Wednesday, October 1, 2014

16th Sunday after Pentecost

Verily I say unto, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. 

In the account of the fall of the human race in Genesis, Adam is asked by the LORD, Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat? God is of course asking the question not because he does not know the answer. The point is that God is giving Adam an opportunity to admit his fault before him. Not surprisingly Adam does not acknowledge his disobedience, but contrives a subterfuge for his disobedience. He tells the LORD, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. The audacity of sin is on full display in the sentence. Adam implies that his disobedience is somehow God's fault because he gave him the woman.

Like so many passages in the book of Genesis, the narrative is succinct but full of meaning and deep insight into the human condition. It is part of fallen human nature to seek to justify ourselves. Often even when people know that they have erred they will contrive excuses to try to deflect their guilt. Adam blames the woman. He blames the LORD for giving him the woman. He does not take responsibility for his fault. He does not own his sin.

Christianity is often the victim of popular caricatures of our faith. One such caricature is that Christians are those who pretend or imagine they are perfect. I do not even think that the goal of Christianity is moral perfection. No, genuine Christians know that perfection is not within our grasp as fallen human beings. A changed life can only be the gift of God. If you want to be a Christian, the principal characteristic will not be perfection which cannot be achieved in this life and in the life to come only as the gift of God. Rather, the characteristic of Christians in this world is that of repentance. But, in order to repent, there has to be an acceptance of real fault and guilt. The endless evasions, the stitching of fig leaves together and hiding amongst the trees, the blaming of God and others for our sins and faults, has to be cast off. This attitude is paralleled in steps four and five of the twelve steps which are to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and to admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Addicts—just like all human beings—tend to blame others. The whole point is to take responsibility and ownership. In biblical terms this is called repentance, and it means owning our past lives, not just the parts that we are proud of, and placing all of our lives in the light of the Lord.

Repentance is a motif that runs throughout the readings this morning. The book of Ezekiel was originally addressed to the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar had removed from Jerusalem to Babylon. The prevalent attitude was that the exile was a judgment of God not for the exiles' faults but for the sins of their parents and ancestors. The exiles were angry at God because they thought they had done nothing wrong.  Hence, they quote the proverb, the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge. Ezekiel points out that they slipping back into Adam's subterfuge of blaming others rather than being honest about their real culpability. The exiles strive to justify themselves, but in so doing, they warp true justice. The Lord speaks through the prophet, the house of Israel says, the way of the Lord is not just. O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? God could have put these rhetorical questions to Adam: have I not been just in giving you the woman? Is it not, in fact, you who have unfaithful and unjust? Ezekiel's message to the exiles is one of repentance and new life. He tells them, cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. In other words, own your past, and God—not you—can make all things new.

Now, ask yourself a question, if repentance is the touchstone of the Christian life, is it easier to repent for those who know they have a checkered history or for those who fancy that they have achieved a measure of religious and moral refinement? The answer is obviously the former, and such an understanding illuminates the Gospel lesson this morning ,as well as all the Gospels in general. You see, the Pharisees, the outstanding religious people of Jesus' day, were not prepared to live into this repentance that all the prophets, including Jesus, preached. They could not admit and own their faults. In the final evaluation, however, they were like the son who told his father that he would do his errand but then failed to do it. They did all the right religious things, but missed the true heart of religion: compassion, love, care for the poor. On the other hand, publicans and harlots knew that they were poor before God, and so they were open to our Lord's message of repentance and new life. It was not a great leap for them to own their history before God and others, and in so surrendering to receive a new life. As the religious people of our own day, we need to hear in this lesson an admonition to forsake the self-justifying Pharisee inside us and to get in touch with the true publican and harlot within. We need to become the person who realizes that he is poor before God. Such a person is equipped for the true Christian life.

Despite the orthodox claim of Jesus' perfection, in him we see an example of what it is to be poor before God and not to justify one's self. In the Epistle lesson this morning, Paul exhorts the Philippians to humility, not thinking higher of one's self that he ought. In other words, having a sober estimation of who you really are not who you imagine yourself to be. He sets before them Jesus as the prime example of humility, in words that some scholars believe was an early Christian hymn: though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God something to be grasped but emptied himself. The part I wish to draw your attention to this morning is the statement, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. You see, though Jesus was innocent and free of every crime and offense, he did not attempt to justify himself before men. He did not argue with Judas that he was a good man and he should not betray him. He did not tell Pontius Pilate that he should acquit him. He did not tell the soldiers they were making a mistake. Rather, you see in him a total surrender to the Father and a self-offering for us his brethren. Though he could not personally repent of sin, he takes the sins of the world to himself on the cross. He does not turn away from the jeering crowds or the cruel soldiers, but says, father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Again, here is the call of God, to let go of the endless cycle of self-justification and surrender to God, offering ourselves in love to one another. It is the road of repentance, lined with honesty and transparency whose end is new life and communion with God and all the saints who are poor in spirit.

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