Sermon – October 27, 2013 Reformation

Reformation Day

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Oh Lord, I thank you that I am not like that pathetic Pharisee, who sees fit to proclaim his righteousness for all to hear! How’s the sound in the back, okay? Can you hear me? I am thankful that I don’t go around in my long robes looking down on my nose at others less righteous, less holy, less deserving, and let’s face it, less handsome, then yours truly. Sometimes, old Lord, I feel as though my heart will burst from the righteousness that is mine. For look at all that I do. I would name them, but I would not want to take so much of your holy time. So I will send you my resume, expecting a prompt and grateful response.

And there is the trap of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Or at least, there is part of the trap of the parable.

Here’s the other. Oh, Lord, I’m a really bad one. On a sinner scale of 1-10, I’m a pathetic 11 . I will crawl on my knees over 14 miles of broken glass and barbed wire just to show you how humble I am. I mean, I am humble!!!! In fact old Lord, I may be the humblest man in all of the kingdom of the God. In fact I am so humble that I won’t do anything because I’m afraid anything I do will be wrong. So me and my ol’ humble self are gonna sit right here looking down, doing nothing for the rest of the day, because I most certainly don’t want to be like those Pharisees and impostors and all the other Unhumble losers out there. Because I ain’t nothing, if I ain’t humble. Make a note of it will you? This isn’t exactly easy.

We lose the whole point of this parable if we get sucked into this trap. In the first instance, we take on the age-old human flaw of defining ourselves by tearing down others. This is self-elevation by disparagement and is practiced as a most shallow form of individual and community self-justification. You see it in politics, you see it in the church, and we see it in our own behaviors.

In the second instance, we take encouraged behavior and turn into a tool of self-aggrandizement. This is no less of a transparent self-righteousness than the first instance. The problem with both of these is that I, me, mine functions as the source of each one’s orientation and definition before God. The problem then and now. Those of you in my demographic will remember that George Harrison saw this from a mile away when he wrote, “I, Me, Mine,”

All I can hear I me mine, I me mine, I me mine,

Even those tears I me mine, I me mine, I me mine,

No-one’s frightened of playing it,

Everyone’s saying it,

Flowing more freely than wine,

All through the day I me mine.

So, back to the parable. The Pharisee, in fact, was speaking the truth in his I’s and me’s. By the definition of the times, he was righteous. He did set himself apart by his practiced behaviors and discipline. He did pray and fast and tithe. And in his eyes and in the eyes of the community, he was righteous. And he would be happy to tell you so. And if you didn’t believe him, just look at him compared to others like this pathetic tax collector. But his righteousness was limited to his own definitions and did not justify him before God.

But his other guy. The obvious sinner. The despised tax-collector, couldn’t even raise his head to mutter a sad little prayer, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” And yet Jesus says he was the one who was justified. Hmm

Now, remind me again why he was declared justified. Was it the quality of his confession? Surely a tax-collector had a whole bunch of stuff he should be confessing–swindling, cheating, greed. It must have been the quality of his confession. . . . . Nope. Well, then. It must have been his sincere promise to mend his ways, to make reparations, to lead a better life. Maybe get another job. That must have been it. It must have been his earnest conviction to mend his ways. He must have done a good job on that. . . . . Nope. . . . OK, then, he must be falsely accused. Maybe he is really not as bad as we thing, or even he thinks. Maybe if he just worked on his self-esteem a little, he’d be better understood. That must be it. Nope.

The central fact of this parable is that God is the one who justifies, who makes holy, places us in a proper orientation to God, who forgives, who declares new beginnings. Here, the Pharisee failed to mark the source of his blessing, even his discipline and surely his righteousness, and he left subject to the limits of his own definitions. The tax collector, in his broken and pathetic state, realized that the source of mercy is God, the source of new life is God, the source of hope is God.

I did not choose to preach on this text on Reformation Sunday to be Ironic. It is true, however, that Lutherans may in the past have thumped their chests a bit on Reformation Day, thanking God that we are not like all those others who don’t share our history, confession or theological acumen. That, of course, misses the mark by a mile.

Instead, this text reveals a central, essential move of the Reformation, and that is to reclaim as the primacy of God’s voice, of God’s word, of God’s intention, the justifying grace that is ours through Jesus Christ. . . and how that grace come to us unearned, unmerited, non-contingent on our prior righteousness, but only on our belief that it is true.

Let’s hear that word from Romans again,

21 But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. . . . . . .He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. . . . .. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”

And there is the Truth even as we struggle to deny these words through our own works, be they the discipline of the Pharisee or the vain humility I parodied earlier. But we can’t get there from such a place. Only this parable, these words of Paul, this movement called the Reformation, this movement of the Holy Spirit can take us again and again and again to this radical dependence on God’s word, this unguarded belief in the promise of Jesus Christ. As soon as we move from that center, the wheel goes out of round and we start thumping down the road of self-justification.

Nope, this is the word and work of God . . . to make us forgiven, holy and at peace with God through Christ. And it requires nothing of us but faith. All the rest will follow in proper order, but it begins with faith. This is the grace of God.

Now, I am aware of the concerns that even faith can be come a work. That we will proclaim our faith as a self-justifying appeal to God, but that returns us to the problem of the Pharisee and it would be enough for us to despair, were it not the forbearance and persistence of Christ.

The Reformation brought us another helpful insight when Luther reminded us that we are ‘simul justus et pecattor,’ simultaneously . . . say it with me . . . . ‘saints and sinners’ . . . . no!, that is not actually what it says . . . . if it were simultaneous saints and sinners, the Latin would be ‘simul sanctus et pecattor.’ No, the word ‘justus’ means justified, or made righteous. We are simultaneously justified and sinner in Christ, as, in the language of the Reformers, our baptism daily reminds us of the expansiveness of God’s grace that makes us new each day. As Paul says, not something we can do on our own, but that which is given as gift from Christ. It is the only thing, the Sola Gratia, that receives us, sustains us, remakes us and saves us day after day after day.

If we continued to thump our chests in self-righteous we will inevitable beat ourselves to death spiritually. There is not peace on that road, no hope, and new new life.

Today we remember the liberating experience of the Reformation that what one has done does not count before God. It is not necessary to heap achievement upon achievement, success upon success to receive God’s mercy. Today, you and I, this church, and all of the Body of Christ are invited again into this amazing grace. Invited to come, as the tax collector came, humbly depending always and only on the promise of God’s mercy. And today, as then, mercy comes. Mercy come. Thanks be to God.

Amen