Counting or Comparing?

(A sermon–or a sermon draft–of a sermon preached at Brownbacks UCC–a supply preaching gig)

Two men walk into a temple…

Someone not familiar with Jesus’ teachings

And biblical readings

May think today’s parable is the beginning of a joke.

Two men walk into a temple.

But those of us who have sat through several Sundays

Or spent time with Scripture know:

Put on your hats and buckle your seatbelts;

It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Most likely Jesus is about to tell us something that is hard to hear

Made even less clear by the parable packaging

This message is wrapped in.

If we’re open to it, this message surely says something to keep us thinking and talking

Talking and thinking.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason I need to begin with a confession.

When I was in seminary with your pastor,

We, and several other students, were very good friends.

Such good friends that we had nicknames for one another.

Because that’s what you do when you’re really good friends, right?

You make up names for one another.


Here’s where the confession part comes in…

My nickname was


That’s right–

There was holier-than-thou,

Judgmental, etc..

And I was Self-Righteous.

These are the kinds of irreverent things

We folks studying to become Reverends do.

So, that was my nickname.


And like all nicknames,

It has more than a modicum of truth:

I am someone who tries to live my faith

I am someone who seeks to speak the truth in love,

Take care of the widow, orphan, and alien,

And in general leave places slightly better than I found them.

I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong or bad about this

In and of themselves, they are good traits.

But here’s the shadow side of these sunny characteristics–

I can think that God operates more like the Girl Scouts

Offering merit badges and honors for those who complete

The best or most number of faithful acts than a grace-giving God who is the source of all blessings.

I might not be looking down at you, but I’m certainly not looking up or out for God.

I can get so caught up in the doing–

I forget that I am a human being

Whose very life and breath come from God.

Suddenly I am worshipping my actions

And not God.

Then I’m a double-winner sinner:

Self-righteous and Idolatrous.

So you see this passage

This parable is speaking to me.

Did you notice how this passage begins?

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt

That’s me.

I’m one of those.

And when I look around at a lot of churches

My guess is I’m not the only ones.

We’re the church, right?

We’re told we’re to be the body of Christ

I’ve even heard some UCC pastor and churches

Talk about being Christ’s hands and feet here

This is not to mention the reality that our world is in.

Debts, division, death–if you read the paper or watch the news it can be

Easy to say, I’m glad I’m not one of those people—isn’t it?

Easy to look at a someone we know

And sigh a deep breath, and pray, thank you God—at least I’m not…

Easy to look inhale deeply our Pennsylvania air

And think–glad we’re not in Nevada

Grateful our young people didn’t take a gun to school

glad I’m not that young person’s parent

Or grandparent

Thank you God that I’m not like…

(secretly hoping no one {including God}

notices in some ways, you just might

relate a little too well to one of these stories.)

I don’t know about any of you, but I can easily believe my justification, my righteousness, come from what I do

And that grace, like Girl Scout Merit Badges, is earned

And my prayer can so easily be about what I’m not rather than who I am

All my doing and justifying trying to prove my Girls Scout Goodness to God

making up for those places where life isn’t how I wish

and I’m not how I wish.

It’s hard to simply look up and

Own up that sometimes my deeds are more about my  ego and less about You

Saying thank you for the blessings that abound

And admitting I need You more than I know

But is it really that simple? (Remember simple and easy are not the same thing! Self-righteousness—easy to ID—harder to change.)

I don’t think so.

Because here’s my other confession.

Most of the time I lean toward self-righteousness—

But there’s this other percentage of the time—

I actually think it is part of my self-righteousness, too

Where I hang my head in shame

Beat my fist on my chest

And believe I am not worthy of love, acceptance, or God’s grace.

In one split-second, I can swing from super-hero

To slime,


To extreme sinner.

Which leads me to the tax collector

standing far off, would not even look up to heaven,

beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

Brene Brown—popular Oprah guest, TED Talk Presenter, and Shame Expert

Would clearly diagnose this tax collector with shame issues.

I mean look at his body language—

eyes downcast, not even looking up at heaven.

Shoulders slumped,

Head hung,

While he beats his chest.

I wonder if he could even hear God’s assurance of pardon?

This grace is for you.

I give it to you.

You already have all the Girl Scout merit badges you need.

All you need to do is accept them.

I wonder what sins are so grievous

They weigh his heart and mind down?

I don’t think we’re talking about a man who might have felt bad that he worked for the IRS and have a tough session with a US citizen.

Tax collectors in Jesus’ time were contractors

For the Roman Empire.

They had free will and reign to take as much money as they wanted.

Sure they had to t0urn some of it over to the Empire,

But so long as they did, they could pocket plenty for themselves.

They were known for pyramid schemes, backroom deals,

brokering with the rich and robbing the poor.

“Tax collectors are not merely ‘misunderstood’: they are on the wrong side religiously, politically, and economically,”

Jesus’ audience would not have thought this rogue was a diamond in the rough a “publican with a heart of gold” (David Schnasa Jacobsen).


He was a sinner.

Just like we all are.

And if he can’t hear

Really hear God’s grace

He’s the flip side of the Pharisee.

For he too believes that his worth,

His merit,

directly corresponds to his actions—

Repugnant and repulsive–are his self,

Then why fight it?

Might as well just go for broke and be the villain?

Perhaps part of the complexity of this parable is our God

who accepts this tax collector,

the one who rips off the poor,

just as he is.

God ,who says this man is justified,

Or in other translations

The tax collector is righteous.

More righteous than the Pharisee.

What does God think God is doing?


Last week’s parable was of the persistent widow and the unjust judge.

The way the story unfolds

It seems that this widow is so annoying

So overbearing

So irritating

That the unjust judge gives in.

Not because he’s won over,

Not because he suddenly has a heart for justice,


He just wanted her to shut up and go away.

This week I read a sermon by Rev. Marci Aauld Glass that suggested the widow is God.

Persistently nagging us to turn toward justice.

I had never heard, read, or thought of that interpretation before.

When I read this story,

Which comes directly after the persistent widow,

I think that reading makes sense.

It’s almost like Jesus is telling those in the Temple:

That it’s ok to be really real with God.

That God knows us

Our outward actions

But also our inside hearts.

God knows our intentions and desires

And our egos.

And God’s mercy is not limited to

Any kind of person.

It is abundant

And it is for all.

It is almost offensive

How freely this persistent widow God

Seeks to grant grace.

It is almost offensive

How the roadblocks to receiving this grace

Don’t seem to come from God

They seem to come from within us, humans.

What if the Pharisee and tax collector are actually flip sides of the same coin?

I think many people have a little bit of each of these characters in them.

The real challenge might be being honest with ourselves and God

For where we are

Taking a moment to look up and ask for mercy

and thank God

for what we are

and the blessings we have.

Imagine a week of counting blessings

Rather than comparing them.


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