Mandy Sayers: God's Star Student

Let me just say right up front, humility is not a virtue that gets any favorable press in modern culture. We’re really about achievement around here. Humility isn’t highly featured at football games or commencement addresses. Humility won’t win you the election. It won’t get you the job, or the promotion, or the raise. My own history is one where I have sought after and been rewarded for achievement - academic and otherwise - and in general, one dream I have in life is for everyone to like me. So honestly, I feel right away a sort of sympathy for the Pharisee.

When I was invited to be a Day1 preacher, I immediately began fretting over my qualifications or lack thereof. They asked me for a copy of my résumé and I spent the better part of a morning wondering whether the Advent devotion I scrawled on a napkin in 2017 would count as a “publication.” I speculated about how a Day1 preacher should style her hair.

I’m ashamed to admit that a part of me wanted to pray, “I thank you Lord that I’m better than at least one of the great multitude of preachers they’ve had in their decades of amazing ministry,” but honestly, that’s probably not the case. So, the only conclusion I came to was a form of the tax collector’s prayer: “Be merciful to me, a preacher.” So, on what may be my first and last appearance on this esteemed platform, it is perhaps appropriate that I have been given this scripture on humility.

Two men went up to the temple to pray - one leading with his extensive resume. He’s a Pharisee, a church regular, a founding member, church council chair, a rule-follower. He’s faithful in marriage, celibate in singleness, honest, forthright, thrifty, brave… and even a tither (thanks be to God). He’s the sort of person who will say yes when called upon to chair the committee, to plan the funeral luncheon, to cut the church grass in the summer. The sort of person the pastor is thrilled to have join the church, already committed to doing the things disciples do - prayer, worship, giving, service, sharing the faith (albeit loudly, where everyone can see) - a real go-getter. A valedictorian in the making. That Pharisee is really going places.

The other fellow, the tax collector, seems to have staggered in there at the last minute. He’s in the corner, in the back row. If there’s a test, you can bet he forgot the paper at home and has to borrow a pencil. He’s got little to commend him by way of righteousness – a collector for the empire, despised and rejected by many. After all, it seems like “tax collectors and sinners” are paired together in the gospels like nuts and bolts, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly. In my mind’s eye, the Pharisee is wearing clerical robes or maybe a Day1-appropriate jacket, and the tax collector is there, unkempt, unshaven, ill prepared, maybe even red eyed and hung over.

So, Jesus seems to be asking the crowd, which would you pick? Which one of them is going to the head of the class?

You would think that God would be so very proud to justify the Pharisee with the impressive résumé. Even Jesus said that your righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees, so clearly, this is the guy! A high SAT score, letter in track, class president, you name it. But at the end of the story, Jesus turns the table on us. He says the fellow in the back row will go home justified, and apparently Phi Beta Pharisee over there still has something to learn about God. What gives?

Well, first, the Pharisee’s prayer purports to be directed toward God in thanksgiving, but if you look closely, it’s really a form of bragging. Like that old saw, “Enough about me… what do you think about me?” The Pharisee’s self-centered prayer closes off space for God to move – to surprise, to convict, to get to the Pharisee’s heart. It’s hard for God to speak when God can’t get a word in edgewise.

And the Pharisee is trusting in himself for righteousness, as if to say, “Don’t worry, God, I got this. You can sit back and put your divine feet up. Send me if you have a job to do, because nobody can do as good a job as I can.” When we trust in ourselves for righteousness, when we presume to think we can achieve and impress our way out of a need for God’s grace, it’s a form of idolatry. It’s worship of self.

And the Pharisee has another problem, too. He regards other people with contempt. He’s thankful he’s not like the other people who really screw up (the convicts, the addicts, that annoying person who lives up the street, the people who vote differently than he does). What if the Good Samaritan had said that - “Lord, I thank you that I’m not like that poor fellow in the ditch over there”? Perhaps the Priests and the Levites walking past the wounded traveler were whispering that very thing under their breaths. In any event, the Pharisee’s attitude about how he relates to other people makes relationship and connection unlikely. And it makes empathy and love almost impossible.

Meanwhile, the Pharisee is still talking up there in the front of the class, and the tax collector is all talked out. He’s at the end of his rope, he’s beating his chest, he can’t even look up. The tax collector just knows he’s a sinner who found his way to the temple and, other than that, it’s all about God.

If the Pharisee’s prayer is “I got this,” the tax collector’s prayer is “I got nothing but you, God.” And I think whenever anybody gets to the place where they realize they cannot achieve and earn their way into God’s heart, when we finally let go of all the vain things we try to build to impress God, that’s when God’s eyes begin to sparkle. Because that person is ready to be used by God. That person is ready to serve – to show and share the love of Jesus with Pharisees, and tax collectors, and everybody in between.

Jesus is always calling his followers to take the lowest place at the banquet; and if you want to be great, be a servant; and if you would be the greatest, be a servant of all. Become like a little child if you would enter the kingdom. “There’s a log in our own eye,” Jesus reminds us, “so maybe worry about that, rather than the splinter in our neighbor’s eye.” We’re acting most like our Savior when we take up a towel and kneel to wash another’s feet. when we take seriously Jesus’ command, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

A few times in my ministry I have had the privilege of going up to the temple to pray with some folks in recovery groups. Or perhaps more accurately, down to the temple basement in the middle of the week to pray with people in recovery groups. And I always find it both humbling and inspiring to get to do that - to hear stories from people who are very clear that they need God’s help and the help of their brothers and sisters in their daily walk, and to get to watch as every single person who comes is welcomed from the heart. There is coffee, there is hospitality, there is acceptance, and there is love. People of every age, people in biker jackets and business suits and yoga pants.

When I would be there, it was like an oasis where we were able to be ourselves, with no need to pretend we were other than who we were – beloved children of God freed from the endless torrent of judgment and competition for a couple hours of support and sharing. Once when the program was over, Tom got out his harmonica and Chuck played the out-of-tune piano, and they sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and we all sang along. And you know, I think when we get to heaven, it may be more church basement than sanctuary… and that may be more than all right.

The surprise ending is this: A tax collector who knows that he needs God, who know he is saved by God’s grace and not by his own achievement, is among the best equipped to become all the things the Pharisee is trying to achieve his way into. People who know they are saved by grace and not through their own inherent goodness - they make great choir members and Bible teachers and mission trip volunteers and Sunday School helpers. They are absolutely the best folks to set the table for a Eucharist meal open to all, as it is in my tradition. They know what it is to be hungry and broke, and what it is to be welcomed and fed when you are hungry and broke. Those who have been forgiven great debts tend to be the most forgiving. They are the best folks to welcome people to worship or sit with people in the hospital, because they’ve been there too. They’ve taken that trip to the infusion center, to the scary doctor’s appointment, humming “Standing on the Promises of Christ My King,” not “I Did It My Way.”

God can work up some amazing things and do some amazing ministry with people like that. They are God-centered when it would be easy to be self-centered. They can feel the Holy Spirit’s nudging and stay connected, centered in God. And they can recognize Jesus when he comes in the form of the least of these. They can see the image of God in their neighbor, someone to be loved and made family, not someone to reject or judge.

Two men went up to the temple to pray… and we can see ourselves in both of them, because we are all sometimes Pharisee and all sometimes tax collectors, sometimes all in the same day or even the same Sunday service.

You remember when Paul was dealing with Corinth, he had to contend with this in the form of people competing over which preacher saved them. But as Paul reminds us, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

The profoundly religious among us - God bless you - and certainly, the professionally religious among us, are particularly vulnerable to the Pharisees problems. But the surprise is that humility is the answer. So, when we go up to the Temple to pray, let us empty our hands of all the vain things we carry, and kneel before the one who calls us beloved, the one who when we were no people, made us God’s people, the one who, when we were in a far-off country, threw us a party and said, “Come home.”

Two men went up to the temple to pray….

Let us pray.

Gracious God, we give you thanks that you are God and we are not. Forgive us for the times we have let pride get in the way of a healthy relationship with you and with our neighbors. Forgive us for the times when we have been afraid that we would not be enough, all on our own, for you to love and save. Forgive us for the times we have let fear separate us from others and tried to use it to separate ourselves from you. Help us to live like people who are loved with your everlasting love, and help us to know that nothing will separate us from that great love in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.