October 27, 2013/Reformation Sunday
"There but for the grace of God go I."
I remember very well the first time I heard that phrase. I was in California with my mom for a family wedding. My mother, my aunts, my cousins and I were in a coffee shop and a woman, who would now be termed "morbidly obese," walked in. To see someone with that particular disease was much more unusual at that time. So she was noticed. Every person I was with that day understood the struggle with weight. I was only in 8th grade, but it wouldn't be very long before I understood it as well. I think that the empathy for the woman's condition was real and sincere. But as we sat there, eating our own desserts, shaking our heads with sadness and sympathy for her plight, one of my aunts said, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."
There, but for the grace of God, go I. I liked that phrase the minute I heard it. I thought those words expressed care and concern for the recipient of that sentiment, while also reminding the person saying them that there were people far worse off. It seemed like the perfect way to put myself into the proverbial shoes of someone else. There, but for the grace of God, go I. Whenever I see someone in a bad way, I think, "That could be me, but it's not. There, but for the grace of God, go I."
I probably would have continued to unthinkingly use this expression had I not listened to the WorkingPreacher podcast this past week. In their discussion of this passage from Luke, one of the commentators pointed out that saying those familiar words is just a nicer sounding way of expressing what the Pharisee expresses in his prayer. "Thank you God that I am not a sinner like that tax collector over there."
What would you think if I were to stand in the pulpit and call us to prayer saying, "Dear God, thank you. Thank you that we are not like the creepy losers outside these doors. Thank you that we aren't like those people who sleep in on Sunday mornings instead of getting up and going to church. Thank you that we aren't like those people who enjoy reading the Sunday paper more than they do your Word. Thank you that we know that being in your house is more important than being at brunch. Thank you, God, thank you that we are not like them."
You'd be appalled wouldn't you? As well you should. But what could I get away with if I stood here and prayed, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."
You see the problem is that however I express it, I pray not out of humility but out of self-righteousness. That's what Jesus is getting at in this parable, isn't he? He tells it in response to people who exalt themselves and look at others with contempt. So right from the start, we know we do not want to be like the Pharisee. His words ring with false piety. "Thank you God that I am not like the bad people all around me. Thank you that I am not a thief or a cheat. Look at me, God. I'm so good. I do all the right things. I keep the Law; in fact I go above and beyond what I'm required to do to keep the Law. Yay me!"
No, we want to be like the tax collector who beats his chest and simply prays. "God, I am a sinner. I am a sinner and I know it. Have mercy on me. I am a sinner."
Forget the Pharisee. I know I'm more like the tax collector. I know I'm a sinner, and I'm not afraid to admit it. I know that I need to turn to God for grace and mercy. I'm not self-righteous like that Pharisee. I know I could be like the Pharisee, but thankfully I am not! There, but for the grace of God, go I.
Professor David Lose describes this parable as being so clear and to the point, that we miss the trap that it sets for us. None of us want to be like the self-righteous Pharisee, proclaiming his goodness, his faithfulness. We want to be like the tax collector; willing to admit our sinfulness, asking only that God have mercy on us. As Jesus says, the exalted will be humbled and the humbled will be exalted. I want to be one of the humbled that gets exalted in the great reversal that Luke emphasizes again and again. But here's the reality that we often miss. It is just as easy to be self-righteous in our sinfulness as it is in our goodness. Think about that. It is just as easy to be self-righteous in our sinfulness as it is in our goodness.
I am a sinner and I know it! But thank you, God, that I am not like those other people who are so smug and self-righteous and they don’t it. There, but for the grace of God, go I.
Kind of puts a different slant on it, doesn’t it? Either way we choose, we can become self-righteous and self-important. So maybe, just maybe, what we really need to consider in this passage is not which one we're like -- the Pharisee or the tax collector. Maybe the real point of the parable is that it's not about us at all. Isn't that where we run into trouble? When we think it's about us? It's not about us. It's not about us being good or being sinful. It's about God. Perhaps what Jesus was trying to make the people understand is that God is the real subject. It's about what God does, how God acts in the world, the mercy God shows to all of God’s children, the exalting or the humbling at God's hand. It's about God.
Isn't that at the heart of the Reformation? This is Reformation Sunday, the day when denominations still willing to claim Martin Luther and John Calvin and so many others as our spiritual ancestors remember how we came to be.
Think about what we know about Martin Luther. While traveling he was caught in a terrible storm, and he promised God that if he survived he would dedicate his life to God. He survived and he kept his promise. Luther became a monk. He was called upon to teach and to preach, to preside over the sacraments. Yet he felt so completely unworthy that he tortured himself over his salvation. There was nothing he could do to earn it. He could never be good enough to merit salvation or justification by God. He was conflicted, to say the least, and he began to see the Church, his church with new eyes. He traveled to Rome, the great holy city, and saw firsthand how the indulgences that the church sold exploited the poor and the powerless. Buying an indulgence meant that you brought a loved one a little closer to leaving purgatory and entering into God's heaven; the more indulgences you bought, the more out of purgatory your loved one traveled.
Luther, studying the book of Romans, began to realize that it wasn't about him. It wasn't about what he could do or couldn't do. It wasn't about his own righteousness. It was about God.
John Calvin, although he came to his own conversion and covenant with God differently, believed that every aspect of our lives must be about honoring God. God was the subject of every facet of our lives. God was the author of every facet of our lives. Therefore how could we not put God first? When he answered the call to go to Geneva and lead the people in that place that was his intent. Geneva would be a truly reformed city. Geneva would be the city that understood it’s about God. Every aspect of life there would be about putting God first. It should have been great, but Calvin was run out of Geneva on a rail. But he was asked to come back, and the second time around went much better than the first.
I'm not making the claim that these two men or any of the other reformers, and there were many, were perfect. I know that in spite of their best intentions, they still fell into the trap of thinking it was about them. But what the reformers recognized was that it wasn’t just individuals who forgot that it’s about God, the Church had forgotten as well. Just like that Pharisee forgot that it was about God. Just like we forget that it is about God.
While we talk about the Protestant Reformation as an historical event, it seems to me that what being a church in the reformed tradition really means is that we understand that we are never done with reforming or being reformed. That is our motto, "Reformed, always reforming." We are never done with the need for reformation, because it's just so easy to make everything about us. But it's not about us. It's about God.
It's about God; a Creator who pulled and pulls good out of bad, life out of chaos. It's about God; not just some far off being who watches us from a detached position somewhere out there. It's about God who Loves, who became incarnate, who became one of us to make manifest that Love. The Love of God had flesh and bone, eyes, hands, heart. It's about God, who is still with us, showing up in unlikely places and in unlikely people, blowing new life into what think is dead. It's about God who is in every act of kindness, in every act of mercy, in every act of grace and forgiveness. It's about God who calls us to be the body of Christ in the world; to be the hands and feet and heart in a world that is still so broken, because it's not about us. It's about God. It’s about God. May we be truly humbled in our knowledge of that glorious, wonderful, amazing good news! It’s about God. Let all God's children say, "Alleluia! Amen."