Sunday, December 15, 2019

Isaiah 35:1-10 - The Holy Road of God

“I’ll be home for Christmas. You can count on me. . .” The idea of coming home, going home or finding out/remembering where home truly is, is a favorite Christmas theme of Christmas songs and Hallmark movies alike. When most of us think of “going home,” we think of all the best things from our childhood. We think of our parents, our siblings; friends and family all gathered around the tree, or a table heavy laden with all our favorite foods. This idea of “home” is warm and cozy, full of tradition, love and joy.
This passage is all about going home. By this time in Isaiah, God’s people have been living in exile. Living in a land far away from home, for generations they have been telling their children and their children’s children about home. They have been a people living in longing. Longing for a place they have never been; longing for a place where they belong; longing for home. The entire time Israel is in exile they are looking to return home; to live in the houses and the cities in which their ancestors lived; to be near the friends and family they left behind; to be reunited with loved ones from whom they had been separated for generations. The idea of going home and being reunited with loved ones, finding safety, security, love and belonging in a beloved place. THIS is what passages like this one are about.
This passage is a shout of joy, a sigh of happiness, it is that moment when you can see all you have ever dreamed of, everything you for which you have dared hope, is just about to come to be. You can see it right there before you. It is so close you can almost reach out and touch it.
One Christmas when I was 9 years old, I wanted a new bike. What child at some point has not wanted a bike for Christmas or as least their birthday, but this was the year I wanted a bike. I had a bike, but it was too small, I could no longer ride it. When we four sisters came down stairs on Christmas morning there were three bikes in the living room. There was a tricycle which was obviously for Katrina, a child’s two wheeler, to which I ran over and was disappointed to see was for Charla and then there was a ten speed, which I assumed was for Mona, who was a teenager at the time. There seemed to be no bike for me. I sat down on the floor utterly dejected and began to cry. I was the only one who had even asked for a bike. Everyone got a bike but me. It was not fair and I was devastated. It took a minute in all the excitement for my parents to realize I was crying and they asked me what was wrong and I told them that I had really wanted a bike and had not gotten one. I can remember my Dad chuckling and pointing at the ten speed. I told him that was for Mona. Then he told me to go look at it. So I did and there was a tag on the bike with my name on it. I had not realized that I was old enough and big enough for a “grown up” bike. When I realized that not only had I gotten a bike, but I had gotten a bike that was even better, I began to cry even harder. But his time they were tears of joy, at not only was I receiving what I had wanted, but something that so exceeded my expectations of what I could possibly receive, that I did not even realize it could be for me. It was more than I what I had asked for, more than I had dared hope for, the more than I could have even imagined. And I was overwhelmed with joy.
This is how the people of God must have felt when they heard this message from God. They had been dreaming of going home. And God was taking them home but what God was promising them was more, so much than they could have ever dared to dream. God was leading them home, through a blooming dessert, along a road that was straight and smooth, down a path on which no enemies or predators would tread.  
God promises the wilderness, which lay between and home, would bloom with flowers. It would be so rich so fertile, so full of life that it would be as if it had broken out in song. The colors of the flowers which would surround them would the very ground rejoicing, the joy of the land made manifest in vegetation. All that was once barren and dry would be full of water, overflowing springs and covered in grass, and reeds and rushes. The dessert would bloom like garden, like a rich fertile land.
Not only would God bring new life to the dead places of the wilderness, but God would renew all those who are enfeebled with age. The elderly would be going home full of strength and vitality, they would walk along this road with strong legs and would pick the abundant vegetation with hands no longer crippled with age. God would give strength to the enfeebled and wholeness and healing to those who need it. The blind would see the wonders of the fertile, water filled, blooming dessert. The deaf would hear, the water running, the bird songs, and the people all around them as they sing with joy. The lame would not only be able walk along this road, but will jump and leap like a deer. And those who have been unable to speak will be able to sing with joy and exultation.
The road home would be one paved with justice, a holy road on which all those who have been harmed, will be restored and all those who have harmed will pay the price for their wicked deeds. God will bring restoration and salvation to all who are captured and enslaved. The road home is restoration. The road home is salvation. 
And this holy road of salvation, will be straight and smooth, no one, not even a fool would be able to lose their way as they walk along it. And upon this road no enemy will tread and no wild animal will come hunting.  It would be a road of safety and security, which will lead them all the way home; lead them back to where they belong. They wanted to go home and God was promising them not only the way home but the easy way home, with a road that would lead them straight there, with no detours, danger or pitfalls along the way.
This is about the road home, finding the way back to where you belong, to the place that is home. God is promising these un willing expats, who have lived their whole lives lost in a faraway land, a free way and safe way home. But, it is more than that. In all the movies finding the place, the people, and the relationship that are “home” is always a struggle. The main characters have to go through a series of hardships, they have to work through several problems, or find their way to the other side of some kind of struggle to find “home.” The movies elevate the struggle, the hardships along the way, because where you end up is what matters. Finally finding your way home makes anything endured on the way there worth the hurt, the pain, and the struggle experienced along the way. But, this passage is not about the journey taken, the struggle to overcome, the hardships endured, the pain experienced, and the problems solved that finally bring you back to where you belong. This passage is about an easy, turmoil free, direct way there, without the struggle or hardship found in all the movies.
This passage is about going home. But it is not about the huge hot dessert one must cross to get there. It is not about the perilous wilderness one must go through. It not about the mountain one must scale, or the dangers, which come at you from all sides. It is not about getting lost along the way, learning an important lesson and then finally finding your way home. This is about going home, finding home, being in the place you were meant to be. Not because you struggled to get there, but simply because you belong there and God promises to get you there, hassle free.
And how did you get there? Surely, the road one must traverse goes over the highest mountain, through the darkest valley, and the driest dessert, with steep cliff on one side with sharp pointy rocks at the bottom and another on the other that periodically throws immense boulder down at you. You must go through the forbidden forest, which houses the most notorious bandits and all the lions and tigers and bears. What kind of journey would it be without the dangerous road along which we all must travel to find our way home again? But, that is not the kind of story portrayed in this passage, there is no danger there is no puzzle, there is no unending peril. You just go home. You travel there along a wide smooth road, which passes through a dessert, which is a garden full of food; through a wilderness, which is filled with refreshing pools of water; down a road surrounded by fragrant blossoms, along a highway that does not twist or turn, through a land completely void of danger. There are no bandits to defeat, no wild animals to avoid. There is no danger of going hungry or thirsty or being killed by anything that would wish you harm. In fact, the path is so clear, the road so smooth and so straight that even a fool could not manage to seek out a way to get lost along it. This is a highway, wide, and straight; smooth and safe, which takes you all the way home; straight there with no detours, no danger, and no dashing deeds of heroism needed to earn your way there.
Not only is it a place of safety and security, but it is a place of healing and restoration. The blind, see; the deaf, hear; the lame walk, feeble hands of all the grandmothers are made strong, the wobbly knees of all the grandfathers are made steady. All those whose bodies are broken are restored to wholeness and health. This is a place of justice and vengeance, where wrongs are set right. Anyone who have caused others pain, who have done harm, who have crushed the weak and taken advantage of others, will pay. And those to whom injustice has been dealt, will receive what they have lost, what was taken will be restored; they will receive all that have been denied to them.
There is a story where the road home sounds like singing and smells like flowers, where there is rejoicing all along the way. This passage is full of freedom, full of safety, full of longing fulfilled, and full of joy. Joy because home has been found; joy because the lame leap and the mute sing; joy because restoration, reconciliation, redemption have been found, joy because brokenness has been mended and wholeness has been restored.
This is a healing road, one that heals bodies, minds and relationship. It brings restoration to our whole beings and puts us right with our creator. All on this road are righteous, are made clean, only those who are redeemed, who are living in right relationship with God can be found there. This is the road that restores all things, that ultimately sets everything right.
Israel was looking for a way home, way back to the land they loved, a way back to Israel, to Jerusalem. They wanted to go home and so God promises them a road home. God promises them a road like no other road; a holy highway, which encompasses a journey of Joy and leads them right to where they have always longed to be. But the road God promises is bigger than they could imagine, the way there is more amazing than they could dream and the place to which it will take them is nearly incomprehensible. The home to which this road leads, is bigger than Israel, bigger than Jerusalem, bigger than the temple, bigger than the land, this road leads to the holy of holies. It leads to place where we all live in right relationship with God. This is the Holy Highway, the road that leads to the heart of God.
The road to the heart of God is the Word of God, who brings restoration, redemption and restoration to all who walk upon it. All those found upon it are redeemed. The road is the way home. And as we look back and see this promise through the lens of the life, death, resurrection and promised return of Christ, when we understand who Christ is and what life lived as Christ calls us to live means, we cannot help but see that this road is not a thing, it not a path, it no mere highway, it IS Jesus Christ. He is the way. The holy road of God IS Jesus Christ.  And the land to which the road takes us, the home to which we are going, is relationship with the one and only God of the universe.
Advent is about finding home, it is about finding relationships are what really matter, but not the relationships which are found around a fire, under a Christmas tree, by sharing a cup of comforting cider, no matter how important these relationships might be but the relationship decovered and rediscovered in Advent is the relationship we find in Jesus Christ; the relationship when restored, we find when we are right with God. When this one relationship is made right, when we find ourselves walking along the highway which is belief in Jesus Christ and a life lived in the love of God, then we find we are able to work out restoration, reconciliation, in the other relationships in our lives.
Home is found in God, in Jesus Christ and when we find home in the creator of the universe, we are finally able to begin to find home in all the other areas of our life. When we walk along the road that is Jesus Christ, that is where reconciliation, restoration, redemption is found. When we travel along the highway that leads to the heart of God, we find wholeness and healing. It is in relationship with God where wrongs are set right. In living our lives heading toward home we are able to be the people of God rejoicing together, we find that the journey we take is one filled with Joy that can only be found when we finally find where home is, who home is.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Prepare the Way for the Lord: A branch Shall Grow - Isaiah 11:1-10

Desperate times. The people of God to whom Isaiah spoke, looked around them and it seemed nothing good in the world was left. Even if it had not all been lost, it soon would be. The nation of Israel had been conquered and destroyed. Huge swaths of their population had been chained up and taken away into exile, to live out their lives as foreigners in a foreign land. Not exactly held captive but definitely not allowed to return to their homes or their homeland. The nation had been left in pieces. Their cities were destroyed, their fields laid to waste, even if they could return home, were there even homes for them to which to return?
 The people of the neighboring country of Judah, was left. They were witnesses to the destruction of their sister county. I am sure they were relieved to be left out of the current carnage. But Assyria was an insatiable beast who had consumed Israel for a mid-day snack and would return soon, appetite whet and ready to devour them as well. It did not an act of divination to let them know that soon their fate would be the same as Israel’s, it was only a matter of time. They were a people holding their breath waiting for destruction, hoping for salvation.
It was into this world of fear and despair which God gave Isaiah a vision for the people. A vision of a stump, a great and mighty tree, cut down. A people brought to their knee, whose end is in sight. God shows them who they are. They are but a stump. A tree cut off, destroyed, dead. The end is inevitable.
But then something amazing begins to happen. A small green shoot begins to grow, a soft pliable bit of growth. It is frail, it is fragile, but it is a alive. The tree is not dead, it lives, it will grow again, it will one day flourish again. All is not lost. It may seems as if this is the end but it is not. Their nation may die, but they will live again. This is not the end of the story for the people of God. Death, destruction, war, chaos may surround but from the darkness a light will break forth, faint at first but it will grow strong and one day, death will give way to life and peace will reign.
The spirit of the Lord will be within the people. They will know God, this understanding will guide their steps and they will proceed with wisdom, down the paths which the Lord will lead them. They will judge each other with wise council, the widow will be fed, orphans cared for, none will go without and all will be looked after with kindness and caring. Justice will be given; recompense to all who need it and punishment for all seek the harm of others. The nation will be strong and mighty like a tall oak tree, not easily felled. And upon them will be the mark of ones who know the knowledge and the fear of the Lord God. They will worship the Lord with gladness and will follow God’s commands with joy.
The knowledge of God will be like a vast ocean covering all the earth and all creation are sea creatures living and breathing the goodness of God, living by God’s statues and surrounded by God’s justice. The righteous would treat the poor with equity and the wicked would no longer prevail. The law of God would once again be the law of the land. Peace would reign and justice would be known throughout the land.
But the peace they will know will not end with them, it will extend to encompass all creation. The predators of the natural world will rest beside their prey. The one will not move to strike and the other will not shrink back in fear. Not one will pursue, and not one will run away. All creation will live at peace, not even the youngest of human children will be afraid of death at the hand of even the deadliest of animals.
The once dead tree will grow and all will see that the Lord God bring life out of death and will settle the land which once only knew war and chaos with an everlasting peace, which will blanket the ground like leaves in the fall, or snow after a blizzard. But it will be the signal of growth and life, in a place which one only knew death and destruction. The peace of the Lord will thick and enduring, covering all the world. It would be like never ending rich food from which all would eat until full and satisfied.
When I was in college, my friends and I would go out in the evenings on the weekends and explore the city. We would take the train and get off somewhere in the city, usually at park street and head in a direction and just walk, enjoy the freedom of college life and the fun of the city after dark. Sometimes we would wander over to the Esplanade, where one anonymous weekend evening we found a tree. Like many trees in this city it was old, most likely having been here when before the first Europeans founded this city. From the first time we discovered it, I declared it to be my favorite tree in the city. I would return to it over and over again throughout my college years, it really was my favorite tree. When I returned to the city in 2009, on one of the first Sundays we were here, I took my family across the river on a Sunday afternoon in search of the tree, so I could share it majesty with my family. And over the last decade there have been many pictures taken of the girls playing in that tree, walk along its giant branches, resting among it limbs. There are also several pictures of Mike and I in the tree both individually and together. It is still my favorite tree in all of Boston.  
It is an old tree. At some point it had fallen and cut off, because most of that old tree is growing out of an even older stump. But that is not the only time it has been knocked down. Most of the tree grows sideways in several arching leaps, which makes me believe it has fallen over several times. Each time finding new life and continuing to grow. It has survived and survived again. Storm after storm, rain, and winds, long cold winters, hot dry summers, through it all, it has just kept on growing. In circumstances where other trees might have died, this tree, continues to grow and to flourish. Right now when all we can see is how is today, its near destruction is hard to see, but there were times when a passerby would have thought it was dying, there was no hope for the poor old thing. But it did not die; it managed to continue to find life in the midst of death.
Most people when they listen to Isaiah’s prophesy here, think of something like this:
 or this: 
but when I hear it I think of my favorite tree on the Esplanade. 
Isn’t it amazing! At one point it was probably more like the first picture, but now it is a vibrant strong tree, which has weathered the storms and has come back from the brink of death more than once.
This tree is the people of God to whom Isaiah was speaking. It is the people of God anywhere and everywhere there is death and destruction. It is the people of God when it seems all hope is lost; when war and chaos reign and there seems to be no way forward. It is the people of God strong after the storm, continuing to grow, finding strength in God in the face of death. This is a tree which knows and understands that we worship a God who brings life out of the ashes of destruction.
When I look at the world around me today; when I look at the events which are happening not only all around the world, but in our nation, here in the US, I can understand the perspective of the nation of Judah to whom Isaiah spoke when God gave him this vision. The world around us seems to be on fire. We stand in the middle of it all and can see it all as burnt hollowed out stump of a tree. All around us are the seeds of death, the portents of destruction, the remnants of chaos and floods of despair. It is not even that we see nation rising against nation, but we live in a land where a people is rising up against itself. Too many times we cannot even speak civilly to one another.
We remember the words of Jesus from the Gospel text just a few weeks ago, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven,” We live in a time when we know and understand these kinds of signs. Our world is at war with itself. It seems as if we are standing in the middle of the destruction, in the middle of the chaos. And it would be easy to lose all hope, to look around and say, nothing good can come now.
There are times when the darkness in our lives seems to great. Our lives are in chaos. There are more bills than money. Our health is continually failing, one illness piles on top of another. Our car broke down. We hate our job, or find that we no longer have one. There are so many death events in our lives. We stand in the smoldering ashes of own lives. There is no hope, there is no peace and we are at a loss to find any life or growth around us. It is into these places, into these situations in our lives God speaks this morning. A shoot will grow up in the place where there is only death.
Life can be found. We may not see it now, but here in this world where only death can be found, God will bring life. We may not know it now, it may not yet be seen, but soon, a shoot of growth will spring up. There is hope, there is peace. God is here in the midst of the storm, in the middle of the chaos, and God will bring new life. Death will not have its victory; we worship a God of resurrection and new life!  
But the message of the stump speaks to more than just our individual lives, it speaks to US. I don’t know about you but I look around and I feel like we are the people of God to whom Isaiah give his message this morning; so many have gone from us; so many have died, so many have moved away, so more and from our number are not able to join us on Sunday mornings. We feel like the stump of a once great tree, which grew and flourished but now, not so much. We are all that’s left of something that once was great. Once we were a tree, flourishing, full of life and growth. But now we are a stump.
God promises life. God says a shoot will grow out of the stump; small and fragile at first; frail in it new life, but with the hope and the promise of one day being a new tree, a strong tree. God’s tree, God’s people spreading out our branches and fill the world around us with the grace and truth and love of God.
But now, just as he did then, Jesus says this is not the end. In Isaiah this was true and it is just as true now. THIS is not the end. God promises growth in the midst of destruction, peace in a world at war, and life in the midst of death. 
As we prepare ourselves for the Lord, this Advent Season, let find Hope in the Peace which God alone provides. 

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Christ the King of Forgiveness - Luke 23:33-43

This Sunday marks the end of the year.  For Churches who pattern the life of their worship around the cycle of the Christian Calendar, this Sunday is the last Sunday of our year. Next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, marks the beginning not only of the Advent season but the beginning of the Church year. 
Every year we begin our year anticipating the birth of Christ and every year we end remembering Jesus came to usher in the Kingdom of God, and reigns as King. Throughout his life, Jesus continually proclaimed the kingdom of God as near; as come, and yet reminded us to pray for God’s kingdom to come.  We stand in the time when God’s kingdom has come, is coming and is yet to come in full completeness.  We live in a time in which Christ has come, Christ has died and Christ’s resurrection has begun its work to sanctify and make the world holy in us, through and because of us.
This is the world of the already and the not yet.  And so as a Church we cycle round and round each year, remembering and re-remembering the work of Christ on this earth; reminding ourselves all things have begun to be made complete; we are participating in its ongoing completion and anticipate the time when all things will be made complete; when the holiness of God will know by all; when God’s love will be found in the hearts and lives of all who inhabit the earth; when the new Heaven and the new Earth will be found in their fullness and we all will truly know what it means for Christ to reign.
But what does this passage have to do with the reign of Christ? What does this tell us about how Christ reigns and what it means for God’s kingdom to come to this earth?  This is a passage which begins and ends with Christ on the cross.  It does not seem to offer much hope.  It does not seem much of a kingly representation of Christ.  Here we have Christ the dying Savior, the dying king, in all his kingly glory.  Christ the king on the cross, showing us what it really means to reign; showing us what it truly means to be a king; showing the nature and the truth of this kingdom of God, which we so often don’t understand.
Of course Christ is doing more, so much more, than dying here in this passage.  He is being God, he is being holy, he is not only showing us the nature of who he is and the nature of the kingdom he is ushering in, but he is also showing us what it means to be participants in this kingdom. He is showing us what it means to be patrons of his Lordship, people who live under his reign. 
Christ is dying, not just dying, this is not some poetic death scene of a movie, where the hero is cradled by the one she loves as she fades slowly into darkness, giving away his final words of wisdom, encouraging others to avenger his death.  This is a scene watch with a silent tear streaking sorrowfully down our cheeks. This is a cruel, heartless, gruesome death.  This is a languishing; death proceeded by hours of torture and seemingly endless pain.  This is the kind of death that is nigh unbearable to experience and to watch.  It is not a Hollywood kind of death, there is a reason why crucifixion is not a preferred means to kill the protagonist of our modern tales. But what Christ does and says is non-the-less movie-ending-worthy.
Jesus begins by forgiving “them.”  He is hung on a cross, spread out there between Heaven and Earth, between two thieves – alongside, equated with, seen as equal to. And what does he say?  He says, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  As he is dying his first words are words of forgiveness. 
He forgives “them.”  The word is wonderfully ambiguous in the Greek as well as the English. It is difficult to track down through the grammar the “them” to which the passage is referring. The chief priests, leaders or the people from the passage before?  The “they” to which Jesus was handed over?  The unnamed “they” who are presumably presiding over his death?  The crowd?  It is a wonderfully ambiguous, “they”.  But even as their actions are bringing about the death of the God of the universe; the savior of the world; the king of God’s glorious kingdom, they don’t know what they are doing. 
All the “theys” out there who are doing harm, who are perpetuating the occurrences of sin and evil in this world, all of them are forgiven.  All of those who sin, all of us who fail Christ in a large and our, oh so common, small ways, all of us who hurt others, all of us who let down our friends and family, all of us who are all too aware of how we do not always love God with our whole hearts, all of us who do not always love our neighbor as ourselves, all of us who so often choose the things we want over the things of God, we are a part of this ambiguous they, the they who participate with the chief priests, leaders, crowds of people, and soldiers who brought Christ to the place of the scull that day.  The wonderfully, gloriously ambiguous “they,” which reminds us, through imprecise grammar, we also participate in the death of Christ. Our failings and our sins bring Jesus to the cross, just as surely as if we were actually there with hammer in hand, raising up the Christ laden cross.  And Christ is right, all too often as we make our poor choices, as we fail, time and time again, we do not know what we are doing, we do not always realize the gravity of our own actions, and we surely do not often stop and contemplate our sins and remember that it is THIS action which brought Christ to the cross. WE do not know what we are doing!
And do you know what?  Christ asks the Father to forgive “them.”  There on the cross, in pain, in agony, experiencing that which we hope we will never know, Christ pauses and asks “they” be forgiven.  Christ asks for all the “thems” to be forgiven.  And from what I know about God, from what I know about Christ’s relationship with the Father, I can say with confidence that they-we are, indeed, forgiven.  We, do not know what we are doing, we fail, we sin, we participate in Christ’s death and we do not know what we are doing. Christ asks the Father for them; for us. And they-WE are forgiven!  What a glorious thought. Our sins forgiven! Our failings, forgiven!  When we do not love God fully, we are forgiven!  When we do not love our neighbor, we are forgiven!  When we do that which we know we should not, we are forgiven! When we do not do that which we should, we are forgiven!  Whenever our actions in large, or even some very small way participate in the evil in this world, and thereby participate in the death of Christ, we are forgiven. 
There as Christ ushers in the kingdom of God, Christ calls for our forgiveness.  Christ shows us what it means for him to reign by declaring us forgiven.  For Christ to reign means sins are forgiven, sinners are pardoned. Christ’s reign means WE are forgiven!  Even when we do not know what our actions are doing, the full implications, the full extent to which we fail at being who God calls us to be, to be the love of God in this world, we are forgiven.  Forgiven; always, in all ways forgiven! 
And I could end there.  That would be a glorious ending to my sermon.   We could end our Church year, we could all go downstairs and eat our communal Thanksgiving dinner and we could all go home resting assured in our forgiveness.  But the passage does not end there.  Even if we think it could not get better, even as it seems there could be nothing more to say, there is more!
We have an example how this forgiveness works.  We see the reigning Christ pardoning the sinners of one who is there with him, one we know who has failed, and who has not lived up to the kind of life God has called him to live.  There on a cross next to him, likewise dying as Christ is dying, one of the two thieves between whom Jesus is hanging, turns to him and essentially asks for this forgiveness for which Jesus is asking the Father, to be extended, to him.
The thief asks for pardon, asks for Christ to remember him as Jesus comes into his Kingdom. Jesus essentially tells the thief his request has been granted, he has been forgiven, he will join Christ in his kingdom this very day.  This man will know paradise in the forgiveness of the Father and acceptance into the eternal kingdom of God.
Forgiveness is requested and it is granted.  He admits his sin, his guilt, and essentially requests forgiveness and he is forgiven.  Christ asks for God’s forgiveness to be extended and immediately we have an example of how that forgiveness works, as they thief is forgiven. He repents, he admits his failing, he acknowledges how he fails to be the person he knows God requires him to be and asks for forgiveness and is forgiven.
This is how we can also experience God’s forgiveness in our own lives. We admit our failings, the ways in which we are lacking in being the people God has called to be. We repent and ask God to forgive us and we are forgiven. Christ has asked and declared our forgiveness. To participate in the forgiveness which Christ gives to all of us who unknowingly participate in the death of Christ through in our own sins, in our not loving God wholly or loving our neighbor fully; to accept Jesus’ forgiveness, allow for it to come to us when we like this thief come to Christ, we must admit how we fail, own up to our actions and ask to be forgiven, just as this man does here in this passage.  Then we will be immersed in the great stream of father’s forgiveness, which Christ calls down up on the world while he was on the cross.
The truth this morning is, Christ reigns; God’s kingdom has come, is coming and will soon come in all its fullness.  And God’s kingdom is a kingdom in which the one who calls for us all to be forgiven, for all humanity to be forgiven reigns.  The king of forgiveness is king of God’s kingdom, forgiveness himself reigns. Just as through failure to love God and the people around us, our in mis-actions, our not acting in ways we know we should, our blatant disregard for others, and in the unintentional ways we hurt others, we participate in the death of Christ. We can also participate in the forgiveness he offers as he died, by simply asking for it, by turning to him, owning up to how we fail and asking that we too may know the forgiveness he gives, that we too may know him in paradise, that we too can help bring his kingdom to fullness by participating in his new life, his love, his truth in this world instead.  We can immerse ourselves in the vast sea, the never ending stream of his forgiveness, simply by like this this asking. 
Let us declare together this morning Christ forgives and Christ reigns.  And join together living in that forgiveness and participating in Christ’s kingdom by living lives that glorify God, lives of love and kindness, lives that bring God’s love and forgiveness to all those we encounter each and every day.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Hard Questions - Luke 20:27-38

This passage is a passage of hard questions. And as we read this passage today, this is just one question we have as we walk away from this passage. It is the question of every widow as she stands by the grave of her husband. It is the question every widower when he finds that the lady he has sat next to a Bingo all these year is not only a lot of fun to be with but had really pretty eyes, and thinks to himself maybe, just maybe I can try this marriage thing again. What does marriage look like when we come to heaven? In many ways by extension, it is the question every child has when the inevitable happens and most assuredly the question of every parent in the unimaginable occurs. What does family look like or mean in Heaven.
When we find ourselves in these situations 99% of the time we can find solace in scripture and comfort in the words of Jesus, but in this passage and its mirror passages in Matthew and Mark, the passage seems to hold answers we don’t like. This passage is full of hard questions not only about eternity but about how eternity touches our lives here and now.  So many hard questions arise from this passage, and I am not sure I have answers for them all.
As we come to this passage the first question which needs to be answered is, “What is a Sadducee?” Well, they were priests therefore Levites; a subset of priests whose main duties were to take care of the temple. As temple priests they were thought of as ranking higher than other priests. They also had internal and international political duties one of which was serving on the Sanhedrin. Thy also tended to fight with Pharisees over differences of belief mainly revolving around purity and inheritance rights. They adhered only to the Torah and rejected the idea of the afterlife which means they did not believe there were any rewards or penalties after death. This put utmost importance on living rightly in this life, for God now. The only way you lived on was by making name for yourself through children who would carry on your line and remember you once you were gone. 
The Sadducees rejected the belief in resurrection of the dead, which was a central tenet believed by Pharisees and by Early Christians. Furthermore, the Sadducees rejected the Oral Law as proposed by the Pharisees. Rather, they saw the Torah as the sole source of divine authority. They were generally well off individuals who not only held a lot of the wealth but also the power 1st century Jewish society. The written law, in its depiction of the priesthood, corroborated the power and enforced the hegemony of the Sadducees in Judean society.
The Pharisees on the other hand came from the all echelons of society, believing that closeness to God was not determined by birth, but that those who could become teachers and scholars of the Scriptures was open to anyone who studied the law and applied it. They taught not only the Torah as Holy Scriptures, but also the writings, and the prophets; the books we would consider the Old Testament. They also found in the oral interpretations of scripture which had been handed down through the generations. They adhered to an idea that the holiness of God was not confined to the temple but God desired to sanctify all aspects of life. The holiness of God could be brought to all places, to all people. There is no part of our lives, no matter how mundane, which could not be sanctified and made holy by God. (Perhaps we Nazarenes are close to the Pharisees – at least in this belief- than we realize.) They believed in the afterlife. What a person did here; how they lived and whether or not the way they lived aligned with God had eternal consequences. We do not merely live on in the lives of our children and how they remember us, but be we literally live on experiencing the consequences of our lives in a living eternity.
So why do the Sadducees come to Jesus and ask Jesus this question?  What is their motivation? It is pretty simple really. They were trying to verbally trap and poke holes in Jesus’ theology. But why?  Well you might find this surprising, Jesus was a Pharisee. It is not all that surprising really, most of Jesus’ theology and teachings we in line with Pharisaical belief. The points of conflict are minor. This is one of the reasons they were always around. He was one of them. They cared about what he taught. The instances where they disagree mattered to them and they wanted Jesus to “toe the party line,” so to speak.
In many ways we divorce Jesus from the very groups and people to whom he belonged. In our minds we often pit Jesus against the Jews. But Jesus was a Jew. He was raised Jewish; he went to synagogue on Saturdays. He knew the Torah, celebrated all the holidays set by God in the scriptures and he even when to Jerusalem for Passover. In the same way Jesus was also a Pharisee. His general theology and beliefs aligned with theirs. He taught many of the same things they taught. When Jesus was correcting these people, it was not so much that he was confronting the opposition, but that he was lovingly correcting his own. Working to bring people he loved and cared about into a proper understanding of God and what our relationship with God can be.
 As a Pharisee Jesus held many of the theological beliefs that were the rubbing points between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. So when the Sadducees come to Jesus in this passage, they are coming to him as a member of the opposing party. They want to trap Jesus verbally; to show silly it is to think that people will be raised from the dead. So they tell this story about a woman who ends up married to seven brothers wondering, when she is resurrected, who will she be married to?
But the first question before we move on to the question the Sadducees are ask, we should probably answer a different question, “What Levirate marriage is?” It served two purposes in Jewish society. First of all, it allowed for a man to live on in his heirs, for his name to be carried on, to be remembered. If you have children they will tell your story they will remember you. Most people at that time believed that if you were remembered, if your children and you’re your children’s children told your stories, your life had meaning and value after you are dead. If you had sons your family line continued and you would be remembered in their genealogies as your family would go on.
Secondly, levirate marriage was a needed social construct in a society where women had no agency of their own. It served as protection for the widow, ensuring that she would have a male provider responsible for them. This was a positive in a society where women are not allowed self-sufficiency and must rely on men to provide, especially in societies where women are seen as under the authority, dependent on, in servitude, and/or possessions of their husbands. Having children enabled the inheritance of land, which offered security and status. A levirate marriage might only occur if a man died childless.
Our next question then is, are the Sadducees really concerned about women and what their eternal plight might be, if the resurrection is really a thing?  No they are not concerned about women. Nor are they even concerned about this (hypothetical) woman!  They are concerned about to whom she belonged. She was ultimately the property of a man. Women were property. What they are actually asking, if the resurrection is a real thing, which husband gets to claim her in the resurrection?  Who gets her for all eternity?  She is merely a belonging, an asset, part of the “wealth” one of these men could claim for eternity. Perhaps you can’t take your stuff with you into the eternal kingdom, but since it is populated by people you could take the ones who are yours with you. But she is only one woman. Which one of the seven men gets to claim her as theirs for eternity? After all, a woman can’t be married to seven men (even if a man could be married to seven women).
When we come to this passage the question most of us what to know, “Is Jesus telling us that we will not be married in heaven?” Because if there is no marriage in Heaven, “Will we get to be families in Heaven?” “Will we not be connected to those we love in eternity?” “Will God separate me from Mike in the life to come?” “Will our children know us?” “Will my father still be my father?” “Will all of us live disconnected from the love and affection we know in this life?”  The short answer is, “No, that is not what Jesus is saying”
God will not separate us from our loved ones. But what that looks like in the afterlife is something we do not know, as long as we are on this side of eternity. All I can say with any confidence is that life in the world to come will be as different from life here and now as life in the womb was different from the life we now know.  I can also assure you that this passage and this discussion, which Jesus is having with the Sadducees here is not answering this question. The Sadducees were not wanting to know the nature of familial relationships, whether that be our true love who passed before we did, or those of our children or parents, in the world to come. When Jesus gives his answer that is not the question he is answering.
We know this because real question the Sadducees are asking is own of ownership, “If there is a resurrection, in which we all live on, who does this woman ultimately belong to. . . for eternity?” (can I just say all my modern sesiblities, say “Ewww.” This is a bunch of men standing around discussing the eternal fate and ownership of a woman – hypothetical she may be) So what is Jesus’ answer? He says, “she does not BELONG to any of them!” Jesus frees this woman from the societal need for her to bear a son in this life, and her enslavement to these men in the life to come. (Hallelujah! She is her own woman!) This woman does not BELONG to any human being not here on earth and definitely not in God’s eternal kingdom. She is her own person, she does not belong to any of them and she will not belong to any of them in the world to come.
When Jesus says, “No one will be marry or be given in marriage”, what he is saying is, “No one will take another in marriage and no one will be given to another.” No one will be taken or given. Paul said something similar, In Christ Jesus, there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.” We are set free in Jesus Christ, set free from the bondage of sin, and set free from the brokenness sin has brought into our societies and systems. No one belongs to anyone else, not now, not ever; not in this life and not in the time of the Resurrection.
Jesus is actually telling them. “Wrong question!” The Sadducees cannot trick Jesus with this question because the very premise of it is wrong. The resurrected life is just like this life only unimaginably better and it is not at all like this life because the ways in which it exceeds what we know and how we think about life, are nearly incomprehensible. The resurrected life is life as it should be, if we lived in a whole and holy world. It is life without sin, without brokenness. It is a life lived without economic disparities, without the harm we experience at the hands of others. Life lived in unbroken communion with God. Where we get to really know and understand what it means when Genesis says they walked with God in the cool of the evening. It is life lived as we can only imagine. It is life lived in ways we could never imagine.
Now don’t get me wrong just because we no one belong to us, that does not mean that we do not find belonging in Christ and in Christ’s church. At the end of the passage Jesus tells us who we truly belong to.  God is the God of the living, in the end, after the resurrected, we will all live again. God is the God of all. This passage is about to whom we belong. Jesus tells us, when it comes down to what really matters we cannot be possessed by one another. Yet we find belonging in God, in God’s people, together with one another, belong together.
We like to stake our claim on one another. We say, “This is Brenda, she is my mother.” “This is Drew, he lives in our basement.” Explaining our connections to each other is not inherently wrong, but generally speaking we do not know how to speak of those connections with our exerting a sort of belonging over that person. In a world which continually seeks to possess and own everything around us, this is just another way of exerting our dominance over even those we love and care about the most. Jesus says these ideas of dominance and possession do not matter in eternity. This woman does not belong to any of these men. We do not belong to anyone who seeks to dominate and possess us, nor does anyone belong to us. We do not get to own anyone in Heaven. We are all our own human beings so to speak.
I say, “So to speak,” because although, we do not ultimately belong to one another. To whom do we belong does matter, in eternity? Because in the end belonging to God is what really matters. All life is God’s but do we belong to God? Have we lived lives which exemplify God’s holiness, righteousness and justice in this world? Have we given all of who we are, all we ever hope to be and who ever we may one day become over to God? Have we lived lives of Holy excellence; seeking to bring God’s redemption and holiness in to all the place we live. Have we allowed God not just to sanctify all aspects of our lives, all we do, all we say, all our actions and our interactions? Jesus sides steps the Sadducees debate about the resurrection and asks a more important question, “Do we belong to God?”

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Being Saints: An All Saints Sunday Sermon - Luke 19:1-10


“Zaccheus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. . .”

         I can still hear my father singing this well-known Sunday School song to me and to hundreds of Sunday School children down through the years.
By all accounts my father was truly a man of God, a saint. I am biased. I am his daughter. But others seem to think so as well. At his funeral someone had arranged for people to post stories on a wall, about how my father’s faith had made an impact on their lives. Story after, story, life after life he had touched. There were too many to read, it was nearly over whelming. At the viewing people waited in a line that was over 2 ½ hours long to pay their final respects to him and to us, his family. He lived a life which exemplified Christ’s love in all things. His faith was an example to all he met and served to encourage many to walk closer to God and to follow Christ in their own lives. Kids he taught in Sunday School, Caravans, or youth quizzing, have grown to be pastors, missionaries, teachers, and doctors; you name it, faithful men and women of God. You all met him, you knew his warm heart and his generous spirit. I do not believe there is anyone who ever met him who did experience the love of Christ in his actions and his words.
It may or may not surprise you that my father related to Zacchaeus in a lot of ways. My father was short of stature as well and my father, like Zacchaeus remembered a life of which he was not at all proud, before he met Jesus. Some of us come to know and follow Christ early in our lives, we cannot speak much about the lives we lived prior to coming to faith. All we knew were the sins of a child still finding their way in the world.  But others lived quite a bit, were adults, made choices which shaped their lives in ways that were not always positive. My father came to Christ in his mid-twenties, which is not old but he had done quite a bit of “living.”
Obviously I was not acquainted with the man my father was before that fateful day when my mother decided they were going to go to the revival she had seen advertised.  I know very little about what kind of person he was prior to that day, but I know a few things. Upon learning my father had lived in Germany when he was first in the military, I asked him to teach me some German, he told me the only German he knew was the kind of German a young man learns in a bar and was inappropriate to share with me. I know my parents lived together for at least a year before they got married. I know he was rough in high school and prone to fighting. I can still remember him saying, “You messed with one of the Henson boys, you messed with all of them.” Which is just another way of saying he settled things with his fist and not his words. At this point I think it would be suffice to say, he was not entirely proud of who he was prior to coming to know Jesus.
Zacchaeus, prior to his encounter with Jesus that day, was also not an ideal citizen either. He was not only a tax collector, but he was the chief tax collector. In our system taxes are set up by the government and are based on how much you make in any given year and some formula. Being a world without turbo tax and tax accountants to figure out the formula, in the first century, the tax system was a little less sophisticated. Each tax collector was expected to collect a certain amount from the people in their jurisdiction. A tax collector was not bound to only collect the amount he needed to turn into his superior, so they often collected more than what was needed, as a sort of surcharge. Zacchaeus had managed to get very rich off this “surcharge.”
As you can imagine nobody liked a tax collector. Not only were they not known to be the most honest of men, collecting more taxes than was required of them, but they were a constant reminder to the Jewish people that they were subject to Roman rule, were not their own nation and were essentially not free. Needless to say, they were not the most popular people in town. They were considered sinners simply because of their occupation. They were not allowed in the temple or the synagogue. They were considered to be on par with thieves, gamblers and dishonest herdsmen. They were deemed to be unredeemable by the law of Moses. There was nothing for them. Even when they did their job fairly, they were still despised and hated.
We don’t know why Zacchaeus wanted so desperately to see Jesus that he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a tree, but he did. He is there in the tree when Jesus sees him and invites himself to Zacchaeus’s house. People in the crowd don’t like this. Of all the people Jesus could choose to go home with, he chooses the tax collector, not only is he a sinner, but he’s an unpopular sinner, the kind of sinner nobody likes, and nobody wants to be around. Not a single person there would choose to go home with him. Zacchaeus is unworthy of their company, why would Jesus decide Zacchaeus is worthy of his company? There are so many more worthy people all around him, but Jesus goes out of his way to call the tax collector down out of the tree and invites himself home with him. Zacchaeus hurries down from the tree and welcomes Jesus into his home. Meanwhile the people are upset, because Jesus has shown favor to the tax collector! What is Jesus doing?
But while they are grumbling something amazing is going on in the tax collector’s house and in his heart. After his time with Jesus he declares he will give away half his possessions to the poor, and he will restore to those whom he defrauded, he will return to them four times what he took from them. And apparently he is not doing this simply because he wants to impress Jesus, but because he has truly had a change of heart, because Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus chooses to change his actions because Jesus has changed his heart.
Jesus reminds us that he came to seek and save the lost. This lost one has been found. The shepherd went looking for him, found him in a tree and by going home with him was able to bring him home.
The story of Zacchaeus tells us two things. First it tells us that no one is beyond the reach of Jesus. There is no person whose sins are so awful, who is so far gone that they are beyond the seeking eyes of the Good Shepherd when he goes searching. It does not matter what they have done, does not matter how bad, or how many people they have harmed. It does not matter if nobody likes them, if everybody has given up on them, or if not a single person is willing to give them a chance. Jesus wants to seek and save everybody who is lost.
The lost woman searched the whole house, sweeping all the corners, lit a lamp, and looked carefully until each one was found. Jesus does not desire for a single person to remain lost. Jesus is seeking everyone, all of them, each and every single one. No one is too far gone, no one is too bad or deemed unworthy. The fact is none of us are “worthy”, none of us are “good enough” but Jesus loves all of us and desires for each of us to come, desires for each of us to believe, to be in relationship with us. Jesus wants us all to come to him, allow him change our lives, so that we too can reflect the love, the mercy, the forgiveness, goodness and the holiness of God in our own lives.    
The other thing we can know is, Zacchaeus’ story is a saint’s story. Zacchaeus’ life was changed. His life was transformed. He became a follower of Jesus Christ. This is his story and it is the story of all saints. They once were lost but now are found. Jesus changed and transformed each and every one of their lives. They were no longer who we once were.
This is the story of each of the people we honored this morning. Jesus touched them. Their lives were transformed. Their life, their ministry, their faith, their witness has touched the lives around them. The light of Christ shone forth from within them. Their lives, their actions, their words, pointed others, pointed US to Jesus Christ, their faith increased our faith. Many of them were champions of Jesus Christ, super heroes of the faith. Their lives are a testament to this fact and we follow them as they followed Christ because we could see how Jesus had changed their lives and we too want to be transformed into Christ’s image just as they were.
But their stories are the same as Zacchaeus’ they once were lost but now they are found. It is the story of my father. This is why my father saw himself in Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’s story was my father’s story and my father’s story is really everyone’s story. No matter who we were before we came to Christ. No matter what we have done, our story is the same. We once were lost and now we are found.
The same is true for all Christians; for all saints of the Church. No matter how much we look up to someone else’s faith, their knowledge of the Bible, their ability to live the love of Christ in all they do; no matter how holy they seem, no matter how perfectly they exemplify the life of a true believer, no matter how clear their reflection of God appears to be, their story is the same, the same as Zacchaeus’, the same as my Dad’s, the same as sister Beckles or sister Warrick, the same as JoAnn’s or Lucille’s. They once were lost and now they are found.
All who believe are like Zacchaeus in this way and all who believe are saints. The key is we have to live like Jesus, to look to Jesus as our example of what a life totally committed to God looks like, to see Jesus as the person into whom God is daily transforming us. We are daily becoming saints. As we live lives committed to Christ, as we continue to allow ourselves to be made holy, wholly giving ourselves to God so that we can reflect the character of God in this world, so that we can be Jesus here and now, we are being transformed into saints.  
Our faith is the faith the next generation looks to show them what it looks like to be Christ. No matter how much we feel we might fail, no matter how much we might hope nobody is following our example of what it looks like to be a believer, someone is. These is always someone newer in the faith, or someone who does not yet believe who knows we are a Christian, who sees who we are and sees our life as an example of what it means to be a believer. As we remember and honor the lives of all those to whom we look as examples of Christlikeness lived on earth, we too much live as they lived knowing we are the saints others look to, to point them toward Christ. Let us all be lights that lead others to Jesus.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Being Holy - Luke 18:9-14

I once came across a blog in which a woman who shared her experiences of being a kindergarten teacher for an extremely conservative church run elementary school.  She described each of the children in her class and gave them cute little names.  There was H20 who always had to wash his hands after EVERYTHING.   There was Diva who always needed to be the center of attention and there was Christian.  She was the little girl who always volunteered to pray and whose every first answer was Jesus, God or sins.  At one point she describes prayer time.  Every day they circled up to pray and each child was asked to pray.  Many of the kids would pray for their parents, their siblings, their animals or someone they knew who was ill. Christian’s prayer went something like this:
“God help H2O he is making funny faces during writing time. I don’t like that.  I asks him to stop. He said he woulds but he still does it.  God that is lying and you hates liars.  Can you tell him that you hates liars? Then he will stop lying and stop making the faces.  I alsos don’t like his shoes, get him new ones.  The ones have holes in them and I can sees his socks and they are brown.  Amen.”
She would do this with each of the kids in her class, cataloguing for God all the things they did wrong and what she did not like about them.  In many ways her very childish prayer was very similar to the Pharisee’s prayer in this passage.
He is thankful that he lives right and acts right and by all measuring mechanisms he knows, is right with God.  This little girl knows what a “good little girl” looks like and acts like.  I am sure someone has told her that “good little girls” respect other people when they ask things of them.  Good little girls don’t lie and lying is telling someone something that is not true.  Telling someone you will do something and not doing it is lying.  And I am sure her mother, in good faith, told her that “good girls” dress nicely and wear clean clothes.  She is working hard to live the way a “good girl” should.  She is struggling to be good and live good and look good and she wants God to see that others are not trying as hard as she is and that others are failing where she does not.  She feels secure in knowing that she is living and being the “good girl” God wants her to be.  But we can all see that on some very fundamental level, she is missing what it means to be a “good girl, “ not to mention what it means to pray.
So we Jesus tells us about the Pharisee. We have heard enough Bible stories to know from the moment we hear about this Pharisee that he is not going to be our hero. Also, I think you have heard enough of my sermons, over the years to know that I am going to tell you, the Pharisees are the good, Bible believing Church going, holiness folk of their day, which means whenever see a Pharisee in the gospels, we should be asking ourselves, “How is this person like us? How am I like this Pharisee?”
Since we know that we are going to need to identify with this praying Pharisee, let us begin by looking at what he did right.   Like most people, although he does get things pretty wrong, he does not get it all wrong. This man desires to live right to live out God’s laws in his life. He is clearly working, striving, struggling  to live right, to do the right things, to be the person he believes God is call in him to be. He is thankful that is able to live the way God has called him to live. The working and the striving are commendable. Not only that, he knows he can’t do this on his own, and thanks God for being able to live right. Because a part from the grace of God we cannot live right in our own strength. It is because of God that anyone is able to live right, to live out God’s holiness in this world. It is in God’s strength that we are able to be who God calls any of us to be.  
Thanking God for his ability to be the person he believes God wants him to be is not where this Pharisee goes wrong. Where he goes wrong is when he compares himself to those around him. Comparing ourselves to other rarely if ever goes right, but it goes especially goes wrong when we do so, to make ourselves feel better than those around us. This man looks around sees the tax collector, who has also come to pray, and sees him as someone he deems to be less than himself and uses that man to make himself fee superior. The Pharisee looks at his life, his effort to live right, his struggle to be the person of God he knows God desires for him to be and not only sees himself as worthy but sees himself as more than worthy, as worthier.
Meanwhile there is another man, who has also come to pray, a tax collector. The tax collector is standing off to the side. Where the Pharisee in his self-assured boldness had placed himself front and center, so he can be sure to be seen, the tax-collector has found a quiet place off to the side, where he might not be noticed and might even go unseen. As he prays he won’t even lift his eyes toward heaven. He knows he has not been who God has called him to be. He knows he has failed and takes on a posture of humility and contrition. He knows just as clearly as the Pharisee does where he stands when it comes to living according Gods laws, statues and commands and due to his understanding of his own sinful actions does not approach God with any kind of confidence. When he prays, he asks God to be merciful, because he knows he is a sinner. His prayer is short and sweet and to the point. He knows he has failed at being the person God has called him to be and asks for God’s mercy. 
Each of these men comes to God in prayer. The purpose of the Pharisee’s prayer to thank God for what a great guy he is and in some ways to make sure God know how great he is; to make sure God has noticed that he is working hard to do all the right things and be the kind of person believes needs to be. He also wants to make sure God realizes that he is doing it better than those around him. He is surrounded by people who are failing to live right, who lives do not exemplify God’s character, people who are clearly not doing what is required of them in God’s law and is doing better than all of them.
Meanwhile the purpose of the tax collector’s prayer is to ask God for mercy, for forgiveness. He is letting God know that he knows who he is. He knows what he has done and what he has failed to do and he is coming before God with nothing and asking for nothing more than mercy.
Both finish their prayers and they walk away. Then Jesus tells us about the state of their beings when they walk away. The tax collector was not right with God when he entered the sanctuary. He was a sinner. He had failed at being who God called him to be.  He knows this and he asked for mercy and forgiveness. He prayed a sinner’s prayer, and walked away a righteous man. The Pharisee on the other can into the temple, having lived a righteous life, he strove in all things to do what was required of him, like us (more times than we would like to say), he clearly does somethings he should not have done. The two greatest commandments are to love God with all of who you are and to love your neighbor. We can only conclude, if this is the way he is willing to talk to God about his “neighbor” in prayer, and fails so miserably here in the sanctuary of God, at loving his neighbor, that he is not so good at all the other times, in all the other places.  He walks away unjustified, unforgiven. He did not see that he was in need of God’s forgiveness, and mercy. He does not ask for it and therefore does not receive it. He prayed a righteous person’s prayer walks away a sinner.
I already told us that we are more like this Pharisee than we would like to admit. We can tell ourselves we would never do what this man did. We never pray like that. We don’t think about others like that. But, Jesus tells us a story about a “good”, “God fearing” person, who is working and striving to all the right things and that is who I, would like to think I am. So I am pretty sure he is talking about me, and my guess is that this is true of you as well, so Jesus must be talk to you to.  We are doing it.  We are living it.  We are here in God’s sanctuary on a Sunday morning.  We are God’s chosen, the people of God, the Church, we are the Pharisees.
As “good Christians” is so easy to get caught up in WHO we are.  What we are doing.  We strive, we struggle, we work, we read our Bibles, we pray, we give to the poor, we donate to Hope’s Cradle, we volunteer at church and in our communities, we participate in all the serving activities of this congregation with a faithful heart seeking for God to shape and change us.  But we do not really allow God to shape and change us.  Because we are not willing to see HOW God needs to shape and change us.
This Pharisee obviously struggles with pride, seeing himself as better than others.  He sees his own righteous struggle, and all he can see is how he has succeeded in doing all the things he sees as the things God would want him to do.  He is doing all the things a good Christian does.  He sees his life and he knows how he measures up. He is good with God.  He is living right, being right, and doing right.  He is righteous.  He is “a good girl” like the sweet dear kindergarten prayers I told you about and he just like that little girl is painfully aware how those around him are not “good girls.”
This passage is about more than just pride.  Although I do suspect many of us could use a little less of it at times, esp. when it comes to our own righteousness. We are good “Christians” we know this passage.  We know its admonitions to not look down on others, so what do we do? We add that to the list of things to “not” do so we can be good Christians.  Always speak kindly of others. Check. Never look down on others, even when they are not as good at following Jesus as we are. Check. Never think more highly of our selves because we are good, holy, sanctified Nazarenes, who love God and everyone around us just like we should, unlike those Baptists and especially not like those Methodists (God help them as their denominations struggles right now). Check.
Some Christians make humility a cloak they wear with pride. This is bigger than pride.  This is knowing we are always in need of God’s mercy. Always knowing where we stand with God, and that we are always at God’s mercy. God is merciful and God will forgive, but we have to know we need it; we have to know that God is offering it to us, even us.  Even when we are doing it all right, we still stand before God receiving God’s amazing, beautiful mercy.  We are receiving mercy, constantly, always; it is being poured down upon us at all times. We all need it and we all receive it, if we are willing to ask; willing to admit our need of it; willing, even in our righteousness, to humble ourselves before God.
So here is the thing.  This is what is hard for us good holy, sanctified Nazarenes who are not supposed to believe that we sin in thought word and deed every day.  We Nazarenes know that God has called us to live holy lives of Christian love and perfection.  We know that God does not call us to an untenable life.  But that God enables us; empowers us to be holy; to love fully and to be the people God is calling us to be.  But even in our holiness, we too approach God humbly knowing that we live in the constant flow of God’s mercy.  We are not righteous because of our great effort.  We are not righteous because we have struggled and strived for holy perfection.  We are the people God has called us to be because of the grace and mercy of God.
We all come into God’s presence knowing we need to pray, “Be merciful to me a sinner.”  We all need to remember, we are living in God’s mercy, we are swimming in it.  We all need it; we all rely on it so that we can be the holy people God is calling us to be. So we can be the loving people God wants us to be; so we can be the holy people God expects us to be.