn’t seem to me to have very much to do with Jesus. What Jesus was about was the Kingdom of God — the proclaiming and implementing and enacting of the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom beginning now, God’s Kingdom eternally. But beginning here and now.

And so when we pray always, not losing heart, in the first instance that is not about “give me what I want” but committing myself constantly and with determination to the cause of the Kingdom of God. When Jesus taught us to pray, he told us to begin with “Hallowed be thy Name: Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Only then do we go on to what we need (not just what we want) and then move directly to the grace to seek reconciliation and steadfastly to stand against the power of evil. This is the faith on earth for which the Son of Man seeks when he comes.

A century and a half ago, the English priest and theologian Frederick Denison Maurice noted that we are trying to fill people with “religion” when what they really need is the Living God. Christ did not come to establish a religious sect but God’s kingdom — a kingdom embracing all people, with no class distinctions, no rich and poor, no oppressor or oppressed — a kingdom of love and justice.

For this kingdom we must pray always, not lose heart in striving to serve it, and in our commitment to God’s Kingdom be found faithful by our Lord when he comes.

[1] Proper 12; Luke 11:1-13.
[2] http://havestole.blogspot.com