Who Am I to Ask God for Favors?

Joel 2:23-32    Luke 18:9-14

October 24, 2010

There is a funny Hebrew story we read in my course at Green Mountain that is inspired by this scripture from Luke.  The story goes that the rabbi and the cantor went into the Temple to pray one evening.  They knelt before the altar, and each took turns saying their prayers out loud, beating on their breasts for emphasis.  “Lord,” the rabbi said, “forgive me, a sinner.  I am nothing in your sight.”  The cantor then took his turn, “Lord, I am a worm before you, crawling on the ground and eating dirt.  This is all I am good for.  Forgive me, a sinner.”  Then, to their surprise, the janitor started praying aloud right after this, saying “Oh Lord, forgive me, for I am a worthless sinner.  I am not worthy of your attention.”  The rabbi turned to the cantor and said, “Who is he to say that he’s nothing?”  This story points to a very unbalanced viewpoint that we sometimes see within spiritual communities.  In a backwards and twisted way, folks attempt to prove their worth by speaking of their unworthiness.  I believe it was Shakespeare who wrote, “methinks thou dost protest too much” of someone who was clearly trying to get some attention for himself.  This story points out the obvious fact that the rabbi and cantor really thought they were totally acceptable to God.  They were just going through the motions of prayer, as was the Pharisee in Luke’s gospel this morning, because they knew it was a sign of piousness to pray.  None of these characters gave any credence to the possibility that they might actually have something to ask forgiveness for.  They each operated under the assumption that they were fine, upstanding people who lived stellar lives of faith.  They didn’t see any real need for forgiveness.  The prayers they prayed were not real to them.  They were just words, empty words.

In our lives of faith, we need to be very careful that we don’t engage in empty liturgies, whether personal prayers or full-blown church events.  It is important that our whole selves are involved whenever we pray, whenever we approach the holy aspects of life... which is actually all of the time, so maybe we need to figure out how to live in a fully present way no matter where we are or what we are doing?  That will take some effort and energy for most of us.

Within the church we have a clear theological sense of the fact that we are all sinners.  We have al fallen short of what God would want from us, as well as what we would want from ourselves in terms of faithful behavior.  We all stand in need of God’s grace and none of us can make any claims to be perfect or even close to it.  This is where prayers for forgiveness such as the ones being prayer by both the rabbi and the Pharisees came from.  And yet, we draw lines in the sand regarding who is an acceptable sinner and who is not.  We classify people according to our narrow perceptions of what is right and what is wrong.  We judge who is right and who is wrong.  It really has nothing to do with how God sees us or the folks we rule out, it just reflects our own prejudices.  It reflects who we feel comfortable with and who we don’t really understand.  Like the rabbi who judges the man praying beside him by his day job and his status in their small society, we judge people as well.  We also judge ourselves, sometimes preening ourselves in front of the mirror and noting just how amazing and good we are, but just as often looking at ourselves as not measuring up at all.  We measure ourselves against other people, noting where and how we are “better than them,” and patting ourselves on the back about it.  Judgement is what is at the heart, here, of what is wrong with this picture.  We have not been placed on this earth to judge one another.  We have not been asked to study the actions and words of others and deem them acceptable or not.  This is just not our responsibility!

It can be disheartening to look around our world and see how many places and times judgement enters into the equation.  We are not very good at letting others live their lives without interference or at least gossip, on our part.  All it takes is standing in line at the grocery store, where you see the tabloid headlines screaming out at you about the latest transgressions of the rich and famous, to see that we live in a very judgmental culture.  This judgement happens on a smaller scale as well.  It happens in families where we hold one another to impossible standards.  It happens in neighborhoods and at workplaces where conversation too often circles around who did what to whom and what we think about that.  Rarely do we actually talk to the person in question about the issue.  Conversation usually stops when they show up.

At our Board of Ordained Ministry meeting, a friend and I were talking about judgments we make about excluding others, ostensibly so as to protect the church’s integrity.  My friend said to me, “Sometimes I feel like standing up in the middle of these meetings and saying that we ought to exclude anyone Jesus didn’t die for.”  That really sums up quite a bit of the argument for me.  The way she phrased her comment was powerful, causing folks to think hard.  If Jesus really died for the sins of every single person alive, then isn’t this enough?Who are we to say someone is okay, but only to a point, when they are clearly and inarguably God’s children just as much as I am?  Nanci Griffith has a powerful song that speaks to this, called, “It’s a Hard Life.”  Listen to this verse:

A cafeteria line in Chicago. The fat man in front of me,

Is calling black people trash to his children. He's the only trash here I see.

And I'm thinking this man wears a white hood. In the night when his children should sleep.

But, they slip to their window and they see him. And they think that white hood's all they need.

It's a hard life, It's a hard life, It's a very hard life

It's a hard life wherever you go.  If we poison our children with hatred

Then, the hard life is all they'll ever know. 

And there ain't no place in Chicago for these kids to go.

It can be hard to impossible for us to get away from the judgments all around us.  But God doesn’t operate like this.  Grace doesn’t work like this.  In the tradition set out for us by John Welsey, grace is for all people and it comes before we even do anything - good or bad.  Prevenient grace, as he described it, is there in our lives all the time, holding space for us and basically forgiving us, calling us into faithfulness and surrounding us with God’s loving touch before we have even contemplated doing something wrong.  So, grace is a part of our lives as God’s children.  We can’t get away from it, and we wouldn’t want to.  But why do we find it so difficult to offer this grace to others?  It seems like we think it is crucial to figure out what is wrong with someone else before we are willing to extend a little bit of grace, before we are willing to cut them a bit of slack.  Don Miguel Ruiz’s book on Toltec wisdom, called “The Four Agreements” offers a second agreement that really speaks to this situation.  He says; “Don’t take anything personally - Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”  Those are strong words - to say that we cause ourselves suffering when we let the actions or words of others affect us negatively.  One difficult part in keeping this agreement for us, can be wanting to know the reasons behind someone’s behavior before we let them off the hook.  But Ruiz says that what we really need to focus on is our own part of the story.  We don’t need to go chasing after what is happening in someone else’s reality.  We need to pay more attention to our own faithful living, and let them have the benefit of our doubt.

What all of this amounts to is being willing to see things from God’s perspective.  The tax collector in Luke’s story, is the lowest of the low in his society.  No one trusted him, no one dared to be his friend, and for good reason.  Tax collectors were cheats.  They charged you more than your fair share of taxes and then scraped a healthy chunk off the top for themselves, getting rich on the suffering of others.  But Jesus points out that no one can see what is in this man’s heart, and they can’t see what is in the Pharisee’s heart either.  only God knows what is true for each of them.  Only God knows whose prayer is genuine.  It may be impossible for us to see people from God’s perspective, but I believe that if we offer grace to one another, and look for the best in each person we encounter, then we will be getting awfully close.

God, your eyes see beyond the physical, help us to see one another clearly.  Your love reaches deeper than the darkest grief we hold, help us let go of our pain.  Your grace surrounds us with the softness of acceptance, help us to move forward from here.  Your passion fans the flame in each of our souls, help us each to find our own heart’s calling.  In the name of Jesus whose love still knows no bounds, we pray, Amen.