A sermon from Luke 18:9-14 and Psalm 65 preached on October 27, 2013
This summer, I was able to go on vacation to the beach with my family. My oldest nephew, Gray, is now 7, and this was the first year he boogie boarded all by himself.
Up until this point, Mike, by brother, would lead him out into the sea step by step, shielding Gray’s body from the brunt of each wave crashing against them.
Gray is still a little young and a bit too small to go out to where the waves break, so he stationed himself in the more shallow portions of the shore where the water surged towards him more gently, but still with enough strength to lift his boogie board onto its current and steer him towards the beach.
Gray boogie boarded for hours. His younger brother, Tate, brought a boogie board too. But once he got his first taste of what it’s like to be covered in salt water, the taste of it in his mouth and the sting of it in his eyes, he gave up the sea and played in the sand instead. He’s a few years from trusting the way the ocean can carry him to the shore. Really, both of my nephews are a few years away from that.
Last summer’s trip to the Outer Banks was the first time in years when I trusted the sea to carry me. I too grabbed a boogie board before leaving the beach house for our hours-long trip to the water.
I was not going to boogie board. These days, boogie boarding is for the nephews. I was going to use the boogie board to float. I wanted to go farther out, before the waves broke onto the beach.
There’s that spot in the ocean where the waves slowly lift you and then gently set you back down. I love it there because the water holds you and carries you along with it. Where you bob up and down with the sway of the sea.
That week was the week the PNC called me to tell me that you all had voted to have me as your pastor. Back at home, I was packing boxes and looking forward to starting this journey with you. I was thinking about endings and beginnings and the space in between them.
I’m glad I ventured into the water this summer and that I was brave enough to relent to the sea and spend some time letting the waves carry me. I thought about how walking out into the ocean, past the breaking of the waves, and letting the water carry me was a way of saying to God, surround me, cover me, carry me, uphold me. Let me move with your tide.
Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous. It’s a parable about two pretty unsavory people: a Pharisee and a tax collector.
Pharisees were Jews who lived by strict interpretation of Jewish law. Pharisees had good intentions for following all the rules as they had been handed down to them through Jewish tradition, but they took them quite literally and scolded those around them for not following the law as they understood it.
And tax collectors? They walked around skimming off the top of every hard working peasant in town. The tax collectors needed to fill a quota for the Roman government, but whatever extra money they collected in taxes over and above that, they pocketed for themselves. Skimming off the top of peasants. Only scoundrels do that. And in Jesus’s day, tax collectors were scoundrels.
Clearly to the first hearers of Jesus’ parable, the tax collector is the nastier of the two. Yes, the Pharisee goes way overboard with his adherence to Jewish law, but at least his heart is in the right place. This tax collector lost his heart years ago. All he knows is money and how to take it from the poor. “I’ll side with the Pharisee all day long,” Jesus’ hearers must have thought.
But this prayer, this prayer from the Pharisee! Did you notice something about it? This Pharisee is hung up on himself, so much that even his prayers to God aren’t even prayers to God.
I thank you that I am not like other people… I fast twice a week…I give a tenth of all my income.
I, I, I, I, I !! This prayer the Pharisee prays is a mess. One has to wonder if the Pharisee even needed God to listen. Does he even expect God to be a part of that prayer? It doesn’t seem like it.
Where is the room in this prayer for God to break in and be a part? Does this Pharisee trust in anyone but himself? It seems like he thinks he’s got it all figured out already. He trusts his own effort. He thinks he’s made right with God because of who he is, or rather because of who he isn’t—and because of what he does. And he seems certain that all of his efforts are winning God over.
It’s the tax collector, Jesus says, who has it right. As the Pharisee prays this prayer all about himself, it’s the tax collector who prays a prayer in a totally different direction. While the Pharisee looks up to the sky as sure of his righteousness as he can be, this tax collector can’t even look upwards. He begs God to have mercy on him for whatever he’s done. He beats his chest in penitence for the ways he’s fallen short of living his life the way God has wanted him to.
All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up. Jesus says.
While I was out there on my boogie board, next my brother and my sister-in-law, Lisa, letting the waves hoist me up and take me back down again, I was thinking about when I first took swimming lessons.
Before my swimming instructor would teach me how to swim, she insisted that I first learn to float. She said that I needed to trust the water before I began swimming in it. Floating, she said, was about trusting the water to uphold you. It is only when you trust the water to uphold you, that it does so, she said.
She held me across the surface of the pool. Half my face underneath the surface. The small waves in the pool splashing up into my nose. I began flailing in her arms, and she would tell me to be still. And I would say, I couldn’t, and she would say, yes you can.
My swimming instructor was teaching me to put my trust in the buoyancy of the water. She was teaching me that my flailing arms and all the splashing I was doing, all the effort I was putting into floating, was actually making me sink. She was telling me to give up trying—that I would start to float whenever I stopped trying to float. I needed to be confident that the water would uphold me.
Floating is about trusting in the buoyancy of water.
As much as we hear about God’s grace, we still try to prove our righteousness to others and to God. We try to justify ourselves by working harder and doing more, we try to justify ourselves by trying to stay young and physically attractive. And like the Pharisee, we try to justify ourselves by being critical of other people—by trying to convince ourselves of our own goodness.
This parable teaches us that we cannot measure ourselves against others. It teaches us that all of our efforts to be good and to do what we think is right don’t get us any closer to, nor do they earn us any favors with, God.
This parable teaches us that when we stand in the presence of God, just like the tax collector, we really have no standing. There is no way we can work our way into God’s favor. There is no way we can prove ourselves righteous in God sight. Like the tax collector, when stand in God’s presence all we can do is to ask for God’s mercy and then trust in God’s grace to uphold us.
Theologian Robert McAfee Brown says that the Gospel does not say, “Trust God and God will love you”. The Gospel says, “God already loves you, so trust God.”
Today, we’re entering stewardship season. But stewardship isn’t really a season. Stewardship is a lifestyle. Stewards are people who have been given the important task of caring for what has been entrusted to them.
God has entrusted Kuhn Memorial Presbyterian Church to all of us. We each bring our entire selves to the well-being of this church and its ministry, and each of us are stewards of the gifts God entrusts to us in our own lives—the gifts of family and friends, the gifts of food to eat and a steady income to live by, the gift of a community of faith to celebrate with.
It is by God’s grace that we have been given these abundant gifts and it is by God’s hand that we are fed, upheld, and provided for. Like the tax collector, we come to God with empty hands, thankful for the ways God comes to us and fills us what we need to live whole lives.
Yes, stewardship isn’t a season. It’s a lifestyle. It’s our everyday way of giving thanks with grateful hearts for God’s grace in our lives by opening ourselves up to give with grateful and full hearts our time, our talents, our tithes and offerings. Not out of an effort to pay back some portion of what we think we owe to God—no one can do that—but to offer to God important parts of our livelihood, because we know that our lives in Jesus Christ is our livelihood, our greatest hope, the source of all of our nourishment, and our greatest treasure.
I clung pretty tightly to the boogie board as I floated over the waves with my brother and my sister-in-law. I even had the boogie board strapped to my wrist so it wouldn’t get too far away from me. I kicked under the water to keep my head above the surface. I’m not sure I’ve ever learned to fully trust in the buoyancy of water.
The life of faith is about trusting in the buoyancy of God’s grace.
It is only by grace that we can stand in God’s presence, and it is only in understanding God’s grace, given to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that we can stop the constant kicking and paddling, the constant effort to prove ourselves worthy and worthwhile.
It is by God’s grace that we are made worthy and worthwhile. It is by God’s grace that we are nourished and made whole. It is this gift of grace that says, “Stop all that striving, You are God’s already. Be still and let God uphold you.”
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.