NRSV LUKE 18:9-14
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 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!’ 14 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.”
It’s been kind of hard to miss the fact that we have had a lot going on around here lately. Literally from top to bottom this wonderful building we call Farmville Presbyterian Church has been getting quite a makeover.
Starting with the bottom; over the next few weeks you will notice that our boiler will be replaced. That will mean some digging on the west side of our property to remove the old tank and putting in a new one. Hopefully it won’t last long but this was something that we as a Session felt was needed before the cold weather set in. We didn’t think asking you all to bring your heavy coats into the sanctuary for worship was a very good idea.
On the top, I mentioned some time ago that a lot of work is being done on the roof, especially to the steeple. Of all the parts of our buildings that’s the one that receives the most attention, so it needed some extra work. Al Buczak, who has been directing this process, told me last week that the lift allowed his workers to do some detail work that hasn’t been done in years. Specifically, it meant scraping off about 12 layers of paint so that the new paint job won’t be sitting on old dried up stuff. He mentioned that his workers took off about 400 pounds of old paint. 400 pounds? That sounds a bit much, but I’ve known Al long enough to know that he is a no-nonsense guy who is not given to hyperbole. If he says it was close to 400 pounds, it was close to 400 pounds. It’s hard to believe that much old paint had accumulated on the steeple, until you realized that before we had the lift to work with it took ladders to do the job. It must have been a scary thing to paint that steeple hoping and praying those ladders would hold.
This being Reformation Sunday – the last Sunday in October, the Sunday closest to the day Martin Luther began the Reformation by nailing his 95 Theses to the doors of the Wittenberg Cathedral – all that dried up and useless paint got me to thinking. We like it when everything is moving along nice and smooth without having to make a lot of changes. But every once in a while the old paint gets a little too thick and it needs to be scrubbed off. I’m sure you have heard me say that every 500 years or so the church goes through a ‘rummage sale.’ Things that used to be given divine status are examined and found lacking. That is particularly true in these days when it seems that we are in a different kind of reformation. There were a lot of things we used to do in the church that were helpful and useful; all those activities, all those committees, all those cherished ways of doing things. But as we all know and have been told interminably, we are in a new day. Charlotte Presbytery executive Jan Edmiston wrote in a blog last week about how churches across all kinds of social demographics – from rural to urban – are going through a time of transition. And that transition has been kind of rough. From vibrant rural communities to urban sanctuaries with large buildings, many churches are now mere shadows of themselves; places where people used to flock now have just a few faithful members who have to shoulder the costs of keeping large buildings and struggling programs going.
Her point was that all ministers of the word and sacrament are what is now called “transitional ministers.” The old term was “interim ministers,” but the feeling now is that the call for all ministers, whether they are in a church for a few months or many years, is the same, as Edmiston wrote:
“Healthy ‘Transitional Pastors’ for the 21st century church who serve in between ‘Permanent Pastors’ do not prepare the congregation for the new pastor. They prepare the congregation for a new chapter of ministry.
“And when ‘Permanent Pastors’ are called, they continue to help the church transition into the new chapter of ministry.
“Healthy 21st century ministry is about the congregation more than the pastor.”
She went on to say that while that may sound like a nice sound byte not every church wants to enter a new chapter of ministry. Some just want to keep doing the same old things, thinking that this is nothing new, we’ve had problems before. But we are in what is called a time of adaptive change. And adaptive change is different; it is a time when the issues you face are those you have never faced before (people not coming to church, the church having little or no influence, people blowing off religion as unnecessary). When you are in an adaptive time, you cannot use the old methods of ‘thinking your way out of it.’ What is needed is examining not just what we are doing but why are we doing it. Edmiston says that a lot of places think they are doing something new but all they are doing is just tweaking: A new sign is tweaking; changing the church stationary is tweaking; projecting hymns on a wall is tweaking; decreasing the number of elders on the Session or reducing the number of committees is tweaking. Cultural, adaptive changes are different and more difficult because they ask tough questions, like: Are we a congregation run by one or two families? Are we a congregation afraid of (whoever) because they might leave if we don’t let them do what they’ve always done? Are we a congregation addicted to being a social club rather than an example of God’s reign on earth?
Over the next year this church will be facing some of those kinds of challenges. It’s tempting to just cover them back up and move on and hurry up and get the next pastor. Let’s not deal with any of this transitional or transformational stuff. It takes too much time and it may cost us something. But that’s exactly why you do things like mission studies where you take a look at where you are now and where you want to go. To just do the same old things the same old ways will just be postponing tough decisions that may help you to discover that new chapter of ministry.
And that, dear friends, is where Reformation Day, adaptive changes and this text from Luke all come together. Because the old ways of doing things, of believing we can think our way out of anything, do not work anymore. And they shouldn’t. Because that style of ministry – or whatever you want to call it – does not depend on God. It leans on our own understanding of what is going on and what we need to do. We’ll figure it out eventually.
But this day, this culture and this Bible text all point to the realization that no, we probably won’t be able to think our way out of this. Not without emptying ourselves of ourselves and paying attention to what God might have to say to us, and how God may be moving in a new way, calling forth new ministries and new ways of doing things.
The problem with this parable is that we already know how it will turn out, whether we remember it or not. We know the Pharisee will be the bad guy, because they almost always are around Jesus. We also know the tax collector will be the guy who gets the blessing, because Jesus eats with them. We know that with Jesus, especially in Luke, the exalted are humbled, and the humbled are exalted. But what we miss in all of those jumping to conclusion exercises is the radical shift in expectations that would have been there for the original audience.
Both men pray in the Temple. Both prayers are genuine. Both prayers are true. The Pharisee says he is not like other people, and he isn’t. Pharisees were the very religious people, the ones who studiously kept the law. They were examples for everyone else. At least he thanked God for that, so give him some credit.
Conversely, the tax collector knew he was a sinner. True enough. Not only were many of them bilking their fellow Jews out of more money than was owed, they were collaborating with the occupying Romans. They were sinners, and they were traitors. No wonder they were despised by their fellow Jews.
The difference comes in their approach to God. The Pharisee lifts up how he is different from other people. He describes all of his attributes. He does not give thanks for a connection with other people. He does not ask for God to do anything new in his life. But be careful – we might be tempted to become Pharisaical about this Pharisee. He, after all, is more like us than we might want to admit. He keeps the law. He tithes. He prays – a lot. He is a very good boy.
That tax collector, on the other hand, doesn’t even look up to heaven. All he does is beat himself up and ask for divine mercy. And that, Jesus says, is what justifies him.
Justify – a big word for this day; a Reformation buzzword, ‘justification by grace through faith.” That we are justified not by anything we have done but solely and only by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. It means that when we think we don’t need God, we can figure this out, just don’t bother yourself Lord, the minute we congratulate ourselves on how great and pure we are we are right there with the Pharisee thinking we don’t need God at all.
But the tax collector doesn’t do all that. He just lets it out, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” I don’t know about you, but there are times when I find myself saying that. Lord, I have messed up. Lord, I have spoken out of turn. Lord, I thought I was completely right and my fierce words silenced my wife, my husband, my son, my daughter. Lord, I spent too much time with someone I should have avoided and now everyone treats me like I have a disease. Lord, I thought I was helping a family member or a friend but all I was doing was enabling them.
In a reflection on this text, Presbyterian Outlook and minister Jill Duffield said that there are times in every ministry when we preachers mount the pulpit and just want to say, “I’ve got nothing. Help.” You don’t have to be a preacher to know that feeling. When you’re empty. When you are gassed. When you are up against something too big for you. When you have nothing.
Except we do have something. We have faithful people praying for us. We have people wanting what is best for us. We have people who genuinely care about us, maybe people we have ignored because we were looking somewhere else.
But mostly, we have God. Or more correctly, God has us. Just like God had Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox; just like God had Dietrich Bonhoefer and Archbishop Romero. But not just those celebrated Reformers and Saints of the past. But also those countless people whose names are known but to God. Names like ours. Names of people who get to the end of their rope and cry out “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Or, “I’ve got nothing. Help.” It is at those times when we can feel the love and presence of God in a stronger way than we did when everything was clicking. Because it is at times like that when we need God the most.
And thanks be to God, it is in those times when those prayers are answered in ways we never saw coming. Amen.