Compare and Contrast

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC June 25th, the third Sunday after Pentecost.

Luke 18:9-14


One day a man walked into the pastor’s study and said that he felt compelled to confess a sin that was newly weighing on his heart.  He told the pastor, “Every week when I come into church, I find myself looking around at the other men in the congregation and recognizing that I am the best looking guy here.  No other man comes close to my strong physique and handsome features.  Pastor, what do I do about this sin?”  The pastor replied, “John, that’s not a sin, that’s just untrue.”


We spend a lot of time, consciously or unconsciously, looking around at other people and comparing ourselves to them.  Inevitably, we end up on a particular rung of our self-created ladder of human value somewhere between those whom we resent or admire because we perceive them as smarter, better looking, wealthier, than us and those whom we ridicule or pity because we perceive them as less attractive, less clever, and less advantaged than us.  For some of us, the comparisons may happen more about things like how organized someone is, or stylish, or sophisticated, or seemingly “together.” “Not me!!” you may be thinking.  Well, maybe not, but I tend to believe that to compare and contrast, to grapple with this ambiguous mixture of resentment and admiration, ridicule and pity, is part of most human experience.  As we seek to make sense of our own existence as human beings, as we strive to find our way, to feel OK about our lives, we learn to look at other people and see how we size up.  How am I doing at this thing called being human?


Part of the result of this is that we spend an awful lot of energy trying to prove ourselves, trying to figure out what to do in order to measure up.   Some of us may be conscious of trying to be as good as our colleagues or our friends; some will know good and well how hard you are trying to prove yourself to your parents—on all sorts of levels.  Maybe some of us are consciously or unconsciously trying to prove ourselves to God:  If I can just figure out the right thing to do, then God will love me, then I will be acceptable, then I’ll be able to trust I’m good enough.  I think I spent a good deal of my younger life on that loop. //


Today Jesus tells a story, a parable.  It involves two folks who go into the temple to pray.  The Pharisee has done all the right things.  He looks around at the community in which he lives and gives thanks that he is able to serve and to give and to study and to practice the spiritual disciplines.  As he compares himself to others, he knows that he has done what he ought to do;   he’s gone above and beyond the letter of God’s law—for example, fasting twice a week was an observance practiced by some Pharisees in private in addition to the public days of fasting required in the law of Moses.  This practice was considered to have extra merit because it was voluntary.[i] The Pharisee in this story has followed all the official and even unwritten church rules!  The other person has betrayed his country by collecting taxes for the enemy and is presumably a corrupt individual, gaining wealth at the expense of any ethical righteousness; he stands far off from the center of religious life, uttering only some simple, uneloquent words.


To be justified is to be in right relationship with God.  And the Pharisee walks away from the temple believing that he has accomplished this, that he has been justified.  But he walks away empty.  The tax collector is the one who leaves in right relationship with God.  That’s what the Gospel says.  // Parables can be of two types.  Some are clearly example stories—they explain something that we are to imitate. (Example:  the persistent widow—BE persistent!)  Other parables are not urging us to do anything.  Instead, they are kind of like pictures, images of God.  These kinds of parables are not examples of a way for us to behave; they are depictions of the way God behaves.  In the parable we hear today, God justifies the “bad guy” and sends the “good guy” away empty.  This tells us something about the way God behaves.


It is hard for us to accept this story as it is—because it doesn’t really seem fair.  It’s hard to accept this story as it is because we tend to want to hoard and control God’s behavior, God’s forgiveness and God’s justification.  Who here hasn’t struggled with this question:  Does the person who ignores God and lives her whole life in selfish, destructive ways and then asks God to forgive her right before she dies receive God’s forgiveness?  Why should she be forgiven when I have tried all my life to follow God’s way and to walk in love and faith?  Or, perhaps an even more pointed and striking question:  Will God forgive the person who harmed me?  Will God forgive those who enslave and torture people?  (or the classic):  Will God forgive Hitler? 


We recoil at such questions, but they bring the point into searing clarity.  We don’t know what God will do.  As much as we want to decide who is deserving of God’s justification, we aren’t in control of such things.  And perhaps that is part of what we need to hear.  The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector can easily be tidied-up using our human scales and comparison charts.  As we read it today, we can compare and contrast saying, “Oh, the Pharisee is really the bad guy, boastful and judgmental, and the tax collector is really the good guy, the hero, acknowledging his sin in righteous humility.”  To read the story that way allows us to say to ourselves, “God, I thank you that I am not like the Pharisee in the story.”  It also allows us to organize God’s mercy and justification based on merit.  That is, the Pharisee and the tax collector each got what they deserved, what they’d earned.  As much as we’d like it, that’s not what’s going on in this story.


“The message can’t be—‘all right people, get out there and be humble.’  That would be the conventional story we already know, the story about getting our lives all cleaned up on our own,”[ii] striving to prove ourselves to God, trying to earn our own justification.  The story is about humility, a word that is related to our word humus—earth, earthy.  To be humble is to know who we are and who we are not.  To be humble is to be close to the ground, near the bottom.  And there are times when we are there.  At the bottom.  Brought low and recognizing that we don’t know what to do, we don’t know how to be, we can’t fix what we want to fix, not even ourselves.  At those points we realize, in a very hard-earth, concrete way, our limits as human beings.  We are humbled.  Those moments teach us (if we let them) that we are always limited, finite, made of earth…


And the good news is, God meets us at our limit.  What we learn about God today in this parable is that when we hit rock-bottom, when we are humbled, God draws near.  We learn that nothing, not even all our good works and acts of kindness, can earn God’s grace.  One of the things that is so appealing and at the same time so appalling to us is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is for the humble.  It is appalling because that means that God draws near to those whom we might be apt to judge as lazy or distasteful or reprobate.  It is appalling because that means we aren’t in control.  It is appealing because it also means that God draws near to us when we ourselves are down and out, when we are empty handed, unsteady, unsure, helpless.  It is appealing because God’s grace is free.


We who strive to do the right things, to be faithful, to have it all together may want to know “What can we do?  What is our task?”  Well, we can put our self-righteous judgment in check, for one.  But the question of the day isn’t really about what we are to do.  It is, instead, whether we can come to terms with what we can’t do.  We can’t save ourselves.  We can’t justify ourselves.  That seems to be where our Pharisee in today’s Gospel really missed the boat.  We can’t control God’s grace and mercy.  We don’t get to decide who is loved and forgiven by God or who is “in” or “out” with God.  We can’t be God.  The glory is God’s, whether we like it or not.  Today all we have is this promise:  God’s interest in you is unearned.  When you are brought low, when you hit rock-bottom, when you come face to face with the limits of being a human being, when you feel most alone and wounded, when you haven’t got the first clue about what to do or how to act, God will be there.  It’s called grace.  Unmerited, free grace.  And when you are humbled—and if you aren’t today, at some point in your life you will be—let your prayer emerge, not about what you have done (so as to try to prove yourself) or what you want God to do (so as to try to control the situation).  Instead, let your prayer pour forth speech reflecting the nature of the One you experience:  “God, be God.  God, be merciful.”  And from that place of humility, open your hands and your heart and allow God to love you in spite of everything.

You might just find that love releases you from the need to compare and contrast…




[ii] William H. Willimon, from a sermon on this text found in Pulpit Resource, Vol. 29, No. 4, Year C & A, October-December 2001, p. 16.)