The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
The Reverend Casey Rohleder, Priest Associate

Luke 18:9-14


This past Thursday, a few friends and I met at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kansas City to listen to Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor and writer I admire greatly. We got there early so we could be in the front row. I may or may not be a bit of a groupie.

A common theme throughout Pastor Nadia’s writings, as well as in her talk to the packed house on Thursday, is our need for God’s grace. She says, we Christians are not very good about accepting and living life in God’s grace. The evidence, she argues, is that we tend to present our polished self to God and to others. We tend to sand down our edges, to sanitize ourselves to be more “acceptable” to God.

In doing so, we fall into the habit of emphasizing everything that WE do so that we don’t have to think about who we are, people in need of God’s mercy.

Pastor Nadia reminds us that “the jagged edges of our humanity” is where God grabs hold of us, and that it is our shared brokenness that connects us to God and to one another. Grace is found among our jagged edges. This is where God transforms us.

Today’s Gospel reading is a great illustration of polished and jagged edges, and what Jesus has to say about it.

Last week, Jesus told a parable to his disciples, his friends, about persisting in prayer and not losing hope because our just God will make all things right. This week, Jesus has turned his attention to the Pharisees with another parable about prayer.

Luke describes the audiences as “some who trusted in their own righteousness and regarded others with contempt.” There was no question that the parable Jesus was about to tell was directed at the Pharisees, and what he had to say to them – and to all listeners, really – had to be downright scandalous.

The Pharisees were the religiously pure. The ones who strived to do all the right things according to God’s law. They believed God judged them as righteous when they scrupulously followed the rules laid out in the 10 Commandments and the rather complex Levitical law.

This man – this Pharisee – who did not steal or cheat, who went above and beyond by fasting twice a week and paying his 10% tithe to the temple – was thanking– or boasting – in his prayer by saying, “I am a good person! Thank you, God, I am not like those other people!”

And he was praying this prayer in direct sight of one of the most despised among the Jewish people. Tax collectors were agents of the occupying Roman government, demanding and extorting taxes from his fellow Jews, and often lining their pockets in the process. The opposite of holy, the opposite of pure, the opposite of righteous. The lowest of the low.

But there was this tax collector in the temple, eyes averted, praying at a distance, beating his chest in a gesture of great sorrow and repentance. His prayer, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.

To sum up the story, Jesus asserts that this tax collector is indeed the one who is righteous, not the Pharisee….and by extension, not those listeners who were self righteous and judged others with contempt.

Jesus has a very different idea of righteousness than the religious establishment – and likely most devout Jews. Righteousness comes not from what you do in the name of God, but how you understand yourself in relationship to God.

If that Pharisee were to scratch beneath the surface of his actions, he would have known he was as in need of a saving and redeeming God as the tax collector, despite his best efforts to set himself apart.

Jesus’ assertion about who was truly righteous had to really tick the Pharisees off. If I try to imagine myself as a pious Jew, a Pharisee even, Jesus would have probably ticked me off, too. In fact, if I am honest, it ticks me off a little now.

Because, you see, there is a little Pharisee in me. In my personal life – I tend to have some self-righteous thoughts about my parenting, and my politics. As a lay person in the church, I could check all sorts of accomplishments off the list – vestry, commissions, councils, conventions, giving, volunteering….on and on that list goes.
Maybe you can relate.

Pretty polished resume, even more polished, it would seem, now that I am wearing a collar, right?!

Not so much. There is a whole lot of “doing” in my list…and a fair amount of “Thank God I am not like….”

But that is not where God wishes to meet me, or you.

God is found in the tax collector’s prayer. The SUBJECT of the sentence is God: God, be merciful on me, a sinner.

God is in charge, not me.
God lifts me up, I cannot lift myself up.
The law – the rules, the checklist of accomplishments or good deeds – does not save me.

The tax collector presents his jagged edges to God. They are laid bare to everyone in the temple in fact. He is being honest with God. He asks for mercy, for forgiveness, and it is granted him.

What about us? Do we try to sand down and polish ourselves until it seems like we shine before God? Do we try to hide our jagged edges from God, whatever they are?

Like God is really fooled.

What if we could be more honest, more humble, about the darker sides of ourselves, rather than presenting a polished front to God and to each other? What if we were more willing reveal the parts of ourselves we often hide in shame before God?

It is in this place of humility, both as individuals and as the church, that God meets us, to forgive and heal us. When the polish is stripped away, others can grasp on to our jagged edges, because those jagged edges are TOTALLY relate-able – they connect us.

Sharing our broken, jagged parts with one another reminds us that we are all in need of a Savior, and we are in this together. And when we respond to one another with God’s overflowing love and grace and mercy, we become a testament to the rest of the world about the power of Christ’s love.

Confessing our jagged edges, like the tax collector, is how the Good News can transform us, and transform the Church.