The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost ~October 23, 2016

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The Rev. Manisha Dostert
Luke 18:9-14


The other day I went with my twelve-year-old son to our local big box store to get some Halloween candy. I went after a really long day, and you know those big box stores are so huge and you kind of get lost in it. I had a couple of things I needed to get, and then we were going to hit the candy. So I managed to get the things we needed, and then I said to my son, “Let’s go to the candy aisle.” Except it wasn’t the candy aisle. It was candy aisles! There were rows and rows of these bags of candy with all the iteration of candy bars that you can imagine. So there was this bag, and it had Hershey bars and it had Whoppers, and Reese’s, and Hershey’s Cookies and Creams, and Almond Joy. And then next to it was a different bag, and it had Kit Kat, Reese’s, Hershey bars and Almond Joy. And then there was another bag, and that one had Heath bars, Whoppers, Reese’s and Almond Joy. Who eats Almond Joy? It’s congealed coconut with soggy almonds.

So after looking at these enormity of combinations of different bags, and realized I was paralyzed by this plethora of choices, I looked at my son, and I said those four words every child longs to here. “Get whatever you want.” So now we have enough candy to keep an entire elementary school on a permanent sugar high. Having a plethora of choices can be overwhelming. So I was very glad to see the gospel reading today. The parable that Jesus tells us because there’s only two choices. You can choose to be humble, or you can choose to be humbled. You can be like that Pharisee who believes he’s better than others and then get knocked down. Or you can be like that tax collector who is so desperate for forgiveness, he doesn’t even feel like he can walk into the deep heart of the temple.

Now I don’t know about you, but I really, really appreciate when somebody gets what they deserve. I was really glad to see that that pompous Pharisee was brought down by Jesus. I don’t like ostentatious people who think they’re better than me. And I, I don’t know about you, but I was rooting for that beleaguered tax collector, who was so humble, was so contrite. He needed to beat his breast to embody his repentance. He couldn’t even look at God. So I don’t know about you, but I rejoiced when I heard that he went home justified and not the other. Because when we have a choice, that’s the way we want to be. If you’re going to be, be humble, so that you can be lifted up as opposed to being thrown down to the ground. So there it is. Two choices. Humble yourself or you will be humbled.

Except, you know I was thinking about it. And I thought, huh, so the infinite God who made everything in this world, embodied and took on flesh and was born in a manger and walked as a homeless itinerant Rabbi on this earth, and showed us God’s love, and went to a cross and was crucified, and died in a tomb just so he could come to this world and say, “Hey, guys, be humble”? Might there be yet another choice? For instance, perhaps you noticed that that Pharisee was actually quite righteous. He fasted not once a week, but twice a week. Brothers and sisters, I don’t even fast once a month. And he was so generous.

He knew God and he gave a tenth of all his income. Not just the first fruits. All of it. And on the other hand, the tax collector – well, tax collectors back then, they think that what happened was the Roman government would fine people in the community and say to them, “Collect the taxes, and this is how much you owe us. But anything else that you collect, it’s yours.” And so, they had habits of extorting people, and using fear tactics to get more money than they deserved. They would devour widow’s houses. They would gouge people, their own people. And you know what? This tax collector knew it because he self-identified himself. He said, “I’m a sinner.” So why would a simple prayer turn the tables for these men?

So the other day, Nadia Bolz-Weber came to this church. She is a Lutheran Pastor, she’s the author of a book called, Accidental Saints. It’s a good book. I recommend it. And she came to read from her book and speak to the 500 some people who gathered here. And she had some time where you could ask her any question you wanted to. There was a question that was posed to her by an Episcopal priest. This priest said that in her congregation during this election cycle, she noticed that there are people on either side. Some people have very strong convictions for their candidate, and don’t like the other one, and vice versa. And so, she said, “How do you minister to the people?”

Nadia Bolz-Weber’s church is in Denver, Colorado. It’s called House for All Sinners and Saints. And she admitted to us, “It’s a pretty progressive church.” And as far as she knew, there weren’t any Trump supporters there, so she really couldn’t speak to this question. She also said that she’s been interviewed on the radio quite a bit, and people ask her questions about the candidates. And she said she didn’t really have much to offer that hasn’t already been said. But she noticed that whenever she had contempt for the candidate, she had to remember something really important. She had to remember that there is only one kind of person. There’s no difference. We’re all one kind of person. So whenever she had contempt for someone else, she had contempt for herself.

There’s only one kind of person. So there’s no difference between Trump or Clinton, or the Pharisee and the tax collector, or the Syrian refugee, or the Bloomfield Hill residents. There’s only one kind of person to God. Beloved. So for my sake, for your sake, for the Pharisee’s sake, for the tax collector’s sake, for the thieves, the rogues, adulterers, presidential candidates, drug dealers, terrorists, Christians, heathens. For everyone. God came down into this world because he loves us all. And God’s love is like this, it shows no partiality. Did you hear that reading from the Book of Sirach? God doesn’t prefer one kind of person versus the other. God doesn’t prefer the poor over the rich. God isn’t for the gay over the straight. God doesn’t prefer the blacks over the whites.

It reminds me of the parables that we read in the Gospels. The ones where there’s a hundred sheep and one goes off and missing. Or there’s a hundred coins and the widow loses one. The joy is evident when that one sheep is found, or that one coin in rediscovered. Why? Is it because they’re more important than the others? No, it’s because all of them are valued by the owner. So maybe when we hear these words about humbling and exalting, we miss the choice that Jesus is saying God give us. It’s not that it’s an act of reversal, and what goes up must come down. It’s that the one who is relying too much on herself, God brings them back to a place where she can rely on God. And the person who is so down on himself that he doesn’t think he’s worthy of anything, God lifts them up, so that he may know he’s cared for in all circumstances. God puts us all on the same plane.

Because my brothers and sisters, the good news is love doesn’t keep track of stuff. It’s not like God is looking at that Pharisee and saying, “Oh, okay. Well, you did these two good things. But that prayer was terrible. That’s it. Down you go.” God’s love deals with our wrongdoings and deals with our goodness in the same way. Because God loves us. And I wonder, can you and I do the same? Can we stop having contempt for other kinds of people? Can we stop comparing ourselves to others? Can we stop compartmentalizing people, demonizing people, degrading people, and showing that others are different? Because that’s not the way God wants us to be with one another. There’s only one kind of person.

I have a little sister, I have one little sister. I’m the better one. I’m the smarter one. She’s pretty, but, ehhh. So when my sister and I were young,  I played this game with my mom. I’d go up and when my sister was around in earshot, and I’d say, “Mom, I know you love me more than her.” And mom would always respond, “Darling, I cannot love one of you more, any more than I can choose one eye over the other.”

Yesterday, many of us were at the Episcopal Diocesean Convention, which was in Lansing. Your clergy went and your delegates, and they were Nan Burke and the Bass’s, Alan and Kathy Bass. They did a wonderful job of representing you. We also had some amazing people who went and volunteered there. Bless their hearts, they took care of all of us, providing us everything that we needed. So many people from Christ Church Cranbrook were there at the convention. And one of the things that they did there was they showed us some of the work that the Episcopal Church is doing in Metro Detroit with some fabulous nonprofit organizations. And they lifted up all of them, and the one that caught my eye was Mariners Inn. Mariners Inn is in Detroit. It is a facility for men who are addicted to drugs. And I believe they live on campus as they try to be rehabilitated from their addiction.

So they showed a video, and there were many men who spoke of what it was like to get their life back because of Mariners Inn. And I don’t know this, but the one man said that, “When you’re addicted to drugs, you hate everybody.” You look at everyone else with deep contempt. And part of the reason you look at each other with deep contempt is because you don’t like yourself. You hate yourself. And so, he had entered into this program, and he was living with these other men, and he didn’t like them. He was irritated with them, and he thought he was way better than them.

But as he went through the program, something changed. The men that he didn’t like anymore he began to love, and they became a community, and they bonded together, so that he shared his prayer. When he went to the temple to pray, he said to God, “God, what I want for myself, I want the same thing for him.” What I want for myself, I want for him. May we all be able to go to the temple, and pray the same for everyone. Amen.