Sermon on Luke 18:9–14 for Pentecost +23, Ordinary 30 C, October 27, 2013
He 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.”
The other day a question was going around the internet among a group of Christians. It asked, if Jesus returned today, what would he be like? If Jesus came the first time as a poor, marginalized Jewish peasant, in Roman-occupied Palestine, a Galilean, no less, then who would he be today? Could it be that Jesus would return as a poor, gay, black, teenage girl?
Did You Wince?
When I first read the question, it made me wince a bit. Did it you? But then as I reflected on it, I realized a few things. First, yes, Jesus fit the categories of people whom the “respectable ones” found easy to dismiss, if not to despise. Similarly, the kinds of categories of people that we, in the North American, educated, suburban, caucasian Protestant church find easy to dismiss if not despise are included in that hypothetical person: the poor, gay, black, teenage girl. So maybe he would come back like that.
And the second thing I realized was that my initial wince betrayed me. I wonder how Jesus would have told this parable differently today? What if one of the characters at prayer in the story was a poor gay black teenage girl? If I were the other person in the story, would I be sitting there thinking “I’m so thankful I’m not like her?” Maybe I have a self-righteous, smug side of me that I don’t want to admit.
Being a “Jesus-Guy”
This past summer I got to attend the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina (the Wild Goose is the Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit). One of the leading lights of the “Emerging Church” movement, Brian McLaren was there. He has written several books I have found stimulating like “A Generous Orthodoxy” and “A New Kind of Christianity.”
When he was asked about his perspective on Christianity, in this new day, with so many things changing, I loved how he began his answer: “I’m a Jesus guy” he said. “I just think Jesus is great.”
I love that answer. And I identify with it. You may think I’m a church-guy, seeing me here, like this on Sundays, but the truth is, I’m a Jesus-guy first and foremost. In my best moments, I want to follow Jesus, to know Jesus, to have his voice in my head and listen to it. That’s what I see as the goal; the main thing.
The way I see it, we are authentic Christians to the degree that we are personally following Jesus. The test of our Christian lives is not how well we do church, but how closely we follow Jesus.
No Huge Crowds Yet
As you know, we are now involved in a new evening worship service we are calling “Transitions.” This Sunday will be our fourth week. I’m hopeful that we will be able to reach out in a new way through this service, but it’s starting slowly. We do not live in the days when you can just put up a sign and an announcement in the paper and hundreds of people will flock to a new church worship service.
We have a History
Why not? For many reasons, no doubt. But one of the big ones is our reputation. Collectively and historically, the church has been expert in drawing boundaries and maintaining strict walls of separation between insiders and outsiders; saints and sinners. The church, throughout its history, has been the poster child for judgmentalism. Condemnation has been our strong suit.
There may have been a day in which that worked; when enough people believed in God, and heaven and hell, that the church got away with being arrogant, self-serving and exclusive; but those days are gone. We are reaping the bitter harvest in our times of the bad seeds that the church has been sowing for a long time.
I don’t speak for the church in general, but since I’m here in this role, let me just say, on behalf of the church, that if you have ever been hurt or felt shamed or excluded by the church, we are sorry; that was wrong; we apologize. Please forgive us. Whenever we did that, we were not following Jesus.
There is a trend these days to reject the church as it has been. Maybe there is a positive side to this. Lots of people these days define themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” They are deeply aware of their connection to spiritual reality, but they are not looking for a religious institution, like a church, to help them make that connection. They are spiritually aware of God and freely admit it, even though they have been put off by the church.
But, as Brian McLaren gave voice to, there are a lot of people who are newly interested in what it means to authentically follow Jesus. They are forming movements like the Emerging Church movement and like “Red Letter Christians” who focus their practice on the red letters in the New Testament – in those versions of it that put Jesus’ words in red ink.
They are paying attention in a new way to Jesus’ teaching, and trying to live as if it were actually true and he actually meant it. They are combining active engagement in ministries of compassion and justice with deep personal spirituality – just like Jesus did. The only kind of church that makes any sense to them, and to me, is the kind that is seeking to follow Jesus.
What Matters to Jesus
What does that look like? It’s so clear that Jesus never lost sight of what really mattered. To Jesus it mattered that people were hungry, so he fed them. It mattered that they were sick, and so he healed them. It mattered what they thought about God, and so he taught them to understand God as their loving Heavenly Father whose name was holy. And it mattered deeply what they thought of each other. There is simply no room, in Jesus’ mind, for arrogance and exclusion.
How did we get into the condition we are in, in which we have earned the reputation for being so un-Jesus-like to the point that we feel free to wince at the idea of Jesus being a poor, gay, black teenage girl?
Hard wiring and Spiritual Transformation
Because, the truth is, that it is normal for humans to like those who are like us and to fear and loath those who are different. It’s human nature. We are probably hard-wired to be exclusive. It’s part of our long biological evolutionary history that we protect and care for our tribe against all competitors.
By being like Jesus in his spirituality. Frequently we see Jesus, the feeder, healer, activist taking time out to be quiet and alone in prayer. Jesus was truly an activist. He was out with people in need, addressing their needs, even to the point of exhaustion sometimes. He even worked on the Sabbath.
But he knew how to take Sabbath rest as well. He knew when he needed to leave the crowds, to get in the boat, and experience the presence of God out on the water. He sometimes got up long before daylight to go and be alone in prayer and meditation. He developed such an intimate relationship with God that he came to know him as his Abba – father.
Have we been following Jesus? We, especially in the Christian Western world, have spent a lot of time trying to work out the correct theological understanding of Jesus. How many natures did he have? Was he fully human and fully divine? How does he fit into the Trinity? How does he relate to the Spirit?
And we have spent a lot of time, energy and money doing church. We have built it as a huge institution with constitutions, by-laws and buildings.
Maybe now is the time to say,
“been there; done that.”
Now let’s try something new. Now lets try to be who we should have been all this time.
Now is the time to examine our own personal spiritual practices. If we are going to experience transformation from that default human condition of exclusion, it will only come as the fruit of the kinds of spiritual practices Jesus modeled for us.
How are your spiritual practices? Maybe this is a good time to re-examine how we have been, and renew our commitment to being fully authentic followers of Jesus.
If you have not yet discovered the amazing power of contemplative, centering prayer, may I encourage you to try? Set aside twenty minutes every day. Find a place and time when, like Jesus, you can be alone and undisturbed. Allow yourself to rest in God’s presence, neither planning the future nor ruminating about the past, but simply being mindfully present to God.
This is the kind of transformative spirituality that Jesus practiced. This is what led him to understand himself as a beloved son of his heavenly Father. This is what led him to be so open hearted and accepting of people in every category – women, children, Romans, diseased people, confused people, even caught-red-handed guilty people. He never shamed anybody, never put anyone down.
Instead, he loved people into repentance. Without a word of judgment the corrupt tax collector in another story offers to repay four fold all of those whom he has gouged, after Jesus breaks the barriers of protocol for decent people and joins him for a meal in his home. The adulterous woman whose execution Jesus stopped was given a second chance to go and sin no more.
I wonder how Jesus would have reacted to a conversation with a poor, black, gay, teenage girl. I want to be a Jesus-guy, and for our church to be a Jesus-church, and for us all to be spiritually grounded, actively activist, Jesus-people. Then we will be blessed in so many ways, maybe even by having people like that showing up again as they used to when Jesus walked the earth.