We All Belong to God – October 23, 2016

Rev. Martha Jacobs
We All Belong to God
Psalm 84:1-7, The Gospel of Luke 18:9-14
Sunday, October 23, 2016

Jesus’s use of these two men as an example, is so interesting, because neither of these men is too popular with the people. Dr. Richard Swanson, in Provoking the Gospel of Luke, sees the Pharisees in a way I had not previously considered. He writes: “The Pharisees preserved faith in God even under the crushing force of Roman military domination, and they preserved it by maintaining clarity about the way the goodness of God ought to shape all of faithful life.” In a way, the Pharisees were over-striving for holiness. Some scholars think that the Pharisee wasn’t boasting as we hear it today. Instead, he was describing accurately that he had done those things that the law prescribed as proper. One is righteous because he conforms his life to the law. He reflects the tenets of the Torah and therefore remains in relationship with the God of Israel.

The tax-collector, on the other hand, was hated by the people because he was the instrument of economic oppression by the Roman Empire. He collaborated with the Empire, and was considered ritually unclean. Dr. David Jacobsen writes that, “Tax-collectors are not merely ‘misunderstood’: they are on the wrong side religiously, politically, and economically,” and this man in Jesus’ story is not a “publican with a heart of gold.” The tax collector knew that he was not worthy but in his own way was striving for holiness or at least acceptance that he was who he was: someone others could not abide because he colluded with the oppressors.

According to Jesus, this tax collector is the one who is justified – which means he was considered worthy and restored to a right relationship with God by God’s own actions, not by his actions. Let me repeat that – because I have always had a hard time with the concept of justification because it doesn’t mean what I had always thought it meant. Prior to seminary, I knew that the word justification meant: explaining or defending, or rationalizing. Theologically, it means ­­­­that the tax collector was considered worthy and restored to a right relationship with God by God’s actions, not by the tax collectors actions.

One of the fascinating things about the difference in the two men’s prayers, is that one holds himself up against others, while the other doesn’t even try to compare himself to anyone else. For me, this evokes the comment I made a couple of weeks ago about seeking forgiveness. When you seek forgiveness, you don’t say anything about anyone else’s behavior as being better or worse than your own. You claim what you have done wrong and seek forgiveness for your own misdeeds, and don’t compare yourself to others. We are made right with God because of God’s own actions and love for us.

If we looked at the world as the Pharisee does, we will and do fall short because the law becomes a standard by which we judge our neighbor. Our neighbor become “other” as this Pharisee shows us. So the law can lead us to self-righteousness and can cut us off from true relationship with those who are our brothers and sisters. Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry fighting exactly that use of the law. The law seems to be an easy excuse to hold one’s neighbor to a particular standard by which to judge.

Dr. David Lose reminds us that “there is the subtle but pernicious temptation to assess not only ourselves according to the law but all others. In this way, the law too easily is transformed from a device intended to help one’s neighbor to a standard by which to judge one’s neighbor. This is, I think, what we see in the Pharisee’s prayer. He is keenly aware of the differences between himself and his neighbors and uses that difference to distance himself from them. They are no longer neighbors or fellow citizens, let alone children of the same God, but rather the “other.” Righteousness, from this point of view, all too often devolves quickly into self-righteousness and cuts us off from true relationship with those God has given to us as brothers and sisters.”

Dr. Lose points out that “justification, in contrast to righteousness, does not depend on our own efforts and, indeed, has nothing to do with them. We can take neither credit nor responsibility for our standing before God. And yet, we recognize that we are recipients of a profound gift. Looking around us, we see all others in a similar vein, people that God has created and loves and out of love has also justified.”

Therefore, Dr. Lose says,” love is the key to understanding justification. Think about it: we do not remain in relationship with people based on their perfect behavior but rather out of love. Love and forgiveness, Dr. Lose notes, are the key elements of justification because they initiate and maintain relationship.” And, relationship is what we are all about.

We work very hard at this church – and no where do we see it more clearly than during Tag Sale and Barn Sale. As I watched us working on this Tag Sale and knowing that my sermon was going to be on this topic, I realized that it is important to remind all of us that what we all do is wonderful and vitally important for the ministry of this church. However, our worth to God does not depend on our accomplishments or on the hard work that we do here. We are all beloved children of God and of infinite worth to God. We, therefore, are free to do whatever we can, knowing that we are already loved and don’t have to earn it.

Friends, when we recognize that we are justified, we receive all of life back as a gift to be treasured rather than a goal to be accomplished. Think of the difference of seeing everything around you not as something to be earned, achieved, or protected but rather to be received as a free gift, delighted in, and shared with joy and abandon. Self-worth, dignity, purpose, and most especially the people around you – all these are gifts from God.

The difficulty about justification, is that it runs totally contrary to our cultural impulse to stress the need to justify ourselves through our accomplishments, wealth, youth, or possessions. We don’t have to do anything in order for God to love us and that is counter-intuitive. So, one might argue, based on our scripture reading today, that one doesn’t owe God anything; that we are justified because God loves us, not because we love God.

During our retreat last June, one of our members (Bob Buzak) raised a question in his group – his question, “What do we owe God?” As he described it to me in a note, “There was total silence for at least five seconds. A few non-specific comments were made before we moved back into more comfortable territory. I could not supply an answer either.”

He went on, “Several days of random thoughts, took me down a path that makes me believe that we do owe God something. If God is the creator of everything and we are here in God’s beautiful universe, we at least owe God gratitude for our lives.” He went on to quote John 3, “Indeed, God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” So, our member reasoned, “Jesus came to save the world from its sins, save us from our sins, and more uncomfortably, save me from my sins. If we cannot acknowledge this, he wrote, all the things we do during Lent and leading up to Easter have little or no meaning. This leads us beyond gratitude to having to respond­­­­ to God, but how? He goes on: Jesus calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and include all. To express our gratitude, to learn as much as we can about God and to put into action what we learn, is what we owe.” Lastly, he writes, “To the extent that we fall short, fortunately, there is grace.”

We are dependent, vulnerable, finite creatures and as difficult or painful as that may seem to admit, the moment we do – perhaps at times in a flash of desperate insight not unlike the tax-collectors’ – we are freed from the burden of self-justification, and can see ourselves as beloved of God and recipients of an amazing gift. We are sent forth to love and care for all those around us because of the unconditional love that God give us.

Two men went to the Temple. One went up and returned righteous – and there is something to admire about that – but the other returned justified. And, sometimes, in the face of justification, all we can do is give thanks. And that is okay, because God loves us and we belong to God.

Many of the ideas for this sermon came from Dr. David Lose and his column “In the Meantime”.

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