Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sermon for Year C Pentecost 21 Proper 25


Because we get to the read the Bible from the 21st century,
we have come to think of the Pharisee as the “bad guy,”
the hypocrite,
the arrogant “I am so much better than you” sort of person.

And certainly in this parable Jesus gives us some reasons to believe just that.

But in truth, in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were generally the model
for religious good works.
The Pharisee is a faithful man.
He follows the religious codes of the day.
He tithes.
He always shows up for worship,
He comes to the temple and prays.

Yes, in this parable we hear that edge of pride and self-righteousness-
because the Pharisee does thank God
that he is not like thieves, rogues, adulterers or tax collectors.
But haven’t we all looked at some other people
And at least thought, Whew! I am glad I have my life and not theirs.

This parable is not about how the Pharisees are bad.

This parable is about seven important words, two confessional statements,
and one hard to ask question.

The seven words are the words of the tax collector:
God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

The tax collector is a sinner indeed.
We can’t put our modern cast on this man.
Being a tax collector in the first century
is not comparable to working for the IRS today.

Tax collectors were despised.
Being a tax collector meant you preyed on your own people
for your own personal gain,
You collaborated with the Romans.

The Romans were the oppressors.
They had deprived people of their freedom and their dignity
and a good share of their money.

The Romans had little respect for the one God of the Israelites,
Their focus was on protecting their own government
and raising the funds they needed to do just that.
Who needs God when you have the government?

The tax collectors took more than their fair share—
First they took what the Romans wanted
And then they took whatever else they wanted.
It’s why you became a tax collector—
the Romans let you collect whatever amount you chose to collect.
Being a tax collector was the “get rich quick” scheme of the first century.
It was also a definitive way to “get hated quickly”.

So yes, no one hearing Jesus’ parable about the tax collector and the Pharisee
would argue with the tax collector’s assessment of himself as a sinner.
But they would have been shocked
to hear Jesus say that God will exalt,
that God loves, this tax collector.

To be honest, if we are truthful
about who we would like to add to our church membership,
it would likely be the Pharisee—
he faithfully shows up at for worship and prayer.
You don’t have to remind him to make a pledge—
he tithes (that’s 10 percent of his income, folks!)
He follows the ten commandments.
Sounds like a potential star vestry member to me!

Who wants a greedy tax collector next to them in their pew?

Jesus says, God does.
Jesus says, God loves us all.
God loves even those we cannot find in our heart a way to love.

Jesus is not giving out a message that says,
Oh, don’t bother to pray,
Just show up at church whenever you’re not too busy,
and forget about making a pledge
or living a moral life.
Jesus is not saying,
Go out and sin! It doesn’t matter to God one iota.
He loves you any way.
That is not the message here.

Jesus is saying,
If you get off track, if you make mistakes,
if you find yourselves lost in a maze of what feels like unforgiveable sins,
God is still here.
Ever-present, ever waiting for you—or me—to show up.
To come home.

But we need to show up with those seven words:
God be merciful to me a sinner.

It’s not a magic prayer.
You can’t just say the words
And poof! Everything is just hunky dory.

These seven words are not just a pre-emptive apology.
These seven words are sometimes all we have left if we have hit bottom:

God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

So those are the seven important words.
What are the two confessional statements and the one difficult question?

You are not going to find those word for word in this gospel reading.
Those I found on the Oprah show.

A friend sent me an email and said you gave to go on line to
and listen to a lecture by this college professor named Randy Pausch.

Randy Pausch is a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
Carnegie Mellon has a lecture series titled “Journeys”—
only originally it was “The Last Lecture.”
Essentially a professor is invited to give a lecture
of what they would say to their students,
if it was the last lecture they would ever give,
the last words of wisdom they could ever offer.

The ironic thing about Randy Pausch delivering this lecture
is that it may really be his last lecture.

Randy has pancreatic cancer.
He has battled it in every medical way possible-
but for this brilliant young professor, the strife is almost over.
He is, most likely, in the last months of his life.

Randy says many things in this lecture
but the one thing that really struck me,
especially in light of today’s gospel,
were two statements and one question.

Randy is giving advice on how to live a fulfilling life,
a happy, and we might add, a holy, life.

He tells his students—over 400 people showed up that day
to listen to his lecture—
you have to learn to say.
“I’m sorry.”
That is statement number one.

But you cannot stop there.
Next you have to be able to say words that are very, very difficult
for many of us to say:
“I was wrong.”

We all know we live in a culture of blame.
It is never our fault. It is always someone else’s fault.

We blame everyone around us rather than taking responsibility,
rather than holding ourselves accountable.
It’s a mean ol’ cruel world and everybody is always after me.
For most of us, that is just not true.
We make mistakes. We mess up.

This is the heart of today’s parable.
The tax collector IS holding himself accountable.
The tax collector is there before God and saying,
I messed up big time.
It is my fault.
I was wrong.
I am sorry.
Please forgive me.
Have mercy.

But Randy Pausch doesn’t leave it there.
He says there is still a question that has to be asked:
How do I make it right?

Often our apologies are just a way to slip out of sticky situation.
And off we go.

That is different than:

I’m sorry.
I was wrong. It was my fault.
How do I make it right?

I am not here today to preach the gospel of Randy Pausch.
But his story, his clear words offer us a window into the gospel,
a window into our own lives.
a window into our worship

In our worship we have a part of the service called the Confession.
This is not just a perfunctory part of the liturgy.
It is very purposefully there.
For you and for me
to say,
to admit, to confess, week after week,

I’m sorry.
I was wrong.
How do I make it right?

It is why we begin the confession with silence.
That little quiet space
before we begin to say the words of the confession aloud and together.—
that little silence has a “RESERVED” sign placed on it
just for you and for me individually.
What do you need to confess?
What do I?
Where have we gone wrong this week?
Where have we blamed someone else for something we have done?
Where have we been cruel or thoughtless or ignored someone?
That little bit of silence is to give us time to fill the blanks for our own sins.

Sin is anything that separates us from God or from our neighbor.

We confess our sins and we are asked to mean it.
We are asked to understand that we are on our knees or standing before God
and God is taking a close look into our heart.
We might be able to fool everybody else
but we cannot fool God.
God knows the truth.
God knows everything about us and everything about our lives.

God is present. There for us.
But if we cannot tell the truth,
if we cannot say,
I’m sorry.
It was wrong.
How do I make this right?--
Then it will be very, very hard for God to come in the door of our lives.

Blaming others is a padlock—on our lives, on our hearts,
on our relationship with God
and certainly on our relationship with other people.

If we cannot say those seven words—
God have mercy on me a sinner—
Perhaps it is because we believe that God doesn’t really love us,
can’t possibly love US, love ME!
But that is so not true.

God’s love is not what is in doubt.
God’s presence is not what is in jeopardy.

There is a wonderful scene in the old film CITY SLICKERS
when one of the characters has messed up and in despair he says,
I’m 40 years old and my whole life has been a mess, a total waste.

The Billy Crystal character assures him, it’s really okay.
He tells his friend he can have a “do-over.”
You get a chance to try again, you get a chance to make it right.

God is the do-over champion.
God gives us another chance.
God gives us mercy.
God loves us.

In our service of Holy Eucharist,
after confession comes absolution.
I as the priest stand here and hold up my hand to forgive you.
I don’t forgive you as your rector.
I forgive you in the name of God.
I forgive you—
but it is between you and God
as to how you will make it right—
to the person you have hurt, to the people you have blamed,
to your self whom you have disappointed.

After confession and absolution
We celebrate.
We offer God’s peace to one another
And then the bread and wine is offered to us.

God gives us everything.
God gives us more than we can ask or imagine.
We come forward and God blesses us with a do-over.
Start again. Try again.
We are called over and over
to open our hearts to the love and abundant grace of God.

Do not for a minute believe we have earned it.
It is pure gift.

Randy Pausch said he wrote his lecture not for his students--
and he loves being a teacher--
but he wrote his “last lecture” for three reasons—
Chloe, Logan and Dylan —his three young children.
This is the legacy he wants to leave his children.

This would be an amazing legacy for all children.
Know that God loves you.
Know that God forgives you
Know that God expects you to be responsible for your actions in life.
Know that God wants you to be aware of when you hurt others,
when you hurt yourself.
Know that God weeps
when you are hurting.

Learn how to say
I’m sorry.
I was wrong
How do I make it right?

God gives us a do-over.
We just need to be wise enough to take it.

God, have mercy on me a sinner.

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