Jesus gives a vivid example of the dangers
of religiosity that separates “us from them.”
The theme for this historic gathering was “Story and Song.” As we listened to one another’s stories, I couldn’t help but think where we’d be, as people or as a church, if it weren’t for the greatest story ever told. The Mother Lode of all messages. The Hope Diamond of truth. That amazing story of God’s immeasurable heart and incomparable love for you and me. This is the good news: No matter who you are, or how you got here today, there’s room in God’s heart for you, and for everyone else.
The not so good news is that there are people who believe they are not good enough to receive the wondrous gift of grace. And sadder still, there are some churches that believe “they,” as in “those people,” aren’t “good enough” to receive what God has freely given to us all. Such separation is not compatible with Christ.
“Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity by definition, is unassailable.”
One of the ministers at the conference recalled the story of her childhood, growing up in Michigan in the 1950’s. One Sunday evening, as her family gathered around the supper table, her grandfather, a well-respected deacon in the church, boasted how he welcomed a young black couple into the service that morning; he even took the liberty to personally usher them to their seats. After worship asked them if they had enjoyed their time. But before they could answer, he quietly told them “I think you might be more comfortable at the church down the street.”
Some people clothe themselves in religious elitism to separate themselves from everyone else. Sometimes it’s obvious. Other times not so much. I think Jesus makes this point clearly in Luke’s gospel.
Standing before a crowd intoxicated by their own spiritual self-righteousness, Jesus tells a story about two men who go into the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee who society would have deemed holy. The other is a tax collector who, by his own account, is an enemy to Israel.
As the Pharisee prays, he acknowledges God as the source of his righteousness. But then he goes on to remind God how fortunate God is to have such a wonderful guy like himself on his team. He reads his resume and lists all his achievements, to show God what the other guy is not.
But the tax collector knows exactly who he is, and what he’s done. By definition he works for a corrupt system that gouges the poor and enriches the wealthy. He too acknowledges God’s righteousness, but avoids narrating a long list of his own vices and virtues to God. Instead he humbly names his condition: he’s a sinner. And as such, he throws himself on God’s mercy.
Ask yourself, which one are you? Pharisee or tax collector?
I see myself as a little of both. On one hand, as people have told me lately, I have done some wonderful things here to further the kingdom of God. Yet on the other hand, I know it is not I who has done those things. I have to constantly live in the tension between ego and humility. And it’s not always that easy.
It can be hard to read Luke’s gospel without placing yourself in one role or the other, or both. Which of us has not secretly felt some kind of moral pride before? Imagine driving to church and seeing a drunk stumble and fall on his face. Do you secretly think, “Thank you God, that I am not like that person?”
Or perhaps you’ve been the drunk, you know what it’s like to struggle to get to your hands and knees. Your face wet with tears, you dare not to look up. Instead you drop your head into the dark shadow of a filthy sidewalk and silently weeps, “God, have mercy. For I am nothing but a sinner!”
Perhaps what causes you to elevate yourself is a friend who choses to go fishing, or to a craft show, instead of going to church to listen to one of my boring sermons. Or maybe it’s someone here that you look down your nose and think, “Where were you when there was work to be done, or a seat on a board that needed to be filled?”
It’s typical of Jesus to force us to take a hard look at ourselves. His stories are a bit like fishing lures: full of attractive features –bright colors, feathers, interesting shapes –but inside each one, a sharp little barb is hidden. This is one such story. In it, Jesus gives us a vivid example of the dangers of religiosity that separates “us from them.” Like the Pharisee there are times when we’re enticed by the flashiness of our own faith that we forget about that darn hook.
Despite our scars of disobedience, markers of mistakes, and wounds of worry, our faith in Jesus makes one thing very clear: God desires redemption, not perfection. If God only accepted the perfect, then heaven would be a lonely place. Nothing can separate those who seek mercy from receiving God’s grace.
This was a hard lesson learned by the legendary preacher and theologian Dwight L. Moody. Who, while visiting churches in England, met a young preacher named Henry Moorhouse. In a polite but insincere gesture, Moody invited Moorhouse to visit him in Chicago, and extended a glib invitation to the young Brit to come and preach at his church, knowing he’d never surrender his pulpit.
A month after Moody returned home, he got a telegram from Moorhouse that read, “Have just arrived in New York. Will be in Chicago on Sunday.” Moody was dumbfounded and embarrassed. And, to make matters worse, he was scheduled to be elsewhere that same Sunday. Yet, he had made the promise.
So reluctantly, Moody instructed the church leaders to allow Moorhouse to preach once, “But,” he said, “if the people enjoyed him, then put him on again.” A week later, Moody returned from his trip. He asked his wife how the young preacher had fared. “He was wonderful!” she replied. Then added, “He’s even better than you are. He is telling sinners that God loves them.” Moody complained, “But that’s wrong! God does not love sinners.” “Then you better go tell him yourself,” she said, “because he is convinced that God does.”
Moody was shocked to learn that Moorhouse was still there. For six consecutive nights he had been preaching from the same text, “For God so loved the world…” and the people were packing into the famed Chicago church to learn about the unconditional love of God. Upon hearing this message with his own ears, Rev. Moody was spellbound. For the first time he had been confronted with the enormity of God’s grace and the openness of God’s love. He was transformed and his ministry would never be the same again.
Love is compatible with Christ’s work on the cross. Through our own faith in Christ we discover how big and transformational God’s love really is. From the lowliest of sinners to the most pious of preachers, God’s faithful heart screams out, “I’ve never quit loving you… and I never will. Expect love, love, and more love!”
This is the greatest story ever told. That though Christ Jesus, God pours out his abundant grace upon an underserving and resistant people; without strings, without burdens, and without division. It’s there for anyone who humbly desires to be with God. Luke will go on to write in the Acts of the Apostles, “For God, who knows the human heart, has given them the Holy Spirit, just as he gave to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us” (Acts 15:8-9).
May we never forget, God’s story is this church’s story. In order to move forward, and to be compatible to Christ, you must resist the desire to separate yourselves from those either outside and inside the church. Instead you must stand united; welcoming and affirming all people with an open heart, being full of mercy and forgiveness.
With that said, I will close with the words of the Apostle Paul who said, “For in Christ Jesus we are all children of God. There is no longer Jew or Greek. There is no longer slave or free. There is no longer male or female. For all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28).
Bible (NRSV). Jeremiah 31:1-3; Luke 18:9-14.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4. Louisville: Westminser John Knox Press, 2010.
Bible. Jeremaih 31:1-3; Luke 18:9-14.
Francois, Willie Dwayne. "Living by the Word." Christian Century, 2016: 20.
Walters, Ron. Letters To Pastors. Santa Barbara: xulon press, 2008.