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God's Story of Grace

Lexi Boudreaux
Sun, Oct 27

Text: Luke 18:9-14

 Will you please pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the mediations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, oh God, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.

 Last week I was driving in Harvard Square when a student on a bike and a car both swerved into the line of traffic in order to get through the rapidly changing yellow light on JFK Street. In a split second, I had to slam on my breaks to make sure I gave both of them enough space to safely make it through the intersection without harming anyone-- even though I had the right of way. And I have to say, I had some serious self-righteous anger at the reckless driving that was putting others in danger for what seemed to be the small personal gain of missing another red light. I made some judgments about their behavior and even complained later that afternoon to classmates saying, “some people driving in Cambridge have no regard for the safety of others. Why would a person put someone’s safety at risk to shave off a few minutes on their commute?” Does anyone else know the feeling? It seems like this traffic close call happens often in these parts. I think we can all relate to these issues of safety on the streets of Cambridge whether we are the pedestrians, cyclists, or drivers behind the wheel.

 Later that evening I went home to start looking at the lectionary for this week’s sermon and there I found this parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector staring me in the face. Instantly, I heard my once justified complaints echoing in my mind adjusted slightly as “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: selfish drivers, reckless bikers, pedestrians who don’t look both ways, or even like this tax collector.” Wait, how did that tax collector get in there? And once again, I had the familiar and humbling experience of Jesus running after me, pulling me back to the truth of how to be in closer relationship with God and with other wayward pilgrims on this ever changing road of life.

 Our scripture passage for this morning is this short, but powerfully tricky parable from the Gospel of Luke about the prayers of a Pharisee and a Tax collector. Jesus presents us with two characters meant for some sort of comparison, both with identities that are complicated. You see, even though Luke often portrays the Pharisees as Jesus’ opponents, they were actually viewed by the majority of Jesus’ faith community as virtuous religious people who were protecting early forms of Judaism, the religion of Jesus, from the encroachment of the Pagan Roman Empire. As for the other character, Jesus welcomed tax collectors into his inner circle; one of his disciples Matthew was a tax collector, yet the wider community saw them as people who were selling out their fellow siblings of faith to serve the Roman Empire for their own monetary gain. Needless to say, it’s complicated. To situate this parable in our own time, the title of it might be something like “the church deacon and the medical insurance agent.” Ok, so now we know what we are working with.

 When you first encounter what Jesus is saying to the group of people who have trust in their own righteousness the moral of this parable seems to be pretty simple and to the point. He seems to be saying, “don’t be like this Pharisee who celebrates that he is not like other people, be like the Tax collector who doesn’t think too highly of himself.” In other words, be humble.

 The Gospel of Luke is known for many things including stories being told in pairs, and unexpected role reversals, but it is definitely not known for the simplicity of its parables. To be clear about the role reversals: we have a Pharisee, a person who was counted among the mainstream religious who is unaware of what truly makes him righteous. We have a tax collector, a person who was considered someone who was betraying his own people for the allure of wealth who is lifted up as an example of faith, and we have Jesus, someone who is, at other times in our tradition, called the prince of peace, who in this narrative is getting in the face of self-righteous people and calling them out big time. It goes without saying that there are definitely some upended expectations operating here.

 The unexamined narrative makes it very easy for us to immediately identify with the tax collector, and self-righteously say to ourselves, thank God I am not like that Pharisee in the parable. We have to watch out though--because it’s a trap! The parable is a trap because the more you try to figure out what you should do to be righteous, the more you land in the same place of doing exactly what the Pharisee does in the story. You wind up in this labyrinth maze of categorizing righteous and unrighteous, us and them, and you start to ask yourself, panicked, how can I get out of this trap? Or, at least that was my reaction. This parable shows us how easy it is to get lost in our human inclination to categorize ourselves over and against other people. We slip right into it without even noticing. To step out of the trap, we have to stop thinking about what to do and start focusing on what acknowledging the grace and mercy of God does. The parable is not about marking ourselves as not being like one kind of person or another, but it is about recognizing who God is and how that affects our relationships.

 In the text, the Pharisee is described as standing praying by himself. In the New International Version of this text this phrase is translated as “standing praying to himself.” Both translations hover around the sense of the possible meaning of the original Greek, which is closer to “he stands oriented towards himself.” His kind of prayer requires that he turn away from God and other human beings and towards himself. In his prayer, the Pharisee references himself four times and only God once. Why does the Pharisee feel the need to list out all these good things he has done to God? Perhaps, it’s because deep down inside there is a part of him that fears that who he is without all those things isn’t enough for God.

 As a perfectionist, he does more than what is expected in order to prove his righteousness or justification as a good person before God. He makes it pretty clear that he has it all together. And, he does in this instance. Objectively, he is following the laws that Jesus would approve of. As a result, God has nothing to add, nothing to give him, because you’ll notice that the Pharisee never asked for anything. In his experience of his prayer, maybe the tax collector praying within his eye sight reminds him of all the ways that he fears he’s missing the mark, all the ways in which he is maybe a little bit like the tax collector-- so in order to make himself feel more secure-- he elevates himself by regarding the tax collector to be not at all like him. In other words, he regards him with contempt.

 But the thing is, he is exactly like him. He is exactly like him in that anything that he could offer would not be enough to earn the love of God in a transactional view of the divine. The thing that the Pharisee forgets and the thing that we too often forget is that God is ready to give us love and grace in our lives always outside of a transactional system of exchange.

In contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector is operating under a different set of assumptions about God. He didn’t have any answers or reasons that he could offer up to God for deeming him righteous. His plan was to ask for mercy and to claim what he did know, that he was a flawed and imperfect person seeking help and relationship from a compassionate God. If we choose to base our worth on our self-righteousness alone, we are choosing the path of separation that the Pharisee chooses. And ultimately we are missing out on being freed from a prison made up of our own attempts to construct ourselves to be good enough. We are missing out on the genuine relationships that flow when we let go of thinking we have control over our justification and we start focusing on God’s grace for us. What if the Pharisee admitted that he wasn’t doing everything right and that he believed that God had forgiveness in store for him? Like, truly believed it. Maybe his heart would have been open to a connection with the tax collector beside him instead of regarding him with contempt. This parable is uncomfortable because it is dealing with a high stakes concern of humanity. It opens up and uncovers our deepest desire to be seen as good in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God.

 Our anxiety is further heightened by our wider society consistently telling us that we live in a world that judges us based on our perceived value, whether that value is related to our morality, our wealth, or our utility to the wider systems in which we live. The story that we have been told is that our success, our production, our woke-ness or our social standing is of primary importance. We’ve been told that what we do and achieve decides for us whether we will be accepted and loved. Our wider culture is a culture of virtue signaling, or the act of doing things that display that you are the right kind of person. We try to justify ourselves by going to the right schools, volunteering at the right places, voting for the right people, saying the right thing, parenting the right way, doing our work efficiently, or finally learning if pizza boxes are recyclable, which they aren’t, if you are wondering.

 I had an interesting conversation this summer about this desire to be good. After I described my inner monologue from a particularly long day my supervisor from my summer working as a hospital chaplain said to me with sincere compassion, “It must take up so much energy trying to be good all the time.” Her words stung, they made me pause what I was doing, and in that moment I realized that I was again, falling into the trap. I realized that my propensity towards perfectionism and the pressure I was putting on myself to fulfill expectations of others was in direct opposition to what I claimed to believe about who God is and who we are before God. We are bound to fail, and to be imperfect. That’s just a part of being human. And we are called beloved anyways. All of us. Not just all of us church goers, not all of us law abiders, not all of us college-educated people. All of us. Period. Full stop. We just have to actually believe it.

 Society teaches us the story that fashions us all into those people that Jesus is telling this parable to. What if we believed a different story? God’s story-- the story of abundant grace for the inevitable reality that we will make mistakes and we will stumble. The story that says that we take seriously the belief that God’s promise of acceptance is enough to hold onto to feel secure. What would it mean for us to truly live without this safety net of trying to prove our worth by our own righteousness and start to orient ourselves towards the liberation of one another mandated by our knowledge of God’s love for us all? These questions that I am asking are rooted in the work of Martin Luther and other early reformers in their call to re-evaluate how Christians were living out their faith in what we now know as the Protestant Reformation.

 One of my favorite Lutherans, Reverend Nadia Boltz-Weber describes the role of God’s grace in our lives in a sermon to a church she started called The House of All Sinners and Saints. She says about grace, gratitude, and compassion: “I like to think of grace not as when God is good enough to forgive me for my failings, but as when God is a source of wholeness, redemption, and healing which makes up for my failings, which is more powerful than my failings. Grace, to me, is God's source code. It is the spirit's renewable resource. 

 What did I do that God would knit me together in my mother's womb? How could I earn the right to eat a perfect peach— that the Creator even thought to make the peach is grace to me.” She continues on… “When we experience grace, we just become more compassionate. And this world needs more compassion… When we see how God's source code of grace has redeemed our human tendency to mess up we give other people a break. We stop holding others to a ridiculous standard. We believe God can make beautiful things even out of other people's tendency to mess up.”

 When we focus on God’s story, our good works, which do deeply matter in the world, don’t carry the burden of upholding our righteousness. When you believe with all your heart that every person is worthy of love, grace, and acceptance-- even with all their flaws still spread out in a messy disarray-- you feel a responsibility towards others and urgently look for a way to be in relationship with them, to serve them however you can. The contempt dissipates and this desire for relationship and care for one another perpetuates the kingdom of God here and now among us. I see this miracle of grace happening in a lot of places, but a place that is particularly close to my heart is the Friday Café, a community meal program that is a part of our homeless ministries at First Church. It is a messy, but well organized mix of volunteers and guests, housed and unhoused, all working together to make a shared meal and carve out space to foster relationship and connection across societal boundaries, however imperfectly. I also see grace touching our wider community. As we talked about a couple weeks ago, we understand that our social justice work, our Public Remembrance Project, our concern for the formation of our young people and for those experiencing homelessness and so much more are spiritual practices arising from our faith. These practices are grounded in a deep knowledge of God’s love for us and for our neighbor and are made possible by our belief in a relational existence.

I expected to preach a sermon about pride and humility this morning, and I guess in some way I did. I also preached a sermon about the power of re-discovering the importance of believing that what God promises to us will be fulfilled. It is this belief that calls us into fuller relationship with God and other imperfect people around us.

 Even if we miss it sometimes, because we will miss it sometimes, God is always clearing a path for our righteousness that has nothing to do with what we do, but has everything to do with who we are. Will I get angry in traffic again while trying my best to have compassion for busy commuters? Probably. So, I’ll end our time together with a prayer: God, I thank you that I am very much like other people: selfish drivers, reckless bikers, pedestrians who don’t look both ways, people who get angry in traffic and even like this Pharisee and Tax collector. God, be merciful to me, someone who has a human tendency to mess up.  For your grace is sufficient for us all.

 Amen.

 

 

 

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