Sermon
October 25, 1998
Rev. Virnette Hamilton
First Congregational Church, New Milford, CT  06776
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Scripture: Luke 18:9-14

Text -  Gospel Paradox

Whenever I read this passage I am reminded of a soap opera. I never watch

them now, but I did when my children were young. A young woman would be

kneeling at the alter of the chapel in the hospital - tearfully begging for

God to spare the life of her loved one. "Please God", she would beg "let him

live - I will do anything - I will be faithful, I will be a changed woman,

just let him live - don’t punish him for my sins. "

She bargained with God and it seemed like God must have accepted her

proposition because only minutes later it would be obvious that there was

cause for rejoicing. Wouldn’t it be nice if it actually worked that way.

We all have a tendency to try this "manipulation of God" approach - why even

the Pharisee in our scripture lesson thought that it was worth a shot. Of

course, he thought ahead and hedged his bets. He did even more than was

expected of him by the Temple - he fasted twice a week and gave a full 10% of

his income to the temple - and he was rather proud of his efforts and wanted

to make sure that God hadn’t missed his hard work.

Jesus has helped us to see the Pharisees in a rather negative light -

however, they were, in their day, thought of as good Jewish men, Temple

leaders - both in rural villages and in the cities. They were usually

respected, well educated laymen, who were relied upon to bring fresh insight

into the interpretation of Jewish law.

In contrast, the Tax collector wasn’t considered socially acceptable. Tax

collectors were seen as collaborators with the Romans and therefore,

considered traitors to the Jews. They made their living by prepaying the

taxes and then collecting what they thought they could extort from tax payers.

They used this power to coerces and bribe and gouge. They were considered

pretty low. Here was the model of sinfulness. And it is evident that the tax

collector knew who he was and what he had done. He stood to the side, and

beat his breast, confessing his sin.

And it is easy to see which found favor in God’s eyes. Surprisingly - not the

Pharisee, who did all that was expected of him - but rather the sinful tax

collector.

Jesus says, "The route to justification is through following the example of

the tax collector - who was not aiming to manipulate God - but simply and

humbly sought God’s forgiveness."

Have you realized the problem here? If justification is our goal then we are

sunk. As soon as we recognize what the Pharisee was doing wrong and therefore

follow the tax collector’s example we have again become manipulative. This

seems to be a trap. Gospel Paradox.

But of course it isn’t - so lets look beneath the obvious.

Who is the Pharisee trusting? Certainly not God. The text says that "he

stood and was praying thus to himself". His prayers probably never made it

to heaven. All of his hard work, every effort fasting and tithing that he

made was an effort to control what would happen. In his mind, God would

perceive him just as the community did. He trusted himself and not God.

How about the tax collector - who did he trust? He wouldn’t even look up to

heaven, he threw himself on the mercy of God. It is obvious in his

confession of sin that he came with a genuinely contrite heart. he had to

rely on God to forgive him, because he knew that the community wasn’t going to

grant him mercy.

Who are we - gathered here this morning? Are we like the Pharisee,

manipulators who really trust ourselves instead of God? Or are we like the

tax collector, sinners who have no choice but to throw ourselves on the mercy

of the Lord?

The answer to that question is "yes" We are both of those.

We have said the prayers of the Tax collector: Lord have mercy, Your grace

is sufficient for me. Thank you God, I know I am not worthy of your love. I

am so grateful for all that you have given me.

But we are also the Pharisee... - we get life on earth and life in the

Kingdom of God confused. There is a big difference between safety and

salvation. We know that to some degree we can manipulate our life on earth.

We take vitamins every day and eat plenty of vegetables, exercise, wear our

seat belts, don’t drink or smoke, bring our kids to Sunday School, send them

to the right schools. We know that those efforts will reduce the chances of

certain suffering and pain. We even hear a lot about people who attend church

and pray live longer and healthier lives.

But - it is easy to get that kind of prevention mixed up with salvation and

God. We begin to believe that through all of our efforts we can protect our

lives from pain, sorrow, injury, tragedy - suffering. If our lives are going

well, then God must be happy with us. "We are doing something right" We

go to church, we join committees, why, we even support the church budget.

But, the reality is - we know that there is no magic way to protect ourselves.

We all know good church-going people who have died too young - We all know in

our hearts that good kids, from good parents and good homes can make big

mistakes, We all know that disease and accidents can strike anywhere. And if

you asked any one of us, none of us really believes that God gives us sorrow

and grief as a punishment for our sins...

But sometimes when we are faced with suffering and heavy hearts, we do try to

manipulate God. We plead and bargain just like the soap opera characters. We

make promises and offer deals and pray that God will accept our propositions.

Jesus has one important message for us in this passage. If you are focused on

controlling your own destiny you are probably headed in the wrong direction.

How can you focus on your relationship with God, if all you are thinking about

is doing what you need to do to achieve your goals. Will you even remember

to lift your prayers to God, or will they really be prayers said to yourself

just confirming in your own mind your efforts.

 

Jesus says - from God you need to seek salvation - come with empty hands,

fall on your knees, open your heart to God, Let God see who you really are,

a person who trusts in God’s mercy and compassion - a person who recognizes

and relies on God’s grace - to comfort you and console you - to sustain you

and nurture you - receive the holy spirit, receive all that God has for you

and in that moment be put in right relationship with God... Find that peace of

Jesus Christ just waiting for you - The peace that passes all understanding -

it is there - for you - for all who humble themselves. Amen.