October 23, 2016
23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
For audio recording, click on the microphone, above right.
I started developing a cold a few days ago. You know how it goes. You do the fist bump if someone wants to shake your hand. You refrain from getting too close to others. You begin to step back, partly because you feel bad but mainly because you feel infectious. And, of course, you notice those who are more germ-attentive start to withdraw from you, too. You sense their stepping back, creating some distance. You notice the impulse to stand apart.
Both the Pharisee and the tax collector do it in the parable. The Pharisee, stands apart from those he considers to be ritually infectious, those who are below him: thieves, adulterers, rogues, and, of course, the tax collector. He literally “stands by himself,” the gospel text says.
This is where things begin to go wrong. Whenever we stand apart, or alone, we cut the cord that allows for us to be truly human. Contempt occurs when we no longer see any of ourselves in the other.
I suspect that many of us, upon hearing this text on humility, know exactly which politician needs to hear this story. We know who could use a little humility, who might come down a notch and admit to a little failure.
Sigmund Freud, in trying to describe the human psyche, said that there is a deep cauldron of desire within us. He called it the id. The id is only interested in getting what it wants. It’s selfish, often fearful, and bubbles deep within us, often under the surface, many times out of our awareness. Yet it is there pushing us, flowing in us. As we mature and develop an ego, we manage these impulses appropriately. The next layer, the superego, is a set a values and commitments that rise above: Love, gentleness, forgiveness, sacrifice, humility.
Some have described this election season in Freudian terms. Although many express shock and disgust at the tone and rhetoric, some see it as an expression of America’s id. It’s not that any of this is new. It’s always been there. We’re just hearing it and seeing it. Racism, fear of difference, rugged and narcissistic individualism, self-righteousness, disregard for the common good, contempt for the weak, an inability to be honest about failure.
However, if we’re sitting in our pews this morning thanking God that we’re not like that, we may be missing the point of the parable. Generally, if we’re sure who needs to be more humble, we may be missing that sweet face in the mirror.
We may need to listen to what’s going on in our country right now without moving to quickly to stand apart from it all. Perhaps, what we’ve seen is an invitation to see the infection within ourselves, often carefully obscured and hidden by shallow politeness or willful denial. Perhaps, both the parable and the campaign invite us to evaluate the deep cauldron of racism, individualism, fear of difference, disregard for those that seem weak, stinginess that run within all of us.
We should notice the tax collector in the gospel text, too. He stands apart because he does see himself honestly. A tax collector was often a member of the Jewish community who collaborated with the Romans, the oppressor. They made sure that Rome got its tribute, and they took what they could for themselves. Luke doesn’t really tell us what made the man cry out for God’s mercy. Had he done something horribly wrong? Was he caught in a system that was bigger than himself? Could he not imagine any way out on his own?
But he has the same problem as the Pharisee, his perspective on himself caused him to, as the parable says, “stand far off.” He separates himself because he cannot see himself as part of God’s community. He believes that those streams of sin that flow within and around him cast him out.
Of course, nothing can be transformed from far off. Whenever we stand apart, or alone, we cut the cord that allows for us to be truly human. Despair occurs when we no longer see any of ourselves in the other.
Now, we don’t know what mercy did for him. Later in Luke’s gospel, we will hear that Zacchaeus, a tax collector, experiences mercy and decides to give away his ill-gotten wealth. He meets his world with a freedom that changes it.
In the end, mercy is engagement. It is the willingness to be honest about who we are and what kind of world we live in. And we are free to enter it because God has not stood apart but has engaged, has joined us, has stepped into our space and made it a home.
The world is God’s: candidates and campaigns, thieves and sinners, id and ego, oppression and sadness. God is at work, which is the mercy we need. God is at home, which is the world we need. God has chosen all of us, which is the Word we need.
Two last things. It’s the Sunday we collect our pledges, so I need to say something about that. I admit that the gospel text really didn’t help this particular campaign. Perhaps we see the difference between a closed heart and an open one. Maybe the parable suggests that anything we do is received by God’s mercy. Maybe it suggests that sharing, that being generous is, indeed, an antidote to our selfishness. Maybe it suggests one way that we can engage our world, namely by being church together for the sake of the world. It’s true that a closed fist will not change the world, but an open heart can.
And lastly. I have a cold. So I will not pass out bread, or stand at the back door to shake your hand or even do a fist bump. As you come to the table, I’ll simply stay in my place, watching the mercy that is being offered to you in bread in wine. The one thing I will not be doing is praying, “Thank God, I’m not like them.” I’ll thank God that I’m just like you: a little infectious maybe, by loved by God.