October 27, 2013

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander

Proper 25, Year C

October 27, 2013

Grace, Siloam Springs

It’s World Series season again — Cardinals vs. Red Sox — and for those of you who keep up with these things, I have a little Public Service Announcement. According to recent studies, it turns out that being a fan of the losing team can actually be hazardous to your heath. So, as of last night’s game, Red Sox fans in particular need to listen up.

Here’s the deal: last month, the journal Psychological Science published the results of a study suggesting that fans reeling from their team’s defeat tend to consume more fatty foods for a day or so following the loss while fans of the victorious team eat more healthful foods. Researchers found that when compared with a control group of non-sports fans, saturated-fat consumption by fans increased by as much as 28 percent following defeats and decreased by 16 percent following victories. So, anecdotally, we can assume this means that Red Sox fans across the nation last night were reaching for the chips, Rotel, and pizza in search of a comfort to cool the painful flames of defeat, while Cardinals fans found their hunger satisfied by a fat-free dose of confidence and capability.

Now, whether or not this pop psych rings true in your own life, it does open up the doorway to a larger conversation — and no I don’t mean a conversation about which team you should be rooting for in the first place. That kind of talk from the pulpit can be just about as dangerous as talking politics, so I won’t go there. What I mean is a conversation about the whole phenomenon of winning.

I think it’s safe to say that winning is something everyone pretty much wants to do. And winning in sports is really only the tip of the iceberg, if you think about it. Competition is present in just about every aspect of our lives — it’s a prime motivator. We want to succeed in our jobs, for example, but success often means more than getting our reports in on time or getting our numbers up. It often means doing a little better than our coworkers down the hall. That’s how promotions happen.

Parenting can be a competition. Are we more engaged, playful, or consistent in discipline than other parents out there? Are we the first ones to sign up to be classroom mom or dad, or are we not as present and committed as we could be? Did we manage to save up enough to get our kids through college like our next door neighbor did? But really, who can blame us for being so competitive? Our entire economy is founded on the principle of competition, and achieving success in this economy really does mean winning.

The Church is certainly not exempt from this phenomenon. We clergy pay attention to our average sunday attendances, believe it or not. We want a full church. And when our numbers are lagging while the church in the next town over can hardly squeeze them all in we wonder what it is they have that we don’t. And although I’d like to say we clergy can rise above it all, we can take losing just as personally as the rest of ‘em. And its at those times when chips, Rotel, and pizza seem like a comfort right from God.

It seems this notion that “winning means worth” is almost inescapable. And if we must work in order to win — that is, parent better, play better, perform better, it follows that we must work in order to find worth, right? That we, the masters of our own destiny, must achieve or else suffer the shame of defeat. And shame can be oppressive. It is something we feel in the pit of our stomachs. And we seek comfort when that feeling hits. And before we know it, we’re fighting even harder to win, whatever our game. Because when we win, then we will be worth something. At least that’s what this world tells us. But, hearing today’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, I wonder if Jesus might be telling us something dramatically different.

Enter the Pharisee and the tax collector — two Jews in the temple for prayer. The Pharisee, despite his arrogance, is probably not all that bad of a guy. After all, I’ll bet he does live a responsible and moral life. He gives ten percent of his income to the church, paying the bills to keep the lights on for the rest of us. If he were running for vestry here at Grace, Siloam, I’d put my money on him getting elected. He has worked hard to achieve his status. As far as this world is concerned, he’s a pretty worthy guy.

This tax collector, on the other hand, is probably not the sort we would want hanging around. A little history: the publicans, or tax collectors, of the first century were not like the fine folks working for the Department of Finance and Administration today. The job of a tax collector in Jesus’ time was to collect a certain amount for the Roman-run government, but the public never knew exactly what that amount was, and so the tax collectors levied an additional tax on top to pad their own pockets. They were thieves. There’s no two ways about it. And the tax collector in this parable knows it and owns it. Instead of recounting his deeds of worthiness to God, as the Pharisee does, he comes head down, a broken man, a sinner. And God says it’s this man, this corrupt, yet humble, tax collector who leaves justified rather than the other.

The lesson learned from a quick read of this parable is one about the importance of humility. We want to be more like the humble tax collector in our prayers, admitting our sinfulness up front. That’s the right way to do it. But not so fast — there’s a catch. As soon as we give our nod to the tax collector as being more worthy of God’s justification, we’re behaving just like the Pharisee, right? Thanking God that we’re not like the other. Paradox number one.

Let’s go down this rabbit hole just a little farther. God sends this justified tax collector home and the story’s over. But, I’d be willing to bet that in our minds this story needs to play out some more. I mean, God must have had some expectations of this sinner. Surely God expected him to be thankful for the good graces, clean up his ways, and come back to the temple, a more responsible and moral man … kind of like the Pharisee. But wait, that’s paradox number two.

What we would like is a third character … one that doesn’t exist in the story, but would wrap everything up in a nice little bow and give us someone to model ourselves after. We want to be the humble Pharisee — that guy must be the one God is really looking for — that guy would be the winner. But instead we’re left with this double paradox of a parable and no clear winner to root for. And that’s why this parable is such a doozy. Maybe God’s not looking for a winner at all. Maybe, just maybe, despite this world’s efforts to convince us of the contrary, God’s got a soft spot for the loser.

As author and theologian Robert Capon writes, “The first thing to get off the table is the notion that this parable is simply a lesson in the virtue of humility. It is not. It is an instruction … in the idleness of the proposition that there is anything at all you can do to put yourself right with God. It is about the folly of even trying.”

Instead, we are simply to come before God as we are … warts and all. That’s it. You see, to God, worthiness is not earned by getting promotions in our jobs, being a better parent, making more money, or even, believe it or not, being a more responsible or moral person. Worthiness, to God, is not earned at all. There is nothing you or I can do to win God’s graces. The Good News here, is that we already have them.

What would it be like to live our lives without stressing about winning all the time? What would it be like to subscribe to God’s economy rather than the world’s? What would it be like to live knowing that we, sinners, are enough just as we are. And that’s more than enough for God.