Don’t pray like either the tax collector or pharisee

Luke 18:9-14
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “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.’ But the tax collector, standing far 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.”

*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video

For the past several months, we have been hearing Jesus’ thoughts about discipleship. We have heard parables and stories that Jesus has been telling his followers about what it means to serve, about what it means to trust and about what God is up in the world. As we round the corner toward the final few weeks of this liturgical year, Jesus provides a parable seemingly about humility. About two very different people and their prayers to God. Prayers that maybe sounded a bit like this:

“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: proud, haughty, self-righteous, or even like that on-fire-for-Jesus Christian. I bow my head when I pray silently, and I cover the amount on my envelope with my thumb when I slip it into the offering plate”.   

Have you ever prayed that prayer? Or had those thoughts? 

“God, how could you love someone like me. I am not like those other people who have it all together, who give more than I do, who volunteer more than I do, who are better people than I am. Have mercy on me, because that’s all I have”

What about this prayer and these thoughts?

It is easy to hear this parable and think that it is a lesson about the value of humility. There is the Pharisee, incorrectly dividing the world into categories. Thankfully we are not like him. And there is the tax collector. He knows what this is about, he is a good Lutheran. All sin. The only hope he has is for God’s mercy.

To our ears listening centuries after this story was first told, the details of this parable can just fly over our heads. We don’t know what it was like to stand in the temple of Jerusalem, the grand centre of Hebrew religion and power. The term Pharisee in our world is a derogatory, not a position of honour and importance. Imagining a haughty religious type praying this prayer in an opulent setting can make it seem easy to identify the villain. Yet there is so much we don’t know, images and symbols we miss, we have not heard the standard prayers of the Hebrew faith.

Understanding the context, as always, is very important. The temple of Jerusalem would have been grand sight to behold. It was big and it had rules. The people believed that it was where God lived – in the inner sanctum, the holy of holies. The temple was the place where you had to earn every inch of God’s favour. Whether you were a Pharisee or tax collector, you knew where you stood in the eyes of God when you were inside the temple. 

The Pharisee knows that he is righteous. He prays a Benediction that every Jewish man was to pray each day. Thank you God that I am not a Gentile, a sinner, or a woman. The Pharisee modifies the prayer, but the point is still the same. He is genuinely thankful for who he is. The pharisees sees those around him and looks down on them because they are truly less righteous than he. 

The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he cannot expect anything from God. His job requires him to break the rules of Judaism. To charge interest, to handle money with graven images on it, even to steal or assault. He is not righteous and his only hope is God’s mercy. The tax collector is so wrapped up in himself, that he doesn’t see the world around him. 

But both the Pharisee and the tax collector are quick to divide people into categories. It doesn’t matter if one places himself in the good category and the other in the bad 0 the effect is the same. Both are acting as judge on God’s behalf. The Pharisees judges himself righteous, the tax collector judges himself unrighteous. 

And when slow down and look at ourselves honestly, we are often guilty of the same.

Whether we are thanking God for not being thieves, rogues, adulterers or tax collectors, or whether we are thanking God because we are not arrogant, self-righteous, or prideful, the issue is the same. We divide humanity into categories, justified or unjustified, saved or unsaved, loved or unloved. 

In fact, being divided into tribes and factions has become so pervasive over the past few years that we argue about everything, politics, culture, science and more. 

Human beings are constantly looking for the ways that we can identify who is in and who is out. We might not be standing on the street corner, boldly thanking God in prayer for our certain salvation. But have we looked down on others, the homeless, those in financial trouble, those hold differing views about the pandemic, about the war in Ukraine, about climate change and even those who are sick, and we thank God that we are not them. “Therefore by the grace of God, go I”. 

But we are also often the ones thinking that we are worthless compared to those around us. That we unworthy, while everyone else seems so perfect. We are certain that no one has it as bad us, or that others have their act together while we are struggling to get by. 

Whether we are intentional about it, or whether we do not know that we are doing it, we too place ourselves in the same categories that the Pharisees and the Tax Collector do. 

Now, here is the problem with that kind of thinking. It is a trap of our own making. 

One that the parable today gets us to fall for again. 

We so easily identify ourselves with either the Pharisee or the tax collector, or both. But this parable is not about pride or humility, and it is just as much not about pharisees or tax collectors. 

The parable is about the storyteller. 

The parable is about Jesus.  

While we are busy trying to make things about us, God is reminding us that it is God alone who justifies. God alone decides who is good enough for the Kingdom.

According to the law, the Pharisee came into the temple righteous, and left the temple righteous. But Jesus says something about the tax collector that should grab our attention, 

“I… tell… you,  this man went down to his home justified”. 

There is nothing that the tax collector did that earned his justification. His prayer did not make him righteous. 

Rather, it is Jesus who says that the man is justified. It is Jesus who decides. 

In the world of the Jerusalem temple, there were those were in and those were out. But everything changes with Jesus. 

Through birth, life, death and resurrection, Jesus comes to tear down the categories we try to build. Whenever we try to make categories, God will stand on the other side, because God wants all to be included, all to receive grace, all to be loved. God has only one category – the Kingdom to which we all belong. We are God’s beloved children. 

The parable that Jesus tells is not a parable on how to act, or who to be like or how to pray. This is a parable about God. A parable that shows us God’s motives and shows us the way that God chooses to act in the world. That shows us that God wants to be with and care for the least, the lost, the sinners and the alone. God wants to care for us… because we are the least, the lost, the sinners and the alone.

Neither the Pharisee, nor the tax collector, nor us, want to see or admit, that being justified, that being saved is something that God does for us. Yet, that is what is told to us today.  The trap is laid that we try to divide humanity into saved and not saved. And it is God who alone who knows the way out. Through love and mercy God chooses humanity. God who chooses those who truly cannot be righteous on our own, God comes to us as Christ who lives and dies, with us, with imperfect and flawed human beings, God sends us the Holy Spirit to bring us into the resurrection and into new life. 

Perhaps our prayer today should be:

“God, we thank you that we ARE like other people: Pharisees and tax collectors, sinners and saints.  We are justified by your righteousness; we are saved by your love.”

Image source: https://canadianmennonite.org/sites/default/files/article_photos/07-01A-pic-4-the_parable_of_the_pharisee_and_the_tax_collector_2017.jpg

Why do churches do visioning? – Pastor Thoughts

VISIONING.

It is a word that gets used a lot by church leaders, and I am sure by those in the business world and public sector, too. 

The first Visioning event I attended was for the Mulhurst Lutheran Church Camp Board on which I was serving at the age of 22. We had a facilitator provided by the Province of Alberta (free to charities!) who came to help our board work through the process. The camp had been floating along in a middling way for years, if not decades. They could only afford a part-time director, their weeks of summer camp were never completely full, and their ideal property with picturesque cabins and dining hall overlooking Pigeon Lake just 35 minutes south of Edmonton could never quite live up to its potential. 

So on a mid-winter Saturday we sat in the dining hall and tried out the Visioning process. Right away the questions that we were being ask sparked my imagination: 

    What is the most important thing we do as a [community of faith]? 

    Why do we exist? 

    What is our purpose? 

    What are our values? 

    Who are we as a community? 

I loved stepping back and contemplating the big picture. My mind was set alight by pondering these questions, helping me to sort through just what the camp and our job and role was in the ministry of Lutheran churches in the Edmonton area. 

At the same time I could see that other board members were struggling. They seemed frustrated by having to step back from their usual modes of serving. The facilitator kept having to pull them back from trying to make concrete decisions and action plans. The struggling board members in this case were faithful old German-Canadians (men mostly) whose commitment and service was expressed in hammering nails, fixing things with their hands and putting in their time and energy for the camp. It was difficult to step back and ask about the identity and purpose of this place they had spent years and years caring for and serving. They didn’t want to ask ‘why?’ They didn’t want to interrogate their motivations or priorities. They wanted to remain in a world where they could believe everyone was on the same page about that stuff. 

Of course, they weren’t on the same page and that was the problem! The camp had had a succession of directors come and go. They wanted to add to their facilities, but could never raise enough money. There were conflicts about what was most important and for which projects or staff they should use the available resources. 

Though it took some hard work together to unpack what our Vision for the camp actually was, once we slowed down to understand our values and priorities, we were then able to have much more focused conversations about how to use our resources. In the years that followed (with more Visioning and strategic planning), the camp was able to build new or upgrade facilities, have longer-term directors and staff, and grow in some important ways. 

Does that mean that Visioning is a magic cure-all for the challenges that we face? Certainly not. 

But what Visioning does is provide a venue to have important conversations about who we are as a community, about what our values are, about where we are going and about where God is calling us to go. 

Visioning can be hard work, especially if you are the sort who prefers hammering nails, fixing things, making things or staying behind the scenes. It can mean questioning our past and our decisions, it can mean realizing that we need to change our present choices in order to move into a vibrant future. Visioning is discerning work, it is important work. It is the work of following God’s call for our community and living together faithfully. 

Now is an era for Visioning. Now, as the world changes rapidly around us and as we struggle with how to use our limited resources, coming together with a common Vision will be essential for us, as it is becoming for every church and faith community. It is hard work but holy work

Thanksgiving, 10 Lepers and giving thanks isn’t the point

GOSPEL: Luke 17:11-19
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video

Thanksgiving has always been kind of weird Sunday to preach on. The theme of Thankfulness seems like a pretty obvious one for the church. Thankful seems like a good thing to be as people to faith. We use the term Thanksgiving regularly in worship. The greek word Eucharist, which is one of the names we use for communion, is translated as “Thanksgiving.”

And yet, Thanksgiving is a decidedly secular holiday. It is rooted in the meal shared by the pilgrims who arrived in North America with their indigenous hosts… or least the myth goes. Of course colonialism was not that at all, but is another sermon. Thanksgiving is also a harvest festival and its date was decided by an act of parliament in 1957, though it has a much longer and varied history going back to the 16th century. 

But it is not a church holy day. There is no thanksgiving story in the bible nor any commandment to set aside a day to give thanks. Maybe more difficult is that at the heart of Thanksgiving is an imperative for us to be thankful – something that we do.  Whereas the Gospel is rooted in God’s action – something that God does for us. 

Still in some kind of twist of fate, today’s Gospel lesson from the regular set of Sunday readings is all about thankfulness… and this story of the 10 lepers is centred around the return of the one to give thanks for what Jesus had done. 

So here I am, on Thanksgiving, having to preach about thankfulness!

As we pick up with Jesus, he is on the road, presumably still with his followers who were asking for increased faith last week. As comes into a village he is met by a group do 10 people with leprosy. Lepers were often segregated outside of towns and villages, even though leprosy in modern times we have discovered that it is likely not to be spread between people. The 10 lepers must have heard of Jesus before so they call out to him by name. They ask for his mercy. Now because we know the end of the story, we assume that what Jesus does next is heal them. But that isn’t so obvious. Instead, Jesus appears to redirect these lepers towards another source of healing, Jesus tells them to go to the priests. Whether the Jesus meant the priests of Jerusalem or some in this borderland town between Galilee and Samaria, the 10 turn and go.

Along the way, the 10 lepers are made clean. One of them notices that he was healed and turns back to Jesus in order to give thanks. When he returns praising God, Jesus asks why the other 9 haven’t returned along with him. Oh, and Luke mentions that this one was a foreigner, a Samaritan. 

The message here, especially on Thanksgiving Sunday, seems pretty obvious: Don’t forget to demonstrate your gratefulness. Maybe Luke was wanting to make sure we don’t forget our manners. 

Except it wasn’t good manners that allowed this Samaritan to turn back. It was that he likely didn’t know where he was actually headed to in the first place. It would have been difficult enough for these 10 Lepers to make their way through town and reach the priests being considered dangerous and unclean. But even if cleansed of his disease, the Samaritan would still have been unclean and unable to access the priests. 

Maybe what this one Samaritan recognizes is not the need for gratitude but something else. As an outsider in this borderland town, one existing on the margins, he cannot help but see that he has been healed from an unexpected place. 

The other 9 perhaps never even considered that it was Jesus who healed them, but assumed it was the cleansing rituals performed by the priests. According to their religious understanding this would make sense. They had gone and followed the commandments, they had fulfilled religious law and they had achieved righteousness. 

When we hear this story with 21st century ears, we want to learn the lesson of gratitude. We want to be the like the obedient ones who don’t just move on with life selfishly, but give thanks for our gifts. It is an easy position to take. 

Pointing to the ingratitude of others is all too common. Boomers claiming that millennials are entitled and self-centred, and millennials out of touch and unaware of their privilege. The rich giving thanks for their power to earn while slagging the poor for not doing better. The educated look down on the uneducated. Political tribes believe they are righteous while their opponents don’t get it. 

We are pretty good misidentifying the source the blessings, benefits, mercies or righteousness  that befall. Far too often we thank ourselves for our good fortune and good luck. And as people of faith it is no different. 

Like the 9 lepers who incorrectly identified the priests or their own obedience to the law as the reason for their healing and salvation, we too often forget the source of our salvation. Even as we hear and proclaim the gospel week after week, our thinking so easily flips to our salvation being because of our goodness – our being moral, loving our neighbour and doing good works.

Failing to remember who has granted us mercy, who has saved us, is all too easy.

Now if you have been paying attention the past number of weeks, you might catch some familiarity with the numbers 10, 9 and 1. Just a few weeks ago we heard the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin. The shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the one and the woman  10 coins who tears apart her house to find the lost one. The 10 lepers are meant to evoke connections to these stories. 

And the one leper who returns? He isn’t the point of the story, his giving thanks is only incidental to the action – he doesn’t even get any lines. 

Instead as Jesus narrates the action, we are reminded again – just as we were in the parables of the lost – of what God is up to in our world. Jesus’s healing and salvation is given whether we know it or not, whether we see it or not. The Samaritan leper’s return highlights this: unclean because of his disease, unclean because of his ethnicity he has nowhere else to turn, nowhere but to Jesus. 

And once the Samaritan returns Jesus identifies his station, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Jesus makes it clean that this one leper who has returned is one who is still on outside, still marginalized, still excluded from the faithful and righteous community. 

Then Jesus changes all of that. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Faith, trust, relationship to the one who is trustworthy and who grants faith… this One makes well. The God of Israel, the Messiah sent to save, the One who has been healing and teaching throughout Galilee, the one who is about to go to the cross and be raised on the third day… this One has declares the Samaritan acceptable and righteous, this One welcomes  the man into the Kingdom of Heaven.  

Whether this man was a leper or a Samaritan or a beggar – Jesus says that he is one of the faithful. This man to belongs to God… We belong to God

Then… just like the ones that Jesus has been sending out in his name throughout the book of Luke, like the Apostles on the road last week who asked for increased faith, Jesus sends this man too. Out of the borderlands, away from this place of isolation and into God’s world.

Today, Jesus says the same to us. As we come needing Jesus’ mercy, as we beg for healing and wholeness… Jesus grants us salvation whether we know it is from him or not. Jesus makes us whole even if we think it is because of something we did all on our own, or whether we have nowhere else to turn. 

And in this world that wants to convince us that we are the source of our own righteousness, Jesus brings us into God’s Kingdom. Jesus reminds us that God is the source of salvation. Jesus doesn’t wait for our gratitude or praise, but sends us into the world healed and renewed. 

Then Jesus declares that our faith makes us well also. Our trust in the One who is trustworthy, our faith granted by the One who is faithful restores us to health, returns us to community and joins us to the Body of Christ. 

On this Thanksgiving Sunday, we given the same reminder that we receive every other week. That here in this community of faith, that here gathered around the Word, here made clean in the waters of Baptism, that here fed at the banquet table of the Lord… here God is doing what God has always done. God is giving out mercy to all who are in need – God is giving salvation to us. 

Artwork: Ten Lepers by Bill Hoover, 2013

Thanksgiving and the passage of time – Pastor Thoughts

As I write, it is the coldest day of Fall so far, the wind is blowing, flurries are falling but mercifully melting on the ground. After hanging on for longer than usual, the leaves are finally turning those beautiful shades of yellow and red for fall. 

Here we are at Thanksgiving weekend already and it feels like Fall snuck up on us. Weren’t we just sitting at the beach on a hot sunny summer afternoon just yesterday or something? 

The change of weather reminds us of the passage of time. These days my relationship with time feels forever altered; maybe you feel the same. Days of the week and months of the year all feel a little more fuzzy than they did just a few years ago. The wet weather this Spring and Summer certainly changed the way time passed in the natural world with a delayed Spring, delayed Summer and now a delayed Fall. 

Time feels “off” from the pace and routines that we used to follow. There used to be structure and order to the way we experienced time. 

When I was younger I used to measure the days by orchestra and football practice, youth group events and the freedom of weekends. In university and seminary, time passed as semesters, reading weeks, exam dates and essay deadlines.

Then it all changed 13 years ago. Once I was ordained and in the parish, my life became governed by Sundays. Every seven days another Sunday arrived. And in between I needed to prepare for worship, write a sermon, collaborate with all those involved in various roles of making music, reading scripture, making and distributing bulletins, choosing hymns, setting up communion, etc. In some ways it is like putting on a small-scale musical theatre production every week, but different in that all the people attending participate in some way. 

We all have rhythms to our weekly cycle, but in the church during all the other days, and considering whatever other responsibilities, activities and stuff  we have to do, Sunday is always in the background. All the other days point to Sunday. Most pastors take Monday off because it is the furthest from the next Sunday, and the urgency to prepare is lower. My colleagues who do work on Mondays often cite a desire to get a head start on that Sunday urgency. Others have other tricks, like I start memorizing the dates of the Sundays about two months out from wherever I am – it feels helpful to know what is coming. 

Along with the rhythm of Sundays, there are the seasons and festivals that orient us to “when” we are in time. The liturgical calendar has governed my months and years in a way I could understand since I started serving in ministry. It is the same for teachers and the school calendar, for accountants and the fiscal/tax year, for business owners and the schedule of holidays and sales times, etc.

And so here we are being governed by calendars and schedules that have been knocked off their axis by the pandemic. Thanksgiving arrives and it doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving as we once knew it. Re-orientation to the structure of time as we once knew it isn’t an easy thing. 

And yet, through all that we have been through these past years, the grounding of God’s story in time has remained the same. Even as we did not work, play, serve or worship as we were used to these past years, we still found ways to tell the story of God. Of God’s death and resurrection each week. Of the coming of Messiah in Advent, of the birth of Christ at Christmas, of the revelation of Jesus at Epiphany. We still walked in the wilderness of Lent following our Teacher and Master, and we still bore witness to the drama of Holy Week, and rejoiced on the Day of the Resurrection at Easter. 

In the midst of “fuzzy” time and holidays that don’t feel like the versions that we used to know, God’s story still holds us, and, indeed, holds us close. The story of God’s promise to carry God’s people through this life with mercy, grace and new life is clear and true. 

Happy Thanksgiving,

Turning up the faith? – Pastor Thoughts

“Increase our faith!”

The gospel reading for this week has the apostles asking this (demanding this?) from Jesus. 

It is a request or demand that we could make too. With all that is going on in our world today: Hurricanes in the Maritimes, Puerto Rico and Florida. An increasingly unpredictable Russia that is now losing the war in Ukraine and the threats of nuclear war. Orange Shirt Day and the reminder of the hard work of reconciliation that is before us as settler peoples and indigenous peoples. Gas prices shooting up once again and inflation still running rampant and out of control. The front-runner in our Winnipeg mayoral election facing allegations of workplace harassment. 

And that is only the stuff this week…

A little more faith feels like something we could use. Or some hope. Just something more. 

Something more as a group. We could benefit from an increase in faith collectively. Something that bonds us together and helps us through. More faith as neighbourhood, congregation, community, city, nation or world might be the thing that helps us work together, that allows us to overcome challenges, strive to help the weaker and needy among us, or maybe to just stop the social media bickering for awhile. 

There is also all the stuff that we are each facing individually too. Health challenges or crises, work stress, school stress, family conflict, or just the exhaustion of adapting to a fall time that has been completely different from the last two in how the world is approaching pandemic and activities. 

Each of us on our own could use an increase in faith, a little boost to carry us through each day to allow us to see the hope of making it to the other side of whatever obstacle or challenges stand in our way. 

Increase our faith!

But we know that this isn’t how it works. Jesus doesn’t just turn a knob and we become more faithful. 

Faith is relationship. Faith is trust. Faith – like so much in this world – is something to be worked at and practiced. The way it increases is over time as we live life in faithful community that supports and cares for one another. A community shaped by the continual telling and re-telling of the gospel story over weeks and seasons, until that story become grafted onto our bones and we cannot help but see the world through it. 

“Increase our faith!” we might say. 

And even then, our faith isn’t increased. Rather, we see that God’s faith in us has been holding and carrying us all along. We learn that God’s faith placed us – God’s promises of mercy, forgiveness and new life – have been our foundation since before we were born and will be there long after we are gone. 

God says, “My faithfulness is always given for you.”

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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