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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost

(I was invited to preach this morning at the Church of St. John the Divine, Burlington, Wisconsin. The congregation was most welcoming, and Joanne, their priest, was a blessing and a joy. The only problem I had with the day is that they're not closer to home. If you're ever in the neighborhood, stop by; they cook a wonderful breakfast between services).

Proper 25C
Jeremiah 14:(1-10) 19-22
Psalm 84
2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
Luke 18:9-14

“I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other people. I go to church every Sunday-- well, most of them, anyway. I give a strict percentage of my income to the church. I’m on several important committees, too, and I rarely miss a meeting. And of course, I voted the correct way at General Convention last year!”

Sound like anybody you know? Now, I’m sure that no one in this congregation would ever speak like that; but I’m afraid that it sounds all too familiar to me, especially in the recent times in our church. I’ve known more than a few people who can come off this way. And if I’m being honest with you, I will admit that I like being right (or at least, feeling right) as much as the next person-- and that I’ve been guilty of this sort of behavior once or twice. At least.

So Jesus is right on target with this parable, isn’t he? Reminding us, regardless of how righteous we think we are, that “regarding others with contempt” undercuts a great deal of truly righteous behavior and intention. As a coworker of mine used to say (and I'm paraphrasing here): “One ‘Aw, shucks’ wipes out an awful lot of ‘Atta Boys!’”

So, we are left with the second man-- the tax collector. A man who was so sorrowful that scripture says he would not even look up to heaven, as he pleaded for God’s mercy. I believe that we each of us, if we are honest, can find enough sin and shortcoming in our hearts and in our lives, that we can sympathize. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” Paul reminds us; “No one is worthy, not even one.”

He is the one that Jesus holds up as example-- as the one justified before God. And, brothers and sisters, we have a gift that this man did not realize, at the time. One that means we do not have to be reluctant to look to heaven for help. We have the incredible, illogical, unreasonable gift of the One who was telling this story-- God made man, loving us and healing us from the worst of our faults, if we but turn to him and ask. As Paul also tells the Corinthians, “...You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Nothing else would do, but the sacrifice of the Lamb; but it was done, and so nothing else is needed.

This is why Paul can say what he does, about having finished the race, and kept the faith, and that there is reserved for him “...the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give...” This is why he has a certainty that the man in the parable does not.

There is a difference between arrogance, and pride in one’s own abilities and virtues, and having confidence in the mercy, and strength, and love that God has given, and continues to give-- through the life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives every day.

This also says something about the way we are to live into that confidence, I think-- not by boasting about our commitment to the church and the Gospel, but by living it, in each and every moment that we live-- in each interaction we have with one another. It is indeed important to say what we believe, and stand by it; but how we say it, and how we treat one another in the process, is just as important. This why loving God and loving our neighbor are more important than anything else we can do, above any other rule we have for Christian living.

Yesterday, my Old Testament professor, Dr. Frank Yamada, was the preacher at Eucharist in our school chapel. He says it far better than I can:
“It is not about mistake-free holy living. It is not about which church you attend, what kind of liturgy you practice, or which interpretation of the Bible you hold to. (It) is all about loving, and loving the hard way. The kind of love that is shocking not only in its display, but even more so in its object. Love the one who hates you. Love your enemy. Love the one who spits in your face, the one who would have you exiled, the one who cares not for your well being or the welfare of your loved ones. The one who looks across the table, points a finger at you and says that what you stand for is unequivocally and intolerably wrong. Love that one.”

No, it’s not easy. Sometimes I think that may be the hardest job there is. And the truth is, we can’t do it, not on our own. It’s not possible. But oh, my brothers and sisters, here’s the good news-- the best news there is: we never have to. Always and everywhere, we have God-- the God who created all things, the God who came to live with us in Jesus, and the God who in the Holy Spirit guides us still, if we will only listen, and follow. And with that God, all things are possible.


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