28 October 2007

Sermon for Reformation Sunday - "Self-Centered Saints and Christ-Centered Sinners"

Hearers of God’s Word, grace to you and peace through God our Chreator, Jesus Christ our Redeemer, and the God the Holy Spirit, present and active here among us this morning. Amen.

I had a wonderful conversation with one of you a few weeks ago. We were talking about what we put in the offering plate, and you said how wonderful it felt to give away 10% of what God has entrusted to you. You said how surprising it was that even though you were now giving away far more than you ever had before, you never lacked for anything you needed. You said “I wonder where we spent our money before?” But the best part of that conversation was how you started it. You said, “You know, Pastor, I don’t want to toot my own horn, but…” I know you weren’t tooting your own horn – but that sentence was so quintessentially Minnesotan I expect Garrison Keillor will be calling in a couple of days for your story. Now, I know you weren’t praising yourself: you were giving witness to the goodness with which God has blessed you, and I thank you, and I still hope you’ll stand up front some Sunday and tell your story. But if not, at least it’s been told anonymously now.

“I don’t want to toot my own horn…” Our friend the Pharisee probably didn’t think he was tooting his own horn, either – but he certainly wasn’t giving witness. His prayer from the gospel of Luke sounds like the worst kind of self-trumpeting. The Greek for verse 11 in our gospel text reads literally like this: “the Pharisee stood by himself and prayed about himself.” This is what Martin Luther called incurvatus in sei, the curving in of the self that occurs whenever sin gains the upper hand. Incurvatus in sei is the difference, I think, between two different types of people: self-centered saints, and Christ-centered sinners. One is faithful and justified, the other is religious and stands in danger of condemnation, and Jesus used this surprising story to remind his listeners, especially the saints in the audience, that justification and salvation are NOT a matter of our own righteousness and high standards.

We have this brutal tendency to measure ourselves in competition with others, even in our faith. “I don’t pray as much as Susie Saint.” I don’t know my Bible like Billy Believer.” “Our church doesn’t sing like those folks at First Heavenly Angels Lutheran Church.” Or maybe we fall on the high side in our estimation of our faith. “That Dorothy: she’s just not open-minded enough to be a real Christian.” “David never studied his Bible: that’s why he’s such a lousy Christian.” “We can’t have those people here: they just aren’t decent Christian folks like the rest of us.” When we measure our faith in comparison to others, whether favorably or unfavorably, we’ve gotten the wrong picture of what it means to be a Christian. Measuring ourselves by others leads to self-centered sainthood, much like the Pharisee in the parable Jesus told his listeners.

Imagine a grown man who sits in our pews on Sunday and is a faithful member of the community. He prays every day as soon as he wakes up and before he goes to bed. He follows the commandments as carefully as he can. He gives 10% of every dollar he earns instead of whatever is in his wallet on Sunday. He doesn’t smoke or drink, he doesn’t swear, he pays all his bills on time and doesn’t borrow a dime from anyone. Wouldn’t you like to have this person in our church? Then you would like to have a Pharisee here, because that’s who the Pharisees were in Jesus’ time. The Pharisees were the group within the church that dedicated itself as much as possible to the pursuit of piety and holiness. And this particular Pharisee’s prayer was not necessarily uncommon. The following prayer from the Talmud, a Jewish commentary on the Old Testament, was prayed by rabbis when they were leaving the house of study where they worked: I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou has set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash [the house of study] and Thou has not set my portion with those who sit in [street] corners for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labor and they labor, but I labor and receive a reward and they labor and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction.” [1] If that prayer sounds a bit harsh, ask yourself: how many times have you explained away the sins of your neighbor by thanking God that your faith and your church have kept you on the straight and narrow? You and I need to realize that this parable is indeed about us, here, today, or we risk the same sort of self-condemnation as the Pharisee. Jesus addressed all of us self-centered saints directly in the parable we’re reading this morning from Luke’s gospel. We hear this parable through our own ears, which have grown accustomed to thinking that Pharisees were the evil, condescending opponents of all authentic faith in 1st century Jerusalem, and tax collectors were the long-suffering, misunderstood civil servants that Jesus chose because of their hidden righteousness. We are wrong when we hear the story like that. You and I have a lot more in common with Pharisees than we do tax collectors. We are drawn to the idea that we make our own grace through our prayers and our actions. We like the idea that we could be self-centered saints.

When Jesus told this parable, he used it as part of a larger body of teaching about the kingdom of God and how it would look. Jesus’ story addressed all self-righteousness based on competition or comparison with others. Using the Pharisee was a convenient way to show that God’s ways are not our ways, that the kingdom of God is not based on human standards of competition and classification. When we see ourselves in competition or in comparison with others regarding our faith, we trade the grace of God, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and the gift of the Holy Spirit for our pride, our ambition, and our good works. We get just enough religion to be virtuous, but not enough to be humble.

The other side of this bondage to sin and self is that it always comes at the expense of others. Our Pharisee, who is trying his hardest to please God and save himself, is interacting with the tax collector. But that interaction is based on one thing: the Pharisee’s contempt for the tax collector. This Pharisee cannot see a child of God when he looks at the Tax Collector – all he can see is a sinner to be avoided at all costs. If you want a parallel image, imagine a hospital where sick patients are herded into a room to suffer while the medical staff spends their time getting flu shots and keeping themselves clean. Hospitals do their work among the sick, not the healthy, and Jesus is calling his followers to do their work among sinners, not saints.

The tax collector, for whatever reason, had faith that this is exactly what God is up to: giving out mercy to those who need it desperately. We don’t know his circumstances; maybe he had cheated his neighbors for years and was now feeling the effect of that sin on his conscience. Maybe he became a Tax Collector because no other work was available, and he found himself sucked into bilking the unfortunate and the poor without ever realizing what he was doing. Whatever his circumstances, one thing is certain: he has faith that the mercy of God could be greater than his sins, whatever they may be. The Tax Collector gets what Jesus has been talking about: the characteristic of God’s kingdom that has power is GRACE, not works. There are no prerequisites in the kingdom of God. You don’t need a high school diploma, a masters’ degree, or a certification program. There’s not even a credit check. The GRACE of God gets you in and the GRACE of God is all that matters. The only righteousness that matters is God’s, and I think the tax collector went home with all the righteousness he could handle while the Pharisee returned to his competition hungry for more.

Today is Reformation Sunday. We celebrate the day when legend suggests that a young monk named Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 statements, or “theses” for public debate on the bulletin board of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. First among those statements was this: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite (Be penitent), willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”[2] To understand Reformation Sunday as a celebration of Luther telling the Roman church to buzz off would be a mistake. Rebellion was never part of the plan, nor was division. For Luther, Christ-centered faith was always the goal, a faith which rescues sinners from their sins and gives sure confidence in God’s love and mercy to those without hope for either. Luther posted his 95 Theses for the good of the church, that we might become a place for Christ-centered sinners to find genuine forgiveness and reconciliation with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Pastor Daniel Clendenin said that the tax collector’s prayer is, really, “the only prayer you’ll ever need.”[3] “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And so, once Christ becomes the center of mercy and grace in our hearts and minds, we become Christ-centered sinners who know that salvation is given through Christ alone.

Now that the gift of grace has been given, now that faith is the name of the game, the members of the kingdom of God are free to turn to their neighbors in service and love. Here is where Christian work finds its definition: Christian work is a means by which we may live in the kingdom God has created in Jesus Christ. You cannot work your way into a gift that has already been given! The life of Christian discipleship begins at baptism, not when you reach some arbitrary standard of living or level of righteousness. The mark of the cross given in Baptism is God’s seal of approval for all time: nothing you do can take it away or make it more valid than it already is. When the pastor marked your forehead with the cross of Christ and sealed you with the Holy Spirit forever, your center was established: you are now Christ-centered, one who knows that God is at work within you, in spite of your tendency to think that it’s all about you. There is, after all, a horn to be tooted, but it is God’s horn, not our own, and we raise the strain of glad thanksgiving that Jesus Christ, God with us, remains the center of all our righteousness, and we sinners have a home of mercy and peace with Him. God be praised! Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Brian Stoffregen, Crossmarks Exegetical notes at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke18x9.htm [b. Ber. 28b (Soncino 1: 172), quoted in Hear Then the Parables by Bernard Brandon Scott]

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