Traditional Sermon, Pentecost 23
So things are not always what they appear. Sometimes due to our own preconceptions and prejudices we can completely misread the world around us.
For example, at one point in history, because of humanities narrow perspective from our limited knowledge, we believed that the world was flat and that if you traveled too far you would fall off the edge of the world. We believed that the sun revolved around the Earth because we could very plainly see it doing so in the sky. From our point of view, it very clearly rose in the East and set in West. It wasn’t until much later when we could look at the world from a different perspective that we realized just how wrong we actually were and we are most definitely not the center of the universe.
No matter how convinced some of us may feel, the world does not revolve around us. For example, how many of us, I know I have, have found ourselves in a rush for whatever reason, sitting dead still in the middle of a traffic jam caused by a wreck up ahead, which we may or may not realize, and our first thought is, “how could this happen to me?” It is human nature to look at everything from our own self-centered point-of-view. But things are not always what they appear.
I remember my dad telling me a story about a local farmer back home who stopped in one day at the BMW dealership to buy his wife the new car she had always wanted for her birthday. However, this particular day he was on his way home from dealing with some farm business and stopped by the dealership in his dirty overalls driving his beat up old farm truck that was at least 20 years old. Admittedly, I’m sure he probably looked pretty mangy in this moment but after trying for some time to get the new salesman at the dealership to pay attention to him with no avail, he gave up and drove off in that dirty beat-up old truck. The next day he came back, when the salesman who had sold him his previous car was working. The salesman from the previous day immediately came running his direction in an attempt to sell him a car now that no longer looked mangy and looked like someone with the means to pay for a new car, but now it was the man’s turn to ignore the salesman as he waited for the guy he had dealt with in the past. At this point, not only did he purchase a new car, but he paid for it in cash, counting out $1000 bills very visibly and loudly for the other salesman to see and hear. That salesman found out very quickly that things were not always what they appear.
Now because of the cancelled NYC trip, my sermon needed to go a different direction this weekend and in the process of debating what I would preach about I was made aware that the Harry Potter Festival in Philadelphia was happening this weekend. For those who don’t know this already, like Pastor Craig, I am a Potter-head. I love the Harry Potter books and movies. One of the things I love the most about Harry Potter, is that nothing is ever quite what it seems. Even the books themselves, which I was quite convinced were childish nonsense when they first came out as I refused to read them. When someone finally convinced me to read the 1st book, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, I was shocked to find just how enthralling these books actually were. A friend of ours convinced gave me the first book and said, “just read it…” Then she gave my wife the next two books in the series and said, “He is going to need these.” I read the first three books in one week. Things were not what I had thought and I had fell in love with the world of Harry Potter.
An example of things in Harry Potter not being what they seem occurs in The Goblet of Fire. In this book, one of the competitions includes a rather odd golden egg. Every time Harry opens the egg, there is this ear piercing, screaming chaos of noise that comes out causing hims to slam the egg back shut as soon as he can. Harry is completely lost in attempting to solve this riddle until one of the other competitors gives him the hint to put the egg in the water. When he opens the golden egg in the water, there is not the chaos and noise from before but a beautiful chorus of singing mermaids. Things were not what they appeared.
In our text this morning, things are not all that they appear for the character’s within the story either. First of all, it is important to point out that right from the beginning we are told this is a parable. This is not a true story. This is a story Jesus has made up to illustrate a point.
The Pharisee in the story, is easy to demonize to some extent; but that is too simple. Just where does this Pharisee go wrong. From the standpoint of the Law, which would have been the only way this Pharisee would have known to be, he would have been considered righteous. It illustrates in the story that, for all practical purposes, this Pharisee follows the Law. The problem of the Pharisee would not have been obvious to those Jesus was telling the story to. As they would have been hearing this story they would have immediately thought that this Pharisee was a model of the Law and probably even praised the Pharisee for giving thanks to God for being a Pharisee and not being like those who do not follow the law. However, this is not the real issue at hand.
To those hearing the story, there would have been an anomaly in the story. Something that would have seemed out of place, and the Pharisee’s following of the Law and thanking God for being a follower of the Law was not it. The oddity is that he is standing alone. He is standing by himself. The temple was a very very busy place. It would have been very very hard to find anywhere within the temple to be alone. Not only that, to be in the temple was to be in the presence of God. To be alone in the temple, is not just to be standing by yourself away from other people, but to not be in the presence of God even within the temple. In essence his prayer could be considered saying, “I thank God that I do not need God because I can do it all by myself.”
We know from Christ’s teachings, for example when he says in Matthew 25.40 that whatever you do for the least of these you also do for me, that we find that our interactions with God are played out in our interactions with our neighbors. To love your neighbor is to love God. This Pharisee would have been truly alone as he isolated himself in the temple.
The Tax Collector is not necessarily all that he appears either. He is not willing to even cast his eyes toward God and beats his chest, which is a sign of mourning, and asks for mercy. He does not ask for forgiveness, but mercy. He does not necessarily repent. He will leave that day and most likely go right back to his role as an Imperial tax collector. He really does not have the power to repent on his own. He is trapped in a system with no where to go. If he were to abandon his job as a tax collector, who would hire him. Tax collectors are considered wholly untrustworthy and outside of that job he and his family, if he has one, would most likely find themselves at risk of starvation. This tax payer knows that what he is doing is wrong but he is trapped with no way to repent without God granting him mercy, without the gift of God’s grace the tax payer is incapable of repenting.
This is why the tax payer is justified instead of the Pharisee. The Pharisee says I can do it all; I can take care of myself and I don’t even need the presence of God to do so; whereas, the tax collector recognizes that he has absolutely no righteousness of his own, he is trapped within the system, and he is not even able to repent his ways unless God shows him mercy and the gift of grace.
The Pharisee who would appear to be close to God because of his following of the Law has completely isolated himself from God; and tax collector who would appear to be trapped in a system in which he could never truly stop sinning receives grace & mercy and will ultimately be justified despite his inability to stop sinning. Things are not what they appear. We are not justified because we stop sinning; we are justified by the grace and mercy of God despite the fact that we are incapable of not sinning.
So what was the point of me telling you about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and that mysterious puzzle of the Golden Egg? If you allow the stretch here, in a way that golden egg represents our lives. When you open up the egg of our lives sometimes all you can hear is the noise and chaos and it seems as though there is no way to ever make any senses out of any of it. However, things are not always what they appear.
When you view the chaos of the world through God’s grace, there can always be found beauty, even in the worst of situations. Such as the beauty of neighbors ferrying food and supplies to my in-laws who were trapped with no egress because of flooding. Or people after an earthquake working tirelessly to help rescue people have never met from the debris. There are countless stories of people coming to the aid of others they have never met with immense acts of kindness and love in midst of times of chaos.
Like when Harry places that egg in the water and hears the beautiful chorus of singing, when you place our chaotic lives within the waters of our Baptism, there is a beautiful chorus that can be heard through the chaotic noise. Those Baptismal waters are a means of grace. In our Baptism we receive the wondrous gift of God’s grace and like that tax collector, we are justified by grace despite the fact that we are incapable of not sinning and the grace and and love of God can turn our chaos into beauty. In response to the loving gift of grace granted to us by God, we are called to seek and recognize the presence of God, not by isolating ourselves from other like the Pharisee, but instead find the presence of God in the lives of those around us and be the presence of God in their lives.
And for that I say thanks be to God and….