He also 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.”
That’s a long time.
Basically double my life.
It is a really remarkable thing that this church is celebrating its 60th anniversary. And yet, the entire Christian tradition is 2,000 years old. 60 out of 2,000 sounds a little less impressive.
However, to live, and survive, in a time such as this is truly worth celebrating. The last 60 years have been marked, much to our chagrin and disappointment, with the decline of the church in America.
But here we are!
And not only are we here, but we are celebrating our being here! We have much to celebrate – not just the anniversary of the church, but also the gospel being made manifest in a place like Woodbridge to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
Seeing as its the church’s anniversary, we can’t really know who we are without knowing where we’ve been.
Cokesbury began in that strange and picturesque time we call the 50’s. In the 50’s everything felt right – we were on the other side of the greatest war ever waged on the earth, and we won. Hawaii and Alaska were added to the union. The Barbie Doll was first introduced.
A gallon of gas only cost 25 cents!
We are inherently a nostalgic people and it is very easy to look back and remember what we might call good. We can turn on an old movie, or remember a particular politician, or even a fashion trend from the past and think fondly of each of them.
However, the 50’s, for whatever good they might’ve introduced, there was an equal number, if not more, of what we could certainly call the bad.
In the late 50’s the first Americans were killed in Vietnam. The Civil Rights movement was spreading across the country and black churches were being regularly bombed on Sunday mornings. And the scapegoat of Communism was causing us to ostracize and at times imprison some of our own citizens.
I once heard someone describe the fifties as a time when everything was black and white and everyone knew right from wrong. And yet, if you just look at a list of major events that took place the year this church started it feels more like a time of gray, when everything was confused.
60 years ago a handful of people from our community started meeting and called themselves Cokesbury Church. To those individuals, the time was ripe for the gospel and the sharing of the Good News, so they did.
But then something changed. It’s not possible to pinpoint exactly what happened, but we all know that we live in a very different world than the world of 1959. In 1959 everyone assumed that you would grow up, get married, have 2.5 children, pay your taxes, and go to church. Business were closed on Sundays because everyone had a church to go to and it was a major moment of the week for all sorts of communities.
That world is long gone.
Which leads us to the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.
I know this seems a strange text to be read and preached upon as we celebrate 50 years as a church, and I will plainly admit that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea, but we might as well listen to what God has to say to us today, even as we celebrate.
The parable ends rather disconcertingly: Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Which seems like I should stand in a place like this and tell people like you to be more humble. But this parable isn’t really about humility at all. If anything, it’s about our futility. It’s about the foolish notion that we can do anything to get ourselves right with God.
Listen: There’s a man who is good and faithful. He’s not a crook, or a womanizer, or an alcoholic. He loves his wife and plays on the floor with his kids when he gets home from work. He evens tithes when the offering plate comes around. He is exactly unlike the tax collector.
The tax collector is a legal crook who steals from his fellow people and bleeds all the money out of them that he possibly can. He’s like a mid-level mafia boss who skims from the top before sending the money up the chain. He’s got enough cars and boats that he can never drive all of them.
They both show up for worship. The good faithful man thanks God that he’s not like the tax-collector and the tax collector asks for God to have mercy on him, a sinner.
And Jesus presents these two men as the means by which God’s grace is communicated in a completely unfair way because it’s the tax collector who gives home justified.
Let’s think about it this way: Which of the two men would we like to have sitting next to us in the pews on Sunday morning? What would we do if the tax collector was here in our midst? How would we respond if he took a little money out of the offering plate and showed up with a new woman every Sunday?
It’s all wrong, right?
This parable is one of Jesus’ final declarations about the business of grace. Grace – the totally unmerited and undeserved gift from God. And here, with resounding convictions, Jesus tells the disciples for the thousandth time that the whole game is unfair.
Grace is completely unfair because what we think is good and right and true matters little to God. Ultimately, not one of us matches up to the goodness of God and instead of kicking us out of the party for being unworthy, God says, “I will make you worthy.”
Do you see what that means? It means that the good religious work of the Pharisee is not able to justify him any more than the crazy sins of the tax collector can kick him out. The whole point of this parable, of almost all the parables, is that these two are both dead in the eyes of God, their good deeds and their sins can’t earn them or prevent them from salvation – they have no hope in the world unless there is someone who can raise the dead.
And even here knowing the condition of their condition, which is also ours, even in the midst of celebrating 60 years as a worshipping community, perhaps we understand what Jesus’ is saying in our minds but our hearts are desperate to believe the opposite.
We might not like to admit it, but we all establish our identities by seeing how we look through other people’s eyes. We spend our days fixing our words and our looks in front of the mirror’s of other people’s opinions so that we will never have to think about the nightmare of being who we really are.
And that’s where this parables stings the hardest. This parable, more than most, is so resoundingly unfair that we can’t bring ourselves to admit the truth: We’re not good enough.
And we fear the tax collector’s acceptance not because it means we need to accept those derelicts around us, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt. We fear his acceptance because it means that none of us will ever really be free until we stop trying to save ourselves and justify ourselves all the time. And that’s all we do all the time!
We do it in ways both big and small. We purchase things we shouldn’t all with the hope that those thing will bring us more approval in the eyes of the people we want approval from the most.
We posture bits of morality and ethics and even politics with some vague hope that it will put us in better standing with God.
And as long as we struggle, like the Pharisee, to do everything perfectly perfect all the time, we will resent the unfairness of God to all of our struggling.
God is unfair – It’s true.
But God’s unfairness is Good News. For if God were really fair, fair according to the terms set by the world, then God would’ve closed to the door to the party a long long time ago.
Which leads us back to what we are celebrating today. No matter who we identify with in the story – the good religious liar or the honest tax collector – there is a really strong temptation to thank God that we are not like other people. We pass someone on the street or we see the name on a particular bumper sticker on someone’s car or we read someone’s facebook status and we measure our lives against theirs and we come out on the other side grateful. It’s even present in an anniversary like this, because isn’t surviving in the current marketplace of ideas a subtle form of thanking God we’re not like everyone else?
Christians, at least in the last few decades, have tried to avoid being seen as different from other people. We have done so out of fear of seeming too strange, or too fundamentalist, or too evangelical. We’ve been content with letting our faith become privatized and something we do on Sundays. But because we have tried so hard to not seem different, it has been unclear why anyone would want to be like us, much less join a church that started in 1959.
Or, to make things worse, we’ve established a Christian identity such that only perfect people can be present in the pews.
It’s no wonder people don’t want to come to church.
The truth of the matter is that being Christian means being different. But unlike how we so often present this in worship or in the greater cultural ethos, it doesn’t mean being like the good religious man, it means admitting that we are all like the tax collector.
You see, following Jesus means admitting the condition of our condition – its falling to the floor Sunday after Sunday with the same confession on our lips, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And it’s knowing that before we can even bring those words to our lips God has forgiven every last one of our sins through the cross of his Son.
That’s what makes us different. Not being able to keep a religious roof over our heads for 60 years, but 60 years of rediscovering week after week how good the Good News really is. It’s why we come to this table over and over again to be made one with the one whose humility on the cross turned out to be a victory that defeated sin and death.
In the bread and the cup we see how unfair God is. Because, if grace were fair, then none of us would be worthy to come to the table, whether we’re a publican or a pharisee. But thanks be to God that grace is unfair, making room for each and every single one of us. Amen.