Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 26, 2019
“Don’t Be Generous”
Luke 18: 9-14 – Common English Bible
Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: 10 “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
“Thank God I’m not like you.” I don’t remember who said that to me. Or why and when. As much as I’ve forgotten about the details, however, I’ll never forget feeling hurt. Perhaps it’s good he or she didn’t say something more specific, like “Thank God I’m not as stupid as you.” Which is not to say people haven’t said it about me. Just not to my face. Perhaps that’s because people generally understand proper etiquette dictates we say such a thing about a person, not to them. Like, “Thank God I’m not like those other people.”
When we talk like that, it also often implies a desired consequence – for example, a fall from grace. We love to see bullies get their due. And if they do, to feel schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is the German word for pleasure derived by seeing someone's misfortune. Feeling joy when someone is disgraced.
The Pharisee didn’t say “Thank God I’m not like this tax collector” to his face because he was too busy praising himself. Meanwhile the other man was slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up. Just beating his chest and crying out, “God, give me mercy. Forgive me.” The Pharisee busied himself with his credentials – fasting twice a week, giving away a tenth of all his income, convinced that he was righteous and could look down on everyone else.
On the surface, this is a straightforward and bracing story about the dangers of spiritual pride. A quick glance at the story would lead to the conclusion, “don’t be like the Pharisee.” Arrogant, self-righteous. Maybe even a bully. A quick glance might convince us to be more like the tax collector. Repentant, humble. Afterall, humility is a common theme for Jesus. That, and a reversal of fortune. A reversal of expectations. This parable closely resembles Mary’s Magnificat, when Mary sang of the baby in her womb that with the birth of this child, the humble shall be lifted high and those on their thrones will be toppled; the hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. That’s almost exactly like the last line of this parable: “All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
A hasty examination of this story might make us feel good. “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee.” A deeper look, however, invites us to ask, “How am I like the Pharisee?” That’s where I find the “ouch” of this parable.
We may not think we struggle with the dangers of spiritual pride, but as I wrestled with the meaning of this parable, it occurred to me: What will happen if Donald Trump is impeached or, now increasingly likely, when. What will it feel like? What will it mean for us? Imagine the full-on potential for schadenfreude if he were to be removed from office? What would it feel like – to use the words of the Pharisee – to see the fall of the crooks, evildoers, and adulterers? I suspect, on that day there will be a lot of Pharisees tempted to say, “Thank God I’m not like those other people, those poor gullible fools.”
Ouch, right? How am I like the Pharisee? Well, here’s the Word of the Lord for out-of-touch, urban elites, who look down their noses on baskets full of deplorables. Am I making sense? Jesus told a parable to people who had trusted in themselves that they were the righteous ones. Or as Eugene Peterson translates in The Message, Jesus told this parable to people “who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance.”
I’m not pointing a finger. This is not an indictment on you but rather my plea for mercy from our forgiving God. Like the tax collector pleading, “God, show mercy to me, a sinner.” For I have, indeed, looked with contempt on those I deem to be on the wrong side of history. If not out loud, I have certainly thought, “Thank God I’m not like those other people.” Now, to fully repent, this will require that I cease this behavior. And when I inevitably fail, beg God for mercy and forgiveness again. Even if it is 70 times 7. “God, show mercy to me, a sinner.”
Yet, while this is true, we can’t let a focus on the personal failings of the insufficiently repentant turn into an opportunity for crooks, evildoers, and adulterers to deflect or distract from the pursuit of truth and justice. The corrupt demanding others to be humble.
A few weeks ago, there was a gathering of church leaders from across a wide theological spectrum, a coalition known as Red Letter Christians. They represent a long list of denominational officials, like the UCC’s Traci Blackmon, along with prominent pastors, bishops, and seminary presidents and professors.
They issued a timely proclamation: “As Christians in the United States of America, we join together to express our conviction that an impeachment inquiry is necessary to reveal the truth, hold President Donald J. Trump and other public officials accountable, and bolster democracy. We welcome the light of truth, honesty, and transparency that this moment demands, whatever may be revealed. An inquiry must shine light on this administration’s dealings behind closed doors. We petition people of faith and integrity to join us in calling forth this light.”
They added, “Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12).
Their statement says, “Jesus’ words and ministry highlight the connection between truth and the well-being of the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the imprisoned, and the earth. Likewise, we who follow Jesus must make visible that any President [who violates] violation of his [or her] oath of office would harm[s] the most vulnerable among us.” Adding, “this is not a matter of partisanship, but of deepest principle.”
I am immensely grateful that I serve as the pastor of a church where I can read that proclamation out loud. Thank you. And a church that expresses outrage over the treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, Muslims, and all who are suffering in this country and around the world. Thank you. And thank God we’re not like those other churches who won’t, don’t, or can’t. Oops. See how easy it happens? God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Again.
What does any of this have to do with the fact that today is stewardship Sunday and our theme is Making an Impact? I would not have chosen this as a stewardship text, but I’m now glad for the insight and caution it provides. Insight about humility and caution about arrogance, even though I still want to talk about the significant impact our church does have on the world and our communities. And as evidence, to read a letter to us from Genevieve Swift, the co-founder of the group Rename St*pleton for All:
“Park Hill UCC has been a great resource and respite for social justice activists. You provide free meeting space for groups like NE Denver Neighbors for Racial Justice and Rename St*pleton for All, and have allowed community members, such as me, to hold ACLU and other events in the sanctuary regardless of church membership. You always go above and beyond to accommodate our needs; and always with warmth. The main entrance to the church has a sign that says, “We serve EVERYONE ONLY.” To me, you live this and support all who are working toward a world that is an open, inclusive, just, and compassionate (she used those words!) through your fair trade gift market, monthly racial justice book club, shelter to homeless women… and by proudly displaying Black Lives Matter pins and yard signs. Rev. Bahr’s passionate sermons, straight from his heart, especially about the need to Rename St*pleton for All, provoke us all to think and love deeply, while calling us to action. The church provides us with the resources to follow through. Our community is better because of the mission and generous spirit of the Park Hill UCC, your pastor, and members.”
When I first read her letter, I felt such pride to be part of this church. The parable, however, reminds me that this letter should inspire humility, not arrogance. And more importantly, for it not to praise generosity, but for it to inspire it.
Again, our stewardship theme this year is about making an impact. I gave this theme to our talented graphic arts designer Brian Cullen and Deborah Colontonio. As they reflected on the word impact, they visualized the splash made by a stone when it hits water. It’s a brilliant, inviting image. Almost an icon drawing us in. It’s not an invitation to throw stones, but rather to illustrate the kind of impact we want to make. Brian provided several bags of stones on which to write words like love and compassion. At our staff meeting on Tuesday we had fun with markers. We added more words like kindness and joy and hope and healing. Then we dug a little deeper and added words about making an impact through silence and power and harmony. And amused ourselves about making an impact through delight and perhaps my favorite of all the words we chose – dazzle. God can use us to make an earth-shattering impact on the world through dazzle! Later in the service I’ll invite you to find the stone that speaks to you among the many here on the communion table. Or choose one at random and see what it says.
But back to the parable. It’s easy to come down hard on the Pharisee for his “other people” comment. Wasn’t he, in fact, simply doing the things asked of him? Praying at the temple, fasting, tithing. He was decent, upstanding, faithful. The problem, however, is that although he was praying to God, he really made it all about himself. What he was doing. He used the grammar of gratitude, thank you God, but in reality, it was the grammar of superiority. Comparing himself to those other people and emphasize what he was doing for God instead of what God had done for him.
So I’ve never said this on a stewardship Sunday before, but after wrestling with this text, my conclusion is: Don’t be generous.
Don’t be generous because that makes it about us. Stewardship isn’t about us. When we give or pledge to the ministry of Christ, it shouldn’t be about what we are doing for God. Because that could lead to arrogance or complacency. It invites a comparison with those other people. We might be tempted to analyze our giving as too little or too much. We might end up judging some giving better than others.
Instead, don’t be generous. Choose first to live with love or compassion or power and gentleness. Or dazzle! And then watch the incredible impact God will make through you. You’ll find yourself more generous than if you had chosen to be, not because you were asked but because you can’t help yourself!
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world