Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Dr. Lissa Wray Beal

Dying, to Live

Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-18; Luke 18:9-14

There can be nothing more life-changing than a good “Aha!” moment. You know – when you suddenly realize that you really want this job, and not that. When you love this person, and not that. When, in a moment of utter clarity, all your tangled thinking becomes clear, and you make decisions to order your life by that knowledge.
Story and film works well with such moments. One of my favourites is right at the end of Gone with the Wind. You recall the scene: Melanie Wilkes is now dead. Her husband, Ashley, is now free to marry and Scarlett realizes she might marry this man (o, he of the insipid will) after years of dreaming she loves him. She walks home in the dark and fog, her mind reeling at the turn of events. And, as she thinks and ponders, the fog clears and she knows—chillingly, for it may now be too late—that she does not love Ashley. Has never loved him. And that her heart has always and forever belonged to her match. To Rhett (o, he of the loving realism). The fog of her mind clearing, she hurries home, to tell Rhett and begin a renewed life. Of course, we know that it was not that easy for her!
I remember a personal Aha! moment that changed my life with God. I grew up in the United Church. My folks were both well-respected “do-ers” at North Surrey United Church. My dad was the board chair. Counted the money. Did repair work at church. My mom fearlessly led one of the powerful women’s groups. In the culture of that church, we were somebodies. We counted. And, in my early teens, I took that to mean that I had standing with God. He needed me – likely was thankful that I was of such good stock! And I was secure in the knowledge that surely, God approved me because we were so good and useful.
That is, until I met up with my cousins. They were what we called “saved.” I remember their joy. There was no boast about how much they did in church. They didn’t see themselves as especially good and thus deserving of God’s favour. And in the face of their sense of God’s love for them that had nothing to do with what they did for him, I felt exposed and a fraud. They had something real. I had a hollow shell. They had a sure sense of God’s presence and love. I had my facade of “needed” “useful” “righteous” “good” that had been my security. But now, it was exposed as a sham. It set me off on a journey that brought me to new understandings of God, and how he desires to relate to people.
Our parable this morning has 2 “Aha!” moments.
We begin with the Pharisee. He seems like a pretty decent guy. He’s not a thief or a swindler. He’s pretty just. And he’s not cheated on his wife. In all, he abides by the law. He even goes beyond the usual religious requirements: fasting twice a week. Giving ten percent of all his income – not just on the net, but on the gross! Surely, if God would justify anyone, he would justify this guy!
But that is just the problem: he thinks he brings something to God – that God needs what he has – and therefore, God should approve of him. Hear his prayer. Give him a higher place in his affections. More – the Pharisee thinks he is better than others; this guy is not shy to compare himself proudly to other people. Why? Because the Pharisee thinks he is commendable. If being justified before God was a cosmic poker game, the Pharisee thinks he has a good hand,
Robert Farrar Capon writes about just this cosmic poker game:
“God is sitting there in the temple, busy holding creation in being – thinking it all into existence, concentrating on making the hairs on your head jump out of nothing, preserving the seat of my pants, reconciling the streetwalkers in Times Square, the losers on the Bowery. . . and all the worms under flat rocks in Brazil. And in come these two characters. The Pharisee walks straight over, pulls up a chair to god’s table, and whips out a pack of cards. He fans them, bridges them, does a couple of one-handed cuts and an accordion shuffle, slides the pack over to god, and says, “Cut. I’m in the middle of a winning streak.” And God looks at him with a sad smile, gently pushes the deck away, and says, “Maybe your’re not. Maybe it just ran out.”    So the Pharisee picks up the deck again and starts the game himself. “Acey-Ducey, okay?” And he deals God a two of fasting and a king of no adultery. And God says, “Look, I told you. Maybe this is not your game. I don’t want to take your money.”           “Oh, come on,” says the Pharisee. “How about seven-card study, tens wild? I’ve been real lucky with tens wild lately.” And God looks a little annoyed and says, “Look, I meant it. Don’t play me. The odds here are always on my side. Besides, you haven’t even got a full deck. You’d be smarter to be like the guy over there who came in with you. He lost his cards before he got here. Why don’t you both just have a drink on the house and go home?” (Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement, Eerdmans 2002, 339-40).
The reality is that in the game of justification, the Pharisee has no cards. No edge. Because, for all the good he does, his understanding and attitude is wrong. He thinks that can justify himself before God. In this, it’s all about him; not about God’s kind gift of redemption. The Pharisee does not know that he (just as much as the tax-collector) needs someone to give him the gift of life and quicken him out of his deadness. He needs someone to make him right before God because all the good works he could ever do would always be a short deck.
That is the first “Aha!” moment in the story – knowing that we can never, by our own actions, be made right in God’s sight. We are hopelessly flawed in all the ways we can be. This parable which “speaks to those who are confident of their own righteousness” shows us that righteousness – justification – is all about what God has done for us, not what we can do for God. He wants to give us what we can never achieve on our own: his gift of justification.
The second “Aha!” moment is about the tax collector. He comes before God. He knows he is in a different category than the Pharisee. He describes himself not just as “a” sinner, but as “the” sinner –his life is a bold declaration of what sin is. If you want to talk about sin, he is an exemplary sinner! Likely he cheated his clients. Perhaps he’d cheated on his wife, and was a thief. We don’t know the details of his sin – but he does. Certainly, he was a villain in the eyes of polite society!
But he knows what the Pharisee refuses to admit: that he can never, on his own merits, be right with God. That his life is hopelessly flawed and sinful. And that only. . . if he could only hope it could be!. . . only if God has mercy upon him will he be made right with God.
He is, perhaps, like the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) who recognizes how much he’s blown it. And then comes in astounding hope back to the father. . . only to be quickly gathered up in the father’s embrace. Why? Because the father wants to embrace the child! God wants to justify the sinner! But until that person comes knowing that all their own resources by which they think they can be justified are useless to do the job. . . until they move from the self-sufficiency of the Pharisee to the tax-collector’s recognition of need, well. . . they are not willing to even look for, or receive, God’s free gift of justification.
It is the tax-collector, who sees his need for God’s gift, who is in a position to receive it. And it is the tax collector who goes home justified. That is the second “Aha!” of this parable.
But isn’t there a third?
Parables, you see, are meant to “catch” us, the reader. Maybe we identify with one (or both) of the characters in the parable. Maybe we realize that both of them are equal before God – unable to justify themselves. Hopefully, we begin to think that, like the Pharisee, we too, hold no cards in the justification game we’d like to play with God. We’ll never be good enough, perfect enough to be right before a holy God.
The Good News – the “Aha!” of this parable is that we are reminded that we can come freely, as the tax collector came, and ask for someone (who is able to do so), to quicken us to new life. One who will do so – not because we try to best them at a cosmic game of justification – but because he looks in mercy on our need. Because he alone knows how to make us right before God. Because he knows we need the free gift he alone can give – the “drink on the house” that we can never buy or earn.
It is no accident that this parable is told by Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem to die on the cross. Shortly after this parable is told, he for the third time predicts his death (18:31-34). It is through this death that he makes the Pharisee’s poker game useless. For in his death, he makes a way to freely give those who wish it, reconciliation with – justification before – God. Only that is needed. Through that, God pours out his mercy and his gift of life upon people dead – utterly unable to get that life on their own. But you can’t be quickened to new life until you know you are dead. That is the deal with new life – it comes through death – Christ’s own, and our death into his life.
In the novel, The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett tells an expansive story of the 12th century in England. A humble monk, Philip, becomes the prior of a monastery. During his tenure, over a 40 year span, a cathedral is built. Around the building of the cathedral are woven threads of politics, relationships, and intrigues.
One of the monastery monks, Remigius, was passed over when the monks voted Philip in as prior. Remigius is an ambitious man, and angry over the slight. So he begins to work for the bishop who is corrupt and scheming. Remigius spies on Philip and reports to the bishop. Time and again, the bishop attempts to thwart Philip’s building project with the information he receives from Remigius.
Finally, Remigius overplays his hand, is discovered, and flees the monastery. He arrives on the bishop’s doorstep, hoping for reward and a place of prominence. But he is now no longer of use to the bishop, so he is thrown out, left to wander destitute; without home or means.
One day, Philip is riding along and sees a group of people scrounging through garbage. He stops, shocked, because one of the men is Remigius. Thin. Threadbare. Needy. Philip dismounts and walks over to Remigius. He offers him bread and wine which Remigius takes hungrily. He then invites Remigius to come back to live with him and the monks. It is astounding! He extends an offer of grace to a man who does not deserve it. Who can offer nothing by way of service to gain it. Remigius ponders and, realizing his need and the offer of grace, accepts with humble emotion.
And then, Philip places Remigius on his donkey. Philip walks back to the priory, leading the reclaimed Remigius to the place of grace and hope.
We are Remigius. Pharisees and tax collectors alike, Jesus comes to offer us the bread and wine of his own body, given for us freely on the cross. Through his death, resurrection, and ascension, he offers us reconciliation with God. A grace that is freely given, and full and free each day as his children.
It was the tax collector, who knew his need and who asked for God’s help, who went home justified. You have to know you are dead in your need before God’s resurrection life quickens you.
This week, the Archbishop of Canterbury christened Prince George. In conjunction with that, he released a short video about the event, which explains what baptism is, and how God shows us his grace in making us his children.
In that video, he recites a prayer from the Church of Scotland that reminds us that we – the tax collectors seeking God’s mercy – receive it fully and freely in Christ Jesus:
 ”For you Jesus Christ came into the world. For you he lived and showed God’s love. For you he suffered the darkness of Calvary and cried at the last, ‘It is accomplished.’ For you he triumphed over death and rose to new life. For you he reigns at God’s right hand. All this he did for you, though you do not know it yet.”
This is mercy. This is grace, freely given. Amen.