This is the first in a sermon series using the book “Five Practices Of Fruitful Congregations” by Robert Schnase
Scripture: Luke 18:9-14
Given at UPC of Amsterdam, NY on October 27, 2013
If you close your eyes you can see the scene in Jerusalem in the early first century of the common era. We have been trained to see the religious leaders of that time in their ornate garb and religious paraments as they move through the crowd to reach the front of the line. In the story we can see the religious leader of that time offering a boisterous prayer to God in which he casts his eyes down among the masses—those dirty, grimy, sinful folks. The ones who inordinately yearn for that which they cannot have, those trapped in systems that too often force them to act outside the bounds of proper society in order to survive, those who look on others with lust in their hearts. This religious leader, this pharisee sees them all and leans his head back and proclaims himself good in their sight. And as his eyes travel over the crowd, he finally locates the object of is greatest derision. There he is, slinking in the corner, hoping against hope that no one recognizes him. This tax collector. This great taker of other people’s monies. “Thank God,” the religious leader exclaims, “that I am not like that guy!” With every bit of his being the leader shouts out, look at me. I am nothing like these street urchin types that come in here looking in vain for forgiveness. They don’t even belong in here. And perhaps this is the final bit of indignity that pushes the tax collector over the edge between hope and despair. As he leans into the wall wishing that he might disappear into the corner and never be seen in the midst of all these other people and as the Pharisee points at him and laughs, you have to believe that the pain of his existence went coursing through his veins as he desperately tried to locate the grace that he had heard so much talk about. And so it is with one final exhausted plea, unable to even cast his vision up to the heavens, he cries out, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” before collapsing under the weight of his own guilt. And that could be the story that we left with, that could be all we saw. And to look at it with the eye of the old order, we might all presume that the first person, the religious leader had it all together and was simply there affirming what everyone thought. But for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, for those living into the new order of the world Jesus offered a different interpretation. Taking stock of the episode that he had just described, Jesus reverses everyone’s expectations. Because Jesus knew. Jesus knew that under all the bravado of the religious leader, under all the pomposity of the life he described to anyone who would listen was the struggle to find meaning and hope just as we all experience each day. And to the tax collector, Jesus looked and saw compassion. To the tax collector, who couldn’t even bear to look up to the skies in prayer, Jesus saw one who was emptying himself of the sin that had weighed down his soul. Jesus saw one who was emptying himself that he might be filled with a new life, a new spirit. Jesus, saw one who honestly and authentically let go of everything and placed his whole faith in God, and he left that day having found what he was looking for. While for the religious leader, the walls of separation that were this man’s pain were still erected too high.
When we hear this story, when we close eyes and see the two actors moving about on our mental stage, we are undoubtably drawn to one or the other. Perhaps we are like the tax collector, burdened by a lifetime of struggle and doubt, feeling as if we have never been good, never lived up to our highest selves, never been forgiven for mistakes made in the past, never felt like we were children of the most high. It’s easy to feel that way. To feel as if your life has been a series of struggles in which your better angels are constantly shouted down by your demons. To feel as if you have left too much undone in your past, never achieving all your goals. It is easy to slink into church believing that you don’t belong here, that we are a community of folks who have it together. It’s easy to feel like you must walk into this place putting on airs of confidence and holiness. It’s easy to feel like you must walk into this place never dirtying yourself with the realities of everyday life and maybe, too often that is the message that we offer to folks who would come into our doors. In that way, do we portray ourselves as the religious leader, as the one who has it all figured out and has found his own path to salvation. Do we ever look askance at those who come in when maybe they don’t fit our image of the one who should be here? Do we try to bury our own pain by placing a mask of bravado or courage on top of the struggle and shame that so often accompanies the lives of the sinful? Because make no mistake, the lesson of this story is not to be like the one over and against the other. It is not that the tax collector found salvation whilst the other continues to search. It is that both of these people are equally broken and in need of salvation. Each of these men falls short of the glory of God as do we all. Each of these men is sitting, with us, in this place today. How are we to be in community with each of these men? How are we to welcome them?
The parable offered by Jesus today speaks to the situation in which the church finds itself today. In dramatically increasing numbers, individuals, and especially younger folks are choosing other avenues both for service and for community. This does not mean that their needs have changed, everyone still seeks to know that they mean something, that they are loved and cared for, that they have direction and value and purpose but, increasingly, folks are finding that elsewhere. This trend is not new. Really since the 1950s we have been able to perceive a decline both in membership but also in weekly attendance. However, this recent generation has sharpened that decline and it spells trouble for those of us who hope and desire to see the traditional denominations continue on. In our own congregation this reality has led both to a decline in membership that has been ongoing for the better part of the last 20 years and has left us, at times struggling financially to know how best to maintain the ministries that are so vital to the way in which we understand the church to be. If this church, which we each love so dearly, is to remain a viable and vibrant ministry within the community, we must begin to ask how are we called to reach out into a community of primarily unchurched individuals and families and give them the community and value that each person, simply by being members of the human race, longs for.
I am excited as I have ever been about the opportunities that ministry in this town offers me and us. We are surrounded by neighborhoods that are often forgotten by most but who desperately need a welcoming face. Our mission statement offers an invitation “to experience a close and personal relationship with Jesus Christ in a growing community of faith.” In a time in which it is only getting harder to be poor in the United States. In a time in which is it only getting harder to be an immigrant in the United States. In a time in which it is growing exponentially harder to be a poor immigrant, these are the neighborhoods and communities in which we find ourselves and we are called to cast out a net and to be the radically hospitable persons that Jesus calls each one of us to be.
When we gather here with one another each week to worship, we believe that we are participating in something that is of critical importance in our lives. We believe that as we gather as a community of faith, we find support for the coming week, acceptance of folks exactly where they find themselves, and unconditional love for those with whom we break bread and share cup. And we believe that what we have is crucial to the living of our lives. And we are excited. We are excited to share this with each person we know and encounter in the rest of our lives. We know and believe that each person in our lives needs a community like this to lean on, to find wholeness in, to travel with, especially during those times in life in which we find ourselves alone, or struggling with debilitating news, or simply needing to know that someone cares. Folks don’t always know they need this in their lives, they don’t always even think to go looking for it. In science we learn that objects in motion tend to stay in motion and object at rest tend to stay at rest. Things in life really aren’t so different and apart from one person offering one kind word of invitation, a warm cup of coffee, the one who is struggling against currents of life will continue to do so. It is telling that in all of the national tragedies that have occurred over the past two decades that even those who don’t have a church home have made it, in the immediate aftermath, to a sanctuary somewhere simply to locate themselves in the community of others who struggle but care for one another. We possess within the story of our faith the greatest news. We possess within the story of our faith countless individuals who struggled for something greater than themselves and in doing so found peace even in the midst of heartache. We possess within our story the one who said, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers for people.” We possess that thing that all people in all times and places are looking for and we are blessed to be able to share it with all people that we meet. To be radically hospitable to all those who enter into these doors on Sunday morning be that friends that we see each week or the one who wanders in off the street because their car has broken down and they need help. We have the chance to envelop them in the love of God and help them pick up the broken pieces and give them the news that they are God’s own beloved and because they are beloved to God they are also beloved to us.
As we in the church cast our visions into the future of the world and our place within it, we are faced with a decision. Will we courageously reach out to those in our midst and alter their lives with a simple invitation to join a community of faith that will support them with every ounce of our being? Will we move heaven and earth to ensure that those who enter into this place one time or one hundred times will feel the radical inclusion that is offered by God to creation? Because the truth is this, we enter into this place each week believing in the depths of our being that we are covered in the love of God, believing that the whole of creation arose from the love of God, from the grace of God, believing that the whole of creation will return to the love and grace of God, but that is rarely experienced in a wholly supernatural way. Most of us experience the love of God, the care of God through the hands of another. Most of us learn of acceptance and grace through the actions of another. We are all called to share that grace, to share that acceptance, to share that love, to be the hands and feet of God in this world. And its the only way we are going to survive.
Jesus gathered his followers around him one day and told the story of two persons in the throes of pain. The first, sought to do everything he could to cover it, to deflect the eyes of the world away from him and towards his status, towards his religious garb, towards his bravado. He hoped that each person would be so amazed by the mask that he place in front of him that they wouldn’t see his brokenness, his struggle, his sin. The other, so overwhelmed by the grief and sadness he experienced at the mess of his life that he can’t even lift up his countenance. His struggle on display for the whole world to see and all he can do is offer everything he has in a plaintive, “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” One came away from that experience healed but both will return to that place again and again. And both will come into this place again and again. Are we ready to offer each the love of God, from which the world was conceived before time? Are we ready to be Christ’s hands and feet for each person that comes into this place? Are we ready to move and breathe and live in the spirit, chaotic though she may be? Are we ready? The time is now. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples, Alleluia, Amen.