Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Two Both of Thems

Today's New York Times and Brockton Enterprise contain several stories about religion:
  • a Jesuit priest in Chicago is finally arrested after years of "special" relationships with young boys. They were his helpers, doing his laundry, carrying his baggage, sleeping in his bed -- on and on. A lot of this happened even in Evanston, even during the years we lived there, when we knew the Roman Catholic Church not to be full of pedofiles and creeps but honest, faithful people trying to live out the gospel. And oh, yes, sinners, even this sinner, a prominent, learned, well-traveled man, whose reputation or standing or persuasiveness or even his very sin itself allowed people who ought to know better to overlook what he was doing. It is heartbreaking what is done in the church, in the name of the church, under the cover of the respectability of the church.
  • further erosions in our own Episcopal Church are revealed, in the story of the vote in Pittsburgh to remove the Diocese into a purer, more scriptural institution. Meeting in Johnstown, PA, best known for the devastating flood in 1889, when a poorly built dam burst. In the words of the National Park Service, "The story of the Johnstown Flood has everything to interest the modern mind: a wealthy resort, an intense storm, an unfortunate failure of a dam, the destruction of a working class city, and an inspiring relief effort." It was the first major disaster relief success led by Clara Barton and the Red Cross. It seems to me that with this vote in Johnstown, the Episcopal Church is heading for a similar disaster with everything to interest the modern mind: a wealthy institution, an intense storm brought about by ferocious conflicts over the interpretation of the Bible, the unfortunate failure of the customs, canons, common prayer and all other institutional bonds of the church to hold us together, all leading to the destruction of our multi-class, multi-interest, multi-form and moderate church. Bishop Duncan smugly explained the vote by diocesan convention to secede: “What we’re trying to do is state clearly in the United States for the authority of Scripture."
  • yet on the west coast, some people of faith, whose interpretations of scripture are diametrically opposed, seem to be getting along. Some rabbis and Jewish lay leaders have partnered with Rick Warren, of the massive Saddleback Church, and the Purpose-Driven Life, to learn how to apply the evangelistic techniques of the megachurch movement to Judaism. The Jews involved in these conversations with evangelicals belong to the more moderate "mainstream of American Jewry," the Times reported. Rick Warren's interpretation of scripture leans more toward Bishop Duncan's. "When Mr. Warren conducted his workshop for Synagogue 3000’s leaders in 2005, several participants challenged his view of homosexuality as abnormal and unbiblical. 'Every faith has its own parameters,' Mr. Warren responded, calmly and firmly, in an exchange preserved on a DVD of the session. 'You can’t believe it all.'" Does that mean then, that we can get along? That we can learn from each other? That we can agree to disagree about what God reveals? On the testy subject of conversion -- Christianity's conviction that "Jesus is the only way to God" -- "Mr. Warren told his Jewish listeners, he 'doesn’t believe in coercion' though he 'does believe in persuasion.' That seemed to placate, if not necessarily please, the group."
  • meanwhile, today's Brockton Enterprise carried an opinion piece entitled, "Young are negative about Christians." Duh, Tim said when he showed me this piece. The author, David Yount, a former board member at the College of Preachers, reviews the recent Barna Group (more California evangelicals) survey which discovered a widening disconnect between young adults and Christianity, along with Robert Wuthnow's recent book, After the Baby Boomers.
It is a curious and challenging time for the church. Being a priest in the Episcopal Church these days is like living on one of those trampoline-like nets firefighters hold out when someone jumps from a burning building. Only this net is being continually shaken by those who are holding it, and the cast of characters doing the shaking is always changing.

So how does one preach on texts like those presented to us last Sunday, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, a text which addresses the challenge of dividing who is in God's grace from who is outside of it? What follows is an only middling sermon, yet in its middling-ness reflective of the difficulty of thinking and praying about the text, writing a sermon and then preaching it, all the while being tossed up and down in the air by an increasingly volatile group of handlers, aka, church leaders.

Proper 25 C 10-28-2007 St. Paul’s
Sirach 35:12-17 Psalm 84 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 Luke 18:9-14

The church – I’m talking about the whole church here, this church, the Episcopal Church, this diocese, all churches: the church would be better off if it were full of Pharisees. Full of people who played by the rules, who paid their way, who showed up every day full of feeling and commitment. People who read not only the Bible but all sorts of other theological texts, who subscribed to current journals of religion, who understood both sides of the issues, people who led a disciplined spiritual life, people who were generous with their giving, people who went the whole nine yards.

This is not the church we live in. Pick a church – any church: the rules are too often used as a battering ram, as power to impose one set of norms or values over other people who hold different norms or values. Spiritual practices are used as measures of superiority – look at how much better I am than you are. Our building is bigger, our outreach program is more comprehensive, more people come to hear our preacher, we are more efficient, get a better return on our investments, we avoid pitfalls, shun conflicts and everyone gets along.

That’s nice, I think. I wonder where those churches are.

Today’s gospel passage is often used to set up a false dichotomy between the smug/ picture-perfect religious person, and the humble sinner with the heart of gold. Whom does Jesus love? Why, the sinner, of course. But: WHO is the sinner in this story? Both of them. Whom then does Jesus love? Both of them. [Or “the two both of thems,” as our oldest son used to call his twin brother and sister when they were babies. Once, when he was sitting near one of them in their stroller, a woman complimented the beautiful baby. We have two, he said; do you want one?] Whom does Jesus love? Both of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both are worthy of Jesus’ love, and both are sinners.

Now a tax collector in first century, Roman-occupied Palestine, was by definition a sinner. He was a Jew who had to collect taxes for the Romans – each person was taxed and the Romans wanted their money. They did not pay the tax collectors, so the tax collectors paid themselves by charging more than the tax; the only way they could make a living was by skimming off the top. Everyone hated them, and treated them with contempt.

But for Jesus, even the folks who do everything right can be sinners as well. Look again at the first line in the passage: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” I think that is the key phrase: they trusted in themselves. Yes, we can do everything “right” but that does not make us better and someone else worse. Everything we have is God’s – it is God’s creation and God’s freely given gifts. It is God’s grace, God’s abundance, God’s mercy. Our blessings are not our doings. That’s what the “righteous” man didn’t get, and somehow the tax collector did. He knew he could not possibly earn God’s mercy, and knowing that, Jesus said, he was justified. He got right with God. He lined himself up on God’s wavelength. The other man, for all his good deeds didn’t get the point, that it wasn’t about him and what he did. It was about God.

When the two left the temple, they continued on with their lives: the Pharisee with his good works, the tax collector with his petty thievery. What are we to do?

The lesson is for us. The temptation is to be the Pharisee, to rely on ourselves and our good works. The invitation from Jesus is to cast all that away, to live in the reality of God’s abundant grace, sinners all. How do we open the doors of our hearts to that reality of grace? And if we did, what would the world look like?