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October 27, 2013 - Luke 18.9-14

“Alarming Grace!”

Luke 18:9-14

October 27, 2013

 

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”[1]

 

Nobody asked Jesus for this parable. We might excuse it, if it were in response to the disciples' request, "Lord, teach us to pray." But it's not. Jesus just surveys the crowd and breaks into story. He's on some kick about prayers, it seems. Jesus knows that how we pray and what we pray demonstrate how and what we believe. So he tells this story. It's a story of diminishing returns - the longer we have been Christians, the less we like the story. Of course, it is also a story of increased need - the longer we have been Christians, the more we need his story.

When you have been at this Christian thing for awhile, when you have paid your dues, so to speak, new Christians can be terribly annoying. They act as if they are the first to have ever been forgiven, to have ever felt grace, to have ever known the freedom that comes from mercy. They are like puppies, bouncing about with all that joy and peace, and you just want to swat them. You want to bark at them, "Be a Christian for awhile then tell me how great it all is. Are you aware that Jesus has some expectations? This isn't just a faith built on getting us out of hell. You don't get to do whatever you want and then beg for forgiveness and then go back to doing whatever you were doing before. You are aware that this Jesus was killed, right? You know he says that if we are faithful that could happen to us. How do you like your Jesus now?"

The newly converted try to help us. "I know, I know. Jesus wants to give me a life worth living, a life free of misguided priorities. I know following him is going to mean some lifestyle changes, but he just freed me from this terrible burden, this weight I've been carrying around for so many years. I am just so happy."

"Yeah, well, talk to me when Jesus makes you sell your car."

It's terrible, isn't it? We get so jaded. We get tired of those new converts who think they have found something unique, some new facet of the faith that none of us ever knew. "Get over it, we've been there, too. It's a long road with Jesus and this feeling won't carry you very far."

Jesus shows up at a place like this sanctuary. He looks around at a crowd of people who have been here before. He searches high and low and all he sees is a bunch of jaded, old Church people. Finally, he spots a few new ones; they are standing in the corner, talking with each other. They are smiling a lot. He says, "You see those new guys over there, laughing and singing, thrilled to be free of their sins? Looking for all the world like life is worth living, like being a Christian liberates, rather than imprisons. Well those guys are free. They are free because they know something that you once knew. They know what you have forgotten. Let me remind you: A sinner, a big-time one, walked into the back of a church one day. He knew his sinfulness so he prayed, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' and his prayer was granted. He left justified that day."

"Go on."

"That's it. Sinner sought mercy and it was granted. End of story."

"Now, come on, Jesus. What's the rest of the story? How long before he went back to sinning? How did he make retribution for the sins he committed? Did he start a motorcycle evangelism ministry, telling his story so that others would get right? (Snicker, snicker.) Come on, Jesus, we've read your Gospel. You don't just forgive a person, they must respond - start giving to the poor, something. Surely you don't preach cheap grace. Tell us the rest of the story."

By all accepted standards, the Pharisee was a “good” person and the Tax Collector a “bad” person.  But the Pharisee had forgotten that even though he was a “good” person, he was still just a person, and therefore still a sinner, and that means he has no right to expect preferred treatment from God.  People are people and God is God.

God does not owe us a thing.  Not a place at the table, not even the courtesy to listen to our prayers.  To expect to be on familiar terms with the Almighty is as ridiculous as a waitress sitting down at your table expecting to be welcome to dine with you.  The Tax Collector knew this; the Pharisee had forgotten it.

The prayer of the Tax Collector is focused on where he stands in relation to God.  The prayer of the Pharisee is all about where he stands in relation to other people.  Of course the Tax Collector is going to go home justified – he’s the only one paying any real attention to God.  And when you pay real attention to God, and where you stand in relation to God, the only prayer that really makes any sense is “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

As a pastor, I hope every Christian will study your Bible, make a deliberate effort to broaden and deepen your Christian experience.  Read Christian authors, have a daily devotional, try new forms and ways of praying, take Christian action in the world, develop your understanding of doctrine and practice and biblical interpretation.  Be a self-motivated Christian.  All of that, I believe, broadens and deepens our spiritual walk as Christians.  However, I believe that none of us are ever as close to God as when we are on our knees, filled with anxiety, saying for the first, second or even 1000th time, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Grace is a tricky thing for people who experienced it long ago and have since forgotten what it is. We are certain - and we are right - that grace inspires a response. Jesus spends lots of time teaching us, showing us, commanding us to live a faithful life. He makes it clear that once he has granted us his mercy and we accept his call to follow, we are not able to return to the life we had before. Everything changes when we become a new creation in Christ.

Often, the longer we live into that new life, the more natural it becomes, the surer we are of the steps. Like a dancer, we progress from observing our teacher, to counting out loud, to having the moves engrained into our being, until we come to a point where we look upon others plodding along, counting aloud ungracefully, and think, "that isn't the dance; that's a disgrace. I don't know what he thinks he's doing, but whatever it is, it's butchering the dance I love." It takes a very mature dancer to celebrate the clumsy steps and awkward counting of a new dancer. And it takes an extremely gracious dancer to know that there is something for the new dancer to teach her and that the longer she resists learning it, the lesser a dancer she becomes.

Being a Christian isn't new to me. I certainly haven't perfected it, but I have learned some of the steps. Even when I stumble, I rarely end up on the floor. Most of the time, I can blame circumstance, justify the stumble, and recover. I'm so good at recovering, as a matter of fact, that I have to really think, "Did I stumble? Where did I sin, again?" Before long, and usually unconsciously, I tell myself, "Oh, I remember where I stumbled, but it wasn't really my fault. Or, if it was, it's not that much of a sin compared to others' sins. Most people do a lot worse."

It's hard for Jesus to startle people like me with grace. We alternate between not being sure we need it and being fairly confident we deserve it. We're used to it. Grace is not in short supply, we gladly proclaim. And as if we are performing parlor tricks, we sin, ask forgiveness, and move on. "See how easy it is? What a great God we have." We cheapen grace when we blithely accept it without considering what it cost or celebrating what it gives. We undermine grace when we act as if what we have done and who we have been has earned it.

As a lifelong Baptist, I have never been in the habit of quoting the Pope.  But, this past Monday, Pope Francis said something that rang with truth in the vein of what Jesus was getting at with this parable:

“And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.”[2]

The truth is, for Jesus to startle people like me, he has to offer grace to people I wouldn't. He has to accept the unacceptable, embrace the corrupt, show mercy to the merciless, welcome the unwanted. When he does that, he startles me - and he startles them. Certain that forgiveness is not possible for sinners like themselves, they ask with fear and trembling, waiting for the resounding, "No!" When the answer comes back, "You are justified," some are struck dumb. Many, however, are struck loud, telling anyone they can, what a loving and merciful God we have.

I wonder how elite dancers retain their joy for dancing. To be at their level, they have a gift and they have worked unbelievably hard. Everything they do is part of the program for success. Their vacations include training. They invest hours upon hours perfecting steps. Dancing becomes work, as does anything at the highest level. I suppose performances sustain them. There must be great satisfaction in leaving an audience filled with awe, inspiring friends and strangers with the beauty of a flawless performance. Having never experienced that, I have to think the moments right after a show are an unbelievable high.

But even those highs wane quickly. There is always another step to learn, more practice before the next performance until the day when your body or your heart can no longer perform at such a level. Then what?

The older dancers know. The ones close to or into retirement know that there is something even more wonderful than the adulation of having performed well. They know the deep, lasting joy of watching a child lean over to her parents and say, "I want to dance like that." They know the feeling of watching a new dancer, beam with joy, even as he mangles the steps, because he has tapped into something truly great. The oldest dancers will walk over to that boy and learn from him what they knew long ago and forgot sometime along the way. He'll remind them that as much as it is an art, as much as it is a craft, as much work and effort as go into it, the true gift of dancing is not in perfecting it, but in the joy derived from it.

Meanwhile somewhere in some corner, a person who can describe his sins vividly isn't sure whether to believe in forgiveness or not. He's heard the rest of us say we believe it, but he heard others say that too and they didn't act like they were convinced. But, maybe, just maybe, this God's word is true - ask and it shall be given unto you. Maybe the person in the corner will be able to believe in forgiveness and teach us what it is.

"Come on, Jesus, we've read your Gospel. You don't just forgive a person, he must respond - start giving to the poor, something. Surely you don't preach cheap grace. Tell us the rest of the story. You know, that part about the Pharisee coming to the Temple to pray, too. How he was living a righteous life, fasting and tithing, doing those things we're supposed to do. Tell us about how his efforts didn't justify him."

"So you do know the rest of the story? Then, why do I have to keep telling it? Go and sin no more."

The truly good news is that because God is so loving, and God’s grace is so amazing, that even though we do not deserve it, God will have mercy on us sinners.  God makes a place for us at his table, even though we don’t belong there.  This is the good news.  People, like you and me, which cannot stand before God on our own merit, are invited to be one with Jesus Christ.  This is the news that we need to take to every sinner in the world: God loves you, and you can be forgiven if you will just pray like the Tax Collector: God be merciful to me, a sinner.

Pray this prayer with me:

Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Amen.

 

[1]The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.