October 27, 2019
20th Sunday after Pentecost – Reformation, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
Jill Stewart led devotions for our 3rd Chapter planning meeting last week, and I’m still thinking about it. (Here’s a tip – when a 5 minute reading sparks enough conversation to keep me reflecting for more than a week –it’s something I need to hear. I suspect the Holy Spirit was involved.)
Jill’s devotion starts with this provocative statement from Alice B. Toklas: “Always I’ve found resisting temptation easier than yielding – it’s more practical and requires no initiative.”
Puzzled? So was I. Jill was reading from a small book of daily meditations from Hazelden, The Promise of a New Day. Authors Karen Casey and Martha Vanceburg go on to consider what is “easy” about temptation. “If a temptation is easy to set aside,” they write, “it can’t tempt us very strongly. The real, insidious temptations are the ones to which we yield unthinkingly, temptations to inertia, or to stinginess or self-punishment[i].”
Think about it. Things that we know are dangerous for us, that second piece of cake, driving too fast, leaving the big project just another few days, are not really that hard to resist. After all, if I’m aware of the risk, I can easily choose to say no.
What’s harder to change are the things I do without being aware. The slights, the times I take advantage of others, the things I take for granted, the ways I hurt people with off-handed, the non-chalant comments that I don’t even imagine are offensive.
We tend to think it’s hard to give up chocolate or caffeine for Lent, but if you really want to attempt a fast, try surrendering obliviousness or self-preoccupation for 40 days. Try offering up your privileged ability to ignore the needs of suffering people in our world. Try repenting from your complicity in the global income gap.
I suspect confessing that we’re not as bad as other people is the easier prayer. It’s simple to notice other people’s brokenness. After all some people are so stinking outward with their sinfulness! They drive ostentatious cars. They ignore their cranky children. They shop at the wrong stores and eat overly processed, salty foods. They cut me off in traffic, and I suspect they vote for creepy people.
I’m glad I’m not like them. I recycle. I attend church and know the words to the 3rd stanzas. I’m only a few minutes late to most meetings, and I wear a Fitbit to keep me honest about daily exercise. I try not to say racist things and I’m certainly not sexist. If the arc of moral history bends toward justice, I’m almost always on the right side of the curve. Hmmm.
There isn’t anything wrong with the Pharisee’s behaviors. He really is an upright citizen who does the right things. He knows the laws of Moses. He knows what is required of him: tithing, praying, taking his kids to Sunday School, voting for the union endorsed persons on the School Board, and volunteering for shifts with the homeless shelter. He’s the kind of person most of us would admire. He’s living out his faith, and he’s proud of that.
The tax collector is conscious of only one thing: his need for God. He’s heard the prophet Jeremiah. He knows that to fully live out his faith, he would need to respond to his neighbors in need. He would need to speak well of those who have hurt him, give away all that he has, and love his hard-to-love neighbors as himself. He recognizes he can’t find the way to do it.
Instead of thanking God for all that he is able to do, he throws himself into the arms of God’s mercy, and finds a home there.
The Pharisee is able to avoid the easy temptations. No rude language, no marital affairs, no cheating on his taxes. He spends quite a bit of time noticing the specks in his neighbors’ eyes who struggle with those stumbling blocks. But it is much harder for him to notice the log in his own. He misses those insidious obstacles to his wholeness: self-righteousness, complacency with the divisions around him, his closed heart.
What’s worse is that he doesn’t seem to notice how privilege and his place in his community keep him from real relationship with the outsider, hold him from discovering the presence of God in his neighbor. Ultimately he misses the loving mercy of God even for himself.
There’s a trap to this Reformation celebrating, you know. It tends to make those of us wearing our favorite red shoes feel like the ones who have gotten it right. We sing the good hymns after all. We accept women and gay clergy. Thank God we’re not like those lousy fundamentalists who read obscure passages of scripture literally, but don’t accept the stranger. Thank God we’re not like those fussy traditionalists who don’t eat meat on Fridays, but still don’t talk about grace.
We’re reformed, and thank goodness we’re not like those un-reformed people. Yea, us!! Doesn’t that sound a little (or maybe a whole lot) like the Pharisee’s prayer?
What this day is meant to call us to is not self-congratulatory praise, but rather an acknowledgement of our universal need for the loving goodness of God. God, be merciful to us.
This day is not meant to urge us through one narrow path of faithfulness to God’s acceptance. It’s meant to open us to the breadth and depth of God’s amazing grace which claims the whole universe. We learn to pray the simple prayer that connects us to the Pharisee and the tax collector, the athlete and the trans kid, the Republican and the Democrat, the school teacher and the formerly incarcerated person, the successful ones and the ones who have made mistakes. God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
Our member Andy Wilkowski sings a beautiful folk song for us, Mercy Now[ii]. It’s really the best reformation hymn I can imagine. It was written by Mary Gauthier 15 years ago or so, but others have recorded it, too.
Gautheir starts by singing of her father, whose orchard is falling into disarray. As the fruits of his labor fall to the ground, she realizes he’s aging too. “I love my father,” Mary sings, “and he could use some mercy now.”
Next it’s her brother, who is maybe in prison or sick, it’s hard to say. Perhaps he’s addicted to something that’s holding him back. But Mary loves her brother, and he could use some mercy now.
She sings about her church, her country, her neighbors, the whole creation–all of it poisoned by clashing tempers and ugly disputes. The push towards violence and the abuse of the planet leave us all broken and afraid. “I love life, and life itself could use some mercy now.”
Isn’t mercy the gift we celebrate not just on Reformation Day, but every single day of our lives?
God holds all of us, the righteous and the fearful, the self-punishing and the one caught up in denial, the ones standing far off, and the ones that are always the center of attention, the oblivious and those who feel humiliated by their past, and wraps us all in never-ending compassion and grace.
And here’s the incredible bonus we receive when we discover that no one is outside the love of God: We don’t have to judge others, and we don’t have to criticize ourselves either. We can love the whole of God’s creation that is swept up in this embrace: the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of us, and the good the bad and ugly parts of everyone else too.
God includes us all. Those who think they’re reformed, and those who realize we could all use a little reforming now, those who have great faith, and those who wish they had more, those who have walked long journeys of faith and those just thinking of getting their feet wet, the Pharisee, the tax collector, the ones who know they don’t deserve it, and those who haven’t realized that yet.
We’re all claimed. We’re all included. Every single one of us receives some mercy now. Thanks be to God. Amen
[i] The Promise of a New Day, by Karen Casey and Martha Vanceburg, Hazelden Foundation, 1983, October 17.