What does the life of a Christian look like?
In Sunday School we are learning about living a contemplative life, which is living in the moment, praying without ceasing, connecting with God in everything, not looking at everything in terms of black and white, right vs. wrong, but instead seeing the complexities and mystery and Holy. It is staying in connection with God and connection with each other. It is seeing and feeling and acting as God would have us. Last week, our video guide who is a priest, author, and Bible scholar said something that has stayed with me. He said, “no person should be trusted with power unless they have at some point been powerless.”
Our goal should be to recognize and claim powerlessness. But in our culture we are told from infancy that we are to rely on ourselves. We are to work hard, try, try again, pull ourselves up by the boot straps, compete and beat everyone and gain power – and when we do, we are a success. We value “self-made men and women.” She came from nothing but look at her now. He worked hard in school, got good grades and has climbed the ladder of success by himself. — This is the land of opportunity and the American Dream – anyone can succeed and have power if they are willing to work hard and put forth the time and the effort.
The Pharisee in our text was a self-made man of God. He was educated and middle class, he had power. He knew The Law as written in the Scriptures. He knew what he was to do and not to do. And in competition with himself and others, he did not just follow The Law to the letter, he went above and beyond, he was the best Pharisee he could be.
The Pharisees were held in the highest regard. They had given up a “normal” life in order to devote themselves to God. The Pharisees believed and championed “the priesthood of all believers” and thought that all Jews should have equal access to God and should be able to understand Scripture and live it out. But very few people could read, so the Pharisees read and interpreted the Laws of Moses so that all Jews could understand and follow them. They read the “ancient” texts of the Hebrew Bible and interpreted them for their “modern” first century lives. It is almost like they gave the people The Message version of the Old Testament. Biblical scholars and preachers do this all the time. We try to study and make sense of the texts and bring them to you in a way that makes sense. The difference is that you can read and study the texts for yourself.
The Law required that the people of God fast one day each year so the Pharisee fasted twice a week. The Law required a tithe, 10% of his take-home pay, so he gave 10% of everything he owned. He went to temple to worship, he kept the food laws, he prayed. He did all that was required and more. He was righteous. He was right with God.
Truth be told, when someone like the Pharisee, gives up the opportunity to have a “normal life” in order to devote his life to God, I would assume that person to be righteous. When someone gives up the right to earn a bigger salary, I assume that person to be righteous. When someone sacrifices in order to take on a life of fasting and praying and tithing, I assume that person is righteous.
But Tax collectors…,not so much. Tax collectors were not respected and no one assumed them to be righteous. They made their money by squeezing as much money as possible from the regular law-abiding, powerless people. Tax collectors were rich, rich, rich. We can equate the tax collectors with Bernie Madoff and others like him who got very wealthy by lying to their investors and to the government and who ended up costing people their life savings and drove some to even take their own lives. Tax collectors were despised.
In his silent prayer at the temple, the Pharisee thanked God for his life and he thanked God that he did not live the life of a thief, rogue or adulterer. He was thankful he was not a tax collector. — Haven’t all of us prayed that at one time or another. Thank you, O God, that I am not like that person, that I don’t have that job, that I don’t go to that school, that I don’t live in that neighborhood, that I am not a bandit, a scoundrel, a cheater or a liar.
Three years ago, John-Mark spent a day at the prison in Eddyville visiting with four inmates who were either serving life sentences or on death row. As John-Mark listened to their life stories full of families that were not educated and had histories of problems with the law, he reflected on his life story. His father only finished the 8th grade and died when John-Mark was 4 years old leaving his mother with 3 kids and not even a high school degree. His grandfather was a raging alcoholic who spent time in the penitentiary for trying to kill someone. “There, but by the Grace of God go I,” John-Mark thought as he listened to those men. A different chain of events and maybe instead of college, a family and a career, he would have been sitting with these men instead. He felt blessed to not be sitting at the table with those men.
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” prayed the Pharisee. God I thank you for my life. I thank you I have my life and not someone else’s. If that prayer kept the Pharisee out of the kingdom, my friends, most of us are in trouble.
But, as always with Christ, there is hope. As is often the case, we need to look deeper at this story and ask about the relationship between the Pharisee (the man of God) and the Tax Collector (the sinner). The two men are only linked through the thoughts of the Pharisee. The only connection was the negative prayer of the Pharisee. Thank you that I am not like him. They do not look at each other. They do not speak to each other. They do not shake hands or greet even though they are brothers in the faith. As far as we know, the tax collector does not notice the Pharisee. The only connection between these two men is through the negative thoughts and prayer of the Pharisee.
But this is not so surprising. Pharisees separated themselves from other people in order to maintain their purity before God. They did not come in contact with women, unclean animals, corpses, Gentiles or “sinners.” The Pharisee does not want to be close to an impure or unclean person. He does not want to rub elbows with thieves, rogues, adulterers or tax collectors. He does not want to know their stories. He does not think about how he is like them. He does not want to know them, to eat with them or to touch them. He does not even lift up the tax collector, his enemy, in his prayer.
The Pharisee’s prayer is self serving. His piety, his Holy living, his going above and beyond in following The Law was only for himself, so that he could be sure that he was in good standing with God. Like a check-list, he checked off the things he needed to do to maintain good standing with God: Fast – check; Keep Kosher-check; Pray – check; worship God – check; give 10% – check, check!
Martin Luther King, Jr warned us that as long as one of us is not free, none of us can be free. When Jesus was criticized for eating with tax collectors, he said,”Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do.” He also said in a parable, “I assure you that when you haven’t done it for the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.”
“Least of these” are the poor and the oppressed right? “Least of these” are children and women – not rich men. Right? We do not often think of wealthy people as the least of these, do we. We do not think of people who steal and lie and cheat as the least of these. But Jesus tells us there is no one that we are to count out. There is no one that is beyond God’s reach. There is no one that does not need God’s love and God’s love is to flow through us. When we put up barriers between us and another person, we put up a barrier between us and God. When we despise one of God’s broken children – one of the least of these – we put up a wall between us and God. —
The movie Avatar is set in the year 2154, when a corporation mines a valuable mineral on an Earth-like planet in another solar system. The planet is inhabited by Na’vi, tall, blue-skinned, humanoids who live in harmony with nature and God, who they call Eywa. They worship at a sacred place called Home Tree which, as the name suggests, is an incredibly large, old tree. Home Tree happens to be located on top of the valuable mineral the corporation wants to mine. If you have not seen the movie, you can imagine the battle that takes place. But at the beginning of the climactic scene, the Na’vi people prayed and as they prayed, visible spiritual connections formed between all of them and the Tree.
In order to be connected to God, we must acknowledge our connection to creation and to each other – all others. We must even be in right relationship with…with thieves, rogues, adulterers and tax collectors. We must love our enemies, have compassion and look for the ways we are like them. “But by the grace of God, there go I.”
That is where the Pharisee failed. He did all the right things, he did the things that us minister types teach and preach each Sunday…he fasted and prayed, he tithed and worshipped. He lived out his faith through his lifestyle. But he failed to do the most important thing and that is to love his neighbor as he loved himself.
Paul sums it up well in 1 Corinthians, “If I speak of the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
When John-Mark left the penitentiary and the four men, he was changed. He realized that he had more IN common with those men than different. He felt a connection to those men. He was humbled.
As we journey through life, let us find a connection to all people and to all creation. Let us find God in broken people, in criminals and liars. Let us find God in poor people and rich people. Let us find God in leaders of the church and those who do not feel worthy to come into God’s house. Let us find God in people with life sentences or on death row. As we pray, imagine a ribbon of light that connects all people, all of creation and God.
Next Sunday is commitment Sunday. And your church leaders ask that you prayerfully consider supporting this church in the coming year because it is the right thing to do and the Bible tells us to do so.
But it is also our hope that as you live out your faith through supporting this congregation, the connections between you and all others will be strengthened. That in this place and through the ministries of this church – you will learn to more fully love the poor and the rich, the oppressed and the lying, cheating powerful. It is our hope that through this church you will learn to recognize and claim your powerlessness before God through Christ.