Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Welcoming and Merciful” (Luke 18:9-14)
October 27, 2019
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Last week I came across some “unique” and “creative” church signs which I would like to share with you today.  Some of these signs offered help: “Don’t let worry kill you, let the church help” or “Come in and let us prepare you for your finals.”  Others were rather ominous: “Choose the bread of life or you are toast” or “Stop, drop, and roll, won’t work in hell.”  Some of these church signs were rather unfriendly: “Everything happens for a reason; sometimes the reason is you are stupid and make bad decisions” and “God wants spiritual fruit, not religious nuts.”  And finally, some of these church signs made me a little uncomfortable: “Do you know what hell is?  Come hear our preacher” or “Now is a good time to visit, our pastor is on vacation” and “Having trouble sleeping?  Try one of our sermons.”  Ouch.  My favorite church sign is one my wife Steph texted me several years ago, “Heaven or hell—the choice is yours.”  I think I’ll go with heaven.

Today’s gospel passage is one of the high water marks of the entire Bible.  It is high octane gospel.  It is full of comfort and hope for sinners, including you and me.  It is a passage that could not be any clearer in distinguishing a Law-based life based on human pride from a Gospel-based life based on divine mercy.

Luke writes that Jesus told a parable to a specific audience, to those who thought they had it all together, thank you very much, or as Luke describes them, “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).

The church is called to be a hospital for sinners not a museum of saints (I did not make that up and I do not know who did, but it is true).  The church is to be a place of comfort in an uncomfortable world.  The church is to be a place of hope for the hopeless.  The church is to be a place of welcome for those who always feel left out, those never invited to the party.  The church is called to offer the world something infinitely more important than a cheesy church sign: the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ.

On the flipside, the church is not called to be an insider’s club for the spiritually arrogant.  The church is not called to be a place where if you don’t know the secret code and secret handshake, or you don’t know how to properly genuflect or cross yourself, you will never fit it.  The church is not called to be a place where vistors feel tolerated but not accepted, acknowledged but not welcomed.  The church is not called to be a place where you are welcome only if your skin is a certain color, or only if your home is in a certain neighborhood, or only if your sexual orientation is a certain way, or only if you have your act together.  The church is not called to be a place where, again as Jesus put it, people trust in themselves and regard others with contempt.

And yet, unfortunately that is exactly how the church is often perceived by non-churchgoers.  Several years ago the prestigious California-based polling organization The Barna Group conducted a survey among non-Christian Americans ages 16 to 29, who were asked what word or phrase best describes the Christian Church.  Guess what the responses were—two of the most common responses were “judgmental” and “hypocritical.”  Is it any wonder then that the steep decline in mainline Christian denominations in this country continues unabated?  Many perceive the church as not just irrelevant, but actually harmful, as The Barna Group later wrote:

Society is undergoing a change of mind about the way religion and people of faith intersect with public life.  That it, there are intensifying perceptions that faith is at the root of a vast number of societal ills.  Though it remains the nation’s most dominant religion, Christianity faces significant headwind in the court of public opinion.  The decades-old trend that Christianity is irrelevant is increasingly giving way to the notion that Christianity is bad for society…In sum, faith and religion and Christianity are viewed by millions of adults to be extremist (February 23, 2016).

So the church is perceived by many non-churchgoers as extremists who are -judgmental, and hypocritical—extremists who trust in themselves and regard others with contempt.  This is the exact type of opposition Jesus endured from the religious establishment throughout his three year earthly ministry, especially the Pharisees, an exclusive group entirely law-based who regarded others with contempt.  Jesus faced constant opposition from the Pharisees.  It never let up.

The Pharisees could not deal with Jesus being a friend of sinners, could not deal with Jesus touching untouchables like lepers, could not deal with Jesus freely forgiving notorious sinners before they even asked for forgiveness, could not deal with Jesus healing people on the sabbath day, could not deal with Jesus teaching about love—that loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself fulfills the entire Old Testament law, could not deal with Jesus teaching that love and only love is the sole litmus test of being a disciple, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  The Pharisees could not deal with this love and grace of God.

In today’s gospel passage Jesus told a high octane gospel parable:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Luke 18:10-12).

Pretty impressive right?  On the surface the Pharisee had his act together, and was thankful for that—“God, I thank you that I am not like other people”…# grateful.  The Pharisee took pride in his spiritual disciplines—“I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income”…# blessed.  The Pharisee was also riding the merry-go-round of comparison, comparing himself with “other people” like thieves, rogues, adulterers, and yes, tax collectors.  In Jesus’ day tax collectors were looked down upon by non-Romans as collaborators with the oppressive Roman Empire, and looked down on by Romans as mere cogs in their bureaucratic machine.  Tax collectors tended to have plenty of money but few friends.

And yet Jesus was among those few friends of tax collectors, and in this parable contrasted the Pharisee with a tax collector:

But the tax collector, standing afar off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 18:10-14).

The tax collector was not riding the merry-go-round of comparison.  He was not the least bit interested in how he compared with others.  He was interested in one thing: God’s mercy.  His prayer was not a longwinded exercise of narcissism, but a simple plea, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  And God answered his prayer, and was merciful to him.  There was no catch, no acts of penitence, no hoops to jump through, no institutional red tape, just mercy from God—and God’s mercy is always enough.  What was true for the tax collector is true for you.

The Pharisee lived a Law-based life built on human pride and how he compared with others while the tax collector lived a Gospel-based life devoid of comparing himself with others and based on divine mercy.  The Pharisee and tax collector both went home, but only one went home justified, or in right standing with God, and it was not the one who appeared to have his act together, but the one who refused to pretend that he had his act together and humbly asked God for mercy, and was given that mercy.

But the temptation to be just like the Pharisee in the parable is a very temptation isn’t it?  If we are honest, we are all tempted to look down on others and be thankful that we are not like them, tempted to ride the merry-go-round of comparing ourselves with others in person or on social media or wherever, even though that merry-go-round only goes in circles and never leads us anywhere.

One of my heroes is Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the leading figure of the English Reformation and the author and compiler of the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549 knew that we are all tempted to be like the Pharisee, tempted to compare ourselves with others and trust in ourselves rather than the mercy of God.  And so throughout the liturgy for Holy Communion he emphasized this mercy of God again and again.  Near the beginning of the service, every week, the congregation prayed, “Lord, have mercy—Christ, have mercy—Lord, have mercy” (not just during Lent).  And before receiving Holy Communion the congregation prayed, “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy Table.  But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”  Every week the congregation was reminded to beware of trusting in themselves and remember instead to trust in the mercy of God, and only the mercy of God.

Many non-churchgoers may perceive the church as above all things hypocritical and judgmental, and sometimes they are exactly right.  But that is not what the church is called to be.  You know this.

To be a hypocrite means to wear a mask, to play different roles depending on where you are and who you are around, which means being a hypocrite is exhausting.  The church is called to be a place where you can take off your mask because God loves you as you are, period.

To be judgmental is exhausting too, because we are so hard on others, and so hard on ourselves.  Moreover, at least in my own experience, every time I have been judgmental toward someone I later learned I got it completely wrong.  Maybe some of you have experienced this.  Jesus knew we are all susceptible to being judgmental and being wrong, which is why he preached, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

Jesus also preached, “The Father judges no one but has given all judgement to the Son” (John 5:22)—and later on Good Friday Jesus humbled himself even to suffering on a cross, taking the judgement of world upon himself, taking the merry-go-round of comparison upon himself, and dying for thieves and rogues and adulterers and Pharisees and tax collectors…and you.  And in doing so, God had mercy not just on tax collectors but on the whole world.

And the Risen Jesus invites you to exchange a Law-based life based on your pride for a Gospel-based life based on God’s mercy, and to share the mercy God gives you all the time with others, or as Jesus put it, “Be merciful, just as your Heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).  That could actually be a church sign worth reading.

Maybe someday another poll will be conducted about what words non-churchgoers would use to describe the church.  How great would it be if instead of words like “judgmental” and “hypocritical” the church will be described as “welcoming” and “merciful”—just like Our Savior, whose mercy endures forever.