Tag: humility

Sermon: What Does the Lord Require of You?

I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow based on Micah 6:1-8. In light of current events, and the divisions within our culture, God’s people need to hear again the call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. I hope your Sunday is glorious!

What Does The Lord Require of You?
Micah 6:1-8 NRSV

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Called To Testify

We lived in Stone Mountain, Georgia when I was subpoenaed to testify in a murder trial. I did not know the defendant, but I knew his parents. They were calling every witness they could to try to prevent their son, who had killed his wife, from being sent to prison. I was called to testify that I would be available to counsel and guide the young man should the judge sentence him to probation. It seemed like a long shot to me, and in the end it was. The judge sentenced the husband to life in prison. His family wept, while on the other side of the courtroom, the slain woman’s family celebrated.

What we encounter today in this passage from Micah 6, is no less dramatic than my courtroom experience years ago.

In verses 1-2, the prophet Micah says to God’s people —

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

So, God calls on the mountains, hills, and foundations of the earth to be witnesses to the great case against Israel. (And, probably Israel here means both Israel and Judah because the prophet Micah preached about the judgment on both kingdoms.)

In verse 3 God asks rhetorically —

“O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

Then, in verses 3-5, God recalls three major events in the life of His people when God saved them from certain disaster and destruction. The first was when God used Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead Israel from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The second was when Balak, king of Moab, tried to hire Balaam, a prophet who listened to God, to curse Israel as they made their way to the Promised Land.

And, the third event was when Joshua led the nation of Israel from Shittim, crossing the Jordan, and finally stopping in Gilgal in the Land of Promise.

While we might lump all those stories together as part of the Exodus/Promised Land narrative, God breaks down the narrative into its component parts to remind Israel that every step along the way God had intervened and saved them.

But now it’s Israel’s turn to testify. And in verses 6-7, Israel asks indignantly —

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Micah is probably representing what he has heard from his countrymen a hundred times over. They don’t get why God has an issue with them. And, of course, they jump right to how they do worship, because they think they’ve been doing worship quite well, thank you!

So, they begin reasonably — “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

These are, of course, the standard and typical offerings presented to God. Yearling calves, offered on the altar.

But then, they get snarky —  “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” they ask sarcastically.

Rams and oil are offered to God in Temple worship, but not by the thousands and ten thousands. No, these are people who are put out that God dares to question how they do worship, because, of course, they’ve been doing worship at the Temple since Solomon was king — over 200 years at this point.

But then, they go too far. “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

While the firstborn was dedicated to God, the firstborn (or any child or person) was expressly forbidden to be used as a sacrifice. Other nations around them offered child-sacrifices, often to Moloch, but Israel was prohibited from doing so. Some scholars think this sentence indicates they might have (and we know they did at one time), but others think this is the ultimate outrageous rebuttal to God’s criticism of them.

But now it’s Micah’s turn. In verse 8, Micah stops speaking the very words of God, and rather plainly observes —

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

In other words, “You know what to do, and it has little to do with what happens inside the Temple and everything to do with how you live your lives.” My paraphrase.

So, let’s look at what God requires, then and now.

First, there are three verbs in the second part of verse 8: Do, love, and walk. All action verbs. All with objects or modifiers. All indicating real life actions, not ritual affectations.

So, let’s break them down.

Do Justice

I’m not using my favorite translation, the New International Version, because I think the NIV misses the translation here. In the NIV the text reads “live justly.” But, Micah says God requires that we “do justice.”

Of course, theologians have often been accused of “straining at gnats and swallowing camels” (I think Jesus said something like that), but here I believe the distinction is critical to understanding what God is saying.

There is a difference in “living justly” and being required to “do justice.” Here’s what I think the distinction is: “living justly” implies that while I go about my individual life, I’m to do things correctly. Now, that certainly is true, but “doing justice” shifts the emphasis from my individual everyday life to an intentional assignment to make sure justice gets done.

As in our day, life in Israel 700 or so years before Christ contained not only individual injustice, but systemic injustice. Their injustice was like ours — the powerful abused those least able to stand up for themselves.

In Chapter 3, Micah notes:

“Listen, you rulers of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel! For you ought to know what is right, but you hate good and love evil. You have devoured My people’s flesh; you have flayed the skin off them, and the flesh off their bones.”

In 3:9, Micah continues:

“Hear this, you rulers of the House of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with crime, Jerusalem with iniquity! Her rulers judge for gifts, her priests give rulings for a fee, and her prophets divine for pay…”

The poor were exploited, those with cases to be heard had to bribe the judge to get a favorable ruling, and even in the Temple priests and prophets demanded more than their normal support to do their jobs.

Micah rails against this type of injustice which is built into the Temple, the courts, and society in general. Remember, the prophets generally brought three charges against God’s people regardless of when they prophesied: 1) they worshiped idols; 2) they worshiped insincerely; and, 3) they did not care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the stranger. Here Micah speaks of all three transgressions and failures.

To do justice means to ensure that everyone — rich, poor, powerful, or humble — has an equal place at God’s table. Old Testament law provided numerous ways for the poor to be fed, the widows to be cared for, the orphans to be nurtured, and the stranger to be welcomed. But, over and over, Israel’s spiritual and civic leaders bend the rules for their own benefit, while at the same time pretending to be righteous and upright. Jesus will condemn this same hypocrisy in the first century, 700 years later.

God’s requirement to “do justice” is not directed at our modern political parties, civic leaders, or social trendsetters. This is a requirement of God’s people. This is our duty, our job, our responsibility.

In LaGrange, Georgia last week, the chief of police, Louis Dekmar, apologized to the African American citizens of LaGrange on behalf of the city and the police department. He apologized that his department did nothing to protect a black teenager named Austin Callaway in 1940. Callaway had been charged with offending a white woman, and had been placed in the LaGrange city jail. That night, 6 white men with one gun, held the jailer at gunpoint, forcing him to open the jail and release Callaway to them. Later Callaway was found shot several times. He was transported to the hospital where he died of gunshot wounds. Chief Dekmar found there were no case notes, no investigation, and no one was ever arrested for the murder of Austin Callaway. That is an example of systemic injustice. But the courageous apology of a white police chief brought some justice to that community 77 years later.

But if we are not in positions of authority to see that justice is done in our social settings and systems, still we are required to be working to bring about changes in our society so that justice is done, and so that all share God’s blessings, all feed at God’s table, and so that all — not just some — flourish in God’s creation.

Of course, justice also means that good is valued and evil is judged. That’s a part of justice, too. That aspect of justice keeps our society ordered, and our social corrections proportional.

Justice then, is both systemic and personal.

Which brings us to the second requirement —

Love Kindness (Mercy)

No translation is perfect, and here the New Revised Standard Version lets me down. The Hebrew word translated “kindness” here is the word “hesed” which means “lovingkindness.” But, I guess it sounded awkward to say, “Love lovingkindness.” But lovingkindness also means mercy, so the good old King James Version gets it right when it translates this phrase to “Love mercy.”

And, loving mercy goes hand in hand with doing justice, obviously. If you just do justice — especially that which judges and sorts out good from evil — with no allowance for mercy, kindness, and forgiveness — then you have missed the example of God’s own lovingkindness and mercy.

That’s the point here — we do what God does. We “do justice,” but we “love mercy.” That sounds to me like mercy might be as important, if not more so, than doing justice. Justice always has to be tempered with mercy or we become a society with no heart, no compassion, no empathy.

Dr. Richard Hayes of Duke University writes of mercy — “Mercy precedes everything: that, and only that, is why the announcement of the kingdom of heaven is good news.” — (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pg. 103.)

The story is told of two ancient rabbis who were walking together one day. One bemoaned the fact that they no longer had the Temple in which to worship God. “But,” the other reassured his colleague, “we still have hesed.” His point was, that even if there was no Temple in which to worship, they could still perform acts of mercy and lovingkindness.

Do justice. Love mercy. Do we love mercy, or do we extend mercy as a last, begrudging resort, just because sometimes we have to?

Walk Humbly with Your God

Then Micah adds the final requirement — to walk humbly with your God. “Walk” of course is an analogy for the way in which we live our lives. We speak of people who are hypocritical because they “talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.”

The idea of walking with God has its origins in the Garden of Eden where God walked with Adam and Eve each evening. Our walk with God is not only our conduct before him, but our fellowship with Him.

There are, I suppose, any number of ways we could walk with God. Certainly we could walk regularly with God. Adam and Eve did so until they sinned, and then they hid from God.

We could walk gratefully with God. Scripture in both Old and New Testaments is filled with exhortations to give thanks, and prayers and songs that give voice to thankfulness.

We could also walk confidently with God. John writes in 1 John 1:5-6 — “This is how we know we are in Him: Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did.” So our walk with God gives us confidence in our relationship to God.

But while we might walk regularly, or gratefully, or confidently, Micah reminds us that what is required of us is that we walk humbly with our God.

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the virtue of humility may be defined as: “A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake.” St. Bernard defines it: “A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.” These definitions coincide with that given by St. Thomas: “The virtue of humility”, he says, “Consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior”   — (Devine, A. (1910). Humility. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 28, 2017 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07543b.htm)

And there it is: humility is knowing our limitations, especially in light of God’s limitless love, grace, and mercy.

To walk humbly with God is to fellowship with God knowing that our relationship is not between peers, but of Creator to created, and of Redeemer to redeemed.

Walking humbly with God also reminds us that God has acted justly and shown mercy on our behalf.

One ancient rabbi said that Micah had taken the 613 laws of Moses and reduced them to their essence when he observed —

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?

When you watch the news this week, ask yourself, “Are we as a nation doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?” And if the answer is “no” or even “maybe not” then we must remind ourselves that God has shown us what is good. And that good means that we must do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. That is what the Lord requires of us.

Sermon: The Only Prayer We Can Pray

Jesus reminds us that there is one prayer we can and must pray.  It is a prayer that reflects our understanding of who we are in our relationship to God and others.

The Only Prayer We Can Pray

Luke 18:9-14

9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The 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. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13“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.’

14“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.”

One of the things I like about scripture, particularly passages like this, is they tell us exactly what to look for.  By this time in his ministry, Jesus has become somewhat famous for telling parables.  The word parable comes from the Greek word parabole’ which means to “throw alongside.”  Parables were stories tossed to the hearers to make a point.

But sometimes the parables were enigmatic and mysterious.  In Mark’s Gospel Jesus has to explain some of his parables to the disciples, who seem as mystified as the crowds about the point Jesus is trying to make.

But here, in this parable, Luke tells us several things. First, Luke tells us about whom Jesus was speaking —

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable…

Now that’s pretty clear.  There is no doubt to whom Jesus is speaking and what problem he’s addressing.  So, this parable is going to be one of the easy ones, one of those that is blatantly apparent when it gets told.

And, it is.  Jesus then tells the story of two men who went up to the Temple to pray.  So, this is not just an ordinary day, or an ordinary time of prayer.  Going up to the Temple to pray usually involved some special occasion, a feast day, or some event in the life of the worshipper that brought them to the Temple.  Going to the Temple wasn’t like our going to church on Sundays.  A Temple visit was a special occasion which required ritual preparation, the exchange of Roman coinage for Temple currency, and the purchase of a sacrifice if one was going to be offered.

The righteous Jewish man would make his way up through the winding streets of Jerusalem, assiduously avoiding anything that might make him ceremonially unfit for Temple worship.  As he ascended the Temple entrance, he entered the Court of the Gentiles.

This large portico, the outer court of the Temple, most of which was out in the open except for the colonnades, was the place for God-fearers to gather to pay homage to the one true God, the God of Israel.  This was the court from which Jesus ran the money-changers.  His words were, “My father’s house is a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”  What sometimes gets lost in the account of the cleansing of the Temple was that when Jesus said, “My father’s house is a house of prayer” everyone who heard him would have filled in the rest of the scripture, which read, “…a house of prayer for all nations.”

In other words, the moneychangers and the merchants were taking up space allotted for non-Jews.  The Gentiles couldn’t go any further into the Temple upon penalty of death, so disregarding the purpose of the Court of the Gentiles in order to exchange money and sell sacrificial animals deprived the non-Jews of their place in God’s house.

Okay, enough of that, but I wanted you to get the picture.  But back to our two Jewish friends, two men going up to pray.  So, they pass through the Court of the Gentiles, and then bypass the Court of the Women.  Remember that this is a paternalistic society, and Jewish women could come past the Court of the Gentiles, but no further than the next courtyard, the Court of the Women.  The Court of the Women was an enclosed area, unlike the Court of the Gentiles which was an enormous open space.

I’m not sure why our church has two front doors, but many old churches have two front doors because the women entered in one door, and the men entered the other, and they sat separately during worship.  The Old German Baptist Brethren still practice this to some extent.  Men sit on one side of the church, women on the other, but they do have families seated together in the middle.

Once they are past the Court of the Women, our two friends enter the Court of Israel.  This is where Jewish men can gather, offer prayers, give their sacrifice to the priest, and worship God.

So, it is in this part of the Temple, most likely, that this parable takes place.  Perhaps it is a high holy day, or a day of festival.  Or perhaps one of our worshippers has experienced the blessing of God in an extraordinary way.  We don’t know what brings our two friends to the Temple, but we do know who they are.

One is a Pharisee, the other a tax collector.  Which is very much like Jesus saying, “Have you heard the one about the Pharisee and the tax collector?”  By putting these two types of men in the same sentence, Jesus has already crossed the line of propriety.  You literally didn’t mention “Pharisee” and “tax collector” in the same breath.

So, immediately Jesus has the attention of everyone standing around, some of whom are — you guessed it — Pharisees.  Oh, and there’s at least one tax collector, or former tax collector named Matthew in the crowd, too.  Not sure where Zacchaeus is on this particular day, but Jesus already had the reputation of eating with “tax collectors and sinners.”  The phrase itself was redundant in first century Jewish society.

Let me tell you about the tax collector first.  Tax collectors were a hated bunch of guys in Jesus’ day.  They were hated because, first, they collected taxes and for thousands of years people of every cultural stripe have hated paying taxes.  And, Roman taxes were high, and systematically collected.  You remember that Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus to be counted, and the counting was so that the Roman government could know from whom to collect its taxes.  Unlike my grandfather who told my grandmother that the IRS didn’t know he existed.  He found out differently.

But, if that weren’t enough, tax collectors could also collect whatever amount they wanted to.  You might have owed the Roman governor 15 denarii, or fifteen days wages, but the tax collector could tell you that your bill was 20 denarii, or 25, or 50, depending on how much money he wanted to make, and his ability to enforce his demands.

Not only was the Roman system of taxation spread widely, but it also dug deeply into the coin purses of every household.  And paying through tax collectors was the only way to get your taxes paid, and your name duly checked off.  So, you paid extra because that was the way the system worked.

But you didn’t have to like it.  And you didn’t have to be kind to the tax man, or speak nicely to him, or befriend him, or even act in a civil manner.  You could show your complete disdain for him and his dirty business.  Tax collectors, needless to say, were never invited to the best parties, or asked to lead civic events, or held up as model citizens.  They were Jews stealing from their fellows Jews, and so in this way, they were worse than the Romans.

But, let’s turn to the Pharisee.  Everything the tax collector was, the Pharisee was his exact opposite.  Pharisees have a bad reputation today because we know they were always on the wrong side of whatever it was that Jesus was doing, until finally they orchestrated Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution.

But, if we lived in Jesus’ day, we’d like the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were the keepers of the Law, the defenders of the Torah.  In our 21st century language, Pharisees loved Scripture, studied it endlessly, memorized it faithfully, and practiced it publicly.

Pharisees were conservative in their views of religious life.  They weren’t for changing things.  They had made an uneasy peace with the Roman government, and as long as the Romans let them worship and practice their faith, the Pharisees were fine with Rome.

The Pharisees were also good men. I say “men” because a woman might be married to a Pharisee, but women were not called Pharisees as such.  But Pharisees were good men.  They gave generously and sometimes flambuoyantly of their income.  In the Temple were great receptacles for monetary offerings shaped like the open end of a trumpet.  A Pharisee could make a great show of rolling coins around the horn of the offering trumpets, making sure all around both heard and saw his generosity.

Pharisees observed the dietary laws, the sabbath laws, the laws of ceremonial cleanliness, and on and on.  They were the good, solid citizens of Jewish society, and they even believed in the resurrection of the righteous, which their counterparts the Sadducees, did not.

If our church were situated in the first century, instead of being called Chatham Baptist Church, I am sure we would be called Chatham Church of the Pharisees, and we would be proud of it!  To call someone a Pharisee in Jesus’ day was to pay them respect and honor them for their faithfulness to God.  Or so everyone thought.

And this is where Jesus really gets under their skin.  He says, “A Pharisee and a tax collector go up to the Temple to pray.”

But then he goes on, “And the Pharisee prays about himself.”  Actually, this could also be translated, “The Pharisee prays to himself.”  That’s right, either way, Jesus is letting his hearers know that the Pharisee is either praying about himself and not God, or to himself and not God.

And here’s what he says:  “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  Actually, that’s not exactly what he says, but it means the same thing.  “I thank you, God, that I am not like other men — murderers, thieves, adulterers, even this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

We’re glad today, 2,000 years later, that we are not like murderers, thieves, and adulterers, or even dishonest tax collectors.  I mean, none of us wants to labeled among the vilest of society, like people who break the Ten Commandments two at a time.

If we were in this story that Jesus tells, we’d all be Pharisees.  And I think that was kind of the point.  But I’ll get to that in a minute.

But now look at the tax collector.  Jesus says, “He doesn’t even lift his head.”  That doesn’t seem strange to us, because we bow our heads when we pray, but the practice of prayer in the Temple was to look up, hold out your arms, bellow your prayers so that others could hear.  (Which is why Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, “Don’t pray like the Pharisees, standing on the street corner, saying a lot of pious sounding words.”)

All the tax collector says is, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Okay, you get to pick.  Which one of these guys gets a gold star today?  Is it the upstanding, well-mannered, scripture-quoting, tithing, fasting, praying Pharisee?  Or is it snivelling, dishonest, disgraced, traitorous tax collector?  I’ll give you minute to think it over.

Okay, time is up.  Of course, you know this story so you know that Jesus says of the tax collector, “I tell you this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”

Bang!  the Pharisees get hit right between the eyes.  “How could this happen?” I am sure they asked.  “How could a tax collector be justified before God over a devout Pharisee?”

Now, remember, Jesus doesn’t say, “A former tax collector.”  Or, “an ex-tax collector.”  Or even, “a repentant tax collector.”  No, this is a real, honest-to-goodness, tax collector who is still collecting taxes, still cheating people because that’s how he makes his money.  But, and here’s the important point, something is stirring in our tax collector’s heart.

This tax collector knows he’s a sinner.  He knows his life is not pleasing to God, and is not helping his community.  This tax collector has taken the first step toward God.  He hasn’t repented yet, but he has recognized his sin.  He now knows that he is a thief, a liar, a cheat, a betrayer of his own people.  He sees himself for what he is.  He sees himself as others see him.  He sees himself as God sees him.  And he is cut to the heart, stricken by what he sees.  Heartbroken by his own sin.

And so his only prayer is a prayer for mercy.  What else can he say?  “Lord, this is the only job I could find.”  Or, “Lord, somebody has to do it, and there are worse people than me.”?  No, he says, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Sin as a word and an idea has really fallen out of favor in our society.  About the only place we talk about sin is in church, so we get the impression that sin isn’t a real problem in society anymore.  Several years ago, the psychiatrist, Karl Menninger wrote a popular book titled, “Whatever Became of Sin?”  Well, sin isn’t fashionable anymore.  But it’s still around.  And the tax collector knew he had committed sins, and that made him a sinner.

But back to our friend the Pharisee.  What’s wrong with the Pharisee?  Luke sums it up for us:  they were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.

Why is that such a problem.  The Pharisee was a better man than the tax collector by all outward appearances.  He tithed, the tax collector did not.  He fasted, the tax collector probably feasted.  He kept all the holy days at the Temple, but this was probably the first time the tax collector had been in the Temple in a long time.  The Pharisee was by anybody’s account the better man.

Except the Pharisee didn’t think he was a sinner.  He knew the tax collector was, he knew the murderer was, he knew the thief was, and he knew the adulterer was because those people broke commandments, and violated the Law of God.  But not him.  He was righteous.  Upstanding.  A good citizen.  A model religious leader.

But he was also arrogant.  Self-righteous.  Self-centered.  Self-satisfied.  He needed nothing.  Except, of course, for others to know that he was not like the tax collector.

Because the Pharisee’s arrogance doesn’t end there.  Arrogance leads to separating yourself from others.  Arrogance leads to believing that you’re right and everyone else is wrong.  Arrogance leads to thinking that everyone should be like you.  That if everyone in the world were like you, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

Arrogance also damages the community.  Here were two Jews — not a Jew and a Samaritan, not a Jew and a Gentile — but two Jews.  Brothers by ancestry, adherents to the worship of the one true God, the God of Israel. Two men who were both outstanding in their own ways, one famous perhaps, the other infamous no doubt.  But arrogance has separated them.

And not only has arrogance separated them, it has cut off the tax collector and his family and his children from the warm traditions of their faith, and cast them out of the closed society of Judaism to which they rightfully belonged.  Some wonder how the tax collector even got into the Temple, much less was given time to pray.

Normally, we talk about how we shouldn’t look down on others, or think more of ourselves than we ought to think, or we draw other similar lessons from this parable.  Jesus helps us by saying the exalted shall be humbled, and the humble shall be exalted.  So that’s the lesson.  But this story has more than just personal application.

When we put ourselves above others, think of ourselves as different from our fellow human beings, bad and terrible things result.  In our own country, clergymen preached from prestigious pulpits of both the North and South that the Bible affirmed the inferiority of the negro slave, and therefore, the white man had the right, and the duty, to tame the savage and command from him good, honest work.  The fact that slavery served both the economic interests of North and South, of course, was never mentioned.

In Hitler’s rise to power, the Jews were seen as the problem.  They were different, an inferior race, a mischievous group who not only reject Jesus Christ, but who killed him.  They and their nefarious schemes were to blame for the economic woes of pre-war Germany, according to Nazi propaganda.  So, Hitler’s appeal to Germans as the superior race, better than others like Jews, or Gypsies, or homosexuals, led directly to the “final solution” — the extermination of those inferior peoples.  Six million Jews were killed, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Romany (Gypsies), and others who did not fit the Third Reich’s portrait of a superior people.

Religion often contributes to this “I’m glad I’m not like him” syndrome, but not always.  I was gratified to read that an evangelical group, known for its opposition to gays, had suspended a nationwide anti-gay high school program after the suicides of several young gay students, students who took their own lives because they were bullied for being gay.  Cancelling that program was a good thing to do, and showed that some realize that when we position ourselves as superior to others — morally, spiritually, ethically, genetically, or in any other way — the consequences can be deadly.

I have titled this sermon, The Only Prayer We Can Pray.  Perhaps that’s a bit of an overstatement.  But the prayer of the tax collector is certainly the first prayer we must pray.  It is the only prayer we can pray in relationship to others.  And when we recognize that we are sinners, despite our appearance of respectability, and that our only real option is to beg for God’s mercy, then we begin to live our lives truthfully before God and each other.

The tax collector’s prayer is the only prayer we can pray if we are honest with ourselves.  It is the only prayer we can pray if we see ourselves as God sees us.  It is the only prayer we can pray if we are interested in reconciling humanity to God, and bringing the shalom of God to earth.  “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Amen.

 

Cliff Barrows, A Living Legend

BarrowsCTonight Cliff Barrows concluded the Billy Graham School of Evangelism at The Cove.  In the auditorium filled with pastors and their spouses, Cliff Barrows spoke from the heart.  He has to speak from the heart these days because macular degeneration is robbing him of his eyesight.  His hair is white, and he walks with a cane, but his heart is as strong for the Lord as it has ever been.

His memory is keen, and for half an hour he told stories about the Billy Graham team, and shared the commitment they made to God and each other as team members.  It was 1948, and the team was leading a crusade in California, near Modesto, Cliff Barrows hometown.  Even then evangelists were not immune from public and moral failure.  Billy Graham asked each member of the team to come up with a list of things that might threaten their ministry, and what they could do about each one.

Cliff Barrows recalled they each listed the same concerns: integrity, accountability, purity of life, and humility.  Together the team prayed and committed to living according to those four principles.

They agreed to live lives of integrity being truthful in their speech and conduct; being consistent at home and on the crusade platform.  They agreed to be accountable to God and to each other, and to those overseeing the ministry, particularly in finances.  They each agreed to maintain personal calendars of where they were going, the purpose for their trip or activity, and who they were with.  They also agreed to lives of purity, vowing never to be alone with a woman and to have the company of others in the presence of women not their wives.  Finally, they agreed to act in humility, to speak carefully about the success of their meetings, and to be careful to give God the glory. They called this agreement the Modesto Manifesto, and it has guided their lives and ministry since that day.

With 419 worldwide crusades, hundreds of evangelistic meetings, countless media appearances, and impeccable financial and moral accountability, the Billy Graham team and ministry has seen over 210-million people attend crusades and over 2-million profess faith in Christ.

To see Cliff Barrows tonight was to see a living legend whose heart still beats for God, and whose life is a continuing example of how ministers should live before God, each other, and the world.  Cliff Barrows is 86; Billy Graham, 90; George Beverly Shea is 100; we shall not see their like again.  This week has been a blessing to us, and we thought we were here to minister to others.

Faith Puts You In Your Place

Faith Puts You In Your Place (mp3)

Luke 18:9-14

The Great Dizzy Dean

When I was a kid, which was a long time ago, our little TV set picked up three channels — NBC, CBS, and ABC. On Saturday afternoon, in addition to the Army’s Big Picture, The Baseball Game of the Week came on. Now that doesn’t sound like such a big deal because you can see baseball just about any day of the week now. But that was long before cable, and long before Ted Turner started televising all the Braves games.

The commentators for The Game of the Week each Saturday were Pee Wee Reese, former shortstop for the Dodgers, both in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, and Dizzy Dean, Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher for The St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs. Pee Wee was the play-by-play guy, and Ol’ Diz was the “color” commentator. And was he colorful. Jerome Hanna Dean was from Mississippi, and slaughtered the King’s English. The St. Louis Board of Education tried to have Dizzy pulled off the air, and the commissioner of baseball once said that Dizzy Dean wasn’t fit to be a broadcsast announcer. To which Dizzy replied, “Let the teachers teach English and I will teach baseball. There is a lot of people in the United States who say ‘isn’t’ and they ain’t eating.”

To go with his horrendous butchery of the English language was an ego the size of, well, Mississippi. He once said, “Anybody who’s ever had the privilege of seeing me play knows that I am the greatest pitcher in the world.” But the quote I like most is what Dizzy said after someone accused him of bragging. “Podnuh, it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up,” Dizzy replied.

Confident of Their Own Righteousness

We’re amused at the confidence Dizzy Dean had in his baseball ability. But in Luke’s Gospel today, Jesus has a word for those who are confident of their own righteousness. And it’s not a good word, either. I can imagine that after Jesus told the story of the persistent widow, the purpose of which was to say that “they should always pray and not give up,” I am sure there were some smug Pharisees standing there who were giving Jesus the equivalent of a first century, “Amen, brother.” Followed, I am sure, by their pronouncements about how much and how often they prayed.

“Why,” one Pharisee might have said, “I’m down at the Temple three times a day praying. Not like those merchants who refuse to close their stalls and take time to pray.”

Another chimed in, “That’s right, and I’m right with him. We always pray. We don’t ever quit praying like some around here.”

I imagine at this point, Jesus just smiled and said, “Let me tell you a story.”

“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.”

Now, Jesus wasn’t being rude to our imaginary Pharisees who were bragging on their prayer life. No, he was just pointing out that being proud of our spiritual practices — like praying, going to church, giving — is not the right attitude. But, in Jesus’ day, there was absolutely nothing wrong with public displays of piety. It was expected. So, the leading Pharisees made a big show of praying publicly and loudly, or dropping their offerings in the Temple collection jars with great fanfare, and of generally informing everyone within earshot of their faithful devotion. After all, isn’t that what God wanted?

On the other hand, there were a whole group of folks who couldn’t brag about their righteousness, because they couldn’t measure up. The shepherds were one group. The shepherds were considered “not righteous” because they had to tend the flocks. They couldn’t rush to the Temple three times a day. Plus, they were dirty (after all they slept out with the sheep), and certainly not ceremonially clean. That’s why the shepherds are “out in the fields” when Jesus is born. That’s why it’s such a big deal that shepherds appear at the birth of the King of Kings.

Of course, shepherds weren’t the only unrighteous Jews. Tax collectors were also among this despised lot. Tax collectors were hated by everyone. They were dishonest, first of all, because the tax collector made his fortune by charging more than the real tax he was supposed to collect. This usually showed up as interest, or penalty, or some other fabricated charge, all to line the tax collector’s pocket. Plus, the tax collectors were the enforcement arm of both Herod and Rome. They were collaborators, to use the language of World War II. They were traitors to their own people, and in league with the hated Roman empire.

So, it’s significant when Jesus calls a tax collector to “come and follow me” as he does with Matthew. And, one of our favorite stories of Jesus is the story of Zacchaeus, a short tax collector, who wants to see Jesus so badly that he climbs up in a what? — sycamore tree — just to get a glimpse of Jesus, this amazing rabbi that he’s heard about. Little does he know that Jesus will spot him, call him down from the tree, and go home to dinner with him that day. And Zacchaeus will be changed. He’ll become a follower. He’ll become honest. He’ll refund money that he cheated folks out of. And, of course, the Pharisees will spread the word about Jesus, “He eats with tax collectors and sinners.”

The point that Jesus makes by doing all this is — “Don’t brag about your own, self-made righteousness. Be humble before God. Then, God will lift you up.”

Some Thoughts About Humility

Now, of course, even in our culture, humility is a good thing. I remember being told by my mother, not to brag about something I was proud of. “Don’t toot your own horn” was the instruction all mothers gave to their children. And, even today, children are still encouraged to be humble. I was looking at an education site for teachers of 3-to-7 year-olds the other day. The lessons were on respect and humility. And they even had some catchy little rhymes to help the kids understand the concept of humilty —

Others are good,
And so am I!
When we’ve listened to each other,
We’ll have some pie!

He is smart,
And so is she,
And all us smart ones
Can sit in a tree!

I can feel good,
Even when you brag,
Because I know,
You’re not a cad!

Okay, so maybe this isn’t great poety, but the point is to help the kids realize that humility is a good thing, even if others aren’t humble.

But, in case you think that humility is just a childish idea, Jim Collins, in his groundbreaking book, Good to Great, identified humility as one of the leading traits in what he calls Level 5 leaders. Level 5 leaders are those who took average companies — companies that were “good” — and turned them into “great” companies that sustained their greatness over an extended period of time. Not just a flash-in-the-pan success, in other words.

“James C. Collins loves to tell the story of Darwin E. Smith, someone most readers have probably never heard of. As Smith was ending two decades at the helm of Kimberly-Clark, maker of Kleenex and other personal-use paper products, he was asked what had driven him, what had he done to make his company so successful over time.

“I was just trying to become qualified for the job,” Collins quotes Smith as saying.

Smith’s statement is at the heart of Collins’ latest management study, which finds that leaders of great companies have genuine humility and self-doubt but also the singular drive to make their companies succeed.” Published: June 20, 2001 in Knowledge@Wharton

Collins went on to say —

“We looked at a factor we called the Window and the Mirror,” he said, noting that Level 5 executives tended to look in the mirror and blame themselves for mistakes. But when things were good, they would look out the window and either proclaim how everyone in the company was wonderful or how factors of fortune caused success. When he asked Circuit City’s Wurtzel about his company’s success, Wurtzel replied that 80 to 100% of it was that “the wind was at our backs.” Collins faxed him charts showing how much better his company did than others in the field. “I told him they all had the same wind,” said Collins. ” ‘Gee,’ was his response. ‘We must have been really lucky.’”

“Yet most people don’t appreciate how lucky they are to have Level 5s among them. “We live in a culture that doesn’t pick Level 5s as subjects of admiration,” said Collins. “We pay attention to the 4s.” And that’s unfortunate for the business world, as well as the world at large.  It’s important, Collins added, not to settle just for good leadership, but to strive in every field for greatness.”

— Published: June 20, 2001 in Knowledge@Wharton

So, even in the business world, humility is a trait of great leadership. And, humility is not just a personal characteristic. Humility is vital to groups of people, like countries and organizations and even churches.

Dan Kimball, pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, has written a book titled, They Like Jesus But Not The Church. The book is the result of Kimball’s years as a youth pastor, and now pastor, engaging people outside the church in conversation. Especially young people.  And, here are the objections that teens and young adults have toward evangelical churches now —

  1. The church is an organized religion with a political agenda.
  2. The church is judgmental and negative.
  3. The church is dominated by males and oppresses females.
  4. The church is homophobic.
  5. The church arrogantly claims all other religions are wrong.
  6. The church is full of fundamentalists who take the whole bible literally. (From They Like Jesus But Not The Church, Contents pg.)

Listen to Maya, a 27-year old hairstylist —

I actually would want to be told if I am doing something that God wouldn’t like me to do. I want to become a better person and be more like Jesus. But that isn’t how it feels coming form Christians and the church. It feels more like they are trying to shame you and control you into their way of thinking and personal opinions about what is right and wrong, rather than it being about becoming more like Jesus and a more loving human being. — They Like Jesus But Not The Church, pg 104

And Maya is not alone. Jenine, a mother and small business owner, said —

I did grow up in a church, but now I am a Buddhist. When I became a mother, I wanted my daughter to have a spiritual upbringing. However, I didn’t want her to become like the Christians in the church I knew. They were always so negative adn complaining about everything, and I wanted my daughter to be in a positive environment. I became a Buddhist since they are much more loving and peaceful people than those in the church. — They Like Jesus…, pg 96

Ouch. That hurts. Now, if you’re thinking — “Well, that’s a bunch of hippies in California. What do they know?” I’ve got more bad news for you. David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group, and Gabe Lyons have just come out with a new book titled, unChristian: What A New Generation Thinks About Christianity…Any Why It Matters. The Barna Group is kind of the Gallup Poll for evangelical Christians. Kinnaman and Lyons spent three years surveying and interviewing hundreds of young adults, 16-29 years old. Here’s what they found —

As the generations get younger, fewer are involved in church or embrace Christianity. They are “outsiders” as follows:

    • 61yrs+: 23% are outsiders.
    • 42-60: 27% are outsiders.
    • 16-29: 40% are outsiders to the faith.
  • 16-29 year olds feel the church is —
    • Hypocritical
    • Too focused on getting converts
    • Anti homosexual
    • Sheltered
    • Too political
    • Judgmental

Sounds like Dan Kimball’s book doesn’t it? The biggest complaint, according to Kinnaman and Lyons, among 16-29 year old is that the church is ARROGANT. Imagine that…the church founded by the humble carpenter from Nazareth has turned into an arrogant caricature of itself.

A Modern Day Parable

If we reframe the time for Jesus parable, bringing into the 21st century, we might hear the following:

“Two people went up to church one Sunday, one a born-again, evangelical Christian leader who pastored a large megachurch; the other, a young businessman who was forced to compromise his convictions just to keep his job.”

“The pastor stood up and prayed about himself: Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people — people who aren’t as blessed as I am. I’ve read the Bible through 10 times, I go to church 4 times a week, I give a lot to the church, and people admire me. Young preachers want to grow up to be just like me. I’m successful, well-known, in-demand as a speaker. Oh, and thanks for letting me get my new book published this spring.”

“The young businessman sat alone in the back of the sanctuary, and would not even look up. Head in his hands, he prayed silently, “Lord, help me. My life’s a mess. I compromise my principles. I need this job, but I’m so miserable. Help me. Have mercy on me.”

Jesus might say — “I tell you that the businessman, rather than the preacher, went home right with God that day. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Mind Of Christ and the Mercy of God

Paul said,

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.   — Philippians 2:5-11

If we want to be like Jesus, if we want to have the mind of Christ, it all starts with humility. And seeing our humility, God says, “I love you. I love you just as you, where you are. I love you so much that I gave my Son, everything that I loved, so that you might sit where He sits — in my presence.”

Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Faith, interviewed Charles Templeton. Templeton was one of Billy Graham’s contemporaries in the early days of Graham’s ministry. He was a powerful preacher and evangelist like Graham, but ended up doubting his faith, and leaving the ministry. In addition to that, Templeton wrote a book titled, Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.

When Strobel interviewed Templeton, he asked him his opinion of Jesus. Templeton responded, “In my view he is the most important human being who ever existed….He had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history. There have been many other wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus.” 

 Then, he paused and said, “And if I may put it this way, I…miss…him.” With that tears flooded his eyes and he shielded his face, Strobel said, as his shoulder shook with sobs. (They Like Jesus…pg 57)

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.”

Sermon for Sunday, Oct 28

I’ve just posted my sermon for Sunday, October 28, 2007.  The title is Faith Puts You in Your Place and the lectionary text is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector from Luke 18:9-14.  Have a great day Sunday!