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Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA October 27, 2013.

23rd Sunday after Pentecost; Year C (RCL): Joel 2:23-32; Ps. 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-6, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

      I don't know about you, but living here, I've had more than my fair share of close calls in traffic. And Yes, some fender-benders too. People swerve in and out of lanes, cutting me off, endangering others, and slamming on their brakes when those they tailgate need to stop also. I sometimes pull onto the shoulder when braking seems not enough to avoid a collision. And there are times when I pass accidents, knowing the crumpled wreck with shrouded interiors mean someone was seriously injured or has died. In times like those I have said, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

      As I thought about this gospel lesson today, "There, but for the grace of God, go I" was again before me. For, if I'm honest with you, I can see some of myself in both the Pharisee and the tax collector. Perhaps you see that for yourself as well.

      So far in Luke's gospel, we've heard parables about money, relationships, wealth, persistence and prayer. Now we are challenged by 'where you put your trust' and 'how we regard ourselves to others.'

      Genuine repentance and pretentious piety stand in stark contrast in today's gospel. We know all of creation stands in need of God's forgiveness. But keep the faith. God's people - 'all who have longed for his appearing' - shall be accounted righteous for Jesus' sake. Our God is merciful to sinners. And for all this, we the assembly glorify God forever.

      Now, we might expect the religious insider to be blessed and the obviously moral person to be judged right with God. But as is so often the case with the parables of Jesus, today's lesson sweeps away all conventional expectations. Instead we learn the coming reign of God is about unexpected reversals of fortune with judgment rooted in mercy.

      Luke begins with Jesus telling this parable "to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt." This appears to be a public teaching, perhaps including the disciples, but also directed to surrounding others as well. There, at the outset, we hear there's a lesson being taught, and Jesus is reaching into his bag of parables to teach it.

       Devotion to prayer meant regular observances three times a day, at roughly 9 a.m., midday at 12 noon, and later at 3 p.m. Prayer was considered to be especially efficacious when offered in the temple. Also, Jewish law prescribed an obligatory fast on the Day of Atonement. But those seeking to gain special merit also fasted twice a week. Finally, a Tithe given would be a tenth of all one's produce, but this Pharisee may have tithed on everything, even things on which there was no obligation to tithe.

      The Pharisees were the most prominent and influential group in Palestinian Jewish life. They were precise interpreters of the law. Jesus may have highly regarded the Pharisees, but he was also critical of what he saw as their hypocrisy. The Pharisees were primarily in conflict with Jesus over the matter of keeping the Sabbath 'holy,' and other disputes involving fasting, tithing, and ritual purity. Jesus felt that compassion served as a better guide to proper behavior rather than strict adherence to the law. Our Lord argued their interpretation that healing constituted 'work,' and challenged the Pharisees that doing good could never be wrong, even on the Sabbath. The true question at play was always whether or not Jesus had the authority to interpret God's will in a manner that differed from the scrupulous study and strict understanding of the Pharisees.

      Tax collectors, on the other hand, were Jewish agents who served the Roman Empire. They were given territories to patrol, commanding tax income from tenants, merchants, and vendors, often pocketing more than the state expected, with the surplus lining their own pockets. You may remember they were clearly despised by the Jewish people for all of these practices.

      Jesus surprises his followers and us when he says it's not the Pharisee but instead the tax collector, that morally suspect, second-class citizen, who goes home "justified" and right with God. Let this be a reminder to all of us. We are sinners who beg for God's mercy, and are utterly dependent upon God's love and forgiveness - not only for ourselves but for all of God's creation.   

      While earnest in his practices, the Pharisee did not appear before God in prayer. He stood by himself, praying with himself. Prayer, true prayer, is always offered to God and to God alone. Instead, he went to justify himself before God and declare how good he was.

      The tax collector stood apart, and would not even lift his eyes up before God. Bent over, beating his breast, he humbled himself in mind, body, spirit and prayer as he whispered, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."  

      In Jesus' story, I'd like to suggest it appears that both men were sincere and devout. In fact, I would say that the Pharisee is NOT a hypocrite; for, in spite of his boastfulness, he lived a life faithful to God's commandments, such as he understood them. The other was involved in a profession in which extortion and dishonesty were expected. It seems quite unfair that the man of exemplary behavior is not acceptable, while the one with the questionable vocation is. The Pharisee had everything, less the one essential thing, which the tax collector had nothing but - a sense of his own unworthiness and his need for God's grace.

      Our opinion of ourselves reflects who we think God is. The man who said, 'I am not like other people; I fast; I give tithes,' seemed to imagine God's Kingdom as some big enterprise in which he commanded incredible stature and importance. Perhaps he saw himself gaining a place as a critical agent and emissary. The tax collector saw God as unmerited grace, burning love and endless forgiveness. He was AWED by the God he knew.

      There is a saying often attributed to St. Augustine: "A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints." Is the problem that although the Pharisee offers thanks to God, he fails to show any real need for God or Grace or Forgiveness?

      This parable speaks to the dangers of spiritual pride and the benefits of humility, repentance and confession. Pharisees could be self-righteous and complacent in their attitude toward God. They sound like God should be honored to have their homage. But we know Jesus loathed religious pretense. Some of the most biting comments Jesus ever uttered against the Pharisees, the Seven Woes, appear in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew's gospel. 'The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.'

      Jesus did not condone the sins of tax collectors and harlots. He came to save them. Being acknowledged by society as sinners, maybe it was easier for them to take the first step and confess it. This parable shows the fundamental basis to approach God involves a realization of our own sinfulness and need for God's mercy. The posture of grace and gratitude is to humble oneself before God. Grace is not earned nor is it deserved, but that it is freely given by God.

      In closing his second letter to Timothy, Paul offers a final perspective on life from one who faces death. He is in prison and his judgment at the hands of others approaches. Though others may have disappointed him, Paul is sure of his faith in the Lord, who has stood by him and lent him strength. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

      Today we bring Benton Charles Powell-Switaj at 9:15 a.m. and Jackson Bryce Woodward at 11:15 a.m., to be sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever. Becoming a new being in Christ means reversing our natural tendencies. We are presenting them before God as the full, perfect beings they are, in all of their baby humility, because they haven't learned the ways of the world!

      Too often, we judge other people solely by the actions we can see and not by their intentions. In that we are like the Pharisees. If we could turn that around, and judge only ourselves by our actions--like the tax collector-- and generously "judge" others by their intentions, it might change our lives. This would be humility in action. Try judging yourself not by what you meant, but by what you actually do, or don't do. See how people perceive you. That may be a huge step for all of us on the path toward greater humility.

      "There, but for the grace of God, go we."