Thursday, October 31, 2013

Not Like Other People

A Sermon on Luke 18:9-14 for Reformation Sunday

One day about ten years ago, I sat down in the freshman dining hall at my college. It was early in the year, and friendships hadn’t really formed yet, so I had arrived alone, and sat down to eat lunch with two people I recognized.  We all had met briefly in the whirl of orientation events, but we didn’t know each other particularly well. 

“What does your necklace say?” the young man asked, gesturing at the young woman’s silver necklace. 

"Sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide,” the young woman replied. 

“What does that mean?” he asked. 

Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone,” she answered. 

“So it’s a religious thing?” he continued. 

“Yes, she answered, it’s a Christian thing.” 

 “I’m Christian, and I’ve never heard of it,” he mused. So she began to explain. 

She was a devout Lutheran, as it so happened, and the words on her necklace were three of the most important theological tenets of the Protestant Reformation. “Sola scriptura” means “scripture alone.” This was a core principle propounded by the Reformers, people like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who were the spiritual ancestors of Lutheran churches like hers, UCC churches like ours, and many other denominations as well. Against a church that claimed the authority to speak on behalf of God, the Reformers declared that all Christian teaching must be based on the Bible – putting the authority to study and discern the will of God back into the hands of any person, clergy or lay, who had access to a Bible and the ability to read it. “Sola gratia” means “grace alone”; the Reformers taught that God’s love is not meted out based on our merits; we do not, and cannot, earn God’s love. God’s love simply comes to us, regardless of anything we do or fail to do. “Sola fide” means “faith alone”; Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin saw that many Christians – lay and clergy – treated the life of faith as if it were a to-do list: check off all of the boxes, and you would be saved. Against this, they asserted that faith in God is all that is required for salvation, and is the only path to salvation – not going to church, not refraining from sin, not praying every morning and night, not giving all your money to charity – simply faith. 

The young woman at the dining hall table explained the three tenets to us (although perhaps not in those exact words) - beliefs that I would later encounter again and again in my studies as a religion major and then a seminary student. And she concluded with something like,  So that’s why Catholics are wrong.” 

“Are there a lot of Catholics where you’re from?” the young man asked. 

“No, I’ve never actually met one before,” she answered. 

“I’m Catholic,” he told us. 

“…Oh…” she said, with obvious discomfort. 

We all hurried through our lunches, talking about the weather and our class schedules, and I haven’t seen much of them since. But the story comes to mind on this day, Reformation Sunday, as we remember the Protestant Reformers who are the spiritual ancestors of our faith community. And it comes to mind especially as we encounter today’s Gospel lesson, a parable from the Gospel according to Luke. 

Speaking to an unfriendly audience, Jesus tells them this parable: two men went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee. Now, the Pharisees and the early Christians were often at odds with each other, and so the Christian tradition has come to hear the word “Pharisee” as if it simply meant “bad guy” or “hypocrite.” But the Pharisees were more than that. In a culture where religious observance was largely the purview of religious elites, the Pharisees advocated for more robust religious practice in the daily lives of everyday people. They wanted religion to be practiced by the people, not just seen to by the priests – a concern that they shared with the Protestant Reformers hundreds of years later. 

So a Pharisee went to the temple to pray, and he said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Well, that’s pretty repulsive, right? Giving thanks for his superiority to others is a rather arrogant prayer. And yet, he does have reason to boast: he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of his income, he says. That is to say, he is really making some serious sacrifices to put his faith at the center of his life. One commentator I read observed that churches would be glad to have more members like this Pharisee – who pour their energy into their religious community and life of faith. 

Meanwhile, the tax collector also prays. Tax collectors are another set of stock characters in scripture who are unfamiliar in our modern context (they’re not at all like IRS agents), but unlike Pharisees, who get cast as bad guys because they were in a theological debate with the early Christians, tax collectors were universally despised in Jesus’ context. They paid the Roman authorities a fixed amount for the privilege of extracting exorbitant taxes from Rome’s colonial subjects by any means necessary. They collected as much money as they could bully and brutalize out of the people of their region, paid a set amount to Rome, and got to keep however much was left. They were collaborators with an oppressive imperial regime, their income was squeezed out of people who often were barely subsisting, and they were hated for it. But this tax collector goes to the temple to pray and, Jesus says, he “would not even look up to heaven” to pray; his posture is humble. He beats his breast and prays, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus declares that the tax collector “went home justified,” unlike the Pharisee. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted,” Jesus concludes. 

It is an apt parable to hear on Reformation Sunday, and the temptation would be to cast the Reformers and those who follow them as the tax collector, and the Catholic church they stood against as the Pharisee. Unlike the Pharisee, who believes he can earn his way into God’s heart through fasting, prayer, and tithing, the theology of the Protestant Reformation places the emphasis on God’s love and forgiveness. The emphasis is on God’s faithfulness, not on human faithfulness. Reformed theology emphasizes that we are imperfect – that we mess up and fall short. It teaches that our relationship with God is not predicated on our being good enough. God will always be reaching out to us, because God is loving and gracious and merciful. This parable is kind of a prime example of “sola fide” and “sola gratia.” It would be tempting to conclude that, like the tax collector who puts his faith in God’s grace, we must remember our spiritual heritage and cling tightly to the legacy of the reformers. 

The problem is that, if we followed that interpretation through to its logical conclusion, we might then conclude with a sentiment like this: “God, we thank you that we are not like the Pharisee. We understand theology. We believe in grace and mercy.” And then we would be right back where we started: like the Pharisee, we would be patting ourselves on the backs for having it right, and looking down our noses at those whom we think have gotten it wrong – defining our faith not as a positive expression of our relationship with God through Christ, but in contrast to inaccurate stereotypes of other faith traditions. 

 Like that young woman in the freshman dining hall, like the Pharisee in the parable, it is tempting to define ourselves based on our assumptions of our own superiority. God, we thank you that we are not like the tax collector. God, we thank you that we are not like the Pharisee. 

God, we thank you that we are not like the Catholics, or the fundamentalists, or those fancy Manhattan churches where you’d better have just the right clothes and plenty of money. God, we thank you that we are not like the churches that oppose LGBT inclusion. God, we thank you that we are not like all those people who show up at church only on Christmas and Easter. God, we thank you that we are not like those people who think watching a televangelist counts as going to church. God, we thank you that we are not like that young woman in the freshman dining hall.

Jesus tells us this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector not so that we can judge the judgmental Pharisee, but to invite us to reconsider how self-righteousness and judgment might stand in the way of our own relationship with God. The Pharisee’s prayer reveals that he is so concerned about how he measures up in God’s eyes that his view of God’s creation is distorted. “I thank you that I am not like other people,” he says. But the other people he names are all children of God, created in God’s image, people who make mistakes and fall short, people who judge others and doubt themselves, people who are capable of love and courage and faithfulness. People from whom the Pharisee might learn something about God, if he had ears to hear. And as we hear this parable, the judgment we feel toward the Pharisee reminds us that we, like him, sometimes slip into judgment and condemnation. Like him, we sometimes forget that in God’s eyes, we are all equally beloved and beautiful, not because of what we have done or failed to do, but simply because we are children of God. And God loves us not because we are better or more correct than other people, but simply because God loves us. 

So as we hear this parable on this Reformation Sunday, let us give thanks for our spiritual heritage not because it makes us better than other traditions (I'm not sure it does), but because it draws us closer to the God who made us all, Pharisees and tax collectors and everything in between. The God who loves us all, Protestants and Catholics and everyone else. The God who has mercy on us all, saints and sinners and those of us – all of us – who are a little of both. 


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