2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
The Rev. Dr. David Lose reflected, “Paul Tillich, commenting on the Apostle Paul's assertion that the gospel is a stumbling block, once said that the danger is stumbling over the wrong thing.” This morning’s parable is one of those parables that causes us to stumble. We easily get tripped up by its content and message.
The thing is, as Lose points out, the parable, at first hearing, seems straightforward enough. After all, we’re used to hearing about those terrible Pharisees! They couldn’t do anything right! So, we hear this parable and immediately think, “Oh, we’re not like that!” Yet, as soon as we even begin to think that way, to compare ourselves with the Pharisees, we have become Pharisees! Lose says anytime we state, “There, but for the grace of God, go I” we have stumbled over the block that the parable places before us. By his world's standards, the Pharisee had reason to be proud. He had done, he was doing, what was expected of a man of faith. He was, by church law, tradition, and expectation, a righteous man.
What is our focus, in the church? In many ways, isn’t it to raise up people of faith, people who will excel in righteousness and be the foundation of good societies? At one time, almost every community was organized around church life. The good people were center stage in our communal life. Look at old pictures of small towns and cities. The skylines were dotted with steeples, for churches were the prominent buildings in the town. We strive to live up to the words in Second Timothy. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day…” Faith has become something we do! We have responsibilities. God asks us to be good, responsible people.
The traditional reading of this parable, influenced by centuries of disdain for Pharisees, makes us choose the tax collector as our ideal. Yet, in every way imaginable, the tax collector was not righteous. His very job prevented righteousness, for his work required him to do things outside of the law – to handle foreign money, to keep account of and collect debts and taxes. It required him to work with those who represented a government that threatened his people – their lives, lifestyle, and fundamentally, their faith. This is not the kind of person we would seek out for our churches! So, we had better be careful that we don’t trip over the stumbling block this parable presents. The ideal for righteousness is one we would still call unrighteous. Our own values align us again and again with the Pharisee. We’re not worthless like that tax collector!
A colleague once said to me that he was going to eliminate the prayer of confession. “People feel bad enough about themselves,” he said. “They don’t need a prayer that reminds them.” Someone else left the church because she objected to the “downer” prayer of confession. She declared that she certainly wasn’t guilty those sins! One church I preached at had a member who seemed to hear, in every sermon, words that others needed to hear. “You sure told them,” he would say to me after church each Sunday. We want to be recognized as those who fight the good fight, those who are faithful to the end of the race, those who have earned God’s favor and God’s reward.
Anne Lamott wrote a wonderful book on prayer titled Help, Thanks, Wow: the Three Essential Prayers. She begins by reminding us that prayer comes from a place of honesty. It speaks truth. That seems a simple thing – yet it isn’t. In so many ways we’re schooled to come into God’s presence with poetry and carefully worded prayers that will honor God with their beauty. We think that we are supposed to present our very best to God – which means that, too often, we are less than honest. That’s evident in the way we treat church. How many people say they can’t come to church because they don’t have the right clothes, or they are emotionally fragile and afraid of showing that fragility to others, or they’re just not good enough to be there. And the church does little to combat those perceptions. Lamott says, "…we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up. The opposite may be true: We may not be able to get it together until after we show up in such miserable shape." And is that not the story of the tax collector in this parable? “We may not be able to get it together until after we show up in such miserable shape.” “’God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other..”
Lose says, "One makes a claim to righteousness based on own accomplishments while other relies entirely upon the Lord's benevolence.” Lamott, in her chapter on the prayer “help” writes, “There's freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won't be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you've reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin…" "Help. Help us walk through this. Help us come through….It is the first great prayer.". That is the prayer offered by the tax collector. He knew he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t put the pieces of his life together and measure up to what God called him to be. “Help. Have mercy!”
That’s a hard prayer for us in our society, our culture, that values, honors, celebrates and expects self-reliance. We want Pharisees. We expect Pharisees who, by their own fortitude, can right the wrongs and fix the world. Just think about the election – about what we expect to hear from candidates at every level. We want those strong, independent leaders who will grasp the power to make everything right. Yet, they get into office and discover that their power is limited – thank you, God – and they cannot fulfill all the promises they have made. Lamott stresses our need to understand that we cannot control everything. So, we come to God and pray simply, “Help!” "I try not to finagle God,” she says. “Some days go better than others, especially during election years. I ask that God's will be done, and I mostly sort of mean it."
Lose's reflections also seem appropriate for the political climate dominating our news these days. The trap of the parable is: “ as soon as we fall prey to temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee…Anytime you draw a line between who's ‘in’ and who's ‘out,’ this parable asserts you will find God on the other side… It is a parable about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly.”
Any time we begin to draw the lines naming who’s in and who’s out, God is on the other side. The divides in our country are growing deeper and deeper. They are divides of political affiliation, race, religion, economic status, ethnicity, sexual orientation – the list is long. But, as soon as we make lists and judge ourselves in comparison or contrast, we are the Pharisees who forget that we need, all of us, to cry “Help!”
Lamott writes, "Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge, that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, something. These prayers say, 'Dear Some Something, I don't know what I'm doing. I can't see where I'm going. I'm getting more lost, more afraid, more clenched. Help.”
I think it was in the 1970s that the book I’m OK, You’re OK came out. We had to read it in seminary. The professor of the class liked the book, generally. It attempted to lift self-esteem which for so many was and is dreadfully low. He suggested, however, that according to Reformed theology the title of the book should be I’m Not OK. You’re Not OK. But That’s OK. We share in a prayer of confession to remind us that we are in need of God’s love and God’s mercy. Our justification does not come from our own acts, but from God’s love for us. The passage from Timothy sounds like self-reliance – yet the author recognizes that his work flowed from the gift of God’s strength. He did not do it on his own! For Lamott, restoration begins with acknowledging that “we are so ruined, so loved and in charge of so little!” “We start where we are. We find God in our human lives, and that includes the suffering. I get thirsty people glasses of water; even if that thirsty person is just me."
You may have found a little piece of paper attached to the insert. As Lamott expanded on the need to recognize that we’re in charge of so little, she said that part of the prayer “Help” is learning to let go – to recognize our inability to change the world, others, or even our very selves. She wrote, “One modest tool for letting go in prayer that I’ve used for twenty-five years is a God box..The container has to exist in time and space, so you can physically put a note in it, so you can see yourself let go, in time and space. On the note I write down the person about whom I am distressed or angry, or describe the situation that is killing me, with which I am toxically, crazily obsessed, and I fold the note up, stick it in the box and close it. You might have a brief moment of prayer…Then I agree to keep my sticky mitts off the spaceship until I hear back.”
So, the little piece of paper is for you to take, if you wish. Find your own God box. (I would have liked to have been able to give everyone something to use, but I couldn’t think of what would be appropriate. Lamott has used different things through the years – fancy boxes, plain boxes, gifts from friends. The God box is a way of acknowledging our need for HELP. And it comes – in some form, over time. “You will come to know,” she says. “In surrender you have won.”
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified! “Help!”