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Pentecost 23 October 23, 2016 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for October 23, 2016 | Pentecost 23
Luke 18:9-14
In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, Lloyd Stone, a poet and lyricist wrote an unusual hymn text at a time when Americans were becoming more isolationist (stay out of global issues), more nativist (keep immigrants out of America), and eager to support white Protestant control over government, commerce, and education. Listen to what he wrote: “This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine; this is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine: but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine. My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine; but other lands have sunlight too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine: O hear my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for their land and for mine” [Copyright © 1932 Lorenz Publishing]. Perhaps you discerned in the sweet invocation of blue skies, sunlight and pine, that Stone’s hymn would be difficult to sing for those who claim that America is exceptional, that we are the greatest nation on the face of the earth, that God has endowed the United States with abilities no other nation possesses. Indeed, we seem to hear the boastful language of exceptionalism, of greatness, in every election cycle. And if we accept this boast, how difficult it can be to imagine that we would ever need a Mercy that comes from a source outside ourselves.
Luke places this parable – of two persons praying in the temple – in the final instruction Jesus gives on being one of his followers in the world. Here we encounter a religious leader, a Pharisee, whose observance of the Law of Moses is remarkable. Indeed, he has gone beyond the minimum expected of an observant person. Did you hear him? “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of my income.” This was a man to be admired for his piety and generosity. And, then, standing at some distance from this seemingly good religious man, we encounter a tax collector – a man hated, vilified, by Jesus’ listeners, a person who was a collaborator with the Roman occupation force in the colony of Palestine, a traitor to his people. No wonder the Pharisee stands apart from this man who was known to extort money from his oppressed countrymen. Listening to Jesus tell this parable, his audience, familiar with the dirty practice of tax collectors, would normally root for the Pharisee and hope that the deplorable taxman would get his comeuppance. Well, that is, until they recognize the elitist and self-satisfied edge in the Pharisee. Did you hear him: “O God, I thank you that I am not like other people … like this tax collector.”  And with those words, the irony of the parable begins to emerge. This dutiful religious person seems to give thanks to God, a core spiritual practice in Judaism and Christianity, and yet – and yet – he has shown no desire for God, no sense that he is dependent, dependent, on something or someone greater than himself. He appears to be so self-satisfied that he has no need for God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness. He’s marked by an arrogant exceptionalism, is he not?
Can you imagine, then, the surprise among Jesus’ listeners when the one person they think should receive Jesus’ condemnation – that poor, anguished tax man crying out for mercy – is the one Jesus calls “justified,” in a right and healthy relationship with God? I am mindful of the gospel we heard almost a year ago, on the Third Sunday of Advent. Mary says, “the Lord has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly.” While the crowd is hoping the traitorous tax collector will be condemned, he manifests a soul, a life, open to God: Be merciful, he says, be merciful to me a sinner. The Lord scatters the proud, sings the mother of Jesus, and lifts up the lowly. 
In a sermon preached in 1954, Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about the responsibility every Christian has to engage in condemnation, that is, “to condemn every political, social and economic system” that degrades and debases human beings – human beings who are made in the image of God and endowed with a divine dignity. Yes, you and that person sitting next to you: endowed with a divine and eternal dignity. But, he then noted that our human tendency to condemn those who are different from us, to condemn others for their faults and failings reveals nothing less than “a tragic pride and a poignant hypocrisy.” “Condemnation,” he said, “never leads to liberation, to another chance in life. Condemnation only oppresses. I become the oppressor of the person I condemn, rather than her friend or his fellow sufferer.”
Jesus, you are marked by dramatic irony, by sardonic wit, wrote the Anglican poet, Monica Furlong. “All your best stories were exaggeration / And your best heroes crooks, / To teach us how to live. / What was it that you knew / That made the cripples walk / The blind to see? That death’s the only way to get to birth, / And brokenness the only road to grace?” [Mark Pryce, Literary Companion to the Lectionary, 2002]. Yes, I say: What is it that we so desperately need in this conflicted and volatile season but your Mercy, deeper than the sea and broader than what we can ever imagine.