This is my sermon from October 23, 2022, the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost in Year C. The link for the lectionary is here.
When I was in college, many moons ago, I took a political science course about game theory. To say I struggled with this course is an understatement. I could never quite buy into the “there are absolute winners and there are absolute losers” part of the theory. The idea of a zero sum game, in which when one person wins another must lose the exact same amount never sat well with me. Though I didn’t couch it in theological terms at the time, I realized later that I just didn’t believe that in God’s economy, in God’s vision for the world, that this could be true.
I also realized later that some of my struggle was because I am not a black and white thinker. I love the shades of gray. The gray spaces have always seemed to me to be the fertile places, the places where there is possibility, where there is hope.
In our current political climate, where it seems rudimentary standards of civility have been tossed aside, very many people, including people of faith, proclaim an understanding of what is right that seems so very, very wrong. People who deeply desire to be a part of this amazingly wonderful and sometimes crazy feeling Jesus Movement say things, do things, advocate for things that are totally inconsistent with the way Jesus lived. It makes me wonder how there can be such vastly different understandings of what it means to be Christian, of what defines a Christian value or moral.
It is a Christianity in which there is an “in crowd” and an “out crowd,” distinctions made based on right behavior or belief, as determined by people who think they have it right. And, if they have it right, anyone who acts or thinks differently must be wrong.
They are Christians, so Muslims must be wrong.
They are white, so people of color…
They’ve been living here for a while, so immigrants…
They are men, so women…
They are wealthy, so those struggling to make ends meet…
They work, so the unemployed…
The list goes on and on…
And that way of thinking, which has nothing to do with Jesus, with the way he lived his life, leads to all sorts of reactions and decisions an ways of being that underscore difference for all the wrong reasons. This emphasis on the difference that separates results in fear and anxiety and more distancing behavior, and this cycle, too, goes on and on.
Pick up the paper, or listen to a newscast, and you cannot help but come across this. People are talking non-stop about how to control others, about how to get people in line with their way of thinking, of their way of behaving. We encounter people working overtime to erect barriers to inclusion, to unity, to the common good, in order to protect their own positions, their own understanding, their own privilege. This is “in crowd” and “out crowd” writ large.
These are not evil people. These are people like you and me, people who want to do the right thing, who believe they know what it takes, who believe they have the answers to the questions of what has gone wrong. In big ways and small, we all fall into this way of being sometimes.
Now, you may be thinking that I am reading the Gospel in a particular way – the way I grew up hearing it read, in fact: that the Pharisee and the tax collector are examples of a wrong and a right way to approach God. It’s the equivalent of a zero sum game. In that reading, the Pharisee is self-righteous and Jesus is saying that he has it all wrong. It is the tax collector, who has it right.
But what if it’s not quite that simple? What if the message for us is that faithfulness is not just a matter of doing the right things v. doing the wrong things? God’s love is not finite. God’s love is more expansive, more generous, more forgiving, more merciful, more just than we can imagine. God’s love is unconditional. God’s love is not a zero sum game, and we are not one-dimensional players.
Each of us has a bit of the Pharisee and the tax collector in us. There are ways in which get it right and can offer thanks to God for that, as the Pharisee is doing, albeit gratitude tinged with something of a litany of his righteous behaviors. There are ways in which we realize we fall short and need to ask God’s forgiveness, as the tax collector is doing.
What would happen if we read this Gospel passage keeping in mind that it is part of the larger narrative of God’s love, grace, mercy, justice, and compassion – the source of hope?
Each of us is called to act faithfully and to express our gratitude to God for the opportunity to do so, and each of us has the opportunity to ask God’s forgiveness when we fall short. If we believe in the mind-boggling expansiveness of God’s love, in which there are not winners and losers, but only God’s beloved, humility is key. For it is when we are humble, whether in our faithfulness or when we stray, that we know God is God, and we are not. In our humbleness, just as in those fertile gray areas between black and white, we experience the possibilities, the promise, and the grace of God.