Meg Peery McLaughlin
Luke 18: 9-14
June 21, 2020
The Journal for Preachers had a zoom presentation this week and on it a black pastor, Adam Mixon, said something that struck me. He said, the preaching is happening all around us. Our job is to point to it.
Protesters in every state of our union have been taking to the streets crying for justice[i]. Ibram Kendi’s book How to be an Anti Racist is Number One on the Bestseller list. NASCAR banned the Confederate Flag. Nike declared Juneteenth a paid holiday[ii].
There’s gospel in that.
Chief Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion of the court ruling that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects GLBTQ folk.[iii]
There’s gospel in that.
Durham and Orange County have installed an order for all of us to wear face masks to protect our public health and care for our neighbor.
There’s gospel in that.
Maybe you wouldn’t point the same places I would. Where would you point?
What good news do you see around you?
Since the preaching is happening, and indeed being embodied.
Perhaps, church, our work right now is to pray,
to tether ourselves to the Spirit’s movement out there,
to ask for eyes to see the good news and participate in it,
to get clear on who we are in the midst of the grace that surrounds us, and our need for it.
So for a word on prayer, we turn now to Luke’s Gospel,
where Jesus uses parables to teach.
Listen, friends, to God’s Word for us from chapter eighteen, verses nine through fourteen.
Jesus also 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.’
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
There is a reason that in Godly Play, our way of teaching the Bible to our smallest disciples, in Godly Play the Parables are kept in golden boxes. They take some unpacking. They are holy treasures, of deepest value. But, no offense to our Godly Play ministry, but I’d argue they don’t always feel like gifts. Jesus tells parables that are squishy, and as one scholar puts it “they are meant to shake, shatter, and sometimes reconstruct the world.[iv]” And Jesus offers us a doozy of “gift” in this parable.
He starts with two characters. A Pharisee, who by now in our bible reading we already a bit skeptical of, but look, y’all, this fellow is the epitome of faithfulness. He fasts twice a week which is far above the norm of Jewish piety, he tithes, that is gives ten percent, of not just what was required by the law, but of all his income. And even his prayer, which sounds like it just drips with arrogance is straight from the Psalm book, which gives God praise and thanks for keeping one away from the ways of the wicked. I mean, would that we all were so faithful. To give a little perspective, according to Pew Research, the majority of we mainliners do not read scripture with any frequency and only half of us regularly pray. As for giving, here at UPC our average household pledge is a bit over four thousand dollars. So suffice it to say, this fellow is schooling us all.
And then there’s the tax collector, who we already associate as Jesus’ friend, but the original hearers would have been in a whole different framework. This was the guy who was collaborating with the occupying military force that was crushing the people. He was doing Rome’s dirty-work and in order to make it himself, would extort money from his own neighbors who were already excruciatingly poor[v].
And of these two characters, Jesus says the tax collector goes home justified.
A couple weeks ago, the girls and I were watching worship on Facebook live on my laptop. They were waiting to see Nancy, and it was the time of confession. During the assurance of pardon, Caroline, who loves the little emoji buttons on the screen, starting repeatedly pressing the angry face button. So as the liturgist was proclaiming God’s forgiveness and grace everyone who was watching online with us saw little red angry faces flash across the screen. I was embarrassed. But truth be told, that has to be how this parable would have felt. Grace for this guy! Caroline’s little angry face fits.
But take a minute to pay attention to the details of Jesus’ story. He takes time to tell us how these two characters stand when they come to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee “stood by himself” and the Tax Collector “stood far off.” I think there is a clue here as to how this story is to be heard.
And it gets even more fascinating if you read it in the Greek. We heard it “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus.” It can also be read “The Pharisee prayed to himself (as in rather than to God) or he prayed about himself.” Additionally, Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson says he’s praying with “peripheral vision.” I thank God I am not like other people. That’s where his prayer begins. The Pharisee doesn’t know where to stand unless he knows where he is in comparison to others.. And he doesn’t know what to pray unless he can make an assessment of someone else. [vi]As one scholar has put it, “The Pharisee had enough religion to be virtuous, but not enough to be humble.”[vii]
But the tax collector. He dares not self-righteously swagger in God’s presence. He can’t even bring himself to inch close to God. The practice of prayer then was to look toward heaven, but this man lowers his eyes. He beats his breast, which was a sign of great anguish, and he only speaks four words, a choked petition, simply a declaration of who he is: be merciful to me, a sinner!
I hate to admit it, but I know the Pharisee’s peripheral vision all too well.
I imagine that I, like me, you have been in prayer about our nation.
And I confess,
I’ve prayed with an eye toward those I deem as less aware of systemic racism- like the Atlanta pastor who tried to reframe white privilege as white blessing. Self assured of my own virtue—I’ve muttered “Thank God I’m not like that.”
And if I keep telling you the truth, as I’ve been praying, I’ve been looking around – wondering . . . How is UPC in relation to the anti-racism work our partners are doing? What is that pastor praying, what is that church posting on social media? I want us to be Pharisaic in our faithfulness—to do more than is “expected”– to go above just saying “Black Lives Matter” and actually act as if they do. And that faithfulness-in-action is vital right now, of course.
But if I understand the text,
and if I’m willing to open the golden boxed “gift” of this parable,
if maybe it’s inviting me to consider a different stance.
A stance that lowers its gaze,
noting the privileged ground on which I have stood my whole life long,
on which others like me have stood for centuries.
I wonder if this parable is asking me to beat my chest in pain for the systems of which I am inevitably a part.
Perhaps this parable is pushing me deeper into prayer:
prayer, more akin to what our AA siblings have long practiced,
God, I’m Meg, a sinner in need of grace,
a daughter in desperate need of mercy.
Humility is a stance that isn’t all together common in our day,
and yet it is all together faithful in our relationship with God,
our God of angering and amazing grace.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[iv] Stan Saunders, from Pen Peery’s Well Paper on this text
[v] Thanks to Pete Peery for these notes in his sermon on this text
[vi] Thanks to Tom Are, Jr. for this exegetical tip from his sermon on this text
[vii] Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke New Interpreter’s Bible (1995) p. 343