Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Joel 2:23-32
Luke 18:9-14

In our gospel lesson this morning, Luke gives us yet another parable that Jesus tells to remind us of what the kingdom of God is like. He begins by telling his audience— and us—that Jesus is speaking to those who trust in themselves rather than God. 

We might want to pause right here for a moment in case we find ourselves on that same slippery slope and ask ourselves in whom and in what do we trust. It might seem easier some days to trust in who we are and who we know; in what we see and what makes logical sense in our fast-paced and ever-changing world. It might be easy to trust in our accomplishments, our work, our service, even our beliefs.   

But Jesus reminds us of the folly of that. He speaks of those who do those things that are good and right and trust in being right, but their “rightness” can also lead to arrogance, foolish pride, and entitlement somehow, where some are left out and others are looked down upon. 

In this space, in the context of worship, we ask ourselves which side we land on.  In whom are we trusting?   

Jesus said there were two men who went up to the temple to pray which means that they are both pious Jewish men. They do the same good thing, and it looks from a religious perspective that the one we think should be commended is not and the other one who is totally and completely off kilter is the one praised. 

They are together, yet they are separate.

One man is a Pharisee, a known practitioner of the law. He is someone known for good deeds in his own eyes and in the eyes of those around him. He attends regularly, gives generously, probably serves on several committees, and can likely be counted on to show up when the temple doors are open. The Pharisee is proud of his religious acts and justifies himself—and don’t we all want to be recognized sometimes? This person can be the greatest gift or the worse nightmare if their actions are for the wrong reasons.   

The other is man is a tax collector, one notoriously known for his sinfulness. He is a shyster, a crook, dishonest, harsh, and cruel. Tax collectors had a reputation and everybody knew it, in part because they aligned themselves with the harsh Roman government and systematically took advantage of and exploited regular people for their own personal gain. And yet despite his day-to-day practice, he finds himself in the house of worship doing what the others do. Are you with me?

One stands off by himself, lifts up his voice, and declares with great admiration for himself, “Oh God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income,” as Eugene Peterson puts it in the Message Bible. [1]

“Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows with head bowed down, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’” [2]

He is the one whom Jesus commends. He is the one who goes home justified and, while we are not told what happens to him next, I’m guessing that, like Zacchaeus in next Sunday’s gospel who recognizes his sinfulness and is repentant, he returns a new person; changed and graced with a fresh new start.   

One knows that he is a sinner; the other does not. He knows what everybody else knows, that he deserves judgement, but the other has no self-awareness and cannot recognize his sinful state.   

What is the moral of this lesson for us, my friends? It’s a little tricky because at times I’m thinking that is real easy to be like the Pharisee:

Lord, I thank you that I’m not like that.  I thank you that I have been a good steward of my life and have not squandered it away.  I thank you that I come to church – have been coming all my life or the very least for a long time. I thank you that I serve on this committee and that. I give to support the ministries and causes that make a difference in the lives of men and women, and children and I expect to be applauded and lifted up as an example for all to see. In this day where we like to draw lines around ourselves we may be tempted to look over and say, I am better than that guy.

We may not say it but well…is it true?

In a politically divided country, we might say, “I thank God that I am not like those other people who support so-in-so, and who act in certain ways.” Whew Jesus!  Or “I thank you that we are not like that church over there.” And we really think that who we are and what we have and what we bring is far greater than anyone else. 

For some, it’s almost as if they have to fall completely on their face before they recognize any semblance of humility at all. There has to be something huge, egregious, totally off the wall before they embrace the attitude of tax collector; only then can they echo the sinners prayer: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner

And that’s pretty sad, isn’t it? Because by then, by the time we are flat on our face, the vultures are alive and ready with their “gotcha” mentality to tear us apart. And it seems that someone is always waiting; always watching for any sign of someone’s demise.   

This failure to see ourselves as we truly are—even on our best days—can be problematic.

In this place, in God’s house, the why and how matters more than the what. In this house we get to usher in a new paradigm.    

My brothers and sisters, it is simply put: there is stuff that we do and stuff that God does. At best, we are good stewards of what has been entrusted to our care, and yet the glory is not ours to take. 

I was thinking about this especially on the eve of Stewardship Sunday. I was thinking about it because there are times when it’s difficult to trust God. We know the numbers, don’t we? We know our situations and circumstances. We know our capacity to give and to do and to keep the ministries of this church alive.   

But God calls us to trust God. To trust God’s way. 

Every year since I came here we have been financially challenged.  I look back sometimes at sermons written, letters and appeals.  We’ve had trouble with our day school.  and every year has had its challenges.  People have come and gone, staff and members but we are still here.  There are days when I want to take some credit, a little bit, and certainly I have given my all.  But there have been things that only God has done, working through members and friends to carry this church.  Surprise anonymous gifts.   People serving without the need for fanfare, quietly and humbling, some never knowing they were doing anything at all.   

Last Sunday, we heard some of the most beautiful witnesses and progressions of faith as I have ever heard. And we see how much the church matters. 

Next Sunday we are going to ask you to bring your pledge cards forward. It is an act of faith—for the right reasons—so that we can continue what God has begun. I want you to pray about it, because none of us knows what will happen in the coming year. We cannot sit here today and imagine, but if we pledge in faith and if we desire to support the work of God for the right reasons, then we will. When we understand why we are here, our mission and our purpose, and we desire for the church to thrive as a healing place, a way will be made.   

We grow in grace; we are becoming. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it; the process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road.

[1] Luke 18:10-12 (The Message Bible)
[2] Luke 18:13 (The Message Bible)