Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Business of Showing Mercy

Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes
Pentecost 22/October 24, 2010
Luke 18:9-14

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

If you had your druthers, which would you prefer: being full or being empty? Satisfied or hungry? Rolling in dough or down to your last red cent?

Whether we’re talking about your stomach, your car’s gas tank or your bank account…would you rather be: full or empty?

It’s a silly question, of course. The answer is obvious: Given a choice between being “full” or “empty,” we will always opt for “full,” won’t we?

That’s true in our physical lives, our financial lives and our spiritual lives.

In this regard, I’m always intrigued by things like what names new ELCA congregations are choosing for themselves.  What kinds of church names “sell” in the religious marketplace of the early 21st century?

There are, for example 70 Community Lutheran Churches in the ELCA…but not a single “Miserable Sinner Lutheran Church.”

New Life Lutheran Church is also “hot” right now—with 17 of those across our church body….but there’s not a single “Empty Hands Lutheran Church.”

There are 10 Rejoice Lutheran Churches and 8 Celebration Lutheran Churches—but not a single “Lutheran Church of the Grief-Stricken Heart.”

And you’ll find a whopping 440 First Lutheran Churches, but not even one “Last Lutheran Church.”

We love church names that convey images of fullness, coming-out-on-top, togetherness and joy.

But we never choose church names that suggest being empty or humbled or last…

…even though, more than once, Jesus said that the first will be last and the last will be first!

And right here in this morning’s gospel lesson he concludes with these words: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Which do you prefer: being empty or being full? What a silly question! Given that choice—we always, always, always opt for “fullness.”

…which is a problem when we try to make sense out of this morning’s gospel lesson, a parable in which Jesus describes a very full man and a very empty man.

The very full man is the Pharisee. He is full to overflowing—so we expect him to come out ahead here.

Why do I say that? First of all, the Pharisee knows how to pray. Look at him: he stands up straight, looking up to heaven.

He prays--not a “give me, give me” prayer....but a “thank you, thank you” prayer. The Pharisee doesn’t make demands on God, but rather thanks God for God's goodness, God's guidance of his life—for the fact that God has kept him from a life of pilfering, swindling and philandering.

Moreover, the Pharisee is a true blue follower of God. He’s committed to God 1000%. Other Jews fasted one time a year—but he fasted twice each week! Other Jews contributed 10% of some of their income—he gave 10%, he tithed on his entire income. If you were on the temple finance committee, if you were running a first century capital appeal, you’d expect this Pharisee to be a major giver!

In every respect, this Pharisee was full—full of gratitude, full of holiness, full of sacrifice. We’d call him a pillar of the congregation--a model believer.

The other guy in Jesus’ parable, though--the tax collector—he’s something else! He is utterly, completely, totally empty.

In his neighbors’ eyes, the tax collector was simply a thief. No one respected him. Everybody avoided him.

When he snuck into the temple, the tax collector stood off to the side. Instead of standing up straight and gazing toward the heaven--the tax collector's eyes were downcast, his arms folded across his chest, beating his breast.

All he can do is beg for forgiveness for his God-forsaken life. Sounds like a guy whose spiritual gas-tank was on EMPTY.

So what are we to make of the ending to this parable? Jesus renders this astonishing verdict: I tell you, this man [the empty tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other [the full Pharisee]; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

If the Pharisee was the full one—and if being full is always better than being empty—what are we to make of Jesus’ startling conclusion to this parable?

Take another look at what the Pharisee was full of.

True, he starts his prayer by saying, "God, I thank you..." But soon the Pharisee gets stuck on another word, the shortest word in the English language, the word that showed his true colors. "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."

The Pharisee is full all right—he’s full of himself. His favorite hymn is: "How Great I Art."

The Pharisee is full—but he doesn’t go home justified, righteous, in line with God's saving purposes. Why? Because he has no need for anything God might have to offer.

The tax collector, on the other hand, is empty.

He’s a hopeless case—and he knows it.

The tax collector is at the end of his rope--and he realizes it.

The tax collector brings no achievements before God.

He simply throws himself on “the mercy of the court.”

And Jesus says that he--not the Pharisee--goes home justified, righteous, in line with God's saving purposes—even though the tax collector is utterly empty.

How can that be? It’s because the tax collector dares to speak the awful truth about himself--the awful truth about all of us. We are sinners in need of mercy. We are lost causes in need of rescuing. We are empty vessels in need of filling.

And because the tax collector dares speak the awful truth about himself--he simultaneously makes room for the awesome truth about God: the truth that God is in the business of showing mercy, the business of rescuing lost causes, the business of filling up empty vessels.

The reason that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, went home that God could still do something for the tax collector. There was an empty, hollow space in the tax collector's life that God could and did fill.

If you find yourself on top of the world, all your ducks lined up in a row, everything going your way….

If you discover that your spiritual life is particularly rewarding, especially not be quick to assume thereby that God is impressed.

But if, on the other hand, you wrestle with a hollowness, a sense of failure, a profound not be quick to assume that God is far away from you.

When your awareness of sin seems most overwhelming, when all your doubts are most daunting, when the needle on your spiritual gas tank gauge is bouncing on empty....then, then is precisely when God is most near to you.

For then God can do something for you.

God can do what God does best:

God can demonstrate his power chiefly in showing mercy, for the sake of the crucified, risen, Lord Jesus Christ.

In short: God can—and God will--fill you up!

And God will not stop there, mind you. God won’t be content to fill you up. God will call upon you, God will empower you to fill up others in his name.

That is God’s mission in the world—the mission to which we each are called and for which congregations like Trinity exist: the mission of filling up the empty with God’s blessings and God’s redemption.

But here’s the trick: God does his best work when we come to grips with the emptiness in our lives—when we go places we’d rather not go….and when we approach other persons who otherwise spook us because they’re so hurt or frustrated or depressed…so empty.

So, my dear friends of Trinity Lutheran, if that is what God is up to in our world….where might that take your congregation? Who might you find yourself noticing for the first time? Who have you been side-stepping, because they seemed so bereft, so downcast, so empty? Who is out there, maybe within a stone’s throw of this church building—who needs to be filled with the good things that God alone gives? Whose spiritual gas tank, whose empty stomach, whose vacuous life does God want to fill up—in and through you and your ministries here at Trinity?

You’re in a transition time as a congregation. You’re focused, rightfully so, on the changes that are coming in the leadership of your church.

But what if—what if the most important task before you wasn’t merely to figure out what kind of pastor or staff leadership model you need? What if God wanted you to focus first on why he planted you here in Detroit Lakes? What word are your neighbors dying to hear from your lips? What emptiness in your community are you uniquely equipped to fill?

This great parable, this astounding story that Jesus told asks us all to set aside our fixation on religion-as-usual and ponder anew all the pockets of emptiness here in your mission field that God in Jesus Christ is just itching to fill up.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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