October 24, 2010

Joel 2:23-32
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Singing: “I am amazing! I am filled with power! And God loves me like crazy! I am amazing!”

Some of you may remember that as the first verse of the theme song from Camp Christopher this summer. I shared the song with you back in May when we celebrated Camp Sunday here at St. Andrew’s. And if you’re anything like me, you probably felt slightly awkward throwing your arms in the air and singing out loud about how amazing and wonderful you are.

I don’t think it’s that we are particularly shy or awkward people. Some might say that it’s because we are Presbyterians… very reserved and proper individuals…

But I wonder if, really, it’s awkward for us to sing “I am amazing” because we’ve been taught from a young age that we should be humble. We should not make ourselves the centre of attention. We should not be proud or brag about our accomplishments.

Today’s parable seems to come down hard on people who think too highly of themselves. In particular, it’s another one of the Gospel stories that doesn’t make the Pharisees look very nice.

You remember who the Pharisees were, right? They were very devout and religious Jews who took their faith seriously and lived according to the commandments. The Apostle Paul was a Pharisee, for example, before his conversion to the way of Jesus.

So it seems that Jesus is telling a story to ‘stick it to the Pharisees’ or to make them look bad. He’s calling them arrogant, and telling them that God won’t listen to their presumptuous prayers.

He’s saying that even sinners are better than them in the eyes of God… even tax collectors who co-operate with the Roman overlords and cheat the people out of their hard-earned money… even tax collectors are better than Pharisees when they turn to God and ask for forgiveness and mercy.

Now, it seems unlikely that Jesus told this story directly to the Pharisees. That probably would have got him killed even sooner than he was… because this story is not subtle at all. Instead, the bible tells us that Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

In other words, it’s not only Pharisees who get into trouble with a lack of humility. Disciples and believers can just as easily get into the same problem. Jesus says, “ALL who exalt themselves will be humbled, but ALL who humble themselves will be exalted.”

If we keep that very famous line of scripture in mind, singing “I am amazing” doesn’t feel very appropriate at all! It feels like bragging, like we’re exalting ourselves.

But there are times when I’m reading from the apostle Paul’s writings in the New Testament, and it seems like that’s exactly what he’s doing. In today’s text from Pauls’ second letter to Timothy, Paul might as well be singing “I am amazing!”

He writes: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day…”

Paul sounds rather sure of himself, and rather confident that he has done what God has called him to do as a follower of Jesus. He acknowledges that God will be the judge of his life, but he’s sure that God will judge him righteous. God will judge him and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

What is troubling about this text is that Paul doesn’t sound very different from the Pharisee. Remember the Pharisee’s words as he prayed in the temple? “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

Both Paul and the Pharisee are good men. They have worked hard to follow the commandments and serve God with their lives. But there is a difference between the two.

Some people have suggested that the problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is that he wasn’t really as good as he claimed. They suggest that he was just putting on a show of righteousness, praying loudly so that people would watch and listen and think well of him, but then going home to break the commandments and ignore God’s call.

That may, indeed, have been the case for some of the Pharisees, as it is certainly the case for some Christians today. We may say one thing in church, and then live completely differently in the other parts of our lives… in our relationships at work, in our relationships at home. Sometimes it’s not too much to say that we can be hypocrites when we leave our commitment to goodness, and kindness, and forgiveness at the door of the church each Sunday at noon.

But Jesus’ parable never indicates that the Pharisee is a hypocrite. He’s not lying when he claims to be dedicated and generous. And if the apostle Paul can claim his righteousness before God, what is wrong with the Pharisee’s prayer?

As Christians, we have heard the message about humility many times. The idea that God brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly… the idea that God turns everything upside-down, putting those who are poor or oppressed or excluded into the places of honour.

We might read this story and simply hear the message “be humble.” We should humble ourselves before God… admitting our sin, and allowing God to show mercy towards us, allowing God to lift us up.

But I think that the parable is teaching us something else as well. Did you notice how the Pharisee stood by himself in the temple to pray? Did you notice how his prayer separated himself from others as he raised himself up above his neighbours? 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.”

The problem is not only that the Pharisee lacks humility. The problem is that he looks down on his neighbours with scorn and derision. He judges the person praying beside him and determines who is a better person.

Paul, on the other hand, leaves the judgement to God. Paul makes it clear that he is no better than others who have become followers of Jesus. He writes, “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Judging others is an easy pattern to get into. We judge the actions and inactions of politicians and other people in the eye of the media. We judge our neighbours and friends, our teachers and co-workers. We judge people who work in the service industry all the time, as well as the bad drivers that we encounter on the road.

It’s easy to look down on the people we see around us, especially when we judge them to be mean or self-serving or when their values don’t seem to match up with ours.

Jesus is not telling us that we should feel bad about ourselves, that we should be self-deprecating or put ourselves down all the time. We can know and celebrate the fact that we belong to God and have been made in God’s image to be amazing people who are confident and capable of living good and righteous lives.

But today’s parable reminds us that the God is who merciful to us, calls us to have mercy on our neighbours. The God who forgives us our sins, calls us to forgive those who have done wrong to us. Just think of the way Jesus taught us to pray: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

The good news is that the tax collector, who prayed to God for mercy went home justified. As he humbled himself, God lifted him up and exalted him.

May we learn to identify ourselves with the tax collector so that God can bless us with God’s amazing grace and mercy. And may we learn more and more to share that same grace and mercy with the people we encounter in life.

The truth is that our faith is not a solitary activity. Our faith calls us into relationship with all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences and histories. And we need to enter each of those relationships with the same kind of grace and mercy and patience that God has towards us.

The prophet Joel preached about the day when God would pour out God’s Spirit on ALL flesh. He said, “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female SLAVES, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

Remembering that God’s Spirit has been poured out on us, that God’s Spirit lives within us and helps us to follow the way of Jesus, we can boldly proclaim that…“We are amazing!” But we must also learn to see and to recognize God’s Spirit working in and through our neighbours. We need to learn to sing and to celebrate the way that God is making them righteous. We must look and learn to see God working in our neighbours. The next verse of the song is “You are amazing!”

And above all, we must remember that all our goodness, all our righteousness, comes from God’s grace and God’s Spirit working in us. And so we sing: “God is amazing! God is filled with power! And we love God like crazy! God is amazing!”

Let us remember that God is pouring out the Spirit on ALL flesh… on ours, and on our neighbours, and ALL who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Thanks be to God.