A sermon in the week when 39 people died in a refrigerated container in transit between Zeebrugee and the United Kingdom. On the dangers of keeping score in society and before God.
The Pharisee was exemplary. A good Jew. The Tax Collector, however was the worst kind of crook: a legal one. The difference is that the Pharisee keeps score, and the Tax Collector cries out for God’s mercy. In mercy a door opens for him into a new life, a new world, and, a relationship with God. His choice to walk into his own resurrection, or remain dead…
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God I thank you that I am not like those conservative Evangelicals, who walk away refusing to acknowledge Gospel hospitality, love and inclusiveness to all.
God I thank you I am not like the agenda driven liberal Anglicans, who neither understand nor respect the Holy Scriptures.
God I thank you that I am not like the Labour Party, who are driving this country into another failure of socialism.
God I thank you I am not like the Conservatives, who only care for themselves and war
God I thank you that I study your Word, and work hard to have a good life and that I am not like those who leech of the benefit system.
God I thank you that I am Christian and not like those godless Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus
I could have added ‘Thank you that I am not like those Brexiteers or Remainers’ or anything else that divides us, strips us of our humanity, feeds our prejudice. God I thank you that I am not like … I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks with whatever it might be for you.
We may not pray like the Pharisee, but I wonder if you have ever expressed those kind of opinions in conversation, or just kept those thoughts to yourself in silent self righteousness.
The one thing we cannot in all honesty say is ‘God I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee’ and if we do say that, then our own words become evidence that that is who we are. But that is not who we want to be. We want to be like the justified Tax Collector. Because we have come to believe that Pharisees are narrow, legalistic, hypocrites. To hold that sort of belief, sounds a bit like that Pharisee, doesn’t it?
This week we have seen the horrific consequences of the disregard of human dignity. We have seen the ultimate outcome of the failure to acknowledge that every human being is made in the image of God and is as precious to him as you, or I.
‘That we are somehow better than them’? Those that trafficked the 39 people from across the world considered them worthless other than, of course, the money that they could extort from them
You may not believe it, but I have seen on social media in response to the news and heard and had it said to me, the expression that those 39 individuals who just sought a better life or maybe just life… deserved what they got ‘We don’t want them here’. The horror haunts me. God I thank you – I am not like those Chinese, Syrian, Sudanese, Yemeni, Eastern European, Homeless, Drug addicts. When was it that we turned that prayer from compassion – to consequence.
Jesus parable sets a trap for us. It’s not a trap to catch and condemn us as Pharisees. It’s not a trap to separate Tax Collectors and Pharisees. Rather it’s a trap that stops us and brings us face to face with the reality of our life and relationship with God. When I listen to the Pharisee’s prayer, when I recall conversations of a similar tone when I acknowledge that I sometimes have been, those thoughts have been my own… I can’t help but wonder what is really going on here. Is it one of those ‘Methinks thou dost protest too much’ kind of moments?
What are we hiding, what’s underneath all of that? ‘Look at me – look at what I do’ look what I have, and who I am not like… Who is the Pharisee trying to convince? God or himself? His prayer is directed not so much to God as to himself. He is not describing his faith or spiritual practices, he’s keeping score…
Anytime we begin keeping score of our own life or the life of another we need to know something deeper is going on. Score keeping is the way we either deny or try to overcome the feeling of emptiness, the loss of meaning, the brokenness of our lives. It’s a symptom that we are standing the place of death. We use it to deny death, to escape, as a way of convincing ourselves that we’re ok and our life is fine.
That’s what the Pharisee is doing. I’m not a crook, a rouge, a womaniser, I do not extort money like this Tax Collector I not only follow the law, I exceed its requirements. I’m a good faithful Jew, he probably was. I do not doubt what he says is true. The problem is that when we think we have everything: answers, doctrine, Law, piety, reputation, a nice house, stuff When we think we have the requisite number of points. Then we have no need for God. We have no need of resurrection, and we choose to remain dead.
This parable is not about a bad Pharisee and a good Tax Collector. The people of Jesus’ time would have seen that. They would have seen just the opposite. Pharisees were respected, educated, pious, faithful, holy: they did what was right. The Tax Collector, however was the worst kind of crook: a legal one. He colluded with the Roman Empire to extort money from his own people. He was a bad guy, despised, feared.
From the outside the Pharisee and the Tax Collector seem very different. They are not however as different as we might think. For on the inside they are both dead: lost, broken, in need of God. The difference is not their place in society. The real difference is that the Tax Collector knows that he is dead and the Pharisee does not.
The difference is that the Pharisee keeps score, and the Tax Collector cries out God be merciful to me a sinner. One who is missing God, one who is in need of God, one who has nothing apart from God. To know we are dead is the beginning of resurrection. Score keeping blinds us to our own death.
This parable is the invitation to stop keeping score. To acknowledge and hold before God the dead places of our lives, the failures, disappointments, the breakups and breakdowns, the emptiness, sufferings addictions the places where we no longer dream, have visions or prophesy
That’s what the Tax Collector did. The Tax Collector went home justified. Not because he was good, or better than the Pharisee, he wasn’t. But because he offered God a dead life not a scorecard. God did not withhold anything from the Pharisee. God simply gave him what he asked for. Nothing.
For the Tax Collector, God’s mercy has opened a door to a new life, a new world, a new self understanding, a relationship with God. We don’t know what happened to him after he got home, but we know this – a choice now lay before him, the choice to walk into his own resurrection, or remain dead.
It does not tell us how the story ends. It tells us rather, how it begins. The beginning of a new story, a new life, a choice God sets before each one of us. It is a choice we make every time we tally up the points, It is a choice every time we cry out for mercy,
We here in this church, in this land, are in the unique and privileged position to be able to make that decision. The average salary in this country puts us in the richest one percent of the world’s population. Imagine that. You and me, are richer than 99% of the rest of the world. Not because we worked hard, Not because we are ‘better’, but through an accident of birth.
That is why this ministry team, this benefice will be doing all it can to raise awareness of human trafficking, of the plight of the migrant and the refugee, to work as Christ did, to care for the poor, the disadvantaged, the hopeless…
I’m going to finish with a prayer that is attributed to Mother Theresa (of Kolkata) or perhaps more a saying:
She writes: People are often unreasonable, irrational, self centred — Forgive them anyway
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish or ulterior motives — Be kind anyway
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. — Succeed anyway
If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you — be honest and sincere anyway
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight — Create anyway
If you find serenity and happiness, some maybe jealous — be happy anyway
The good you do today will often be forgotten — do good anyway
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough — give your best anyway
In the final analysis it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.