Sermon for October 27, 2019

In November 2012, the Cornerstone Bank in Waco, Nebraska, was robbed of some $6,000. The bank employees were able to give the police a fairly good description of the teenage girl who pulled off the crime and the car in which she escaped. As it turned out, the investigators didn’t really need those descriptions, because the thief recorded a YouTube video titled “Chick bank robber” boasting of her criminal prowess.  Fanning out the cash in front of the camera, 19-year-old Hannah Sabata held up a sign that read, “I just stole a car and robbed a bank. Now I’m rich, I can pay off my college financial aid, and tomorrow I’m going for a shopping spree.” Later she held up another sign which said, “I told my mom today was the best day of my life... she just thinks I met a new boy.” Hannah’s brief criminal career ended later that week when police took her into custody.

I am sure you know of other people who have gotten into trouble by boasting. The words that come from our mouths reveal the condition of our hearts and minds. Jesus said, “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34).  We are not sure of this girl’s motivation.  Did she tell her story because she had a lot of pride or was she just happy that she had some money?  Did she feel that her life was lost before the robbery?  Either way, it was a big mistake for her to talk when she should have been quiet.  It was a mistake for her to think that she was totally in charge of her life.  She might not have been God fearing but it would have helped her to put more trust in God.  

In Muhammad Ali’s heyday as the heavy weight champion in boxing, he had taken his seat on a 747 which was starting to taxi down the runway for take off. The flight attendant walked by and noticed Ali did not have on his seatbelt, and said, “Please fasten your seatbelt, sir.”  He looked up proudly and snapped, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.”  Without hesitation she stared at him and said, “Superman don’t need no plane.”  Muhammad Ali was such an outspoken person.  He was a self-promoter. He often called himself the greatest.  Perhaps he had a lot of pride in his gifts.  But we know that all of our gifts come from God and we should humbly thank God for what we have been given.  Let us not be too hard on Muhammad Ali for he did a lot of good things in his life. 

This is the third week in a row when our gospel speaks to us about the importance of prayer.  Two weeks ago, we heard about the Samaritan who came back to offer prayers of thanksgiving for being healed by Jesus.  Last week, we heard about the widow who went back time and again to ask the judge for justice.  Jesus told his disciples to never give up on our prayers because God will listen and respond.  Today, we have another lesson about prayer.  We are told to pray humbly before God, to ask for forgiveness and to put our lives in God’s hands.  

In our gospel, we have a parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector.  The Pharisee had pride in his own accomplishments and the tax collector was humble in his failings.  Both men turn to God.  The Pharisee thanked God that he wasn’t like other people.  The problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is not the good things he did.  He followed the commandments. He fasted when he should and he contributed to the temple. His problem was he judged the tax collector and others like him.   His fault was believing that he was responsible for all that he had done and in not giving credit to God.  His words don’t sound like a prayer to me.

The tax collector on the other hand, took no credit for anything he had done.  He simply turned to God and asked for God’s forgiveness and mercy. On the surface, it appears that the tax collector was doing the right things and the Pharisee was wrong.  Yes, this is about God’s mercy and it is a statement that God will forgive sinners.  God also wants humans to understand the everything comes from God, we are not righteous on our own. 

But let us not judge the Pharisee too harshly.  In so many ways he is like us.  We come to church, try to follow God’s commandments and give to God and others from what we have been given.  We may even wish that our actions were more like the Pharisee.  Nor should we glorify the tax collector.  The tax collectors were generally immoral. They tricked those that were being taxed and kept more of people’s money than they should.  It is unlikely this tax collector was a good person.  The Pharisee is not a villain and the tax collector is not a hero. We may never say the words of the Pharisee, Thank you God that I m not like that sinner. But haven’t we all said about someone who is down on their luck, "There but for the grace of God go I.”

Instead let us focus on God.  God is the one who accepts us as we are.  God is merciful.  God has given us everything that we have especially the gifts that make us good in any way.  God deals equally with the saint and the sinner.  Today’s prayer lesson is that we are always to turn humbly to God, asking for forgiveness and asking God to be our strength in the world.  We give praise and thanksgiving to God for all that God has done for us.   And we must always be mindful of the possibility that we could fall into the trap of acting as if we are humble when in reality we are often proud of what we have done for ourselves. Being humble is not always easy.   Justification is the process by which we are brought into an unmerited, right relationship with God.  That is what happened to the tax collector. The tax collector was justified when he prayed .  We are justified not by what we have done but by God’s grace. 

When we turn this parable into a song of praise and thanksgiving, then we find the connection between the gospel and all of the other readings.  It is found in the 2nd letter to Timothy.  Paul was preparing for his death and looking back over his life.  Paul suffered for the gospel and many people turned away from Paul. It was God who kept him safe during all of his trials.  We put ourselves into God’s hands. And Paul looks to the time when he will join Jesus in heaven, another way that God took care of Paul.  

The Psalm is also a prayer of thanksgiving for all that God has given.  The writer is amazed at all the things that God has done for God’s people.

We are called to rejoice in the Lord in the book of Joel.   Joel reported that the land had been destroyed several times over from a plague of locusts.  Things have changed for now God provides rain at just the right time. The food will be plentiful and there will be lots of wine for everyone.  My favorite line is “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh”.  On Wednesday, several people described what it feels like when you know that God’s spirit is poured out on you.  Some spoke of the calm that comes over them.  Others said that the spirit of God gives them energy.  Others felt the spirit of God in a physical way, imagining that God poured cleansing oils out on them.  They were refreshed and thankful.  

I would suggest that we will find it difficult to be humble on our own.  In fact, you should be happy and even feel a sense of pride that you have been a follower of God.  We just need to avoid the judgment of others, thinking that we are smarter or better than anyone else.  For we learned today that God is the one who makes us righteous.  Another way to be humbled is to remind ourselves of all that God has given us. The list never stops.  May you find humility in your prayer of remembrance for all God has done for you and may you be reminded that God does it for everyone.  Amen.  

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  • Psalm 119:105
    “נ Nun Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”