This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (10/23/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 18:9-14 and Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22.
You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon is significantly different from the written text.)
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I was raised in an activist household. My parents had really strong political opinions, and I grew up in an environment of really intense ideology. For me, as a child, that ideology was what would today be broadly described as “progressive.” Our family was actively engaged in struggles for peace and justice in a variety of ways. We were hard-core Democrats.
Living in Wichita, Kansas, being an outspoken Democrat meant something. It meant swimming against the current of our surrounding political culture. It mean being a loser during our mock elections at school. Later on, in high school, my outspoken views meant that I didn’t have many friends. I was openly mocked by other students, and sometimes even by teachers. I got used to living a life of resistance to the mainstream culture, but being socially excluded was painful in ways I don’t think I even fully understood at the time. Standing by my beliefs meant being judged on a daily basis, and I grew to be a pretty judgmental person myself.
When I was really young, in grade school and middle school, I had some amount of ideological stability, some ground to stand on. Because even though my family was in the minority as Democrats in Kansas, I still felt like I belonged to a well-defined and somewhat respectable camp. Bill Clinton was president for most of my conscious childhood, and I was a big fan. I admired Clinton, and looked to him as a champion of the ideas and causes I believed in.
But early on in high school, that all fell apart for me. In the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Clinton launched Tomahawk missile strikes against a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. They said they were making VX gas there, but it turned out it was mostly aspirin.
This really upset me. I felt certain that Clinton had timed the strikes to draw attention away from his embarrassing political situation at home. I was shocked and disillusioned by what I saw as my president’s willingness to sacrifice the lives of others to maintain his image and grip on power. From that point on, I was no longer a fan of Bill Clinton. Soon, I didn’t even consider myself a Democrat.
I stayed away from mainstream partisan politics for quite a while after that. It wasn’t until the 2008 presidential elections that I allowed myself to get excited about a potential president. For me, Barack Obama was a truly inspirational candidate. After eight years of nonstop war, growing poverty, and environmental destruction, I was desperate for someone who would aim our country in a better direction. Still, I felt really nervous about pinning my hopes on this freshman senator from Chicago. I couldn’t forget how deceived I had felt in the past when I had put my trust in the partisan political establishment.
But Obama promised he would help the poor. He promised he would heal the earth. I wasn’t sure whether he was the real deal or not, but I decided to take a chance. Along with so many in my generation, I cheered when Barack Obama was inaugurated President of the United States.
In the seven and a half years since Faith and I just about froze to death watching Obama’s inauguration on the Washington Mall, the political situation in our nation has gotten worse in many ways. Now, I don’t want to deny the real progress that has taken place over this time. I’m thinking of the extension of health care benefits to millions more Americans. The growing recognition – both legal and social – of LGBT equality, and a broadening conversation about what it means to be black in a country that was built on the backs of millions of African-Americans. I can see how we are growing as a country.
And yet, during this same period, so much has gone wrong. The endless war on terror, launched by President Bush and his henchmen, has only been expanded under President Obama. This administration has developed the high-tech surveillance state to extremes unheard of before in human history. And despite Obama’s promises to heal the planet, the threat of climate change is even more dire today than it was when he was first sworn in.
And the whole spirit of this country. It’s gotten terrible. I mean, I don’t mean to say that things were great before. But during the last eight years, we’ve been going to a whole new level of nastiness. Open hatred has become normal. Religious bigotry. Racism. Misogyny. Classism. All types of behavior that were once considered limited to the lunatic fringe of American politics have been ushered into the inner sanctum of our newspapers, television broadcasts, and presidential debates. It’s hard to know how to respond sometimes.
And I’ll be honest, I don’t always respond well. It’s easy for me to hate people who are on the other side from me politically. I often find myself casually dismissing their humanity, dismissing the very real fear and anxiety that so many Americans, of all political persuasions are feeling right now. Rather than let myself feel that pain, it’s easier for me to get into battle mode. It’s easier to attack others, to project my own fears onto them – the worry I have about the direction our country, our world is headed in.
This is something that I need to be real about. It’s easy to hate people, and it’s getting easier. This whole environment we’re in right now encourages it. We separate ourselves from one another – by politics, by class, by race, culture, geography, and so many others. Rather than having the hard conversations with one another, it’s easier to stand far off and judge others – often people we don’t even know.
The Gospel reading today is all about this kind of anonymous hatred. Jesus asks us to imagine two people standing together in a public place. And – I hope you’ll forgive me – I’m going to take some liberties with the story this morning. We don’t have a Temple today, and there are very few places where people of all shapes and sizes come together. So let’s imagine these two parents sitting next to one another in their cars as they are waiting to pick up their children from the local elementary school.
One of these parents is a socially conscious progressive. She buys organic. She drives a Prius and is getting solar panels installed on her house. She contributes a good chunk of her income to charity, and she volunteers for all sorts of good causes. She considers herself one of the good people. She’s part of the solution. She’s on the right side of history. She wishes others would get on board and come around to her perspective. Or at least get out of the way.
There’s another parent out in front of the school, waiting for her kids to come out. She drives a beat-up SUV with an NRA sticker on the back windshield. She’s not sure whether President Obama was really born in America, but she’s suspicious of anything the liberal media has to say about it. One thing she does know for sure: This country needs a change immediately, because things have gotten pretty bad.
So as they’re sitting next to each other in their cars, waiting for their children to emerge, they’ve got some time to think. The first person, she’s thinking about the lady in the SUV. What a gas guzzler. She notices the NRA sticker, and she wonders how anyone could actually think that way after all the mass shootings we’ve seen in the last couple years. That lady is probably a racist. She’s probably voting for Donald Trump. Thank God I’m not like her.
The other woman doesn’t have any idea that she’s being judged. She doesn’t know, because she’s not really paying a lot of attention to what’s going on around her. She’s deep in prayer. It looks like the bank is going to foreclose on her house. Her husband lost his job a year and a half ago, and keeping up with the mortgage has been a struggle since then. She’s praying, because she knows she needs God’s mercy. She knows that there’s no way she is going to get out of this situation by her own devices. She needs a miracle. In her frustration and despair, she cries out – “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
The point of Jesus’ story seems clear enough to me. It doesn’t really matter whether the lady in the Prius is making better life choices. (The Pharisee was definitely making better life choices than the Tax Collector.) The most important thing to God isn’t whether a person’s ideology is right, or whether they follow all the rules. Jesus tells us that what God really values is a broken heart and contrite spirit. Genuine repentance is more pleasing to God than all the superficial righteousness we can produce on our own.
This is relevant to me. I don’t own a Prius, but I fit the bill of this modern-day Pharisee. I like to think that I make good choices, that I’m a good person, and that I get the blessings that I deserve for my good behavior. Maybe you do, too. This is a pretty normal, natural way of thinking.
But it’s not Jesus’ way of thinking. In Jesus, I meet a God who longs for me to let down my defenses and embrace the reality of my own spiritual poverty. I want to believe I’m strong, but I’m not. I want believe that I have it all together, but I don’t. I want to belong to the right causes, the right church, the right political party. But God is a lot less concerned than I am with being right. In the face of all this darkness and despair, Jesus is focused on being love.
I believe this story – the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the self-righteous progressive and the Republican – is relevant to all of us, regardless of our politics. Because the sickness that we’re seeing in this election goes a lot deeper than an election. It’s much bigger than the candidates who are asking for our votes. It’s not just a matter of parties, lobbyists, and super-PACs. It would be so much easier if we could locate the problem outside ourselves and go about curing it. But the reality is that there is something truly wrong with us. This sickness is within us, and it’s being played out in our daily lives.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to look our sickness straight in the eye – to own it, and ask God to make us whole again. Jesus invites us to live lives of courage. Following him is going to demand bravery, because this life is really scary sometimes. Instead of seeing the fear, and ugliness, and pain as our ultimate reality, Jesus shows us how to embrace these challenging situations and take them as an opportunity for redemption. Forgiveness. Sacrificial love.
When I hear the hatefulness being spewed by the media, both right-wing and progressive. When I see those Trump bumper stickers and sneer. When I look at people around me and judge them because they’re not as enlightened as I am. I’m living my life in fear. I’m living my life outside of the love of God. I’m not being a friend of Jesus.
It’s hard to imagine sometimes – for me anyway – this life of God where tenderness is more important than winning, and love is more powerful than walls. It’s a challenge to stay awake to all the times that I judge others – and feel like I’m well-justified! It’s humbling to realizing that even when I’m right, my judgment and bitterness make me wrong.
In this country that is being torn apart by the need to be right, the need to win, this obsession with overcoming our fears by defeating external enemies – both real and imagined – what does it look like for us to walk in the broken, humbled way that Jesus shows us? What does it mean for us to see ourselves in the Tax Collector, and open ourselves to the forgiveness that we desperately need?
We can’t do it on our own, but the Holy Spirit will give us power and strength if we ask for it. If we cry out together – “God, be merciful to us, sinners!”