Sunday, October 27, 2013

"Thank God for self-righteousness!"

Text: Luke 18 9-14 (two men pray)

Who here today would you say is the best Christian? Is it me because I'm the minister who takes up most of the air time? Is it the person who gives the most money to the church? The one who spends the most time visiting the lonely and the sick? The one who works the hardest at organizing pie socials?

Making judgements like these seems like an inevitable part of life. When we look at others in family, church, or neighbourhood we are tempted to compare. Who is taller, smarter, more attractive, and so on?

We build up our sense of self partly through such judgements. They help us figure out who we are and what is possible in our time and place. But although judging is seems inevitable, it gets us into no end of trouble.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus tells a joke about judging others. Two Jews walk into a temple to pray. One is a Pharisee who is pious and obedient. The other is a tax collector who collaborates with the Roman oppressors.

The Pharisee begins his prayer by offering thanks to God. But he gives thanks not for his blessings, but for being better than people like the tax collector. He implies that he has earned his superior status by fasting and tithing. As the text says, he trusts in himself to be made right with God and regards others with contempt.

In contrast, Jesus upholds the prayer of the tax collector who simply says "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" Whether we know it or not, we are all humble sinners, and only God can make us right with God.

Jesus' joke about two men praying points to a central paradox of our faith. We don't have to do anything to be saved. At the same time, family and church urge us to obey God's laws and follow in God's way of peace and love.

After years of trying to walk in the way of Jesus and to study the teachings of our faith, I don't feel confident that I have wrapped my head around this paradox. But I continue to try since it strikes me as so important.

Our egos are mostly an illusion. Our individual selves, with all the qualities we assign to them, depend on forces beyond ourselves.

The atoms that make up our bodies were forged in stars that exploded before our sun was born. Our lives are connected to the entire web of life and to its three billion year long history. Our minds are composed of concepts that flow from thousands of years of human history. Our personal circumstances are dependent upon the family and communities into which we were born and the clash of economic forces.

Each of us, though unique, is dependent upon cosmic, biological and cultural evolution. We give thanks for the blessings that create us. But to think that we create these blessings is a mistake, Jesus reminds us.

As Christians, the name we give for our dependence upon the forces of the cosmos is God. This might imply that we are puppets. However, I don't imagine God as a puppeteer. The God revealed to me in Christ is a God who sustains us in ways too numerable to fully know or name, but one who does not ordain our actions.

And yet we cannot earn our salvation by good works or religious obedience. Does this imply that we can do whatever we want? Is it OK for the tax collector to continue to help the Romans? Is it OK if the Pharisee were to stop giving one tenth of his income to the Temple?

To me, the parable suggests that the Pharisee should feel empathy for the tax collector instead of contempt. Both of these men are caught in the grip of the Roman empire. Both cope with the empire in their own ways but without being able to overthrow its violence and inequality.

The main difference between the two is that the tax collector knows that he is a sinner. The Pharisee, on the other hand, thinks he has raised himself above sin through his own efforts. He is blind to the ties that bind him both to the tax collector and to Rome.

Today we are caught in similar circumstances, both those of us who are regarded as righteous and those who are regarded as sinful.

Jesus calls us to reject such labels. We are all sinners, less for what we do than for the chains that imprison us. The good news is that we are also all saved. The God who sustains us also promises to release us from our bondage and oppression. This does not always happen during our lifetimes, but it surely occurs at the end of life.

In Jesus' time, a central source of sin was the power of Rome. Today a central source of sin is the power of industry and the pollution that it causes. As with Rome, resisting industrial pollution can sometimes seem impossible. In many instances, we are forced to cope with the problems caused by industry and get on with our lives despite our wishes that the world was different.

Take the energy industry as an example. The burning of coal, oil and gas pollutes the atmosphere. In Borderlands, as in so many other areas, we are dependent upon this industry with a coal mine and power plant in Coronach.

Should we, like the tax collector, ask God for mercy because one of our region's main industry pollutes? Should people like me who live in a coal region but don't work in the industry feel smug like the Pharisee and thank God that I am not one of those so-called rogues who work in the mine or power plant?

Well, none of us decided to be born into a world filled with internal combustion engines and coal-fired generating plants. None of us decided that there should be seven billion people on earth instead of the 200 million who lived at the time of Jesus. None of us decided that rail traffic should largely be replaced by trucks and cars. All of these are simply the given facts of our time.

I see no contradiction between being a driver of an automobile, a coal miner, or a person who heats his home with natural gas, and also as someone who advocates for a world without fossil fuels. The sad truth is there is often not much we can do to bring about such a huge change. In this crazy world, someone is going to mine coal, gas and oil. Someone is going to burn fossil fuel for electricity. Someone is going to drive cars and trucks to get from point A to B even if we don't.

I try to remain aware of the dangers of burning fossil fuels. I regard our society's energy industry as irrational and sinful. But just as the tax collector and the Pharisee couldn't overthrow the Roman Empire, neither can we do much to change the energy industry. I don't want to be judged because I adapt to this industry instead of always resisting it. I want to be understood and embraced by fellow sinners who, like me, are trying to humbly cope with the world as we find it.

Sin abounds, and carbon pollution is just one aspect of it. But grace abounds even more. And so with the tax collector, we pray, "God be merciful to me, a sinner!"

We were all born into a crazy and broken world, even as we are blessed by the mysteries and wonders of that same world. All of us are sinners, broken on the stones of family and community life, even as we are blessed by those same families and communities.

Sometimes, we may react like the Pharisee and feel superior to social pariahs like tax collectors.

My prayer is that instead we will become more like the tax collector and realize that we are caught in forces stronger than we can withstand. May we also realize that God's mercy is here to bring us back to his Love, which is beyond sin.

In the freedom of this realization, we can act in small or large ways to confront the sins of our times. May we also accept God's grace to change things we don't like about ourselves and grow more fully into our status as children of God who bear the face of Christ.

"God be merciful to us, sinners all!"


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