Year C; Proper 25FB; 10.23.2022
I’m kind of a politics “nerd.” During this mid-term election season, I have sometimes watched debates between candidates running for office not even from my own state! I did watch the Maine governor’s debate. But I also watched the Georgia and Ohio debates for Senator. And on C-Span. I caught a glimpse of the Alaska governor’s debate.
I like to observe behavior. I like to listen for answers about policies. I like to listen to the rhetorical devices candidates use.
One device many candidates use when first answering a question is the statement, “First of all.” First of all, it’s a way to grab our attention. It makes us lean in a little closer to the screen to listen as if “First of all” surely must mean “This is the most important thing I’ll say.”
…AND IT HARDLY EVER IS!
What we often get instead is untruths, evasion and an attack on the opponent. I have observed that in a debate it is rare for something deep, profound and helpful to come after a candidate says, “First of all.”
And that’s why I love to come to church to worship on Sundays! Here in the readings, prayers and all aspects of worship, we find that the “First of all’s” are deep and meaningful. They are inspired by God. From the prophets, the Psalms, to the Letters of Paul to the lips of Jesus, what we hear perks up our ears, and we lean in just a little bit to hear.
Take, for example, the story last Sunday of the widow and the judge. First of all, it was a story about the persistence of prayer. We can imagine Jesus might have said, “First of all, keep praying and don’t stop.” And the parable demonstrated just that: A widow repeatedly went to the indifferent and arrogant judge and demanded that he give her justice over her opponent. Over and over and over she went to him and clearly annoyed him greatly. Finally, he said, dang, just so that I can stop being annoyed by this demanding widow, I will give her what she is asking for. Persistence in prayer, my friends, is the theme of THAT parable. It was a deep and meaningful story.
We can imagine Jesus beginning today’s parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector with “First of all.” This story of humility, sin and forgiveness not only puts us on the edge of our seat to listen, but it might even put us on our knees. “First of all, don’t be self-righteous and contemptuous. Instead, trust God’s mercy to forgive you when you are at the end of your sinful rope.”
The Pharisee was a righteous, educated and religiously observant man who came to the Temple to pray. At the same time, a Tax Collector came to the Temple to pray. We can imagine both men very well dressed. Both were well-off. The Pharisee was certainly of a religious and well-educated class. As a religious leader, he was paid well and, knowing his character, we might imagine that he dressed well to “keep up appearances.”
The Tax Collector was probably even more wealthy. Perhaps he was ostentatiously dressed to demonstrate his wealth. Tax Collectors had little armies of people like a pyramid scheme whom they paid to extort money from the local people. Tax Collectors were recruited by the Roman authorities, and as long as the Roman taxes were paid, the Tax Collector could charge anything he wished and inflict financial pain on others for his own gain. He was certainly hated, and his “get-rich” cheating schemes steeped him in sin.
So, here were these men, both coming to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee was praying a self-congratulatory prayer and pointed to “that awful, disgusting Tax Collector” with deep contempt. The problem with the Pharisee is that his self-exaltation and contempt blinded him from his own sin of pride and self-importance.
I’ve wondered what brought the notorious Tax Collector to such a public place for a confession and a request for mercy? Instead of standing near the Temple in contempt of others, he stood apart, beat his breast and fell on his knees crying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
This simple confession reminds me of the “Jesus Prayer.” “Jesus Christ, son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Years ago, as I struggled to reconcile my growing faith with a more and more toxic corporate work environment, I would drive to work every morning and say this prayer over and over again, “Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I honestly believe God heard me and helped me bear my sins and my work.
I’ll confess that I’m kind of like the Pharisee, though. I have a prideful streak in me. And that pride makes me brag about my good works. Oh, I try to hide it. But I’m not shy about some of the righteous practices I live by. I’ve bragged to you all about the years I’ve spent slowly giving more and more of my money away to reach a biblical tithe of 10% of my earnings. Each year, I sit down with my tax preparer and go over all the money I give away. Last year, she looked up and said, “My goodness, you give a lot away.” She touched a self-righteous place of pride in me, and I said, “Oh yes. I’m a pastor and I’m called to give a lot away.”
REALLY? Jesus might have said, “First of all, Carolyn, don’t ever complain about the self-righteousness of the Pharisee when your self-exaltation takes the cake!”
On the Tax Collector side of the story, there is a local woman here in Brunswick who has lived for years in and out of the emergency shelters of Tedford Housing, a local non-profit organization that helps people stabilize housing. I don’t compare her with the notorious sinning of the Tax Collector, but in our community, it’s likely that she was overlooked and lived on the margins. For years, she was a constant presence in the shelter. I learned her story last week. She has worked hard to stabilize her life and now has a job and permanent housing. She learned of the Tedford capital campaign to build expanded emergency housing near Cook’s Corner. She asked for a pledge card and wrote a pledge for $100. She was crying with gratitude for her improved life and wanted to give back.
By the way, this really isn’t a Stewardship sermon!
First of all, this woman is the epitome of Jesus’ words, “Those who will be humbled are exalted…” A woman living years in shelters and quite possibly on the street, pledging to give is an example for us all of what Jesus means by humility being the way to live.
So, I’m pretty sure I’ll find another political debate or two to watch before we all go to the polls. I’ll be still fascinated by body language, rhetorical devices and those pesky, “First of all’s” that fool me into thinking something profound will follow, and maybe something will.
But the deep and profound “First of all’s” of Jesus are what we all need right now: First of all, to live humbly. And most importantly, to return to God when we sin; when we find ourselves feeling pride and contempt like the Pharisee or slipping into the sins of untruths, theft and cheating like the Tax Collector.
We will say our Confession soon.
What if this morning we fell to our knees and humbly begged for God’s mercy confident that we will be profoundly restored and strengthened?