Lift up Your Hearts. Jay’s sermon about the righteous Pharisee and the humble tax collector

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 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!’ 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.”

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.”  For most of us, that opening line to today’s parable holds little meaning, and certainly not its intended meaning. If we’ve read much of the Gospels, we can probably see where this story is going. We have been taught to be suspicious of Pharisees. We think of them as hypocrites, not the good and righteous religious people that they really were. But in fact, Pharisees generally were well regarded, as they did their best to preserve and live God’s commandments. More than that, they functioned as a kind of political party in their society, and chances are it was the party most of the people Jesus was speaking to would have supported.

Then there was the tax collector, a common guy in need of help, right? Well, in fact he was a political player of a different kind. Not to be confused with a modern-day IRS agent, this tax collector was not facilitating a useful economic system for the sake of the common good. He was an instrument of an oppressive Roman Empire, helping to take money out of the community to pave the streets in far-away Rome. And though Jesus doesn’t say it specifically, this tax collector probably took an unfair amount for himself, too. For his economic exploitation he was hated, and for his entanglement in Roman government he was religiously unclean. As one scholar puts it, “Tax-collectors are not merely ‘misunderstood’: they are on the wrong side religiously, politically, and economically. This man in Jesus’ story is not the so-called “publican with a heart of gold.”

Sure, what we hear so often about tax collectors in the Bible is that Jesus ate with them, so we might have a sense that they were good, ordinary people. But we’d miss the point of the parable if we don’t recognize that Jesus is talking about someone who lives according to different values than we do, who sees political life differently than we do, who relates to money and economics differently than we do.

So how might we retell the story in contemporary terms?

Two men went to worship at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church one Sunday. One was standing by himself. He might have been an usher out in the narthex handing out bulletins. Or maybe he was up in balcony, or in the choir loft. I don’t know, maybe he was even standing in the pulpit. In any case, he was a good and faithful member of the church who worshipped regularly and gave generously. During worship he had been singing to himself an old children’s song he had learned in Sunday School years ago: “Into my heart, into my heart, into my heart Lord Jesus. Come in today, come in to stay. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.” And he knew Jesus was with him. Jesus belonged to him. In worship that day, like always, he was perfectly comfortable.

But over all those years of worshipping, he never really paused to listen to Jesus long enough to understand that when you really open your heart to Jesus he tends to bring his friends. And you might be surprised by who he brings. If you had said this to him, he would have pointed out all of the wonderful acts of service he had performed in the church and community, and it was true. He even went on a short-term mission trip to Central America one time. But of course, providing service for people is not the same as opening one’s heart to them. He might have said that he had read books by liberation theologians and black theologians and feminist and womanist theologians. But of course he read them while maintaining those labels, keeping them at arm’s length and not really incorporating their ideas and experiences into his understanding of God and the world. His heart was big but for the most part, closed.

It was certainly closed to that visitor who entered worship that day. No one in the church knew much about that man, other than that he arrived late and didn’t seem to think it was a problem as he walked all the way up the aisle to sit all alone in the front pew. Along the way, people noticed his jacket was covered with surprising political campaign stickers and slogans. You can imagine what they said. The people in the pews were embarrassed by the way the man worshipped, moving his body, bowing his head, barely looking up at the preacher and presider up front. They guessed he had never been in a church before.

And with head bowed down and mind racing, the visitor prayed. That day he felt that his life was a mess, and he didn’t know how to get out of it. He was stuck. His circumstances were not what he had ever imagined for himself. No matter how much he tried, he just couldn’t get things together. In his prayer, he asked for help, for something to change, for mercy.

There was nothing unique or special about the service that day. They sang old hymns. The sermon was an old one from the file. When it was all over, the first man returned to his home while the second sat in his pew weeping. Somehow, he received the message that he was loved and was not alone.

So what’s the point of the parable? Be humble, right? Well, that’s a good lesson and how it all gets wrapped up in Luke’s Gospel, but I’m not convinced that’s the real point. You see, there are two kinds of parables that Jesus tells. Some parables are examples for us, and they show us how we ought to behave. But most parables aren’t quite like that. Most parables aren’t meant to teach us what to do; rather, they teach us something about God. Most parables, like the one Jesus tells us today, offer a picture of who God is.

I used to think that this parable was meant to teach us to try harder at being humble. But a sermon by preacher William Willimon helped me to see that that would be just another attempt at trying to clean ourselves up. We’d be no better than the Pharisee who thinks that getting right with God is all a matter of how we pray, how we behave, how we measure up to others.

Theologian Richard Rohr has said, “It’s not addition that makes one holy but subtraction: stripping the illusions, letting go of pretense, exposing the false self, breaking open the heart and the understanding, not taking one’s private self too seriously.”

Two men went up to the temple to pray, and they were both beloved children of God. But the one who was justified that day, healed by God’s grace, who caught a glimpse of who God really is, was the one who let down his guard and opened his heart. God was present for him because that’s who God is. The tax collector wasn’t trying to be humble; he was humble. He was feeling low down to the ground, and he was just willing to be honest about it. He wasn’t acting like he didn’t know what to pray; he didn’t know how to pray in that moment. He wasn’t pretending that he needed help; he needed help.

This parable doesn’t tell us how to behave as much as it tells us how God behaves. God shows mercy to people in need, not because they deserve it, but because God loves us.

I suspect that all of us—even us regular church-goers—sometimes feel out of place at church, or in day-to-day life, for that matter. We all encounter things from time to time that keep us distant from God. Sometimes it looks like everyone else is so righteous, so put-together, and we just don’t know what we’re doing. In those times, you’re down low. You’re humble. The good news is that it’s in those times that God comes to meet you and to bless you.

Parker Palmer has written that there is no way to be human without having one’s heart broken. Sooner or later, whether because of grief or disappointment or crisis, we all come to know the experience of heartbreak. Religious faith cannot save us completely from those experiences. But spending time in prayer and worship with a faith community can help us in our response to them, our response to heartbreak.

The reason for that, as Palmer says, is that the heart can break in at least two ways. For one, it can break into thousands of sharp pieces—pieces that can be carried along for years to continue to wound a person or to repeatedly wound others in an unsuccessful attempt at resolving it. The broken apart heart tries to deny the severity of the pain, or, on the other side of the spectrum, it refuses to see anything beyond it.

But the other way of heartbreak goes right through the middle of that tension—that tension between denial and despair. The other way, as Palmer puts it, is that “a small, clenched fist of a heart can be broken open into largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy.” This heart is honest about the pain, fully aware of it, but it also allows itself to be more present to others and compassionate, precisely because of that experience of pain. Rather than being broken apart, it is broken open.

As we worship this morning, we might be feeling on top of the world or low to the ground. But at some point each of us knows heartbreak. A disappointment at work or school, the death of a loved one, the injustices of our day. The question is will our hearts be more open? Will they be open to the justifying and transforming grace of God? Will they be open to our neighbors, even those who stand on the other side of the lines we draw?

In our communion liturgy today, we’ll hear Pastor Ingrid say the familiar words, “Lift up your hearts.” This is not a simple command; it’s an invitation to a way of life. With hearts broken open, we can boldly receive the grace and mercy of God, and we can receive the gifts of communion with one another. It’s the invitation that wherever you find yourself in your journey of faith today, lift up your heads and lift up your hearts. God’s grace is for you.

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Swinging Widows and Swinging Doors – Pastor Ingrid’s Sermon from 10.16.16

The gospel according to Luke, the eighteenth chapter:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

We open the door to Luke’s gospel and what do we find? We find a woman who had lost everything. We don’t know all of the details, but we can surmise that this woman had been left man-less: her husband, her sons, her brothers—all of them were either dead or gone. And in a first century patrilineal system, in which men were the keepers of all of the keys, this woman had lost her financial stability, her standing in the community, her rights to inheritance. In short: she had lost any hope of a future.

We open the door to Luke’s gospel and what do we find? Society’s future-less woman, who, against all odds, hasn’t lost heart. And here she is, demanding justice from a judge tasked with upholding laws constructed for the benefit of someone—someone that didn’t look like her. She keeps coming again and again, we’re told. Bishop Ann Svennungsen reminded me last weekend that the judge’s remark about the woman bothering him and wearing him out is better translated “this widow keeps giving me a shiner.” In the original Greek, this isn’t mere annoyance; this is a boxing image. This is widow woman who is swinging and hitting. And this is a judge—with no fear of God and no respect for people—with a black eye.

We open the door to Luke’s gospel and what do we find? A widow with sore knuckles and a judge who turns to justice—not for particularly admirable reasons—but for fear that the persistent lady, with a stunningly-good left hook, won’t ever give up.

We open the door to Luke’s gospel and what do we find? A justice that Jesus says comes quickly. Here, again, our synod bishop says that an alternate translation might be helpful. Rather than justice that comes quickly, God’s justice often comes suddenly. Suddenly, like one minute the unjust judge cares for nothing apart from his own professional ladder-climbing, and the next minute he renders a decision that will, no doubt, upset his colleagues and the whole unjust applecart. Suddenly, like one minute the widow has nothing and the next minute she’s given what she needs to live. We know enough about justice to acknowledge it does not often happen quickly, but we have seen it appear suddenly.

Here at Holy Trinity, we had our own experience of “God’s sudden justice” this week, when the accessible door button was installed outside the new east entrance. It’s only taken us 112 years to have doors that didn’t require regular workouts to enter—no one would accuse us of moving toward justice too quickly. But then “suddenly” the button is here, installed, and for the first time in our congregation’s history all bodies can enter this building.

Pastor Jay was out eagerly snapping pictures of the new button after its installation—you know, getting the perfect shot for Facebook—when our project electrician said to him, “All this work that we’ve done, pointing around to the whole of the project, and that little button is what you care most about?” [Well, yes, I guess it is.]

We care about the little button because it allows us to open the doors to this community. We open the doors to this community and what do we find? We find a community that for over a century has been learning to get real with each other—learning to share our joys and sorrows and the bulk of our lives that exists somewhere in between.

We open the doors to this community and what do we find? A community learning to confess and to forgive. We’re learning to confess our interpersonal failings—you know, the ways we have hurt one another. We’re also learning to confess the unjust systems, particularly as they relate to matters of race, that some of our sinner-saint ancestors created or sustained. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda writes that “the power of structural sin is so fierce, so mesmerizing, so seemingly impenetrable precisely because—failing to recognize it—we fail to confess it and to repent of it.” Together, we’re learning to recognize, confess, and repent. And God’s sure and certain forgiveness—that absolves us of everything other than responsibility— is allowing us to imagine another way.

We open the doors to this community and what do we find? A community learning to let the children come. What’s that you say? They don’t know our unspoken rules about silence? They don’t know that everyone is supposed to be completely stationary during worship? Kids. We’re learning to love you. And we’re learning to give up just enough control to allow you to lead us into a gospel freedom that, somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten.

We open the doors to this community and what do we find? We find a community learning to honor women. We stand firm when we say that there will be no denigration, no body-shaming, no sexism here. And we await the day when our stances against such things will be true in practice. We say there will be no “locker room” talk within these walls—unless it consists of tennis shoes and yoga schedules. We know that language matters, and thus we choose to use it wisely in our daily interactions and in our worship. Together, we are slowly learning to imagine a God who looks more like the widow than the judge. It’s a stretch for about 99 percent of us, but we won’t be deterred from living into new images of who God is for all people.

We open the doors to this community and what do we find? A community learning to agitate for the sake of the poor and marginalized. A community learning to agitate for the sake of the Earth and all its creatures. Don’t misunderstand me, here we’re not inciting violence, we’re inciting justice. The biblical understanding of shalom does not presume an absence of conflict. Shalom is more like Jacob’s wrestling match we heard about in the first reading. Together, we’re learning evangelical defiance for the sake of God’s visions for the whole world. Together, we’re learning to live faithfully with sore knuckles.

Our opening doors celebration could be all about what happens here, in these four walls. But, today, we open the doors, we welcome the freshness that fills this space, and we find the real gift exists beyond them. In the neighborhood that has been cultivating shalom for far longer than Holy Trinity’s been around. Up and down Lake Street, throughout the streets of Longfellow, all the way over to Corcoran, and up into Seward, there are people, organizations, and companies serving up love, mercy, and grace. We’re learning to follow the lead of our neighbors.

Today, we open the doors and find the real gift exists beyond them. In the beauty of the Mississippi, the rustle of Howe’s big old oaks, the wonder of Minnehaha Falls, the beauty of Brackett. The Irish Catholic poet John O’Donohue, writes that beauty that “is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth [for our] unfolding life.” As a community, we’re learning to love a beauty that we didn’t create.

Today, we open the doors and find the real gift exists beyond them. In the witnesses, who, like the persistent widow, show us what love looks like in public. Oftentimes, their stories get drowned out in the public square by the dominant voices, but they keep demanding justice: The Lakota and Dakota tribes united at Standing Rock to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Target, Macy’s, and Best Buy janitors united in a 44-month organizing campaign under the leadership of CTUL. Refugees creating new homes out of nothing but tenacity and hope. All of these are people who have every reason to lose heart, showing us what it’s like to not give up in the face of great adversity. With open doors, we can learn from them what it really looks like to call the powerful to account. With open doors, we can hear when we are, in fact, the powerful being called to account.

After almost two years of daily work on the Opening Doors Campaign and a few grey hairs on my head that weren’t there when we started this project, I can attest—justice rarely feels like it comes quickly. But it does come. It comes because God’s vision is a powerful current that keeps moving us toward a new day for all people, for all of creation. God’s vision keeps moving us—bruised knuckles and all—toward vulnerability and community, confession and forgiveness, children and women, justice and beauty. God’s vision keeps moving us out toward our neighbors. Even after 112 years, God’s vision keeps moving us.

So open wide the doors, Holy Trinity. And let God’s commonwealth come.

AMEN.

In the Region Between. Jay’s sermon on a grateful former leper and dying to whiteness.

Luke 17:11-19

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

It’s probably because I just did went on a trip of my own that I have found myself drawn to the traveling that Jesus does in this passage today. We’re told that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and he passed through the region between Galilee and Samaria. I’m not sure exactly what that means: “the region between.” I’ve looked at a map of first century Israel, and the two regions butt up against each other with nothing but a thin black line between them. Are we to suppose that there was a kind of no-man’s land between the two territories that was neither Galilee nor Samaria but something different? What is the “region between?” Was it a place only for lepers and others cast out of their own communities, a place without national identity for people without national citizenship? What was that place like? How big was it, exactly?

On my vacation to Norway last week, I visited the Russian border where there stood two posts, one with the Russian flag’s colors painted on it and one with the Norwegian colors. There was less than 12 inches separating them, so there was not much of a “region between” the two nations. One nation was divided from the other very clearly with a distinct foot-wide border line. It was set up intentionally like that—you could be in one country or another; there’s no in-between. That’s usually how we divide people from one another, isn’t it? There are clear lines of separation.

Then again, I got to thinking that when we first boarded our ferry boat on this particular journey, we quickly noticed how many countries were represented there. Each announcement over the loudspeaker was given in three or four languages. When we sat down for meals we were likely to be joined by someone whose first language was Norwegian or German or French or Japanese. That could make conversation awkward. There was a moment when I was trying to converse in German that I thought my table mates were talking about their doctor when they were really talking about their daughter. Then there was the time my friend used his very best Norwegian to order his meal and the waiter responded in perfect English, “I’m sorry. I’m from Spain, and I don’t speak Norwegian.” It was a little awkward at times, but it was also a wonderful opportunity. Though we were traveling through Norway, there was a sense of being “in-between” nations.

So maybe it’s with this kind of metaphorical understanding that we should understand where Jesus was when he encountered the ten lepers. They were in-between. While Galileans and Samaritans generally would have had nothing to with one another, in a time when old differences and animosities had been cemented into enmity, this was a unique circumstance to find some of them together. They were Galileans and Samaritans officially, but those labels no longer meant what they once did not that they found themselves in a leper’s colony. These individuals were ostracized from their communities because with oozing sores, their skin no longer functioned as the distinct boundary that was expected of it, keeping the outside out and the inside in. They were therefore people to be feared and cast out. Regardless of the physical space in which they stood, they were people without a clear identity, living permanently in an in-between space.

A place like that might be a place that many of us would tend to avoid. It lacks clarity and familiar categories. It’s uncomfortable. In fact, I’d even say that the whole reason we typically construct such distinct boundaries in our world is because we have this assumption that in-between places are not only awkward but dangerous.

It sure can be true. There’s another place in Norway we visited last week called Salstraumen that has one of the strongest tidal currents in the world with water speeds reaching 25 miles per hour. It’s the boundary area in between the North Sea and small fjord, and when the tide changes every six hours, it causes powerful whirlpools, or maelstroms, as they’re called. The turbulent water of that in-between place presents a serious danger to sailors who would try to cross it. Turbulence happens at such boundaries.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus regularly chose to walk directly into turbulent, dangerous in-between places. In today’s reading it was not only the possibility of contracting chronic and painful illness but also the lack of clear national identity in that place that could be perceived as a threat. What would people say when they found out that he treated Samaritans just like Galileans? Luke tips us off to the danger by saying that he’s on his way to Jerusalem, and any of us who have heard about Jesus knows what awaits him there. But those of us who know the Christian story also know that the reign of God is revealed especially in the in-between places of change and danger and uncertainty. Sharing a table with unlikely guests, giving up one’s wealth for the sake of the poor, forgiving debts and asking for forgiveness, taking time to understand the experience of an outcast leper—these are the places where God is present with healing and new life.

This weekend Holy Trinity hosted a powerful conference on privilege and race in the church, with representatives of dozens of churches attending. Many of you volunteered a great deal of time to make it happen, and you did such an incredible job. Thank you. The work was well worth it because it is such a crucial conversation to be having. There were many important learnings for me, but among the most important was the reminder that the journey toward racial justice requires that we embrace such things as vulnerability, awkwardness, tension, and discomfort. This is a difficult thing for a lot of us. Who wants to be uncomfortable? None of us does. But that’s especially true if we have benefited from systems of privilege our whole lives and have become accustomed to being comfortable. We’ve grown to expect it. That’s really a big part of what whiteness is all about. Whiteness is a social construct that defines everything within the boundaries of what’s thought of as “normal” in our society. It’s the people in mind when systems of law, politics, education, and economics were established. It’s the reality of who we can expect to see in the movies or TV shows we watch, in the books we read, or even when we come to church. It’s about the language we expect others will understand. It’s the assumption, with a long and complex history in our country, that so-called white people should enjoy benefits and privileges that people with brown and black skin do not. It’s often unconscious and insidious. As our keynote speakers said this weekend, it’s in the air we breathe. Many of us who think of ourselves as white have become very comfortable with whiteness and the privileges we receive.

But justice requires stepping into tension and even dying to whiteness, that is, putting to death the expectation of comfort and that the world will be set up for our benefit and not for others. It’s not comfortable. But it is the place where healing and new life are found. White privilege and racism affect all of us of every race, keeping us from God and God’s intentions for the world. We all therefore stand in need of healing.

Again, I take it that it’s not just about geography when Luke tells us that Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, walked through a region between Galilee and Samaria. He was challenging the assumptions of who deserved certain benefits and privileges as full members of a society. Through his bold journeying, Jesus encountered the individuals living with leprosy, and he healed them. And then he asked them to go show themselves to the priests because he knew there was another kind of healing needed. They would need official reentry into the community, the authorization to be treated as full members and human beings once again, not people to be feared or avoided. It reminds me of the Ebola virus outbreak a couple of years ago, and how doctors, nurses, community leaders—including President Obama—were seen publically embracing people who had been healed of the virus. Their hugs were a way of healing the stigma that so often accompanies having had such a disease. Likewise, Jesus was not only interested in healing the physical ailment but the social disease as well. He freed them to really live again, to embrace and to be embraced, to worship in community, to be at home without fear.

So off they went, reuniting with family and friends, celebrating with their community a new life, doing exactly what Jesus had set them free for. And this could be the end of the story. But then there was one who turned back. Why, exactly, we don’t know. Is it that as a Samaritan, doubly ostracized, he didn’t have a way of returning to his community? Was it that he had more to be thankful for or just no place to go? It doesn’t matter, really; the point is that showing gratitude was another opportunity for healing and new life. For whatever the reason, he understood that his healing, his life, his identity was all connected to the power of God revealed in Jesus. Whether he was a Samaritan, leper, former leper, former Samaritan, or anything else, all of who he was was embraced by God.

This is where I find inspiration to continue on the journey of dying to whiteness and working for racial justice. It’s because I have a deeper identity in God that I can rethink all other identities. Oh, it’s a journey, to be sure, one bound to be filled with failures and awkward messiness. But Jesus invites us all to turn back again and again along this journey to give thanks, to praise, and to remember who we are in God. This is what we need most of all. This is our inspiration for the journey.

It’s a paradox, really. The more we recognize our need for change in this world and repentance in ourselves, the more we need to praise and give thanks. Well, today is certainly a day for gratitude. I am grateful for a community of faith that takes seriously a call to live with justice and peace. I am grateful for the 450 people who made commitments here yesterday to work with their congregations in examining their privilege and seeking racial justice. Above all, I am grateful for the God who promises to meet us here today, and in any in-between place of danger or fear, to embrace us and welcome us home.