The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
The Reverend Ashley Mather, Curate
Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14


Prayer: Open our ears, O Lord, to hear your word and know your voice. Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills, that we may serve you today, now and always. Amen.

Our readings this morning seem to be pulling us all over the place, and it’s unclear as to which direction we should be heading. This can cause us to become disoriented and unbalanced.

Often times, we can become unbalanced without even realizing it.

During my first year of seminary, I went to an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor because I was having bouts of dizziness, and I thought it might be related to seasonal allergies effecting my sinuses. After doing a quick exam, the doctor had me do this exercise where I held out my arms with my palms facing upward, I closed my eyes, and marched in place. I felt incredibly ridiculous. After about 45 seconds, the doctor asked me to stop marching and open my eyes. When I opened my eyes, I was facing 90 degrees in a different direction. I was incredibly disoriented, and the doctor responded with a very gentle voice saying “it’s ok, it’s ok” as he guided me back to my chair. It turns out that a minute amount of pressure had built up in my inner ear, which caused my entire body to be slightly off balance.

Now, this is a literal example of being unbalanced, disoriented, and being guided back. It’s not nearly as easy to spot these examples in everyday life or in scripture. But in the readings we heard this morning, we can begin to understand biblical disorientation. In Joel, we are assured that God’s people will never be put to shame, and we praise God’s name because of it. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, we hear Paul speaking righteously about himself towards the end of his ministry and near death. This reading appears joyful because of Paul’s steadfast faith, and then in the gospel we’re thrown a curve ball when Jesus tells us the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector. The pharisee is boasting about his piety and the tax collector is asking God for mercy. And Jesus ends the parable by saying this: “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other [the pharisee]; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Joel and 2nd Timothy have us going in one direction, and then we’re all of a sudden going 90 degrees in a different direction when we hear the gospel. It’s disorienting.

So how do we balance all of the direction changes? How do we balance discussions in the Bible that make us confused or uncomfortable? As the preacher, it can be very tempting to simply focus on the “easier” scriptures and themes, and there are times when that might be called for, but if we only choose to focus on the “easier” options, then we’re just as unbalanced. We’d be heading down an unrealistic path where everyone wears rose colored glasses.

Before we can continue, we need to pause and try to discern what is happening in our readings.

Two-thirds of our reading from Joel is very uplifting and makes promises that seem unlikely to be fulfilled, but the last third of our reading gives us a hint to the context. This is an apocalyptic reading. The prophet was speaking to people who had suffered a great deal and was seeking to speak of hope and salvation before the imminent end. And as we know, the end has not come yet, so these promises where a little too grandiose.

At first glance, Paul and the pharisee seem to be of one mind in their boastings, but Laura Sugg (a Presbyterian pastor and contributing author to one of my favorite lectionary commentaries – Feasting on the Word) reminds us of their very different contexts. She says that “Paul speaks of his confidence that he has ‘finished the race’ and ‘kept the faith’ (v. 7) and that ‘the crown of righteousness’ is reserved for him. This might sound an awful lot like the Pharisee from Jesus’ parable, but there are quite a few differences. The Pharisee stood in the comfort of God’s temple; Paul writes from prison. The Pharisee heaps scorn on others he deems less righteous than himself; Paul affirms that the crown belongs ‘not only to [himself] but also to all who have longed for [the Lord’s] appearing’ (v.8).”

The problem with the pharisee’s self-righteousness is that he drew a line in the sand and created sides. He creates one side for himself and one side for everybody else in his list, including the tax collector who was standing write next to him. However, the Pharisee was doing good things in life…praying, fasting, tithing. These are good and holy actions, but boasting and creating divisions creating an imbalance. It creates more harm, instead of help. The pharisee’s actions combined with the tax collector’s repentance creates a good balance.

In our country and in our world, we draw lines in the sand and fight each other instead of fighting the issues. When this happens, we create an imbalance which often times creates more harm for the marginalized. As Christians, we are called to erase the lines that are drawn in the sand, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t disagree on important matters. That doesn’t mean that we can’t stand up against what we think is wrong. In our baptismal covenant, we are called to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and [to] respect the dignity of every human being.” Every human being — not just the ones we like and agree with.

So how can we do this? Honestly, I can’t tell you exactly what to do, but prayer is a really good place to start.

Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday. Although the reformation did much more than this, it sought balance from the corruption taking place in Rome. Martin Luther teamed up with other protestant leaders to do this. Finding this balance didn’t happen overnight, and their leaders risked their lives in the process, but here we are 501 years later. Because of this important movement in history, our faith as Episcopalians is more balanced.

When we feel the strains of being unbalanced — pause to pray for those in harm. And those causing harm. Pray for guidance. Pray for balance. And then figure out what your next steps might be. And remember that our Grace community is here not to agree on everything, but to balance out one another.

What are small things we can do to create more balance in our world? Pray, and then go out and do them. AMEN.

[1] Sugg, Laura S. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Vol. 4. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.