February 14, 2018
St. Jacob’s and Trinity Lutheran Churches
Rev. Kirk Shipley, Interim Pastor
One of my favorite action movies is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is fine action entertainment, but it has proved a rich field for sermon illustrations for me. You might have heard me using his stepping out in faith over the chasm, and choosing wisely on picking out the first communion chalice.
For Ash Wednesday I have another. Indiana Jones has to pass three traps to reach the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus Christ used at the Last Supper. The very first test is ‘the Breath of God.’
The provided clue to get through the first trap is “only the penitent man will pass.”
Up to this point in the film he has used action hero insight from his archaeological training and shooting skills, and good old hand to hand fighting. He has been the essentially self-reliant hero in his race against another set of WWII era villains. He is the perfect combination of brains, brawn and courage.
This test calls for something else. It calls for knowledge of what it means to be penitent and how to show that. Indiana figures out that ‘the penitent man is humble before God.’ The penitent is someone who recognized there is a gulf between her or himself and God. On further reflection Indiana comes to the conclusion “He kneels before God.” He kneels and escapes the trap which is aimed about shoulder to neck height.
Among the many words derived from the words we translate as humility and being humble are those conveying lowering oneself or looking downward. That can include the idea of self abasement, and theologically as recognition that God is the deliverer. Moses at the burning bush is an example. He is told to remove his sandals as God’s presence makes it holy ground. He also hides his face afraid to look at God.
That is one of the themes of today’s gospel selected for Ash Wednesday. The penitent is humble before God. The heart of the service, the imposition of ashes and the traditional words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” are humbling words. They are a stark reminder of how limited our power is. Although longevity, until the last few years has steadily increased in this country, once into adulthood, with few exceptions we have a 70-100 year life span at best. God, on the other hand is then, now, and ever the perpetual ‘I am.’
It is true we are God’s creatures. We have a special place as stewards over this planet we inhabit. Through Jesus we have a special friendship with God and we have the hope of a different life eternally before God. Still we are limited beings with a limited vantage point. One thing Jesus teaches is the value of owning our limits through a parable on humility and prayer.
Part of prayer is remembering who we are before God. The contrast in body posture of the two characters is something I still remember from a 3rd grade Sunday school workbook.
One man is standing boldly in the place of worship thanking God that he is not like other people who engage in wicked acts, ending his with the words, “or even like this tax collector.” The tax collector prays, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus makes it clear the man bowed down and praying for forgiveness is the one who left justified by God.
At the time this was a real shocker. We hear Pharisees and we often see Jesus opponents. They were the religious leaders who took God’s word seriously. Devoted Pharisees did what the Pharisee names in his prayer. They fasted twice. Once for themselves and once for the people who did not fast. They gave 10%. We ELCA Christians give around 3%. I admit that like the Pharisee when I hear of people deliberately hurting others with glee and getting their kicks vandalizing property, I am thankful I do not understand the enjoyment some people get from such activity.
The Pharisee ends his prayer with a cheap shot. It was a cheap shot many then would have excused. Tax collectors worked for the conquerors. The taxes collected supported puppet governments of Rome such as the heirs of Herod the Great, or Roman administration directly in regions under a Roman Governor. Imagine China conquers the United States and I agree to be a state sponsored pastor. I doubt most surviving Americans would say “Well, he has to make a living too.” In Jesus’ time civil tax collectors were viewed similarly.
On this background Jesus tells a parable where he approves a tax collector’s prayer for mercy on a sinner, rather than the Pharisee’s thankfulness that he abides by and at times exceeds the Law’s requirements and that he is not an evil doer nor survives being a traitor to his people.
The tax collector knows he is included in the truth “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” His plea for mercy is recognizes he needs God. Needing God is where walking with God can really begin.
The Pharisee’s prayer does not recognize a need for God. He is thankful he has arrived at being good as God desires. From that place it is hard to hear God suggest a tax collector could be in the category of neighbor the divine law commands you to love.
At the conclusion of C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian, the prince learns his ancestors were pirates and who came and dominated Narnia and not always legitimate kings and queens. He tells the Christ figure Aslan the Lion, “I was wishing that I came of a more noble lineage. Aslan replies, “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve, and that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”
Such are people, we are made by God but often choose to be our own gods. Yet, God leads us on a Lenten journey that seemingly ends with Jesus’ execution but instead ends with his resurrection, assuring us of his everlasting love. Seeing we are need of such a redeeming God, we can gratefully take in the wonder as God goes to work redeeming, and the implications of that redemption calls for in our lives. Amen.