Not an Easy Parable – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times, but it remains true: Parables are tricky beasts.  Eugene Peterson called them “narrative time bombs,” and he was right. Jesus plants them in our minds only so that they can explode with meaning several days later.  This is a problem in a world of soundbites and smartphones as our attention spans continue to shrink.  According to a 2015 study by Microsoft, the average attention span of an adult has fallen from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015.  Keep in mind that scientists think that the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds![1]  Back when there weren’t eleven million things clamoring for our attention, it was easy to keep a story like the Pharisee and the Tax Collector bouncing around in your head for a whole week, but now-a-days, we’ve often forgotten what the Gospel lesson was before the opening paragraph of the sermon is over.


It is impossible to plumb the depths of meaning in stories like today’s parable when we are fundamentally incapable of focusing on anything for longer than a goldfish.  So, we settle for simplistic readings, and make this parable a fable about humility.  We break the story down into its simplest parts: the tax collector is good because he is aware of his sinfulness while the Pharisee is bad because of his arrogant prayer.  Then we say something like, “Lord, thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee who is an arrogant jerk and that I am so humble.  Amen.”  Do you see the problem with that reading of the story?  It leaves us no better than the Pharisee we are so quick to judge.  It is an easy reading, but it is not the best one.  Instead, if we give this lesson time to mature, time to float around in our brains for a minute or two, we’ll start to notice details that we might otherwise miss.

First, we should note the audience to which Jesus told this story.  He told this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  That is, he told this parable to people who would hear the parable in the way I just described.  He told this parable to us.  When things are going well in our spiritual lives, it is really easy to forget who should get the credit.  Pride has a tendency to grow the more we pray, the more scripture we read, the more we give to the church, and care for the poor.  It is easy to say, like the Pharisee did, “I pray, I fast, and I give,” but the reality that it is only because of the Holy Spirit at work within us that any of that is possible.

The ugly side of thinking our righteousness comes from our own abilities is that we then tend to look down on those who aren’t quite at righteous as we are.  If only they could pray like me or care like or be as humble as me, they might be righteous too.  As we get comfortable with looking down on our neighbor for not being as righteous as we’ve made ourselves to be, eventually we begin to treat them with contempt: literally, we treat them as if they were worthless nothings.  We label them as sinners or liberals or closed-minded and dismiss them – ignoring the fact that they human beings worthy of love.  I Christianity, righteousness means being in right relationship with God and neighbor.  It is therefore impossible to treat others with contempt and be righteous.  Jesus tells this story to those who think they are righteous because of their own personal piety, but are not because of how they treat their neighbor.

The second detail worthy of note is the prayer of the Pharisee.  As off putting as it is to us today, his prayer might not have been that uncommon in the days of Jesus.  The Pharisee’s job was to be righteous and to help others lead righteous lives according to the Law of Moses.  He was, at least according to the teaching of his own tradition, totally in the right to think of himself as righteous.  In order to be in right relationship with God and with neighbor, the Pharisee was required to abide by the Law, and he followed it to the smallest detail.  He prayed, he fasted, he tithed, he didn’t steal, he didn’t lie, and he didn’t cheat.  He was a model citizen, and it was only right that he should thank God for that.  As much as we’d like God to smite this man right there in the Temple Court, or at the very least we might question how one can be considered righteous who so brazenly puts down others, the reality is that he went home just as righteous as when he arrived; having faithfully fulfilled what was required of him in the Law.

The third thing we need to notice is the tax collector who so often gets painted as the hero in this story.  Tax collectors were despised by just about everyone.  They were Jewish men who conspired with the Roman government to extort money from rich and poor alike.  Their livelihood depended upon how much extra money they could shake out of the tax payers.  I always picture this man as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Disney version of Robin Hood.  There is a scene where he barges in on a blacksmith who has a broken leg and can’t work.  Friar Tuck had just given the blacksmith a few coins from Robin Hood’s stash that he hid in the cast, and the sheriff promptly and painfully shook them loose.  Nobody likes the Sheriff of Nottingham, and nobody liked the traitor tax collectors.  It seems that the tax collector in our parable didn’t even like himself.  In his guilt and his shame, he knew better than to come right on into the Temple.  Instead, he stood a safe distance away, wouldn’t even look up to heaven, beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  And then he left.  I can’t help but wonder how our reading of this story changes if he came back and did the same thing the next day?  And the day after that?  What if he had been asking God for forgiveness every day for 20 years, but had no real interest in changing anything about himself.  What if he went to work, shook down his fellow Israelites, asked God for forgiveness, woke up the next day, and did it all again.

Either way, Jesus tells us that he went home justified: that is he was made righteous by God’s action and God’s action alone.  Which seems to be what this story has been about all along: the grace of God to forgive us and declare us justified.  It is easy to consider the tax collector as justified given his obviously repentant language.  It is less easy to consider him justified by God if he did the same thing day after day after day.  And it is next to impossible to think of the Pharisee as anything close to righteous or justified, but it seems that all of the above are true.  I’ll spare you the boring Greek details, but it is equally plausible that the tax collector went home justified “rather than” the Pharisee as it is he went home justified “alongside” the Pharisee.  See, whether we approach God trying our best to do it on our own, on our hands and knees begging for forgiveness, or bowed low for a moment, pretty sure we will do it all again tomorrow; it is God’s very nature to return us to righteousness and restore us to right relationship.  It might mean he has to humble the exalted before he can exalt the humbled, but one way or another, God is going to do everything he can to let us know that we are loved by him.

It would be easy to look smugly at the smugness of the smug Pharisee, but if we take more than eight seconds to pay attention and let this parable marinate a bit, the meaning is much richer.  Rather than a story that casts another line in the sand of us versus them, this is a parable about the love of God for all of us: whether we are first century tax collectors and Pharisees, sixteenth century Roman Catholics and Protestants or twenty-first century Republicans and Democrats.  God loves us all and his deepest desire is that we might be justified, made righteous, restored to right relationship with God and every one of our neighbors through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Amen.


Thank God I’m not like those people


If ever the Christians in this country needed to hear a parable from Jesus it is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector during the waning days of the 2016 Presidential Election.  While it seems clear to me that one candidate is clearly more qualified to run this country for the next four years, both candidates, their parties, and their supporters have engaged in a form of dehumanizing rhetoric about which we as a nation should be ashamed.

Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, the 24 hour news cycle, or even my Junior High Youth Group this afternoon, it is impossible to find a safe place, free from anger, fear, and a whole lot of Pharisees praying about themselves, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like those people.”  Here’s the thing, as soon as we start to think that about someone else, we’ve been sucked in to sin.  As soon as we look down at another human being whether it be over their opinion on gun rights, their opinion on double predestination, or their opinion on mild or spicy chicken at Popeye’s, we are no better than the “deplorables” who rabidly attack “Crooked Hillary” or “Racist Donald.”

As we butter our popcorn, ready our bingo cards, and open our Crown Royal bottles in preparation for tonight’s “dumpster fire” of a Presidential Debate, we should pause for a moment and take stock of where we have allowed ourselves to be taken as the body of Christ in the United States of America.  Maybe we’d be better off turning off the TV, pulling out a rosary, and saying the Jesus Prayer five hundred or a thousand times.

“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This prayer, which is not unlike the prayer of the tax collector, has worked to calm the minds and hearts of Christians for more than 1,400 years.  It reminds us of our dependence on God alone.  It focuses us not on the other who stands outside of us, but the Lord Jesus who makes his home deep in our hearts.  Most of all, it brings to mind the one fact that every human has in common: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; all of us are in need of forgiveness; and it is God’s desire to restore us all to right relationship with him and with one another.  Resist the temptation to be like the Pharisee tonight and for the next three weeks and instead, focus on God who takes delight in our prayers, who longs to be at the center of our lives, and causes those who exalt themselves to be humbled and those who humble themselves to be exalted.

Mutually Exclusive Behaviors

It has been a good long while since I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in some blogging banter with my good friend Evan Garner, but he went to the Greek in his post yesterday, and that’s just an invitation for me to nerd out for a minute.  In his post, “Rather Than or Alongside?” which I encourage you to read in its entirety, Evan played with an idea posited by the Rev. Dr. Bill Brosend, Professor of Homiletics and New Testament at the University of the South, that the Greek phrase that is translated in Sunday’s Gospel as “rather than” in the sentence “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” could just as easily been translated “alongside” as in, “This man [the tax collector] went down to his dome justified alongside the [Pharisee].”  The argument, for those who might care about the Greek, is that the preposition para plus the accusative case “can mean ‘rather than’ but far more often means ‘alongside.'”

With all due respect to Dr. Brosend, “can mean” and “far more often means” does not an ironclad argument make.  While I am certain that this phrase could be translated as “alongside,” I’m also certain that it should be rendered “rather than” because of two very important factors: math and context.

First, the math.  In the study of probabilities and statistics, we find the idea of mutually exclusive events.  That is to say, there are things which can not overlap; they simply cannot happen at the same time.  Take, for a very simplified example, flipping a coin.  It can land on heads or tails, but never both.  These are mutually exclusive events.


Now we turn to context.  Luke tells us that Jesus told the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to a group of people who trusted in themselves “that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  These two things are mutually exclusive.  To be righteous is to be in perfect relationship with God and neighbor.  One cannot treat others with contempt and be righteous.  It is impossible.

Jesus has taught this parable in order to make the point that righteousness does not belong to those who treat others with contempt, and as long as we engage in such behavior, we remain outside of the perfect relationship that God longs for.  Sure, God could forgive the sins of the Pharisee, but it seems far more likely that God would demand some sort of repentance from him.  To be unrighteous in one’s prayers may be the most damning unrighteousness of all.

I agree with Dr. Brosend that it could be that the both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector went home justified, i.e. made righteous, but math and context seem to argue that only one was made righteous.

[Don’t] Trust your gut

I’ve been on the road most of the last two weeks.  New Orleans for some R&R, Beckwith for Clergy Conference, and Charleston for my brother’s Air Force retirement ceremony.  This means that I’ve been eating things that I normally wouldn’t eat in quantities I normally wouldn’t eat them.  There was the cheeseburger covered in grilled onions and bacon at 10pm, the several dozen oysters, and the Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast, just to name a few.  The worst idea came last night, however.  I was stopped for the night somewhere between here and there at one of those chain steak restaurants when the waitress gave me a choice I should have refused.

“Do you want a 12 or 16 ounce New York Strip?”


This is terrible advice

I went with the 16, and I’ve regretted it ever since.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Luke tells us that Jesus told a parable to those who “trusted in themselves.”  This too is a terrible idea.  When we try to trust in ourselves, we are bound to make all sorts of powerful missteps.

In the real life Draughting Theology, we are studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, which has at its core this idea that the primary sin of humanity is idolatry.  Not that we worship other gods, but that we put ourselves in the place of God.  When we trust ourselves to know what is right and to do it, we, more often than not, put our own desires in front of God’s.  We put ourselves at the center, do what’s best for us, and like me trusting my gut, must life to pay the consequences.

I’m eating Tums like they are candy, but in the spiritual realm, the only way out of trusting ourselves, is, as Jesus points out in the parable, to trust only in God’s mercy.  When we confess our tendency to make idols of ourselves, ask God to return to God’s rightful place in our lives, and put our trust in God alone, we will find life to be much more abundant.

Take it from me dear reader, don’t trust your gut.

See and Be Thankful – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus tell a parable about a poor man named Lazarus and a rich man who went nameless.  As I preached that week, I told you that I thought that parable was all about seeing.  The rich man saw Lazarus and chose to ignore him.  Jesus is very interested in who we see and how we see them.  Last week, Keith preached on a difficult text in which we find the disciples begging Jesus for just a little more faith.  Through a great story about Murdoch and his never-ending bag of supplies, Keith showed us that the key to growing our faith is giving thanks to God for what we already have.  This week, the Lectionary has been kind to us.  For those of you who maybe missed one or both of the last two weeks, or perhaps don’t remember those two pretty great sermons, we have a lesson this morning that is all about both seeing and thankfulness!

Parable season takes a break so that we can jump into some narrative action to keep the story of Jesus moving forward.  Since late June, we’ve been following Jesus on a long and winding journey toward Jerusalem.  Rather than taking the easy way that might have taken a few days, Jesus made it a point to stop at every city, town, and village between here and there.  Today, we find Jesus and his disciples on the edge of civilization; somewhere in the no man’s land between Galilee and Samaria.  Galilee was a Jewish district that bordered the Sea of Galilee to the east, and it included towns like Capernaum, Nazareth, and Nain.  Unless you went out of your way to travel right down the banks of the Jordan River, in order to get to Jerusalem from Galilee, you had to go through the dreaded district of Samaria.  Samaria was, as you might guess, the home of the Samaritans.  During the Babylonian Exile, most of Israel’s brightest and best were taken as slaves to Babylon.  Those who were left behind had to make due as best they could.  The Temple and the entire city of Jerusalem lay in ruins, so they began to worship God at a new Temple on the top of Mount Gerizim.  Rather than marry within their own family, they married people from other groups that the Babylonians had moved in to Israel.  When the Exile was over and the Israelites returned to rebuild Jerusalem, they found the Samaritans to be contemptuous and for hundreds of years the animosity between the two groups grew as small skirmishes over land took place between the tribes.  By the time of Jesus, a Jew wouldn’t even dare talk to a Samaritan, and would go out of his way to avoid traveling through Samaria.

It is right there, at the disputed divide between these two ethnic groups that we find Jesus.  Not yet in the safety of the walls of the next village on his journey, Jesus is approached by ten lepers.  This was about as far out of bounds as a good Jew could get: on a small road between two villages, near the border with Samaria, and in the presence of a colony of lepers.  The lepers knew their place.  They were unclean: physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  For fear of spreading their awful disease, Levitical law ordered that lepers be kept removed from society, forced to live on the edge of town.  They had to wear tattered clothing, keep their hair uncombed, and walk around shouting “unclean, unclean!”  These ten men were actually quite lucky to have found each other; otherwise, they would have been forced to live lives of total isolation.  Still, they keep their distance.

They must have already heard about Jesus because rather than cry out “Unclean, unclean!” they shouted “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Jesus didn’t simply hear their cry, but Luke tells us that Jesus “saw them.”  Perhaps for the first time since their diagnosis, someone saw them as something more than unclean lepers.  Instead, Jesus saw them as beloved children of God.  He had compassion on them, and sent them to find a priest to be declared clean again.  As they made the journey to the local synagogue, their skin was miraculously made clean.  Nine of them continued to follow Jesus’ instructions and headed off to see the priest, but one saw things differently.

As the tenth leper looked at his newly restored skin, he saw his blessing and was compelled to give thanks.  He turned and ran back to find Jesus, giving praise to God all along the way.  When he found Jesus again, the man fell on his face, in a posture of worship, and gave thanks.  The word Luke uses there is eucharisto, which might sound familiar to you.  Eucharist is the name we Episcopalians give the Lord’s Supper because it too is an act of thanksgiving.  Each week, when we come to this table, we do so not just in remembrance of the sacrifice that Jesus made for our sins upon the cross, but like the tenth leper, we come here fully aware of the many ways in which God has healed us and restored us to right relationship.  Maybe you come to give thanks for being healed of a lifetime of isolating anxiety.  Maybe you come to give thanks for being healed of anger that has ruined relationships.  Maybe you come to give thanks for being healed of addiction that had pushed everyone away.  Or maybe, you aren’t quite there yet.  Maybe you approach this altar rail like the ten lepers, keeping a safe distance, and crying out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on me.” Jesus sees you, no matter how alone you may feel.

Jesus saw all ten lepers totally isolated even within their little community.  He had mercy on them and healed them.  By the end of this story all ten were healed of their disease, but it was only the tenth leper who saw the blessing in his healing and gave thanks.  In returning to give thanks, this man was doubly blessed.  No longer a leper, we find out that this man is a Samaritan.  Maybe that’s why he didn’t run off to the synagogue.  He knew he wouldn’t be welcome there anyway.  Instead, he returned to the source of his healing, praised God, and gave thanks, and Jesus said to him, “Get up and go, your faith has saved you.”  Ten lepers were healed by Jesus.  Nine were restored to their communities when a priest declared them “clean.”  Only one was saved, rescued, made whole.

By the grace of God, through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we have all been set free from our bondage to sin.  That could easily be enough.  We could, like the nine, rest comfortably on that gift for the rest of lives, but we are invited to experience something more.  We are invited to see, to really see the gift that God has given us.  To feel what it means to be set free.  To live abundant lives.  To find our place in the kingdom.  When we see that gift, the only logical response is eucharisto, to bow down in worship and praise, and to give thanks to God for all that he has done for us.  It is in that place of thanksgiving that we find ourselves saved, rescued, and made whole.  It turns out that Keith and I have been on the right track for the past two weeks.  The life of faith really is all about seeing and giving thanks.  It is about how we see others, yes, but the life of faith is also about how we see ourselves: with thanksgiving for being set free from the isolation of sin and restored to right relationship with God and one another.  Open our eyes Lord, help us to see the gifts that you have given us, and give thanks.  Amen.

Given to Good Works

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. – Collect for Proper 23

Several years ago, there was a viral story making its way around the intertubes about Pastor Jeremiah Steepek who supposedly dressed himself up as a homeless man in front of the megachurch to which he had been recently called, to see if anyone would stop to care for him.  As the story goes, “He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service….only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food… NO ONE in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.”


Much righteous indignation followed this post around the internet, especially among Mainliners who were certain that their church would have been better to Pastor Steepek’s alter ego than those feel good evangelicals.  For those who were intent on thumbing their nose at evangelicalism, Christianity, or organized religion in general, it didn’t much matter that the story wasn’t actually true, it proved the hypocrisy of the whole thing.

This Sunday, Episcopalians around the world will pray that we might be “given to good works,” a phrase that feels unnecessarily archaic, but means that through God’s grace, we hope to be predisposed to helping our neighbor.  This prayer is absolutely lovely in theory, but like the members of the fake Pastor Steepek’s church, I wonder if we really want to deal with what it means.  Because what Sunday’s Gospel lesson tells us we are praying for is the ability to see the people that we would rather not see.  We are praying to see the injustices that we would rather ignore.  We are praying to see the works of the Devil that we would rather explain away.  We are praying to see things that will break our hearts and motivate us to act in ways that will take us far from our comfort zones.

Being “given to good works” sounds nice, but when it comes right down to it, good works aren’t always easy, fun, or even, safe.  Still, let us pray for the grace to see the world in all its brokenness, to be moved to action, and be given to good works.


In the northeast of France there is a small sliver of land known to history as Alsace-Lorraine.  Known for it industrial strength in the latter half of the 19th century, Alsace-Lorraine became a coveted piece of property for the Germans who ultimately took it from France after winning the Franco-Prussian War. For 47 years, from 1871 until 1918, it was a part of the German Empire.  For most of that time, Germany ruled Alsace-Lorraine with great attention, for fear of losing it back to France.  After World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, France reclaimed its territory, but realizing that 47 years and some continued German interest during World War was enough to establish some pretty distinct habits, the French government gives Alsace-Lorraine a lot of autonomy, allowing local law to reign.   Such is the messiness of a borderland.


While on his way from Galilee, where much of his teaching took place, to Jerusalem, where he would be betrayed, tortured, crucified, and buried, Jesus and his disciples had to pass through the unseemly territory of the Samaritans.  Like Alsace-Lorraine, Samaria was something of a disputed territory.  The Samaritans were descendants of the Jews, but were those who had been left behind in the Babylonian Exile.  They married those outside of Judaism, they adjusted their worship in light of the destruction of the Temple, and because of that, they were resoundingly hated by the Jews.  That this unclean territory existed between Galilee and Judea meant that there was a wide swath of borderland to pass through as one traveled between the two.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we find Jesus precisely in that messy place; en route to Judea, he is somewhere between Galilee and Samaria.  To make matters worse, and to clarify that he really was in no man’s land, Jesus and his disciples happen upon a leper colony.  In all of history, there might be no more an in-between place than a leper colony on the border between the Jews and the Samaritans.  You might not want to waste as much time as I have on this borderland thing, but the placement of this story geographically is worth noting.  The preacher might want to help her congregation see just how “out there” Jesus is in this moment because while we read this story as being about forgiveness, if we focus on  Jesus, then this story is all about crossing boundaries.

With compassion, Jesus reaches across the boundaries of geography, of politics, of religion, in order to care for those who have been permanently placed in no man’s land.  They have been removed from society.  They no longer have an identity beyond “leper.”  Note that the tenth leper who returns to give thanks isn’t identified as a Samaritan until after his healing takes place.  These lepers weren’t even considered human beings.  And yet, Jesus sees them.  He treats them as worthy of love and care.  In that place of in-betweeness, Jesus heals them, restores their humanity, and makes them whole.