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And Forget Not All His Benefits

(a sermon for November 18, 2018, the 26th Sunday after Pentecost and Thanksgiving Sunday, based on Psalm 103 and Luke 18:9-14)

It’s an old story; one I first heard way back when I was still in school, but one that still resonates with me even today.

It seems there was this minister, who along with his regular duties as a church pastor, volunteered as a chaplain at a nearby prison.  Every Sunday afternoon, he’d leave church and go to this prison, so to lead worship and to visit with the prisoners there.  He’d actually been doing this for years; and since many of those imprisoned at that particular facility were serving long, and in a few instances, life sentences, not only was there a lot of valuable ministry happening in that environment but also some close relationships were developing between the minister and a few of the prisoners.  Over time, you see, this minister had not only become a pastor to these inmates; he was also seen as a good friend.

Eventually, however, as often happens in the ministry the pastor and his family were called to serve another parish in another state; and because of this his ministry at the prison had to come to an end.  And so of course he went to the prison one last time so he could tell the inmates that he was going to be moving away and say good-bye.   And, as is also often the case in ministry, the prisoners were very disappointed by the news and yet still they were happy for the minister, and wanted to wish him well in his new call.  In fact, almost immediately it was decided they needed to have a going away party for him; and there in the dayroom/chapel of this prison, the inmates quickly put together an impromptu and makeshift celebration, complete with a mini-buffet made up of bits of food they’d been keeping in their individual cells! And as they shared in this feast, the prisoners gathered around the minister so they could shake his hand, embrace him and express their gratitude for all the times they’d spent together.

And then, at the end of it all, one of the prisoners presented him with a package that had actually been wrapped in a old newspaper “borrowed” from the prison library.  And the prisoner said to the minister, “Here’s a going-away present to you from all of us; but we don’t want you to open it here.  Wait until you get home, and when you do, know that it is the very best that we could give you.”

The minister took the package home, and when he’d told his wife all about the going away party, together they set the package on the dining room table and tore open the newspaper wrapping.  And there, inside the package… was his wallet, his reading glasses case, his comb, some of his pocket change, even a set of keys he assumed he’d misplaced months before!  You see, all the while they’d been hugging him and wishing him well they’d also managed to pick every pocket clean!  And then they gathered up all of that which they’d stolen from him, wrapped it up and gave it back to him as a gift.

The most these prisoners had to give, you see, was what they’d already taken from him.

Well, once again it’s almost Thanksgiving; and if I might be pastorally honest with you for a moment, every year about this time I must confess that I find myself wondering what I might say to you about thankfulness that you haven’t already heard time and time again, even already this morning as we’ve been worshiping together!  That we ought to be more thankful than what we are?  Oh, yes.  That ultimately it does seem a little silly to set aside only one day a year for giving thanks when our many blessings continue “from season to changing season?”  Most certainly. That despite whatever our lingering feelings may be about mid-term elections and toward the people who don’t agree with us about that (!), nonetheless in this nation we are an especially fortunate people and not only ought we be exceedingly grateful for that, but also that it behooves us to work to become good and generous stewards of what we’ve been given as we reach out to others in need?  Absolutely! 

Actually, to suggest from this pulpit that you and I need to be thankful in all things kind of seems to me to be pretty obvious.  Because I dare say that most of us here are very much aware of our blessings, and even if it might take a family gathering and some turkey and stuffing to speak our thanksgiving aloud, we do understand what it means for us to be truly grateful for what we’ve received.  So maybe the best thing for me to do this morning is to start us off on another round of “We Gather Together,” pronounce the benediction and send us all forth on yet another glorious Turkey Day Feast!

But… then I remember that old story from so many years ago about the minister and the prison inmates, and I think twice about that.

You see, it’s one thing to count our many blessings; it’s quite another to acknowledge where those blessings have come from.  When it comes to thanksgiving, we’re very good at showing forth pride in our accomplishments, great in touting the hard work and steadfast effort it’s taken to get where we are in this life.  We’re good even in affirming the kind of good choices we’ve made that have led us along right pathways; but when it comes to facing up to the fact that so much of what we’re thankful for has come about not by our own effort but by sheer grace?  Well… maybe not so much!

Yes, part of it is that so many of us live out of the principle that if we want something bad enough and work hard enough for it, it can be ours; truly, that’s at the core of the American Dream, and something to be thankful for, especially in these times!  But friends, that philosophy only goes so far; the whole truth, and what we ought to understand as people of faith is that everything we have, everything we are and everything we can ever hope to be comes to us by the loving and gracious hand of God!  When it comes to true thanksgiving, we’re much like those prisoners in the story in that we are only able to draw from that which we’ve received; and what we’ve received – indeed, what we’ve taken – is wholly from God, who is the source of all our blessing!

And when we realize that; when we come to grips with the truth that every bit of the glory and achievement of our lives comes from something and someone other than ourselves, than the way we approach Thanksgiving – not to mention our whole approach to life and living – cannot help but change!

Our gospel reading for this morning illustrates what we’re talking about quite beautifully; a parable of Jesus that is actually directed to some in his company who quite convinced that their own good names and their better nature was that which would most certainly confirm their righteousness before God!  It’s a story of two prayers and two “pray-ers” and how very different they can be:  first, there’s the Pharisee who “went up to the temple to pray,” specifically to pray a prayer of thanksgiving according to the custom of the time.  And in that regard let’s be fair; this Pharisee, as a learned elder of the faith, was doing exactly was he was supposed to do in terms of proper religious observance.  By all appearances, he was doing everything right and was the very model of faith.

Unfortunately, then the Pharisee opens his mouth.

Oh, the prayer starts out alright:  “God, I thank you,” but from there every word has very little to do with God and everything to do with his own arrogance.  As The Message translates it, the Pharisee “posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid…”  (and at this point he pauses to make a grand and dismissive gesture to another man in the temple, “standing far off” so not to be noticed) “…or heaven forbid, like this tax man.”  And then he goes on with his very self-aggrandizing oration, complete with references to his twice a week fasting and what he puts in the offering plate!  In other words, for all the Pharisee’s many words, there’s no real thanksgiving involved here; this is nothing more than self-congratulation.

And what about that tax collector, who was “slumped in the shadows” as The Messsage describes him)?  He’s also come there to pray, but in fact he cannot even bring himself to “even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”  It’s not an eloquent prayer by any means, nor was it in keeping with temple ritual; and in all honesty, this man doesn’t even actually say “thank you” in any kind of usual or traditional way.  But it was utterly honest; and in confessing his own weakness and hopelessness the tax collector did the only thing he could possibly do, which was to turn to the only one who could provide him forgiveness, and mercy, and life: only God.  It was a simple and yet all-encompassing request for mercy, and in that there was an overriding affirmation that everything he ever had or could ever hope to have would come from God and God alone.

In other words, true thanksgiving.  As Jesus himself put it, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God.” (The Message)

The point here is in prayer – as in any act of thanksgiving – it is the humility of spirit that makes all the difference.  It is knowing – really and truly understanding – where our blessings have come from.  It is the confession of your own hearts that that the only source of our hope, our life, our health, our food and everything else that gives life its richness, its purpose and its joy is ultimately not us, but God and God alone.

And no, I don’t believe that Jesus is suggesting in this parable that we ought to carry on like great spiritual martyrs, wearing the misery of unworthiness on our sleeves.  Things like mercy, forgiveness and love; these are gifts that have been given freely out of the grace and infinite love of God, and they are given that we might rejoice in it.  But by the same token we can never allow ourselves to become like Little Jack Horner in the nursery rhyme, proclaiming with every new blessing, “What a good boy am I!”  True thanksgiving happens when you and I are humble enough to know that it is never our goodness that ought to be proclaimed, but God’s.

And if you’re somehow struggling with that; if you’re wondering how it’s even possible to be that humble, or maybe if you’re seeing all the hoopla of the holidays looming on the horizon and perhaps need to remember what Thanksgiving is all about, then let me give you this reminder in the words that were read (and danced!) earlier this morning:

“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.  Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits – who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

It is worth noting, you know, that the Hebrew word that we translate as “soul” is nephesh, which actually is better understood as one’s “inmost being;” the nephesh, the soul, is in fact all of who a person is; it is everything you and I are.  So true thanksgiving, beloved, involves much more than a word of grace spoken around the table; it’s much more than simply being aware of our many blessings.  True thanksgiving is when we are moved to bless God with everything we are.  True thanksgiving, if I might quote Paul Myhre here, is when our every breath “inhales and exhales praise. It is [our capacity] to know God and to exclaim that God has done and that God continues to do amazing things.”

We are truly blessed, you and I; we have been gifted, nurtured and sustained by a loving, divine hand.  So for the nourishment of good food, the shelter of a warm home, the love of family and friends, the caring support of this family of God’s people, for the times of celebration in which we danced for the sheer joy of it and for the times of sadness in which we found strength in crying on one another’s shoulder; and for the moments when even in great weakness we found the strength and hope that we needed…

… may the thanks of our inmost soul be unto God.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends, and

AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on November 18, 2018 in Jesus, Old Testament, Psalms, Sermon, Thanksgiving

 

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Getting It Right

PianoHands(a sermon for October 27, 2013, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 18:9-14)

“No, no, no!  You haven’t got it right!”  So says the exasperated piano teacher to his young student.  “You just haven’t got it right!

Actually, it’s the same thing he says every week.  It’s not that the kid isn’t doing what he’s told: he’s holding his hands on the keyboard the way he’s been taught; his fingering on the piano keys is exceptional; his sense of rhythm impeccable!   And what’s more, the boy has memorized the assigned piece perfectly, hitting all the proper notes flawlessly and with deadly accuracy.  It’s just that for all this technical perfection, the end result has revealed all-too-clearly that the kid’s heart is simply not in it.

Oh, he’s playing a sort of music, alright, but it’s not the kind of music that will start voices singing or set feet to dancing.  In fact, all he’s really doing is boring everybody, including himself!  So the teacher says it yet again: “You haven’t got it right,” because he knows that if this music was played the way it’s supposed to be, with heart and feeling, spirits would soar and there wouldn’t be a still foot in the house.  But here goes the kid again – 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 – with a performance that’s full of method but absolutely no magic!

Actually, when you think about it, the Pharisees were a lot like that.

You see, as religious leaders in Jesus’ time, the Pharisees believed that righteousness was simply a matter of “getting it right;” that in following every law, statute and tradition exactly to the letter would be found the key to their salvation.  And to their credit, they worked very hard at this endeavor: they were, in fact, amongst the most learned and spiritual men of their time.  They knew the law backward and forward and were thoroughly devoted to following that law perfectly; to the point of excluding anything or anyone who would get in their way of doing so!  In fact, it was said at the time that you could always recognize a Pharisee by his black eyes and bruised face; this was because he was so intent on preserving his own righteousness that as he walked down the street, he’d refuse to even look at anyone who might interfere with his quest for perfection.  So he’d close his eyes while walking along; and consequently smack right into walls or tumble into ditches!

The reality was what with so many confusing and contradictory laws in the Jewish canon, to say nothing of their very humanity, there was no way these Pharisees could ever achieve the perfection they were seeking.  But like the frog in the fable, so intent on the glory of his own reflection in the pond that be became oblivious to the world around him, not only had the Pharisees failed to see the futility of their quest, they’d also become rather self-righteous about the effort!  Simply put, the Pharisees were satisfied to revel in the abundance of their own imagined goodness!

So… when it happened that Jesus was talking to some people who, as Luke puts it, “trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” the Pharisees provided the perfect object lesson!  His parable is a study in contrasts; pointing up the difference between two men, both of whom, we’re told, “went up to the temple to pray.”  The first is, of course, the quintessential Pharisee; whose words at the temple are less a prayer than a loud and pompous tribute to his own importance: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” followed by a litany of his own self-perceived righteousness: “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Basically, these were words designed to remind everyone within earshot just how much better he was than everybody else within earshot; most especially the tax collector who had quietly slithered into the far corner of the temple that same morning.

Now, if it could be said that this Pharisee had done everything “right” as concerned the law, then it should also be noted that this tax collector had surely done everything wrong.  As people in his profession at the time were wont to do, this Jewish tax collector had likely conspired with the Roman government against his own people. He’d probably made a comfortable living pilfering money and crops from his neighbors, and had lined his own pockets with much of the largesse due the Roman magistrates.

Moreover, here was a man who’d probably never, at least not voluntarily, set foot in the temple in his adult life.  He’d certainly never tithed nor fasted; for him, the temple had always been a place – and a truth – he’d actively sought to avoid. But now things were different. Perhaps he’d begun to see the damage he’d done, the pain he’d caused by his own actions.  Maybe that morning he’d looked in the mirror and suddenly realized what he’d become – sinful and unrighteous and unworthy of any forgiveness – and the truth of it was more than he could bear.

Whatever it was, he’d come to the temple that day to pray: trying not to be seen, his own eyes fixed to the ground; feeling so worthless that he can’t even bring himself to lift his eyes unto God!   In fact, all he can summon the wherewithal to do is to beat fist upon chest and cry out in anger and shame, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  No fancy words, no eloquent prayers, no spiritual rationalizations nor legal bargaining; just a simple and completely heartfelt confession.

Funny thing about God, Jesus says to them.  Given the choice between a Pharisee who does faith with all order and correctness, and a sinful tax collector who does it from the heart, God will justify the tax collector every time!   Like the piano student we spoke of earlier, the Pharisee knows his technique and plays all his notes correctly, but there’s no real music there; it’s all style over substance, verbiage as opposed to truth: religion without the faith.  Try as he might, he just can’t get it right!

The tax collector, on the other hand – uneducated, unsophisticated, and as openly sinful and utterly despised as he was – was getting it right: placing himself wholly in the love, care and forgiving grace of God.  No deals made, no litany of empty promises, no assumptions as how God might respond; just a singular moment of prayer and utter humility before the Lord without pretense or any false sense of self-attained righteousness.   It’s faith… the kind of faith that leads to true righteousness; that is, in humility as opposed to the sort of self-involved blustering exhibited by the Pharisee!  As Jesus himself puts it, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I love this parable; and I must confess that after several weeks preaching on all the subtle nuances found in the Statement of Faith, it’s refreshing to sink our teeth into a story that’s so beautifully direct and to the point!  I mean, after all, in just a few scant verses Jesus not only calls out the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, he also manages to turn any distinction we might make between saint and sinner upside down and inside out!  This is the kind of text that just begs for us to make some comparisons to the “Pharisaically Correct” of our own time:  you know, the smarmy TV evangelists, the holier-than-thou “pew sitters” in the congregation (remember Dana Carvey’s character of “The Church Lady?”  That’s the type!), the smiling Christians with the ready backlog of convenient moralisms that apply to everyone around except for them!  Truly, it’d be very easy to start pointing fingers here; except that the trouble with such finger pointing is that, like most of Jesus’ parables, this one has a disturbing way of pointing back at you and me!

You see, truth be told, a lot of us are more like the Pharisee in that story than we might realize; like them, we too work very hard at “getting it right” where life and faith and righteousness are concerned.  I suspect that’s – in part at least – what brings a lot of us to church on a Sunday morning: this inner desire we have to get a handle on how faith ought to fuel the course of our daily lives.  And that’s not a bad thing; our being here today ought not to be some casual or un-considered act, but rather an intentional effort to address the challenges of lives lived in devotion to Jesus Christ.  By our worship we are strengthened and empowered to do all the good and “right” things that faith requires: “to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God (!)” doing all these things joyfully and for the right reasons; and, might I add, feeling good for having done so.

And that’s all well and good; except that if we hear what Jesus says to us in this parable, it’s clear that what we should be doing is forgetting all the “good” we’ve done, hit our knees, and pray with all our hearts for every bit of mercy we can get! That’s the truth found in this parable, friends; it’s a wake-up call for any of us who figure that righteousness can be achieved solely by following the golden rule. Forget the exaltation of your “doing unto others,” says Jesus; for such self-exaltation can only lead to humiliation. What we need to understand… first… is that we’re each and all sinners in need of God’s mercy.  It’s only by being humbled in that knowledge that we can ever hope for the exaltation we seek!

Now, does Jesus mean for us to walk around with eyes cast downward, beating our chest in self-humiliation?  No, I don’t think so; after all, by the grace of God in Christ we are forgiven of our sin: we are not meant to live life as martyrs of unworthiness!  But I do think that what Jesus means for us to understand in this parable is that righteousness before God comes down not to all that we we can do, but rather to what it is we can’t.

It’s our human condition, beloved; that we’ll do everything we can in this life to gain acceptance and love, healing and wholeness, peace and salvation, and yet ultimately come to discover that we cannot do it all. Hospitals, institutions, prisons and graveyards are filled with people who thought they could do it for themselves; people who trusted wholly in their own righteousness, people who went to absurd lengths to achieve it and yet failed every time.  It’s a hard truth, but within it is found good news: that it’s only the grace of God that we are justified and redeemed; only by God that we are lifted beyond the mire of sin and guilt and isolation to be shown what true love and true life really is.  It is God, and God alone, who brings us to righteousness.

Oh, make no mistake, we are still called to do the work… we still follow the laws… and we strive to walk the walk of the righteous.  And that’s because in faith, friends, there’s a song that needs to be played; a song with its own very unique melody, rhythm and rhyme.  Now, if we were to, say, sit down at the piano to play this song by ourselves, I have no doubt that eventually we’d get the chords and the notes worked; and we might even manage to do a verse or two on our own – but for all the effort, I can tell you that it still won’t be right… that it won’t be music.  We need God to help us get it right; we need to let God be the second set of hands on the keyboard, so that when the music starts, voices will sing, feet will move and hearts will soar.

And what a song that will be…

Thanks be to God who joins us in the music.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on October 27, 2013 in Jesus, Prayer, Sermon

 

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