Mount Olive Lutheran Church
Home About Worship Music and Arts Parish Life Learning Outreach News Contact
Mount Olive Lutheran Church

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sermon from October 24, 2010

Sermon from October 24, 2010
Ordinary Time 30 C + Texts: Luke 18:9-14
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen

Unaccountable Grace

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

A prominent part of the brokenness of our human nature is our tendency to count and to track, to keep tallies with regard to other people. We may count and register offenses against us, we may keep track of how many favors we’ve done others. We’ve perhaps grown beyond the strictures of the 19th century where each social encounter required a reciprocity from the other, but there is still that sense that if someone invites us to dinner, we wonder if we owe them one. Some people are extremely uncomfortable receiving gifts because they seem to feel it obligates them to give one in return.

It doesn’t take a great deal of thought to arrive at the conclusion that such a tendency among us gives us a somewhat awkward, if not downright uncomfortable relationship with the idea of unmerited grace. We who are baptized into Christ claim such grace, we boldly preach that God’s love is ours through Jesus without our doing anything. And yet, we’re not completely ready to let go of our ledgers and spreadsheets. Sometimes because we think our balance is pretty positive, and somewhere in the back of our minds we might want to get credit for that. Sometimes because even if we think our balance might not be the most positive, we’re certain it’s better than others’, and think that should be noted. And sometimes because we fear the opposite and yet aren’t sure we can trust this grace. I’ve been surprised over the years at the number of conversations I’ve had with Christians nearing the end of their days who quietly wonder if they’ve “done enough,” have lived a good enough life. This even from Lutherans of 8 or 9 decades who presumably have heard preaching about God’s unlimited and free gift of grace their whole lives.

Today Jesus tells a parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” In short, he tells a parable to us, if ever we’ve played the accountant with life, if ever we’ve kept a record of wrongs or rights, our own or others. And in this parable there is a trap. We’ll want to pay attention to that. But there is also abiding grace. And we certainly want to hear that.

The trap stems from Jesus’ understanding of our broken human nature.

We’ve been accustomed to seeing the Incarnation as God coming to us, so that we might know God fully. John the evangelist tells us this right at the start of his Gospel – the Son, close to the Father’s heart, makes God known to us.

But I wonder if this is a two-way street for God. Is it possible that the Incarnation was also necessary for God, that God might know us better? Not only that we begin to understand God, but that God begins to understand us? Because to look at Jesus, that certainly seems the case.

Jesus shows a deep awareness of human nature in this parable. He tells it, as Luke says, to those who thought themselves righteous. Then he makes the Pharisee just that kind of person.

And that’s when the trap springs: the minute we hear this story, we’re tempted to pray, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee.” The temptation for counters and makers of tallies is always to compare ourselves to others. Somehow if we can be sure that we’re not as bad as someone else, we feel better. And here the irony is our self-righteousness tells us to give thanks that we aren’t self-righteous like that Pharisee.

What Jesus gets about us is that we can’t really bring ourselves to trust that his grace, his gift of the reign and rule of God, is ours as a gift. And he tells a story that points that out while at the same time trapping us into revealing our self-righteousness as much as the Pharisee. And even if we feel as if we’re the repentant tax collector, we’re still tempted to gloat that we’re on the right side, not like that braggart. And that puts us back into the same boat.

And what I think this means for us is this: I think what Jesus is doing here is telling us that all accounting and tallying is over and done. Paul says it in Colossians: “God made you alive together with Christ, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col. 2:13-14) The old way of accounting and tallying is gone, forever. It’s been nailed to the cross. At the cross, Jesus draws the whole world to himself, coming not to judge the world but to save it. (John 12:32, 47, John 3:17) And that means we need to look at this parable again. Because there’s grace here that we’ve been missing.

The grace here is this: God in Jesus reveals complete disinterest in accounting, which is good news for us sinners.

Jesus’ death and resurrection are the end of the tracking, the end of the counting and comparing. And this is such an important thing for us to remember, given our brokenness.

Because whenever we debate ethical issues and moral questions, often the fuel to the fire of some arguments is the fear that somewhere someone might be getting away with something. That much as we know we need grace, we still can’t let go of our spreadsheets, just in case, and even though, like the workers in another parable of Jesus’, we have received a more than fair wage for our labor, we’re envious that others might get the same gift with a lot less work.

And so ironically, the giver of God’s grace needs to convince us that grace is a good thing. That it’s incredible good news that the father welcomes back the wayward son in love and loves the elder brother as well – what they have or haven’t done makes no difference to the father’s love. That it’s good news that someone like Peter who betrayed Jesus and abandoned him could be welcomed to breakfast after the resurrection and be loved, and then invited to go out as an ambassador of God’s amazing love. That it’s good news that the Son of God could forgive those who killed him and a convicted murderer who hung beside him without asking for their accounting.

What this means is that the Pharisee and the tax collector were both loved by God, but only the tax collector knew it. He went home “justified,” as Jesus said, because he trusted in God’s forgiveness. But I believe that Jesus would teach us that the Pharisee in God’s eyes was justified – just not in his own. Because we know him, because he is us, and here’s his problem: what is he going to do in the middle of the night when he wakes up in a cold sweat afraid he forgot to do something? Or realizes he did something not by the books? In the dark night of the soul, he never knows if he is justified. Martin Luther understood that anguish, that cold sweat, and it led to his great discovery of the grace of God for all, and of the love of God in Jesus instead of the judgment of God.

As it turns out, while God has no interest in accounting, God loves accountants. And tally makers. Just as much as those poor schlubs among us who never dare to reconcile our divine bankbooks because we know we are so far in the red all we can do is throw ourselves on the divine mercy of God.

Jesus tells us this story to wake us up to the glory of his grace.

He knows how we think, how we feel, who we are – he was one of us, after all. And he knows how hard it is for us to accept something freely.

But that is exactly what we are offered, this Good News: God’s love is the same for both in this story, and the same for all of us in this room, and the same for the entire world. God’s love is complete, unending, and ultimate. God doesn’t want or need abject repentance any more than God wants or needs self-righteous prayers – God’s love is always surrounding and holding us, even at our worst. The loss for the Pharisee is not God’s love – he always has that – the loss is that he didn’t know it.

So the advantage to showing repentance, to turning toward God is simply this: it means we know where grace is, where life is, where home is. And so we have a better chance of actually finding it, experiencing it. If you’re starving to death and there’s ample food available, it’s helpful to admit you’re hungry. Or you might ignore the feast.

God’s not keeping books anymore, and that’s incredible good news. God fill us all with faith and hope, that we might learn to trust this for ourselves.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

No comments:

Post a Comment


Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Reconciling in ChristRIC

Copyright 2014 Mount Olive Lutheran Church