October 27, 2013

Robin Murray


        Text: Luke 18:9–14; 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18

Stop me if you've heard this one:
              "Two men walk into a temple..."
Okay, you have heard it. Lynne just read it aloud to you. For us church going folk, I think this parable by Jesus is a very important one. It's easy to fall into that trap of smug superiority like the Pharisee, isn't it? I live a righteous life. I go to church every Sunday. I say my prayers. I donate money so people like Don can go build houses in needy countries. I must be superior to those folks that sleep through Sunday morning hung-over and spend their spare cash on cigarettes and booze! Wee...eelll, actually, no. Hopefully you find your choices bring you greater happiness, a better connection to your community and fill you with a sense of hope and purpose, but none of us are inherently superior to anyone else on this planet. Not a one.

When our son was born, he was perfect. He was such an amazing little guy and we knew it must be because we were such good parents! I remember going to a new mom's support group when he was just a couple of months old and not surprisingly, the main topic of discussion was sleep. One poor sleep-deprived woman described tearfully how her baby wouldn't sleep for more than two hours at a time and she was at her wits end. My perfect son was sleeping four hours straight, waking to nurse and then sleeping four more. Hey, I was getting 8 hours of sleep! So, I offered her advice as to how I got my infant to stay asleep, to which she promptly replied flatly, "I tried that — it didn't work." Outwardly, I accepted her answer, but on the inside I thought, "you just didn't do it right!" and felt myself an obviously superior parent.

Flash forward three years to the birth of our wonderful little daughter. What a humbling experience having that second child was! Forget four hours of consecutive sleep, or even two! At ten months old, she was still waking every hour on the hour. I was a walking zombie. I had to sleep when I could, mainly in the children's room, so as not to waste any precious seconds of sleep time walking from room to room and also so my husband could get enough sleep to function at work the next day. (Fortunately, I was able to stay home full time back then.) I tried everything that had worked so well for our son, yet somehow I "must not have been doing it right", because like that woman I had felt so superior to, it just didn't work this time.

Eventually, with a little help, our daughter did sleep longer, although mostly, she just grew old enough to be able to tell her not to come out of her bedroom between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.! But I had learned my lesson. When I see someone else suffering in life or even making self-destructive choices, I resist the urge to feel superior. I try to remind myself that God loves them just as much as God loves me. We are all on our own journey in our own way. If I can help someone on their journey, then that is God's work. I'll do my best. And maybe they can help me, too. Maybe in ways I didn't even know I needed help in.

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is also a classic example of Jesus' message of radical love. The other rabbis of Jesus' day were focused on law. In fact, as I'm learning in the history class that I'm taking at seminary this semester, the whole Jewish tradition at that point in history is focused very much on law, but Jesus comes along and teaches that while law is good, it is not more important than the heart. The Pharisee in this story comes to God proud of his own accomplishments. "Thank you God for making me such a wonderful person!" What a prayer, hey! He is not seeking to be a better person because he done what was expected of him and some. He has followed the law. He lives a good life and he is a good man, but he doesn't look for ways to improve. The tax collector, on the other hand, is one of a group of people notorious for corruption under Roman rule. He is not living a good life. He is dishonest and causes suffering to others routinely in the course of his work. Yet now, in this parable, he is recognizing his own failures and he comes to God with a sincere desire to be better. He has a longer way to go towards right living than the Pharisee. In his heart, however, at that moment, he is the one more open to God. The idea that what is on the inside is more important than what is on the outside is contrary to popular belief in Jesus' time, and in ours too, if we're honest. But that's what Jesus tells us in this parable. The tax collector is "more justified"; the tax collector is the one seeking the path to God's justice in the world.

So when can a person just stop and consider that we have done enough? We've followed the Bible. We've done what we were asked. How good is good enough for God? For this we turn to the reading from 2 Timothy. This passage is Paul's farewell. He has reached the end of his life. The letter to Timothy was written from prison. Martyrdom is looming for him and he is reflecting back on his life. He says, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." And he feels good about meeting Jesus in heaven. The golden crown he expects to receive is not a crown of superiority but the crown awarded to a runner after crossing the finish line—recognition of his efforts and accomplishments. He acknowledges the other "athletes" in the race who will be crossing the finish line of life as well and getting their crowns, saying, "not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing." Only in death does Paul stop seeking to build the Kingdom of God here on earth. This is what Jesus was getting at in his parable. No matter where you are in your spiritual journey, you can always move forward. You always should seek to move forward until you cross that finish line.

So, we don't gather here each week to because we think we are supposed to, or so we can feel superior in this life. We come to worship and to seek to learn more about God and ourselves. We come to gather with others in community, to support others in the joys and sorrows of life, to support each other as we try "to dare to live the way of Jesus, embodying the love of God". We come here for the synergistic power of group prayer as we lift up our concerns to God in the Prayers of the People. We come to church to stand shoulder to shoulder with others, here in Nelson, across Canada and around the world and cry out together for justice and peace in our world. We come to support each other in our efforts to build God's Kingdom on earth, sometimes through giving money to Mission & Service, sometimes through direct action like taking part in the Aids Walk or supporting the Nelson Refugee Committee, or by making space for the Food Cupboard so the hungry might be fed or maybe even by practicing radical welcome through declaring ourselves an Affirming Church. (We're still learning about that right now, so we'll see where that goes.) We come here to set aside sacred time in our busy live to be open to the call of God. And I don't know about you, but sometimes I come just to sit and enjoy Lou's beautiful flower arrangements, listen to John play the organ and marvel at the wonders of God's creative energy expressed through their talents. Whatever our individual reasons for being here, we journey together with each other as the body of Christ, doing our best to be his hands and feet and never stopping until we reach that finish line.

May it be so.