Sunday, October 23, 2016

God's Unlimited Grace

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 23, 2016

Year C, Proper 25: The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

God’s Unlimited Grace
            A couple of weeks ago I got a message from someone who’s been having a really hard time lately.
            As sometimes happens, his misfortunes seem to have come quickly and have kind of piled up, one on top of the other.
            No surprise, he was feeling overwhelmed. (Actually, to be honest, reading his list of troubles, I was feeling a little overwhelmed, too!).
            But, after listing all of these woes, at the end of his message he wrote something that I bet we’ve all heard, and I’m sure that many of us have said to people in similar trouble. He wrote that he was really struggling and then added “…but, I know that people say that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”
            God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.
            I wrote back to him and told him that, actually, I never say that. I never say that because it presupposes that it’s God who dishes out the bad stuff in our lives, that it’s God who takes away our employment, that it’s God who gives us disease, that it’s God who breaks up our relationships.
            That doesn’t sound to me like the God revealed to us by Jesus, the God who gives us only good gifts, the God who is good, all the time.
            And, I don’t say this phrase because, well, what about the people who have had more than they could handle?
            What about them? Did God overburden them?
            Or, is it that we failed to share God’s grace, God’s love, with them?
            There are a number of other religious-sounding catchphrases that many well-meaning people throw around that, maybe, sort of sound right, but when you start thinking about them, really aren’t OK at all.
            For example, there’s that popular Bible verse that’s most definitely not in the Bible: “God helps those who help themselves.”
            I’ve heard that my whole life and I bet you have, too, but when you stop and think about it, you realize that one of the key themes of the Bible is that we can’t help ourselves, that we depend on God for everything, that we need to help each other, that, in fact, it’s when we think we can help ourselves that we get ourselves into big trouble.
            That’s why at Baptism we say, “I will, with God’s help.”
            Or, maybe it would be even better to say, “With God’s help, I will.”
            And then how about this: when we see or hear about someone less fortunate, what do we often say?
              “There but for the grace of God go I.”
            Again, people say this, we say this, with all good intentions and with sincere gratitude, but what’s the implication of these words?
            Do we really believe that God has withheld grace from people less fortunate than us, withheld grace from the child killed in the car accident or the woman with terminal cancer or the man who can’t stop drinking?
            Do we really believe that God has withheld grace from all of these unfortunate people, while showering grace upon us?
            Are we so special or so deserving?
            And, is God’s grace so limited?
            In today’s gospel lesson, we pick up right where we left off last week.
            Last Sunday we heard the parable about the widow and the judge and today we hear another parable, about a Pharisee and a tax collector praying, praying not quite together, in the Jerusalem Temple.
            In the New Testament, the Pharisees are usually depicted negatively. They are usually seen as hypocrites who were hostile to Jesus and his message, but other sources indicate that they were generally respected by the people for their holiness, admired for their desire to make everyday life holy by carefully following God’s Law.
            At first, the Pharisee’s prayer seems just fine. He thanks God that he has been able to lead an upright life, that he’s not a thief, or a rogue, or an adulterer. He thanks God that he is able to even   fast twice a week and giving up a tenth of all he had.
            All of that is fine, except that while he is praying his thanksgiving to God, he’s also got at least one eye on the tax collector, standing far off.
            In his prayer, the Pharisee seems to assume that the tax collector is beyond the grace of God.
            There but for the grace of God go I.
            But, is the Pharisee so special?
            And, is God’s grace so limited?
            Now, when we hear about a tax collector, we probably think about the IRS and how nobody likes to pay taxes and many use every law and loophole they can to pay the absolute bare minimum of tax.
            It’s true, I guess, that nobody loves the IRS, but tax collectors in first century Israel were something quite different. They were Jews who worked for the Roman occupiers and who made their money by overcharging their own people.
            They were traitors.
            Tax collectors were despised, the lowest of the low.
            So, it must have taken quite a bit of courage for this tax collector to even just enter the Temple, knowing that there would likely be people who knew who he was, who knew what he was. No wonder he stood far off. It must have taken courage for the tax collector to enter the Temple and pray with downcast eyes to the God of Israel, to beg, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
            Everyone else may have despised this sinful tax collector, but not God.
            God’s grace is unlimited.
            God’s grace is unlimited for the Pharisee, God’s grace is unlimited for the tax collector – and God’s grace is unlimited for us.
            You know, the Pharisee would have known God’s Law inside and out so he would have known the great command of Leviticus 19:18: Love your neighbor as yourself.
            And, I’d bet the Pharisee sincerely tried to do that, but it’s always easier to love your neighbor in the abstract. It’s easier to at least try to love those sinful “tax collectors” but a lot harder when one particular tax collector is praying not too far from you.
            Instead of love, the Pharisee interrupted his prayer of thanksgiving and judged the despised but praying tax collector.
            And, I wonder if we don’t make the same terrible mistake.
            It’s easy to feel compassion, to feel sorrow, to even feel love for people in the abstract.
            “I care about the poor.”
            “I feel so sorry for homeless people.”
            But, it’s a whole lot harder to be loving when a poor homeless person is asleep in front of your home, or blocking your way begging as you’re trying to get to work, or, yes, attending the same church that we do and making us feel uncomfortable, frightened, or even angry.
            Then, just like for the Pharisee, things get messy and real.
            Do we, like the Pharisee in today’s parable, even right here in church, interrupt our prayers to God and judge him or her?
            Do we even try to love those individuals who are hard to love – do we even try to share God’s grace with that particular man or that particular woman who is so hard to love?
            Do we, who have received so many blessings despite our many sins, do we remember that God’s grace is unlimited – unlimited for us, and unlimited for the person who steals, unlimited for the person who gets drunk or high every day, unlimited for the person who talks nonsense.
            Not easy, but with God’s help, we can do it.
            So, instead using catchphrases, instead of thinking or saying “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” or “God helps those who help themselves” or “There but for the grace of God go I,” instead of judging, let’s love, let’s love, and let’s share God’s unlimited grace.