Sunday, January 31, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "A Sinner Who Keeps On Trying"

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: 10 “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”  (Common English Bible)

“A Mount Rushmore of the Soul: Who Inspires Your Faith?” Week Four

Seeing freedom be granted to people who should never have had it taken away from them was a formative experience of my childhood.  Being able to meet them, shake their hands, and break bread with them as free people after they were exonerated for crimes they were convicted of but did not in fact commit is something I’ll never forget.  Their names, strong and sturdy souls like Dennis Fritz, Ellen Reasonover, and the late Ron Williamson, will be forever with me.

Through them, and their stories, I learned of others, of other people whose unjust imprisonments completely and utterly changed their lives—and how could they not?  Six of their stories—each of them from death row, from being sentenced to death despite being factually innocent, were made into a play about fifteen years ago by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen called The Exonerated.

The integral figure of the play—the character who combines together every other character—is a soulful, philosophical veteran and minister named Delbert Tibbs.  He both opens and closes the play with a similar monologue, saying at first, about prison:

This is not the place for thought that does not end in concreteness; it is not easy to be open or too curious.

It is dangerous to dwell too much on things: to wonder who or why or when, to wonder how, is dangerous.

How do we, the people, get outta this hole…it is not easy to be a poet here.  Yet I sing.  I sing.

By the end of the play, by the end of hearing all of these stories, Delbert’s refrain has become this:

This is the place for thoughts that do not end in concreteness.  It is necessary to be curious.

And dangerous to dwell here, to wonder why and how and when is dangerous, but *that’s* how we get out of this hole.

It is not easy to be a poet here.  Yet I sing.  We sing.

Do you see the change?  He sings, but no longer sings alone.  Yet I sing.  We sing.  Together.

This is a new sermon series for a new year, although it is in fact wrapping up today in preparation for the transition from post-Epiphany time to the church season of Lent.  And even though the series is being delivered in 2016, the genesis of this series came in the middle of 2015, when I posted on Facebook to ask folks what the Mount Rushmore of their faith would be—which four writers, pastors, theologians, etc. are the ones who have shaped their faith the most?

Once my (genuinely beloved) atheist friends had had their fun, I got an amazing array of responses to that question, with some names that were repeated several times: C.S. Lewis, Paul Tillich, Hildegard of Bingen, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom would have made a great reserve squad if, you know, Mount Rushmore had a bench (I suspect that would have added a number of years to its construction).  But when I limited myself to four, the four that I eventually settled upon were St. Teresa of Avila, Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Nelson Mandela.

This sermon series, then, will take each of them and offer one sermon each on how they revealed God’s presence, truth, and love to a broken world in sore need of the message they had to offer, beginning three weeks ago with St. Teresa of Avila and continuing with both Soren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  And today, we are concluding the series with an appropriately soul-sized, monumentally willed person in Nelson Mandela.

More so than perhaps any of the previous three, Mandela’s inclusion is personal to me.  The three weeks I spent in sub-Saharan Africa in the summer of 2006 with Global Ministries, our international mission arm, was one of the most formative experiences of my twenties, and it was spent primarily in South Africa, where Mandela was famously imprisoned for 27 years, released, elected prime minister, and served as a visible, living beacon of the possible for unity and restoration before his death a little over two years ago, in December 2013.

For me to have been imprisoned for twenty-seven years, I would have had to be sent to the pokey when I was just three.  And while I was undoubtedly a holy terror at age three, they don’t hand out 25+ year sentences for that.  But that’s what Mandela endured in becoming the marbled memory of a man he is now.  He collected his letters and conversations from his time on Robben Island, and compiled them into a book entitled Conversations With Myself.  This is the very first entry, the one that frames all the others, from that book:

The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings.  In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence, popularity, wealth, and standard of education.  These are, of course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these.  But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being.  Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others—qualities which are within easy reach of every soul—are the foundation of one’s spiritual life.  Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes…If for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you…You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative features in your life, but the 10th attempt may yield rich rewards.  Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying. 

Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.  Mandela was a Methodist, but there is a another version (as it were) of this notion in Lutheran thought, simul justus et peccator, which means “simultaneously saint and sinner,” that someone can be both saint and sinner at the same time, that we are not necessarily just one or just the other.  Rather, Mandela says, through our efforts to do good and to better ourselves, to develop the spiritual virtues he lists off here—honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve—we come closer and closer to sanctification even as we still remain our sinful selves.

Think, then, of this tax collector, hiding in the corner of the temple and flagellating himself out of pure, unadulterated shame over who he is and how he makes his living (the tax collectors in New Testament Israel were not simply the ancient version of the IRS—no matter how much you resent paying taxes.  They were Roman-sanctioned thugs who extorted from their neighbors at a profit).

This tax collector has his eyes cast downward and is begging God, pleading with God, please have mercy on me, for I am a sinner.  He is a prisoner of his own self, judging his progress as a person.

Of course, he judges himself wanting.  But this is in stark contrast to the other sinner present, the Pharisee standing in the very middle of the sanctuary, who cannot possibly see himself as a sinner in the way that the tax collector sees himself—or as he, the Pharisee, sees the tax collector, making sure to point him out in the “prayer” to God he gives thanking God for making him just so durned great.

In truth, the Pharisee could do with more than a bit of the sort of inner introspection that prisoners go through—the tax collector, as I said, as a prisoner of his own psyche, but also physical prisoners like Delbert Tibbs, like Nelson Mandela.  We lose part of our freedom, even our mental freedom, and it puts so many other things in perspective.

That was what made the vestiges of apartheid in South Africa so viscerally disturbing for me to see and begin to grasp, even for just a small dimension of it.  The taking of that freedom from another human being is something so sinful that there is no other way to make a saint of a slaver, their enslavement of fellow people is on face disqualifying for sanctification.  The enslaved, the wrongly imprisoned, the segregated, they lose their freedom and potentially their lives.  The slavers, the imprisoners, the segregationists, they lose their spiritual purity.

We all lose something.  We all become less than whole when we treat others thus.

Maybe you know it, because of how you have treated someone thusly, or had someone or even the world treat you thusly.  In the face of such hurtful treatment, how will you decide to develop yourself as a person and as a Christian?

Seek, then, the metamorphosis of a Mandela, of a Tibbs, of a person who has been to the dark side and back, not because they deserved it, but because they did not deserve it, yet emerged as people still able to inspire others to hear their words and be moved by the fruits of their lives.

Perhaps more than anything else, this is what I have striven to do with this sermon series: to show you how the fruits of the lives of four very different people all impacted me for the better.

I hope and pray the same for you, that there are saints—or simultaneous saints and sinners—who have been called and redeemed and are calling out, singing out, other sinners just like you, just like me, to something far greater than ourselves: a life of service to the One we call God, who came to earth, died, and resurrected in who we know as Jesus the Christ.

Because you sing.  We sing.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 31, 2016

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