Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent 1 - Snow Globes

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-15; Matthew 24:36-44

Snow globes. I love them - cute little scenes and you shake them and sparkly snow falls gently down. They’re very calming to watch, don’t you think? On Monday I was killing time in the airport in San Antonio, Texas and I saw a snow globe for the Alamo, the historic site of a fight for Texan independence from Mexico. The snow globe made me laugh, because the Alamo is as far south as Tampa, Florida. There is no snow there. Snow falling on the Alamo would be as apocalyptic an image as you could imagine. Although, for nineteen dollars and ninety-nine cents, someone clearly imagined it.

When I was a kid, I used to look at snow globes and imagine that there were teeny-tiny people living in them, who would hang on for dear life when I held the globe upside down and shook it really hard. I imagined that they would be screaming or waving their hands around or bracing themselves in their teeny-tiny doorways. Now that I’m older, though, I don’t find it as much fun to imagine that. Maybe because as an adult, I know what it’s like to have your world upended. I have a better sense of what it feels like when everything is turned upside down and shaken.

The first Sunday in Advent is always a time when our Bible readings talk about how upended and shaken our world is. Every year, as the days get shorter and the nights get longer, as it feels like we’re descending into darkness, we hear Scripture that tells us that yes, the world is as we feel it to be. It is getting darker. We hear about nation against nation, about floods and thieves in the night, and we can identify with the feelings that rose during those times - feelings of unrest and uncertainty. Feelings of fear. 

And then we look at our lives, and things seem the same way - dark and upended. Whether it’s on a personal level, or a community level, or even a global level, we can point to those things that make it feel like someone is holding our world upside down and shaking it. And we feel what those first Jewish Christians felt during the time when our Gospel reading was written. That everything was falling apart and that a flood was about to sweep everyone away, and that we had better be ready because something cataclysmic was happening.

Back to the snow globes. I remember once going into a store where there was a huge selection of snow globes. And I remember trying to turn each one of them over and shake them as fast as I could so that all of them had falling snow at the same time. Because that’s the point of snow globes, right? That they are the prettiest when the snow is falling. Without the falling snow, they’re just another plastic trinket. It’s the snow falling that makes them magical. Which means that we have to turn them upside down and shake them. It’s the upending and the shaking that transforms them from kitschy to beautiful.

This is, I think, what our reading from Matthew is trying to get at. That sometimes, in the process of making the world beautiful, it’s necessary for God to upend things. I know that I’ve always found this particular reading from Matthew to be somewhat fear-inducing. Floods! Thieves! But when I consider it more deeply, I remember that the flood was actually a good thing. Setting aside the whole issue of animals drowning, a part of the story that makes me wonder why we tell it so often to children, what we have here is the story of God wiping away all of the injustices and oppressions and evils of the world. If you’ll remember, the eating and drinking and marrying that Matthew talks about as happening before Noah and the flood was gluttony and drunkenness and the Nephilim marrying human women. As Genesis says, “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” God sent the flood to wipe away that evil. At its foundation, the coming of the flood was necessary. And indeed, today, if God were to come and wipe away corrupt governments, and the evils of poverty and racism and greed and exploitation, and all of the heart-break and loss and pain that they bring, we would be glad. We would welcome the Son of Man coming as a flood.

But what about the Son of Man as a thief breaking into the master’s house? Well, here we have to turn to historical criticism of the Bible and interpret it in light of what we know about when and why the Gospel of Matthew was written. And in the last few decades, it’s come to light that the Gospel of Matthew was written about four or five decades after Jesus’ death as a political Gospel, to resist the power of the Roman Empire. The Romans had destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, pillaged the city and murdered most of its inhabitants, and tried to obliterate the Jewish religion. And so the Gospel of Matthew was written to that first community of Jewish Christians that was struggling to live in this new Empire-controlled world, wondering where God was in the midst of all the chaos. And in our reading today, we can understand the house that was broken into to symbolize the power of the Roman Empire, with an Emperor who was asleep to what Jesus’ coming into the world meant, and that Jesus was the thief who was breaking into the Empire, overturning its oppression, upending it and shaking it, stealing its power and replacing it with his own. If the Empires we see today, political or economic, were to broken into and dismantled, we would be glad. We would welcome the Son of Man coming as a thief.

Of course it would be simplistic, and hurtful even, to say that every time our world is upended it is because God is shaking us in order to make our lives better. That just doesn’t fly when we’re going through personal crises - when we’ve been diagnosed with cancer, or just lost a loved one, or experienced some kind of personal tragedy. How God is involved in these moments is an issue of what theologians call “theodicy,” and there’s just not enough time this morning to get into all of the nuances of that, but I assure you that God’s desire for God’s children is not to cause suffering.

But what I am trying to say this morning, what the Good News of Advent is, is that these times of upending and shaking are not meant to make us afraid. They are not meant to keep us cowering in our beds, like when we hear a thump in the middle of the night. When our world is tipped upside down, we are not meant to scream and and wave our hands around and hang on for dear life in the doorways of our lives. Instead, as Paul says in our reading to the Romans, we are supposed to take heart, to turn to the light, and to trust that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” In other words, we are to live not as if our world were ending, but as if, in God, it is just beginning. As if dawn is approaching.

Which means we live as if we are children of hope. As if we have a reason to look forward. We live by putting aside fear. We live by choosing to go through this time as children of love. We support those whose lives have been upended by caring for them, by reassuring them, by comforting them with the promise that, in God, things will get better.

Because they are. This is the point of Advent. Things will get better because God is working in the world. Indeed, God has already come into the world, incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. And despite all of the upending and shaking, or maybe even because of it, God is turning this world into a place of beauty. Swords will be turned into ploughshares, and spears into pruning-hooks. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” The houses of those who exert their power in evil and oppressive ways will be emptied. Heart-break and pain and loss will be washed away in a flood. The world will be the right way ‘round again as the love of Christ falls gently down around all of us. And so we say, in this time of Advent, Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

November 13, 2016 - A Cold and Broken Hallelujah

Malachi 4:1-2a; Luke 21:5-19

On Monday when I read these texts, I figured I had the sermon figured out. It was going to be about how beautiful buildings dedicated to God, even commissioned by God, still come down. I was going to talk about the Temple and how it was God’s place, and the shock at it coming down, and how the followers of God, both Jews and Christians, eventually discovered that God had moved from buildings to people, and that our hope lies in God’s covenant with all of God’s people. And I was going to completely ignore the second half of this reading, and also most of the Old Testament reading.

And then the election on Tuesday night happened. And then, more to the point, Wednesday and Thursday and Friday happened, and I was inundated with stories about the aftermath of the election. About the hatred and violence that was now unleashed, and the second half of our Gospel reading came rushing back. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. ... You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.” And I knew that I couldn’t preach a regular sermon in these times.

Now if you’re not on social media - if you’re not heavily plugged into facebook or twitter or instagram - you won’t know what I’m talking about. Because our major news channels aren’t reporting certain events that are going on in the US right now. But I want to share these with you, because what’s going on right now south of the border, and is in fact spreading throughout the world, can be described in the same words as what we hear in our Gospel today - nation against nation, people against people, families at war with one another. And I’m sorry that some of the words you are about to hear are words that should never be uttered by a Christian, let alone from the pulpit, but if we are to be followers of Christ we must not hesitate to stare evil in the face, and stare it down.

These post-election events began on Tuesday evening. A friend of mine’s husband, who had been drinking as the election results came in, became increasingly excited about the results, and when she tried to get him to stop yelling about it, he started shouting, “White is right!” She took her kids and left him, and slept in a motel that night. On Wednesday, amidst reports of women being targeted by men with the words, “Your time is up, bitch!” and high school students showing up at school to see graffiti in washrooms that said, “Go home, niggers, this is Trump land!”, a friend of mine posted a note shared from a friend of his, who happens to be a priest, and gay. And that priest received a note on his car windshield that said, “So, father homo== How does it feel to have Trump as your president? At least he’s got a set of balls. They’ll put marriage back where God wants it and take yours away. America’s gonna take care of your faggity ass.”

On Thursday, a high school teacher in Los Angeles told his students that if they didn’t behave, he was going to have their parents deported, and a poster was circulated on a Texas university campus calling for “teachers of diversity” to be tarred and feathered. Tarring and feathering goes back to the days of the old South, when whites would round up a black man, immerse him in boiling tar, roll him in white chicken feathers, and then hang him from a tree. I have friends who “teach diversity” at Texas universities. By Friday, the Ku Klux Klan had announced that they were going to have a Trump Victory Parade in North Carolina on December 3rd. 

The level of hatred that has been unleashed this week is evil. And we can’t shake our heads and say, oh, it’s just the States. The leader of the extreme right wing party in France, who has proclaimed her support for immigration policies similar to Trump’s, celebrated that Trump’s win had finally “freed” America, and in Sweden, 600 Neo-Nazis staged a Trump rally, calling his election the beginning of a world revolution. And here in Canada, in Ottawa, a friend of mine was dropping his child off at school and was stunned to be greeted by another parent’s enthusiasm that Trump won. When he asked this parent why she was excited, she said, “Oh, well, you know, because he wants to keep the Muslims out.” This was heard in our nation’s capital.

Now my point in telling you all of this is not to paint one side as good and the other as bad, but to expose the reality that we are, once again, facing sickening levels of hatred and evil. This is not the first time in the history of the world that this has happened; many of you can tell your own stories of being confronted by someone who purely and truly hated you, and wished you dead. This hatred between members of the human family is not new, but I suspect we did not expect to see it again so soon and so close.

Because of the events of the past week, the question for us today is: what are we called to do in the face of all of this? What are we called to do in the face of people who hate us? Who want us dead? I know that the Gospel of Matthew says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” but I admit that I have spent the last three days being afraid. I am the Ku Klux Klan’s worst race-traitor - good German blood tainted by Japanese blood, with Jewish-Christian kids. My cousins are half-Jamaican. I teach about the importance and religious value of diversity. Before I became a US citizen, I was, indeed, an immigrant. But I am not afraid only for myself, I am afraid for my friends, and I am afraid for all vulnerable people living right now in the United States. I am afraid that my fellow Americans are going to kill other of my fellow Americans before this is all over. I am afraid that there is no way to stem the rising tide of hate and that we are all going to be swallowed by it. We have seen hatred of this kind rise before, not so very long ago, and it almost destroyed the world.

But our Gospel reading says that Jesus told his followers, “When you hear of wars and insurrection, do not be terrified.” And then Jesus says, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” In the face of hate, Jesus gives us words and a wisdom. And what is that? Well, at the very end of the Gospel of Luke, after Jesus himself has been overcome by hatred and evil and crucified, he is raised again, and he meets with his disciples, and his words to them are, “Peace be with you.” Peace be with you. And then he tells them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you ... that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [the Messiah’s] name to all nations.” The words and wisdom that Jesus gives are Peace be with you, and your sins are forgiven.

Jesus calls us to look squarely in the eyes of violence and hatred and evil and to speak words of peace, and words of forgiveness, and words of love. Because in the final battle, love wins. Peace wins. And there is healing for the people. I don’t know if you caught this in our Malachi reading, the verse, “for you, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” This might sound familiar to you if you remember the third verse of our Christmas hymn, Hark the Herald Angels Sing. “Hail! the heav'n-born Prince of peace! Hail! the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings.”  And in fact, our reading from Malachi carries on with this most profound promise, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah ... he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.” So as hard as it is to look at the hatred in the world, as hard as it is to love these people, to persist in loving them no matter how awful the things they do, to persist in loving them when you know they would just as soon see you burn in hell and cheer as it happens, that is what we do, because that is what brings healing to the world. This, and only this, is what will defeat hate. We love with the love of Christ and we share the peace that Christ died to bring because we know God’s power to love is over all. 

I’ve been listening a lot to Leonard Cohen the last few days, and there is a verse in his song Hallelujah that pushed me into tears on Thursday, because of its truth. “I see your flag on the marble arch, but love is not a victory march. It’s a cold, and it’s a broken hallelujah. Hallelujah.” You see, when I wrote this sermon yesterday, I believed it. And when I say it to you this morning, I believe it. But I remember how I felt reading these stories on Thursday, and I know how I will feel when I read about more of them happening in the days to come. And I know that in those moments, I will not believe that love can win, or that peace will bring healing, just as you may not believe me right now. I struggle to put away my fear that if I love, I will be overcome, and to let go of my desire to hate in return. I have cried knowing that I have to forgive the people who said these horrible things and that I just can’t. Maybe you, too, have experienced that feeling of knowing you are supposed to forgive, and trying, but just not being able to. There have been times, and there will be times again, when I will not be able to grandly love my enemy or fervently proclaim forgiveness to those who hate. But as Cohen reminds us, love is not a victory march. The love of Christ does not always sweep us up triumphantly, conquering all hate and standing victorious in one fell swoop, Hallelujah, praise the Lord! Loving in the face of hate is hard, and brutal, and, because we are only human, it is often broken. The love we have for our enemies is often fickle. It is inconsistent, it is not pure and constant like the love we have for our family. It doesn’t flame brightly - it fizzles and sputters.  Glennon Doyle Melton, a wonderful Christian writers, says that “Love is not warm and fuzzy or sweet and sticky. Real love is as tough as nails. It’s having your heart ripped out, putting it back together, and the next day offering it back to the same world that just tore it up.” Love breaks us. And yet it is what Christ calls us to do. And even if we don’t believe that love wins, but we struggle to love anyway, the struggle itself is an act of love, a struggle that is blessed by God. A cold and broken love that is also a hallelujah to God.

Today, and in the days to come, this week, and next week, minute by minute, we are called to love. Christ calls us to love. Not just generally, with warm and fuzzy feelings for the world at large, but specifically. Christ calls us to love those who have hurt us, to speak words of peace to those who have it out for us. Christ calls us to love those who are broken, those who break us, and to love with a broken love, because that’s better than no love at all.

I want to end with one more Leonard Cohen quote, because it is in this truth that the power of God shines through everything we do. “So ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. That’s how the light gets in.” May the light of God shine in your life this week, through the cracks in your imperfect love for those who hate you, a hallelujah to God, who brings peace to the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

October 30, 2016 - The Story of Our Righteousness

Well today is the 499th anniversary of the Reformation. Which may come as a surprise to you. Because there has been a lot of news about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but I think we are all so excited about it that we’re just excited to get a head start. So tomorrow will be the first day of the year of commemoration leading up to the 500th anniversary. So, for instance, tomorrow in Lund, Sweden, the Lutheran World Federation, which represents 90% of the world’s Lutherans, 75 million of us, will be having the first service of Commemoration. And Pope Francis has been invited to participate. Which, you can imagine, is a big deal. And for those of you who are web-savvy, the service will be streaming online starting tomorrow morning at 7:30. You can Google Lutheran World Federation and you will be able to find the website.

Inviting the Pope to celebrate with us is a new step forward. Because the most common narrative we tell of the Reformation is that the Catholic church was running the whole show, Luther thought Catholics were teaching things about Christ and righteousness that were wrong, on October 31st 517 CE he nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, the Catholics excommunicated Luther, we went on to start the Lutheran church, yay us. For the past 500 years, Lutherans have been somewhat self-righteous in our excommunicated status. A bit of: well you don’t want us? Fine, we don’t need you - in fact, we’re better off without you! We are a bit triumphalist in the way we have been telling this story.

But Christians are not new to telling our history in this way. There is another story that we tell in the same way, and that is the relationship between Christians and Jews. The Gospel of John, in particular, likes to tell the story this way: Jews were running the show, Jesus came to tell them they were teaching things about God that were wrong, the Jews killed Jesus, Jesus was raised and the disciples went on to start the Christian church, yay us. For the past 2000 years, Christians have been somewhat self-righteous in our own way. You don’t think we’re part of Abraham’s covenant? Fine, we don’t need you - in fact, we’re better than you, and God loves us more than you, and God doesn’t even want you anymore. That has, in fact, been the way we’ve read most of Romans - and in fact the way Luther read Romans. That our new covenant with God through Jesus replaced the covenant God had established with the Jews.

And what has been the result of both of these ways of telling our history? Both the Lutherans win over Catholics, and the Christians win over the Jews stories? Nothing but hatred, violence, hostility, and even killings. I’ve told you of some of the more horrible instances of Christians killing Jews, and we know that Lutherans were killed for their beliefs. What you probably didn’t learn in Catechism class is that Lutherans in several countries hunted down and persecuted - tortured and killed - those who weren’t Lutheran - whether they were Catholics or other non-Lutheran Reformers, particularly the Anabaptists. In fact, the service tomorrow in Lund is specifically called a Commemoration service, and not a Celebration service, because an important theme of that service will be repentance and forgiveness. Lutheran repentance, actually. Repenting for what we have done to others in the past 500 years, and also repenting for how we have hated our “Christian enemies” and how we have spent so much time not forgiving Catholics for what they have done.

Because that is the point of being a Christian, right? That we forgive those who persecute us? That we love those who hate us? That we pray for our enemies? This is what Christ showed us. When he died, he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

By the grace of God, and this is certainly the work of God and not our own, we are forgiven. We are forgiven for killing and we are forgiven for not forgiving those who have killed us. And we have been given new eyes to the truth of God’s world. The truth that we are all God’s children, all of us made in the image of God from the first day of Creation. We are all children of God’s covenant, which cannot be revoked. The covenant we hear of in Jeremiah, the covenant written on the hearts of the people of Israel, the Jews, and through Jesus extended to non-Jews, that is to Christians - this is one covenant. 

It is the reason that I say, during Communion, that Jesus gave the wine to his disciples saying, “This cup is the covenant renewed in my blood.” You will remember that it has always been said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” But the Greek is not entirely clear. The Greek allows either way to be said. And our new interpretations of the writings of Paul, which we’ve come to through deep biblical study and conversations with Jews, lead us to understand that we did not properly understand what Paul was saying. He was not rejecting the Law, or Israel, or the old covenant. He was, in fact, expanding the already existing covenant so that it would now include those who were not Law-observers. That is to say, non-Jewish Christians. Paul never proposed a new covenant for Christians, let alone one that would replace and exclude the old covenant with the Jews. Paul was saying that God’s covenant now would include both Jews, God’s children since Abraham, and Christians, God’s children since Jesus. By the grace of God, we now know that God’s commitment to God’s children is even deeper than we imagined.

And we are now coming to realize this in light of Lutherans and Roman Catholics, too. In 1999, which I am a bit embarrassed to admit was almost twenty years ago, together we signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, in which we agreed we share “a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ.” That joint understanding is: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”

You see, what we came to realize is that we had spent a lot more time arguing with one another than truly trying to understand one another. And fault lies on both sides. We were both so insistent that we were right, and that God was one our side, that we never tried to explore how we could both be right, and how God could be with both us. Finally, 450 years later, we actually listened to the Holy Spirit’s promptings to us, and began to explore what one another truly meant, and to hear that, in fact, we did mean the same thing when it came to God’s justification.

We came to the truth that we have come to in our understanding of the Jewish faith, that God alone makes us righteous, through a variety of ways. God makes Jews righteous through the Laws of Moses, and God makes Christians righteous through Jesus Christ. We now see that we are all children of God, through different means. But those different means and ways should not separate us, because it is God who keeps us together. We all agree that God’s relationship with us is as we see from Jeremiah, “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” All - Jews, Lutherans, Roman Catholics. And so together, we can all turn to Psalm 46 and proclaim the words we find there that we already read this morning, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change. ... The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” So, while we enter this 500th anniversary of the commemoration of the Reformation, we remember our own failings that have presented us from reaching this point sooner, but we celebrate that, through God, all things are possible, that God’s love for us never ends, and that, as Christians, God restores our righteousness, not through our own efforts, but through Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Oct 23 - Criticizing Others is Criticizing God

Would you say you’re more like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, or like the tax collector? Be honest, because I’m not going to ask you to raise your hands, which one would you rather be like? Me, I’m more like the Pharisee. I am thankful that I’m not a thief or a rogue or an adulterer, and I’m thankful that I can be proud of the job that I have. I don’t fast twice a week, but I do give a tenth of my income to charity. I’m thankful that I have values and morals and ethics that make me a valuable member of society, and I’m glad that I come to church on Sunday morning. I have no desire to be like any of the people I see out there who are lost and struggling with their lives, who don’t know how to live, and who are trapped by the consequences of their own foolish decisions. I feel bad for them, and I’m glad I’m not one of them. I turn to my faith when I’m in trouble, rather than to any of the millions of others options out there.
And so I understand why the Pharisee is glad not to be like the tax collector sharing the Temple space wit him. The tax collector was employed by Rome. He would have been Jewish, which means he would have been a traitor to his own people, knocking on doors and seizing people’s property in order to give Rome, the foreign, pagan occupier, what it demanded. His job was not sanctioned by Torah, which advocated forgiveness of debts.
So why, then, does Jesus say that it is the tax collector, the one raised in his religion but turned his back on it and on his people, who is justified rather than the Pharisee? To be clear, Jesus is not bashing Pharisees here. He is not calling into doubt the authenticity of the Pharisee’s claims. The Pharisee really was a good man, and the tenth of his income that he gave to the Temple was undoubtedly used in helpful ways. There is no question that he truly was an upstanding member of society. But Jesus is implying that all that is besides the point. Why?
When we learn the grammar of a language, we’re taught to pay attention to what the subject of the sentence is, and what the object is. The subject is the person or thing doing something and the object is the person or thing that something is being done to. Take the sentence: the disciples ate the fish. The disciples are the subject - they are the ones doing something. The fish is the object - it is the thing that something is being done to.
If we look at the grammar of what the Pharisee and what the tax collector said, they give us the key to this story. The Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of my income.” The tax payer says, “God, be merciful to me!” When the Pharisee speaks, the subject of the sentence is himself. He is the one doing things. “I fast. I give.” God is pretty incidental to all of it. But when the tax payer speaks, the subject of the sentence is God. “God have mercy.” God is the one doing things. The tax payer is, in fact, the object. The one having something done to him; having mercy done to him.
The point Jesus is making is that when we come before God, whether it was in the Temple, or in church, or in daily prayer, we are to make God the subject of our speech. We may very well be good Christians, regular church-goers, give to charity, kind to friends and enemies. But that is not the point. The point is that God has made us good Christians, God has made us regular church-goers, God has given us charitable hearts and a kind nature. As Paul says, “this is not our own doing, so that none may boast.”
So we dare not look down on those who don’t aren’t Christian, who don’t go to church, who don’t give to charity. It’s true that God has not done the same thing for those people but God is doing something else. And if we criticize them, we are criticizing God. When we look down on people who spend Sunday mornings at home, and say, “Oh, people these days don’t go to church, it’s so appalling, no wonder our world is so awful,” we are criticizing God. As Lutherans, we believe that God sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts to give us faith. In the case of those people who don’t go to church, God has clearly given them a different path to follow in life. God has not called them in the same way God has called us. We are here because God called us here, not because we, in and of ourselves, are good people. We are as wretched and sinful as the tax collector, even if we don’t recognize it. But God, in great mercy, calls us to church every Sunday, gives us the hearts to be charitable, and kind. God, for reasons we will never know, has not done that for others. And who are we to judge the actions of God? (We can argue with them, like I said last week, but we cannot judge them.) When we judge the actions of others, we are judging God.
The point is not that Jesus is contrasting the behaviour of the Pharisee with the behaviour of the tax collector. He is not condemning the Pharisee for saying that he fasts and gives. Nor is he lifting up the tax collector for being so humble and self-abasing. If the tax collector had gone to Temple and said, “Oh God, I am so awful, I am so sinful, I am horrible, I will do better,” Jesus would have condemned that too. Because then the tax collector would have been making himself the subject of his prayers. The point is that Jesus is contrasting those prayers in which we make ourselves the actors and those in which we make God the actor.
Once the Holy Spirit moves within us to help us see this, while our actions may resemble those of the Pharisee, our speech ultimately ends up like that of the tax-collector. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Because who among us doesn’t judge the behaviour of others? I confess that I judge others - not by whether or not they go to church, but by whether they are kind, or whether they give to charity. And in that, I am a sinner. We are all sinners.

But we thank God that God is merciful. If God judged us half as harshly as we judge ourselves and we judge others, we would be in serious trouble. But God is merciful. God shows us mercy when we judge, and God puts mercy into our hearts. And in that mercy, God makes us righteous. At the end of the parable, Jesus says, “I tell you, this [tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other.” The tax collector was justified because he turned to God to justify him. The Pharisee was not, because he turned to himself. No matter how wretched and sinful our lives, when we turn to God to be the subject of our lives, when we ask God to make us righteous, God does. There is no having to wrestle with God over this one. When we pray that God would make us good and righteous and charitable and kind, God does. We all have those moments when we catch ourselves thinking or saying something that isn’t particularly kind, and, if we are honest with ourselves, we think, “Oh, I wish I were nicer.” But even that wish is one that makes us the subject. But if we find ourselves in these situations and we pray, “Oh, God please make me nicer,” or kinder, or more generous, or braver, or more understanding, God will do it. God will act in our lives. God will respond to these prayers. And in doing so, God will justify us, as well. And so we thank God, for God’s great mercy, for God’s past working our lives, and for the work that we know God will continue to do. Thanks be to God. Amen.