Sermon, “A Nation in Need of Mercy”

Sermon, Nov 13th, 2016, “A Nation in Need of Mercy” 

Scripture: Luke 18: 9-14; The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector

It’s been a season full of emotions. First the Cubs shocked the world in the World Series in the midst of a fairly divisive election year; I think we all agree on that at least, and then came election night in America. Just as Pastor Steve shared last week that he was glued to the TV during Game 7 of the World Series, my wife and I are political junkies and watched too many hours of election coverage. The commercials, ads, fliers, debates and voting are finished, all that’s left is the transfer of power. I’m not sure how election night left you, if you woke up on Wednesday upset or pleased and might have hoped that you could come to church and not think about it for a while, but we have to take the time to reflect together. It is my hope that my reflection will help you process and have a better understanding of how we move forward together. Our nation begins to turn our collective eyes toward Thanksgiving.  Yet we might wonder, how in the world do we offer thanks in a time like this, where division still exists and the pain for some is real? How do we move forward after the season it has been?

We live in a culture and time where it feels like division rules the day; it’s the reality of our nation. On some level our politics are set up to be divisive with two major parties and this dualism affects our daily life and interactions. I heard it said this week that if you really want to see how divided we are, look at your Facebook feed or think about how many of your closest friends or even family voted differently than you. Too often, we set up boundaries along the lines of politics, ideology and belief. On some level it’s natural to gravitate toward like-minded people, but our faith calls us to a different place, to break down the barriers that we set up between us. In order for our nation to heal after this week and season of constant division, we have to consider how we can look at and relate with each other differently.

There is something about the parable we heard today from Luke that can speak to us during this season, after the election in time for Thanksgiving. It’s easy to miss the point from this lesson though. Theologian Paul Tillich, commenting on the Apostle Paul’s assertion that the gospel is a stumbling block, once said that the danger is stumbling over the wrong thing. That’s the challenge of today’s parable. It’s easy to read this story in a rather simplistic and predictable manner.

The Pharisee, who is often viewed as the opposition to Jesus’ ministry, is being judgmental toward others. He is giving thanks, but in a manner we would believe is not appropriate for a religious person. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even this tax collector, those sinners.” It’s easy to read this parable, say it’s about being humble and not judgmental, and move on. We’re called not to be like the Pharisee. Perfect, next chapter. Yet there is something else going on here, something deeper.

The very beginning of this Parable reminds us who this story is directed to. “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.” These words maybe true for us today on the Sunday after an election. How quick are we to relate to the Pharisee and be thankful that we’re not like the other? The Message version puts it this way: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Jesus is speaking to Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and others. Jesus is speaking to us. It’s easy to place the blame on the “other”.

It’s easy to place blame on the self-righteous Pharisee, but wasn’t he really doing everything right? Did you notice that everything this Pharisee said is true? As Rev. Dr. David Lose of Lutheran Theological Seminary writes, “In order to avoid the kind of self-congratulatory reading of the parable that the story itself would seem to condemn, it may help to note that, in fact, everything the Pharisee says is true.”  The Pharisee has set himself apart from “other” people. He is faithfully following the law. He fasts even when it’s not required, he gives his ten percent, and he is praying in the temple. Before we judge this faithful Pharisee too quickly, we might re frame his prayer slightly and wonder if we have uttered it ourselves. Maybe we haven’t uttered his words exactly, “Thank you that I am not like other people,” but how many times have we looked down on someone because they thought differently, lived differently, or voted differently than we do? How many times have we thought, “We are blessed”, implying that others are not?

It’s not that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing. As Luke states in his introductory sentence, he has trusted in himself. He is confident in his own righteousness. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, true, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being. For all the Pharisee’s attempts at holiness, in the end it’s all about him.

Then we find a tax collector who knows that he’s got nothing. He has no claim to righteousness, so he stands at a distance, would not even look up to heaven, beat his chest and asked, really cried out to God for mercy, while recognizing his sinfulness. On some level, the tax collector isn’t so much humble as desperate. As Rev. Lose writes again, “He is too overwhelmed by his plight to take time to divide humanity into sides. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.”

How quick we are to divide ourselves between the good and the bad, the in and the out, Republicans and Democrats, the correct Christians and wrong Christians, not to mention everyone else outside of the Christian church? Rev. Lose notes that this parable takes place in a place of prayer, in the Temple, which is no accident. In the Temple you were always aware of who was in and who was out, too often in the way we look at church as well. There are insiders and outsiders. You know exactly where the Pharisee and the tax collector stand. They both need mercy, only one sees that.

The trap is that as soon as we give into the temptation of dividing humanity into groups, of any kind, then we are in line with the Pharisee. Anytime you draw a line between whose “in” and who’s “out”, this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side,” writes Rev. Lose. On Tuesday, lines were drawn We recognized more clearly and deeply than ever how divided our nation is. Could it be that the only way we move forward now is mercy?

Leading up to Tuesday’s election, there was a lot of fear on both sides of the aisle, people who were fearful of a Clinton presidency or a Trump presidency. Yet, Pastor Steve and I were reminded on Election Day as we stood with the Bishop on the steps of our State Capital that God is still God regardless of who is elected. Our Christian faith reminds us that the Good News is that God is still God and Jesus still saves us regardless of who occupies the White House. Our faith and the values that come from our faith call us further than our party allegiance.

In a recent article in The Washington Post titled “In today’s troubling times, where are our faith leaders?” the author E.J. Dionne Jr. writes that “we live in a world where religion has be subsumed by politics.” In a culture where politics outplay our religious convictions and religion is viewed as suspect, where do we go from here as people of faith?

Could it be that we need a new sense of not just humility in our nation and church, but mercy? Mercy that begs us to see others differently, with Christ like eyes remembering that we’re all equally created in the image of God and equally in need of mercy.

One word about prayer this morning; did you notice that both the Pharisee and the tax collector went to the Temple to pray? One was a self-righteous prayer and the other was an authentic and self-giving prayer. We have candidates who have been elected and as people of faith we are reminded to pray for all of our elected officials, whether we voted for them or not. Let’s not allow our politics to cloud our ability to authentically prayer for our public servants, pray with authenticity and fervor for each of them. Our prayer calls us to action and that action includes holding our elected officials accountable to do what is right according to the Christian values we hold close. Remember the call of Micah to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” We also can’t let our politics overshadow the fact that there are many who feel like they’re on the outside looking in. We need to pray for those who are fearful, uncertain about the future, and are losing hope. As a church, we must pray and stand with those who are on the margins of our nation today.

It is true that we have much that divides us, which was clearly seen in numbers on Tuesday this week, yet we have much that may unite us. We need some national unity. Our common call to seek the mercy of God reminds us that whether you are a Republican or Democrat or other, we are in need of God’s mercy alike. In whatever divisions we try to create between us, it’s just a reminder that we are in need of God’s mercy.

There is no future except for the one we make together. So where do we go from here? Where do we need to stand as people of faith? We need to stand, kneel and pray with the tax collector and the Pharisee in a place of mercy. Mercy for those who voted differently than you. Mercy for those who have been elected. Mercy for those who have been forgotten during this election season. Pope Francis said, “A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just.” We need mercy for the poor; mercy for the immigrant; mercy for the refugee; and mercy for those discriminated against. As we approach Thanksgiving, in order to give thanks we must begin with mercy.

Billy Graham once said, “God’s mercy and grace give me hope – for myself, and for our world.” Jesus directed this parable toward those who were looking down on the “other.” Maybe our response to this week and season is to ask for mercy, better yet, show mercy and extend mercy, kindness, love and grace. The hope of Christianity has never been in Presidents or politics or empire. The hope of Christianity is found in God showing mercy to us that we might extend it to our neighbor.

That’s Good News today! In the midst of a tumultuous political season in which division survives as the ultimate outcome, in the midst of an equally divided denomination and universal church, and in the midst of daily division in how we live, there is still grace, there is still mercy, there God is present, not absent, but in the midst of it all, calling us to be people of love, hope, grace and mercy. That’s how we move forward together.

Today, may we be able to authentically speak the words of the Psalmist, repeat after me:  “Give thanks to the Lord Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good for God is good! God’s mercy endures forever God’s mercy endures forever! In order to give thanks today, in order to move forward as a nation and as a people, may we begin with mercy.

Let us pray:

Holy God, creator of us all & God of every nation. Send your Spirit of peace, justice, freedom and mercy upon us; Break down the walls of political partisanship and economic disparity, and make us one. Give us wisdom to walk in your ways. Remind us that your ways are not our ways; That your power and might transcend the plans of every nation. Lord, have mercy, that we might offer mercy to others. Teach us again to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Amen.

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