Saturday, October 22, 2016

October 23, Proper 25, Prayer and Action #6: Two in the Temple

Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14

The Pharisee and the tax collector, the tax collector also called the publican. The one is a patriot and the other a traitor.

The Pharisee desires the Kingdom of God, quite literally, politically, and to keep himself clean and pure and qualified for the Kingdom of God when it comes is the purpose of his rules and his disciplines.

But the publican is against the Kingdom of God. He collaborates with the Romans, he’s a traitor and a dirty thief. We are prejudiced against the Pharisees, but the publican would not have been your friend.

Jesus puts this in the temple in Jerusalem. Here the prayers of Israel were offered every day. The prayers were centered on the daily sacrifices, a lamb sacrificed every dawn and another every afternoon, to atone for the sins of Israel. When the sins of Israel were covered by the blood of the lamb, then they could make their prayers to God. The Levites lit the incense, and as the fragrant smoke rose up, the prayers rose up, the Levites at the altar interceding for the nation, and the individuals in attendance praying their personal supplications and intercessions.

Also praying is this Pharisee. He’s not interceding or supplicating, he’s lifting his hands in thanksgiving. He’s off to the side so he won’t get touched by anyone unclean, but he’s not a bad guy. He knows he is righteous. He fasts twice as often as he needs to and tithes more than he has too. We’d like him as a member of Old First, even if we’re irritated by his self-confidence.

Also praying is that Publican, but off in the back, and unwelcome here. He’s a bad man. Maybe he’s the guy who was ripping off the poor widow in the parable last week! He knows he’s bad. He’s praying with his head down, and beating his breast. And his prayer, if I translate it literally, is this: “O God, let the atonement be to me, the sinner.” He knows he’s guilty, and that he has no right to talk to God apart from that bloody sacrifice which is offered to cover his sins.

Well, that sacrifice is for him. That poor Pharisee, he got no benefit from that sacrifice, he assumed he didn’t need it. He might as well have stayed home, or praised God out in Nature, apart from any nasty people!

So then, which of these two went home qualified to be in the Kingdom of God? The publican, not because of himself, but because of the Kingdom of God. It’s not that the publican perversely earned his justification by his humility, it’s not about the publican at all, it’s about what God is like and what God makes God’s kingdom like, already now, already now for the publican. The Kingdom of God is not what you keep yourself clean for, it’s the Kingdom of God that declares the unclean clean, the Kingdom of God is God’s power in the world to make the unrighteous righteous, out of sheer grace, especially those who religion says don’t deserve it.

That’s why the Lord Jesus does not tell us that the publican went home and changed his life. We’d like it if he did, and he should, but that would confuse the point. That would suggest again that the Kingdom of God has to be proven by us, by our making it worthwhile. But the Kingdom of God is proven only by our need of it. If you don’t think you need it, you don’t get it. If you don’t think you need it, then all you get from it is judgement. It always is the great surprise.

Let me now turn to the epistle, the second letter to Timothy. St. Paul is boasting like a Pharisee! “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race,” I’m not a loser, I’m a winner (hint hint), “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.” Well, St. Paul, good for you.

Of course he’s got prison chains on him while he writes this, so he’s allowed to sound like this. And he does not exalt himself by degrading others. He does admit that other people did him wrong, that they did not support him, that they deserted him, but he asks that it not be counted against them. He wants grace for them too. He forgives them. He has to keep on forgiving them in his own mind, no doubt, because in his prison cell he’s reminded of their desertion every day again.

Look, he has to practice forgiveness every day, and he has to do that in order to practice thanksgiving every day. There’s a direct relationship between how thankful you can be and how much you have practiced forgiveness, both extending it and accepting it.

That’s a take home for today. You have a direct relationship in your life between your practice of forgiveness, both given and received, and your practice of thanksgiving. Grace makes for gratitude and gratitude makes for grace.

I want to go now to the Psalm. It’s one of my favorites, Psalm 65. (I wish you knew the marvelous tune for it.) The Psalm imagines a great song of thanksgiving that rises from the depths, and not just from the depths of human experience, but also from the world of nature, from the earth itself, the landscape, the soil and the pastures and the hills. (I heard the meadows singing, each to each.) Thanksgiving is not only what people do, but what all nature does, even in the roaring of the seas and in the clamor of the peoples, the whole creation rejoices in the gift of its very existence, giving thanks to God.

So the thanksgiving that we are talking about is not an instant messaging, as in mentioning what you feel good about today. We’re talking about long, slow, patient, persistent thanksgiving, night and day, year after year. Like what comes up from nature, the slow thanksgiving that rises from the soil, when the farmer comes through with a plow and opens up the furrows to the air and the sun and softened with showers and bearing life and giving growth.

The Psalm envisions the tracks of God’s wagon-wheels cutting through the surface of the earth, and in the cuts of the wagon tracks the richness rises up. These wagon tracks and the furrows of the farmers plow are the images of the prayers of repentance in verse 3 of the Psalm. The images of the Psalm suggest that it’s the cutting and plowing of repentance and forgiveness that allows for the new life of thanksgiving rising up. Or better, the plowing is the repentance, and the harvest is the thanksgiving, and in between we daily open up our lives in prayer and actions every day.

I want to say here that when we talk about good works and Christian action, it’s sometimes in our special witness to social change, but it’s mostly how you act within your daily jobs, both at work and at home, how you deal with your boss, and with those who report to you, how you address your work, with constantly ambiguous ethical decisions. That’s where you practice justice and your social action, from 9 to 5 and on the train and at home, that you let the Kingdom of God into your life, working from the forgiveness of sins always beneath you towards the world’s thanksgiving always around you.

When the Lord Jesus says that all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted, this is both a judgment and a comfort. It means that your prayers and your actions are both humbled and exalted. Your prayers may be humble in how you say them, but they are exalted in the ears of God. Your good works and your actions for mercy and justice in the world may be humble in ordinary estimation and even hidden from the praise of other Christians, but they are magnified in the sight of God and exalted in the love of God.

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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