Monday, October 24, 2016

Pharisee? Tax Collector? Don't Pick Your Poison.

We might not utter the pride-filled prayers of the Pharisee, but we think them. Or, if we are honest with ourselves, we do. How many of us have looked around in smug satisfaction at a nearby empty pew and thought, I’m in church, but so-in-so isn’t.  Karl Barth describes this parable, labeling pride as the biggest sin for the Pharisee. Pride is basically idolatrous. When we are prideful, we confuse the Creator and creation; we confuse the Giver and gift.
Jesus addressed people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Most of the parables in Luke serve a moral purpose. They frequently end with the command: Go and do likewise. This parable is no exception. It says something significant about God. It says God wants honesty.
My parents used to say, “Pride cometh before a fall.” I remember once when they said it after a baseball game. I had been up to bat four times and had two base hits, a walk, and a double. I had an RBI and two stolen bases. At second base, no one had hit anything past me. It was a great game! First, they celebrated with me. We went out for ice cream. They were incredibly supportive parents! Then, as I started talking about how all of the other players should be more like me, and if everyone had is much game as I had, we would be an unstoppable team! They said, “Pride cometh before a fall.”
Sure enough, the next game my glove inexplicably felt like it had a hole in it when I missed a routine grounder. I struck out and the walk back to the dugout took forever. A dose of humble pie helps bring one’s head back into the game.
For our spiritual lives, we must constantly remember our need for God’s forgiveness. One of the wonderful volunteers at the CBF 25-for-25 mission day yesterday said, “Tomorrow, I will be the Pharisee.” And, I see her point. After working hard for Jesus, it is easy to feel like we are on top of our spiritual game. It is easy to feel so close to God that we could not possibly fall. Then, pride cometh before the fall.
Genuine faith means coming to God as we are, recognizing that each one of us need God’s forgiveness every single day. Karl Barth is right: pride stands between us and God. It becomes an idol. Our pride is equivalent to self-reliance, and our pride keeps us from truly saying, in humility, I am a fallen, sinful person; I need God’s grace every, single day. Why can’t we say that? Why can’t we be honest? Instead, we show up to worship with our game faces on.
When someone says, “How are you?”, we smile, and say, “Fine,” not because we are fine, but because that’s what one says. Instead of honesty, we want stability, normalcy, and reassurance. We cannot even be honest with each other, so how can we expect to be honest with God? Our pride forms a barrier between us and God.
Jesus calls people to genuine interaction with one another. The Pharisee makes us feel guilty over the idea that we act like him, and the tax collector inspires us to be more open and honest. The call from God does not go out to those who are good. Those who are good have no need of forgiveness. Those who are already whole have no need for God. The Pharisee has everything he needs. Now, he simply has to show up at church and make sure that everyone else knows how good is and how good he has it.
Pharisees were religious people. They wanted everyone to know how religious they were. They want people to recognize them for how religious they are. They don’t spend time with non-religious people; they don’t hang out in secular places. We would not find them where the people who really need God’s grace congregate. They keep up the religious rules, and they want to make sure everyone sees them doing it. When they fast, they make sure to look glum, so someone will ask, “How’s it going?” “Oh, I’m so tired. I’ve been fasting all day.”
To put it in modern terms, they reply, “Oh, I’m so tired; I’ve been volunteering at the church all day.” Do you see how convicting Luke is?
Pharisees are suspicious of things they do not understand, and they do not understand how the rest of the world lives because they separate themselves from it. When they meet someone who is different or spends their time in different activities than they, they assume the worst. And, you know what happens when you assume? You are wrong. Pharisees usually do not have any good reason to assume the worst or mistrust people. Pharisees are easily offended, spiritually blind, hypocritical, hard hearted, miss out on true worship, say things but do not do them, and seek honor for themselves. Thank goodness we are not like them!
Maybe that is the point. Instead of worrying about who we are not like, we should focus on God.
What about the tax collector? Tax collectors were not nice accountants or IRS employees. They were Jewish, but worked for Rome. Rome was a foreign occupier so to work for Rome meant being complicit with the enemy. In addition, tax collectors were allowed to collect more taxes than they sent to Rome, and they could keep the extra. This made them despised people. When Jesus mentions ‘tax collector’, his listeners would know that he is talking about a bad guy.
Today, instead of a tax collector, Jesus might have mentioned a drug addict, homeless person, prostitute, motorcycle gang member--someone who is despised by society--someone who, when God is doling out forgiveness, would really need it.
What about us? We can be ourselves. We can seek to reflect Christ and his love for all people, whether they are Pharisees, tax collectors, you, or me. This means being comfortable in our own skin. When we call out to God, we must call out in our own voice, with our own prayers, with the concerns we have, and the honest thoughts we need to share with God.
We must set aside our prideful-ness and practice an open, honest, genuine faith—the kind that transforms us and the world.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Jeremiah’s Response to a Troubled People During a Troubled Time

We sang, as children, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” And, just a few verses after where I stopped reading, we have Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you.” Again and again, throughout scripture, we find the assurance that God is God and is fully capable of handling the world. Yet, we are uncomfortable with trust, with giving over control.
We are not alone. Throughout time, people have always wrestled with God and resisted surrendering control of their lives. Although we do it, God loves us (and everyone else), wants us (and everyone else) to experience the richness of life, and God desires a relationship with us (and everyone else). The old verse says, “For God so love the world,” not just us, not just Christians. Everyone wrestles with this question of meaning.
Sometimes prophetic books like Jeremiah can seem distant, but they deal with the human condition. Spinoza, the great rationalist philosopher, he was neither Christian nor Jew and associated God with nature as a pantheist, wrote in a letter to Hugo Boxel, “God's will is eternal, and has never been indifferent; hence... the world is a necessary effect of the divine nature.”[1] We have flooding because of rain. If we accept that the world is God’s plan, then we can trust God, even in the floods and storms of life. Yet, when we experience the storms of life, we can ask: Where is God? Why would God allow this?

In Jeremiah, the people wrestle with God in chapters 27-29. In 597 BCE, when Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Israelite King Jehoiachin and took Jerusalem, he deported the king and the best and brightest citizens. In doing so, Nebuchadnezzar ushered in the era of Babylonian captivity. Those who were left in Jerusalem did not have their leaders or the people who were experienced at governing them. Those who were in captivity were dislocated, in a foreign land.
Captivity provides the backdrop for Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept, remembering Zion. On the willows there, we hung our harps.” The captors made fun of the captives and said, “Sing us one of those songs of Zion!” Jeremiah speaks the truth. In chapter 27, he puts on a yoke and says: This is not temporary. Have faith in God! When Jeremiah shared God’s truth, the people did not want to hear it.
We are not unlike Jeremiah’s audience. We do not like the truth. I should exercise more, but I would resent it if you suggested it to me. Maybe I should eat healthier food, but I would not like to hear it from you. Those are simple innocuous truths, and they are far more palatable when discovered, not directed, or when inspired, not instructed. When it comes to hearing truth in life, things are no different. We resist it. However, Jeremiah spells it out for his audience: The truth is the truth, and sometimes the truth is difficult.
God is still God, and we can trust God. We do not need to be totally self-reliant. Our American “rugged individualism” might yield a productive economy and a leading world super power, but Herbert Hoover was not promoting a biblical truth when he repeated this idea in 1928.[2] He sought a productive economy, racing toward twentieth-century progress. We have the benefit of hindsight. Individualism yields consumerism, materialism, and a me-first world in which relationships become disposable, divorce rates are at an all-time high, friendships devolved into networking opportunities for professional gain, and we throw so much away that the Earth can barely contain it. Need I mention that political discourse is gone, and all that is left is mudslinging politicians. When we depend on ourselves and not God, we see what we get. We can trust God, grow where we are planted, and work together.
One of Jeremiah’s problems was opposing prophets. Hananiah shows up in chapter 28 and breaks Jeremiah’s yoke. He delivers the good news: Captivity is temporary; everything’s gonna be okay! God will break the Babylonians and we will return to Jerusalem. People liked Hananiah’s message. The problem was, his message was not from God; it was what the people wanted to hear.
Chapter 29 is Jeremiah’s response. Settle down, Jeremiah says, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Do not listen to the false prophets. Listen to God, and this is where we are. Grow where you are planted. If we were there, and if we were listening, our challenge would be to distinguish between the false prophet and the true prophet.
Do we have false prophets today? Absolutely. Sighting them is fairly easy, false prophets don’t reference the Bible, don’t mention God, and what they do say does not sound like the God of the Bible. False prophets have a lifestyle that does not match the message they share. Anyone who claims to share the gospel of Jesus Christ, but fails to mention Jesus, might be a false prophet. The problem today is competing with the clutter of voices in popular culture. They want to show us how to live, how to be beautiful, successful, and forever young. Jeremiah says, “No!” God’s got the whole world in his hands! Patrick Miller writes,
The peace and well-being the Lord promises to the exiles through Jeremiah are radically different from that promised by Hananiah and the prophets like him. Such peace is not to be found in resistance and rebellion…but in submission.[3]
We want acceptance. Instead, we have a calling to obedience. We want to follow Hananiah. Instead, we are to follow God. Life continuously changes. Heraclitus: “The river where you set your foot just now is gone.”[4] With each change in life, God remains consistent, ever-loving, and ever-present.

[1] Benedictus de Spinoza, Complete works, trans. Samuel Shirley and Michael L. Morgan (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 2002), 901.
[2] Herbert Hoover, The philosophy of rugged individualism, (Documentary Enrichment Records, 1962).
[3] Patrick D. Miller, "Jeremiah," in New Interpreter's Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 792.
[4] Heraclitus, Fragments, trans. Brooks Haxton (London: Penguin, 2001), 27.