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Sermon for October 28, 2007

The Confident Sinner

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
-- Luke 18:9-14

I used to have real problems with church people. About 15 years ago I had an experience that changed my spiritual life. I became what some might call a Bible-believing Christian. I converted into a person who was really serious about Christianity. I mean REALLY serious. I not only took my Bible to church with me every Sunday, but I normally carried one with me wherever I went. I had a Bible at work. I carried it in the car with me. I read it every chance I could get, and it didn’t matter who was watching. In fact, it was better if a lot of people saw me so that they would know I was serious about being a Christian.

At that time the faith was new to me and I was enthusiastic and eager. Winning souls for God was important to me, prayer was important; enthusiasm in worship was important. And, while I was being a very good Christian, I began to feel that I was some kind of minority within the church.

During worship services I would look around, and I saw that many people there did not read their Bibles, they did not sing the hymns loudly, they did not seem to pray, nor did they like fellowship with their brothers and sisters afterwards over a cup of coffee.

Have you ever done that, by the way -- you know -- check out what other people are doing during worship? Looking to see if they are singing, or if they close their eyes during prayer time or doodle on the bulletin during the sermon, or if they are putting anything in the offering plate when it goes by. Well, I did it.

I noted that many in my congregation seemed more concerned that the service was over exactly one hour after it began so they could get home and eat than they were about the actual worship they were involved in. I also noted that only about 10% of the congregation ever bothered attending the weekly Bible studies and prayer meetings and that most of them had never really grasped the fact that the gospel message is one of grace - instead of works – that Jesus died not to reward people who act good all the time but so that sinners can approach the throne of God and find a welcome that they do not deserve.

I had real problems with some of the people in the church. To my eyes the church was full of hypocrites . . . full of people who could barely talk the talk, let alone walk the walk.

One of the biggest issues I had at worship services in those days were the prayers of confession that were often printed in the bulletin – just like the one printed in our bulletin this morning. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I still have a strong reaction to the words that I find in prayers of confession that have been written by other people. The fact that those prayers were prayers of confession didn’t bother me. I knew I was a sinner. What bothered me were the kinds of sins that were often listed in the prayers: things like neglect of the poor, selfishness, ingratitude, racism, and similar offenses. I found it hard to pray some of those prayers because I knew in my heart that I had not done any of that stuff. I was not especially selfish or neglectful of the poor. I wasn’t a racist. I wasn’t ungrateful for all that God, and indeed other people, did for me.

All things being equal, I was on the right track. I gave a substantial amount to the work of God each year, a tenth of my income in fact, and that tithe was more than most others in the church gave, even though they had far more income. I went to prayer meetings every Wednesday night, and I worshiped almost every Sunday morning, even if I had company coming over for lunch. I even went caroling at Christmas at the homes of shut-ins, and helped out whenever I could with church suppers and special events.

Not bad, huh? I know that many of you out there have had a similar journey. You have been faithful. You have been generous. You have worked hard and asked nothing in return. Like me all those years ago, you too have realized God needs many workers to make the Kingdom grow. Like me, you knew too that your efforts have made a difference both to others and to you.

In Jesus’ day, the Pharisee acted kind of like I did. Pharisees were really good people. They were respected. People looked up to them as an example of pure devotion. Pharisees were super-religious men who were extremely careful about obeying the all of the religious laws. When the Pharisee prayed, everyone listened up. And those listening might say, “I really admire that guy’s commitment to religion. If anyone is going to heaven, it’s that Pharisee over there.” The tax collector was at the very bottom of the religious food chain. If you had been a good Jew listening to Jesus, when he mentioned the Pharisee you would have cheered, “Yeah! Hurrah for the good guy!” When He mentioned the tax collector, you would have booed. But Jesus is always full of surprises. If we were listening to Jesus, we might expect him to praise the impeccable faith of the Pharisee. Instead, he holds up the sinner as the model of real faith. Something is not right here.

I invite you to hear today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel once again – but let’s put it in a different context. Hear now a reading from the Gospel According to Pastor Matt:

As Deacon Proud walked into church one Sunday morning, he was disgusted to see Lenny Lowlife there. Lenny was a drug pusher who had just gotten out of jail. Deacon Proud warned some of the ushers to keep a close watch on Lenny because he was a no-good loser. Before the offering, it was Deacon Proud’s time to pray. He walked with an air of importance to the microphone and began to pray using his religious tone of voice, “Heavenly Father, I thank Thee that I’ve been a deacon in this church for 30 years. I even remember when my grandfather built this holy edifice with his own two hands. And I thank Thee that I haven’t missed a single Sunday for over ten years. There were times, O Lord, when I was sick, but I came anyway. And Father, thou knowest I used to sing in the choir, until I was persecuted by the song leader who wouldn’t sing my style of music–but I can endure persecution just like Thou didest. Thou hast blessed me financially so I’ve been able to give unto you much more than 10 percent. I thank thee that I’m morally pure for I don’t drink much, and I don’t cuss on Sundays, and I don’t smoke unfiltered cigarettes and I don’t use drugs or sell them like someone who is among us today. Lord, we need more people just like me in our church. And, Lord, help everyone to come out tomorrow night at 7 p.m. at Oak Park field to watch our church softball team beat the Baptists again, and bless the gift and the giver. AMEN.”

After napping through much of the sermon, Deacon Proud strolled out of church feeling good about himself because he made it through another Sunday.

Meanwhile, Lenny Lowlife was slouched on the back pew. After hearing a message about God’s forgiveness, he slipped to his knees, and began to pray. Holding his face in his hands he sobbed quietly, “God, I’m the dirtiest sinner in this town. I’m so sorry. I don’t deserve it, but is there any way you can wash away my filthy mistakes? Please, God, I need you!”

I tell you, it was Lenny, not Deacon Proud, who went home that day right with God.

It’s one thing to be thankful for what God does for us -- for the blessings we see all around us. It is quite another thing to compare ourselves to one another and to thank God for the differences, as if somehow we are better than that poor miserable tax collector over there, better than that druggie who’s wasting his life, better than that single mother who drinks too much, or that clumsy idiot who is our fellow worker, or the parishioner who sits next to us and seems to have no real faith at all.

But we still do I, don’t we?

While we have breath, we must fight the temptation to make ourselves feel better by comparing ourselves to someone else. How do we do it? Eastern Orthodox Christianity uses a prayer called the Jesus prayer. It comes straight from this passage in Luke, and it goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Words to live by. Words to cultivate in our minds and hearts that we might know the true joy of salvation. There is a beautiful promise in today’s Gospel lesson: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Christ’s words are also a challenge -- a challenge because it’s very hard not to exalt ourselves. It’s hard not to think that I am better than that person over there: that tax collector, that sinner, that arrogant person, that cheat, that hypocrite, that klutz, that liar, that domineering person. It is very hard, but it’s not impossible.

We do not have to think that we have the one right answer; that because we do this or that thing better, or more often than others, we are somehow better people, wiser people, or holier people than those who do it poorly or less often than we. We do not have to think that because we are more diligent at serving God inside the church and out, or attend worship more often than most other people, that we are somehow more important, or more faithful, or more loved by God than they are. There is an old Hasidic saying that goes like this: “The person who thinks he can live without others is mistaken; the person who thinks that others cant live without him is even more mistaken.”

As it turns out, it is actually damaging to our faith when we come to God and pray like the Pharisee: “O Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people: like John or Suzi, like my parent or sibling or my fellow worker.” No, I think God is looking for confident sinners – people who know they have blown it and still have enough faith to come before the throne of grace and pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

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