Today we hear another parable from Jesus, in which we are meant to ask, where do we find ourselves in this story? Before I share it, let me offer a lens, in case it’s helpful. You know the concept of a caricature? Like- you have such and such qualities, but I will BLOW them out of proportion to prove a point. Okay- I like to think of the two people in this parable as caricatures of our own pride & humility. Remember the question: where do you find yourself in this story?
“Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I love paying attention to the caricatures of religious people and moments on TV. Has anyone seen the TV show called Ted Lasso- new last year? (no one at text study had either). An American football coach (Ted Lasso, played by Jason Sudeikis) moves to England and coaches soccer (or Futbol) for the first time. We also meet this side-kick of an assistant coach, Coach Beard; now he’s always getting into some type of personal drama- especially romantic. On and off again with a woman named Jane. In one particular scene, he’s sad after losing a big game, wandering the streets of London, somehow lost his phone… when he has this epiphany: Jane is the one! Trouble is, when he finally finds his phone, he also sees several angry texts from Jane who thinks he’s ignoring her after she (for the first time says), “I love you.” See what I mean? Personal drama. Coach beard is UPSET! He thinks his chance with Jane is over. He’s drunk & drenched from a downpour, and in a final display of exhaustion, he slips into a church door lit by a neon cross. Slumped into the pew, he bows his head awkwardly and says, “Are you there God, it's me, Margaret's little boy, long time listener, first time caller.”
I love that line. It’s a fairly common trope in TV- someone on the sidelines of religion their whole life now attempting to connect with God in a moment of desperation. It also makes me laugh because it suggests God is a radio show host or something. But when I read Jesus’ parable, I think of Coach Beard as the Tax Collector…and I wonder: what in his past has stopped this “long-time listener” from actually making the call to God? Maybe as important- what made him do it now?
The tax collector KNOWS he might find God in the temple (it was, after all, thought to be the physical place God dwelled)... but he also acts like he doesn’t deserve it. “Standing far off, would not even look up to heaven.” I hear in those words a deeper truth. Many of us haven’t felt worthy of being in God’s presence, so we’ve not risked prayer. We’ve not dared to make the call. Maybe we’ve been listening to God our whole lives, but haven’t had the right words to say anything back. You know what happens when this tax collector takes a risk and goes for it? He goes home exalted. He makes a connection with God that transforms his self-understanding.
Are you the tax collector today? If so, are you willing to risk making a call to God? “Long-time listener, first-time caller.” God, in such merciful kindness, is waiting to hear from you. You ARE worthy of being in God’s presence–here in this sanctuary and in your own heart. Harness that humility and use it to create a new relationship with your God.
And what about that Pharisee, that caricature of our pride. Let’s examine his posture for a moment. He too finds himself in the temple. He too is calling out to God. But he’s got a very different attitude. Here’s his prayer in a nutshell: “I’m really good, God! In fact, I don’t actually need you, I just called in to say how nice it is to compare myself with others and come out on top.” Okay, so if that’s a caricature, let’s make it more personal. When have you regarded someone not as good as you with contempt? I probably won’t believe you if you say you haven’t. It’s a human thing to do- that’s how Jesus knows we need this parable.
It’s hard to admit when this happens, right? You know where I let pride get the best of me? When I start regarding another with contempt? It’s when I think about the parents whose kids are in foster care. This is a vulnerable thing to admit, because I absolutely know there are complex factors affecting every family- the pastor and social worker in me sees the systemic & psychological reasons why people are simply unable to parent their children. But the tired mom in me, the one who has overextended time and again to care for my little ones, that part of me gets real judgy. In fact, my own prayers sometimes sound a little more like the pharisee than I’d want them to. I don’t think Jesus wants me to be a worse parent- Jesus wants me to stop comparing myself with other parents. Especially when it leads me to feelings of contempt. Here’s the truth, no one has lived in the skin of anyone else, period. And making comparisons of who’s good and bad at this or that is simply not our job.
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” I’m a firm believer that Jesus doesn’t make rules for the sake of rules. Jesus isn’t into religion so much as he is all about relationships. Jesus wants what is BEST for us, and what is BEST for all of us, is to stop comparing ourselves with others. Regardless if the comparison leads you to think you’re better OR worse, Jesus says, “not today, friend.” Today you are all worthy of my presence. Not only that, but you will automatically receive it when you open your heart in humility rather than pride. That’s what it means to be justified.
The minute our religious actions make us think we’re better than someone else, we’ve forgotten what it’s all about! So let’s be present with God in our own reality and trust others to do the same. God knows our hearts. That’s enough! We don’t have to pretend to be anything or anyone we’re not. In fact, it’s a disservice to our spirits to think we could somehow attain righteousness on our own.
Yesterday I was with the foster kids from our WRAP team, carving jack-o-lanterns; I got a chance to cuddle each of them & make them laugh by speaking in a silly voice; I altogether enjoyed the morning. At one point, I heard the 4 year-old shout, “Emily, look!” showing me his halloween costume; It was one of the first times I’d heard him use my name, and something in my heart shifted. Relationships have a way of transforming our spirits. Sure, I spend time with them because I think it’s a good thing to do…but I am becoming more aware that I need those kids as much as they need me. The more fun we have together, the less I focus on judging their parents. At the end of the day, it’s about the love we share, not the judgment we hold. It’s about showing up for each other, knowing we’re ALL in need of grace. Together on the same journey, doing the best we can with the resources we’ve been given. Thank you Jesus for the gift of humility to counter our pride. May we find the grace we need for ourselves and others this week. Amen.
Less than two weeks ago, we lifted Psalm 121 in memory of Robert Huckins, who had this text highlighted in the bible he used while serving in the military. Nancy Thomsen has also selected it for Mickey’s service this week. It just so happens to be a part of our lectionary readings today, AND integrates well into the tidings Cherlyn, Chuck, and I bring back from our SD, NE, & IA Joint UCC Annual Meeting. Hear this poignant (and insistent) reminder that no matter our circumstances, God keeps us in tender embrace.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
My heart is still in rhythm with the energy of our UCC Joint annual meeting this week. And I am thrilled to share highlights along with Chuck & Cherlyn today. We heard from our Conference Ministers, engaged with excellent guest speakers, enjoyed family reunion-style conversation with our UCC siblings in SD, IA, & NE, and tended to the real-life aspects of shared ministry- like budgets and bylaws! :) Our local churches don’t get many opportunities to fully engage the wider church- but this morning is one of them, so feel free to ask questions of Chuck, Cherlyn, or I to learn more after the service.
Here’s the 5-word vision of a healthy church offered by our keynote speaker Rev. Dr. Martha Brunell. A Participatory, imaginative, community of hope. We participate in a movement guided by the gospel, which asks us to imagine a world in which hope not only changes us, but brings us into community. That’s a participatory, imaginative community of hope. And you know what my first thought was? That’s us! We, First Congregational UCC in Pierre, SD ARE a healthy church! In fact, Cherlyn & I shared several knowing glances when speakers offered ideas that WE ALREADY DO. Like sharing a giving story each week in worship; like developing a church culture in which we ask for what we need and offer what we can. Like experimenting with new ideas, because we trust God has been alive in this community long before us, and God will continue to guide this ministry long after we’re gone.
Martha shared a key principle that’s at work within healthy churches: We are always in the act of balancing gratitude and grief, fear and joy. That’s how hope is born. She says, “Hope is what we’re willing to commit to, regardless of what happens. It’s not about knowing, it’s about dreaming into the future together, and being delighted at the ways God shows up.” Church, WE ARE a participatory, imaginative, community of hope, and it my sheer pleasure to celebrate that with you all. Loving is who we are.
Here’s one example of the connection I felt when we were together with our UCC siblings. Some of you may recall our October Messy Church text was John 3:8, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” I love this text, especially during a windy week like we’ve just had. It turns out, our new Executive Conference Minister Phil Hart does too! He used this exact scripture as his address to us Tri-Conference churches, as we embrace “The possibility to be unpredictably moved by God.”
That is what makes ministry unique…we follow Spirit at work around us, within us, before us and beside us. We don’t know what the future holds, but we trust in the One who holds it. I have a final connection to share, but before I do, I’d like to offer Chuck & Cherlyn a chance to speak.
Rev. Phil Hart spoke of the love he’s witnessed between the SD, NE, and IA UCC churches. I agree, the energy and love at the conference was palpable. Loving is who we are. My final connection is a tangible one. We have been invited to participate in THE FIRST sister church connection in our tri-conference. What does this mean? We form an intentional relationship with one other church, and we’ve been paired with Mayflower UCC in Sioux City, IA. In fact, Cherlyn & I met and brainstormed with Linda, a church leader from our new sister congregation. We don’t yet know HOW our relationship will form, but we are committed to this experimental way of expanding the reach of our participatory, imaginative community of hope. So be watching for ways YOU might engage, support, and learn from the ministries at Mayflower UCC, AND help us dream about how we might be good neighbors with them, in the name of Christ, the author of all our hope and faith. Amen!
Throughout scripture, a certain refrain repeats itself. So consistently, in fact, we nearly miss the power it holds. Okay, here’s the truth, I ignore this significant part of scriptural witness more often than I’d like to admit. Hear it today: No one can go it alone.
Mark 6: 6-12
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. 7 Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits. 8 These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
I was the girl who wanted to complete every group project in school on my own. I AM the girl who doesn’t ask for help. I can do it myself… You can too, right? Equipped with enough resources, I can knock out any project on my own. I’ve got a heavy dresser to move up a flight of stairs? No problem, I’ll just shimmy it across the carpet, use one of those Menards roller things, then angle it up one stair, brace it on my hip as I adjust my grip to heave it up that next step. I grit my teeth, and by God I’m gonna get it done. Never mind the ache in my knee, the resentment in my heart, or the scratches on my newly painted dresser. WHY do I, do we insist on going it alone?
Here’s how Jesus says it… None of us are gonna have any success driving out the demons of self-sufficiency until we learn to rely on others. We’re not gonna heal anyone–especially ourselves–unless we ask for help. And asking for help means acknowledging how desperately we need a source of connection…maybe even THE source of connection- Jesus our Christ. Where do we turn to find Jesus? Here’s a great place to start– look around you– the body of Christ. That’s not just a name for church, that’s who we are! Jesus is forming this authentic and helplessly self-sufficient crew of believers who know deep down that we actually need each other.
Jesus makes this point in Mark’s gospel: don’t rely on your own resources (bread, a bag, or money), PEOPLE are the most important thing in your life. Take nothing for the journey, except a buddy. Oh, and you can wear sandals too. That’s the secret, Jesus? The buddy system and a solid pair of shoes? What else…invite ourselves into people’s homes? Really?
What if Jesus is right? What if the secret to abundant life has something to do with connecting to one another? What if the buddy system is a form of salvation for you and I, this side of heaven?
Scientist Matthew Lieberman wrote a book in 2013 called Social. It’s a strong case that our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water. He comes to this conclusion by reviewing a lot of social psychology research that finds social pain is real pain. The suffering we experience when our social bonds are threatened…[think: the betrayal of a close friend].. Is as hurtful to our wellbeing as the suffering of starvation.
He says, “With respect to understanding human nature, I think this finding is pretty significant. The things that cause us to feel pain are things that are evolutionarily recognized as threats to our survival; the existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has treated social connection like a necessity, not a luxury. [...] because of how social pain and pleasure are wired into our operating system, these are motivational ends in and of themselves. We don’t focus on being connected solely in order to extract money and other resources from people – being connected needs no ulterior motive.”
In a nutshell, we connect because we were created to connect; The fabric of our being is dependent on how well woven we are into the community around us. Jesus knows this, he too was connected intimately within the triune nature of God- three persons, one divine being. He too was connected with his mom and brother, his disciples & friends, the same ones he sent out two by two on a mission of more connection.
I don’t know what you think brought you to church this morning- whatever the reason, I suspect something even more elemental was also at work. A need to feel connected.
Being a part of a church has been one of my favorite ways to experience this innate need for connection- even since childhood. But here’s the interesting thing- no matter HOW MUCH value I find in connecting with you all, I still try to go it alone sometimes.
This Wednesday, of what turned out to be an extremely busy week for me…I came into the office pretty hyped up and scattered. Marc knows this version of Emily. Many of you likely do too. I LOVE the variety of things a pastor does, so much so, that I THINK I’m the one who needs to do it all, even when I physically and mentally just can’t. I guess I haven’t changed much from those “do the whole group project yourself” days. Thank goodness for people around me who heed the wisdom of Jesus and offer to be my buddy. Nance came into the office that morning to discuss a few things, and when she saw Marc and I with a pile of paper bug parts for Messy Church…she immediately started cutting. After hours of them laboring over little bug bodies and wings, I was more than grateful for their help; but then Nance asks, “what else can I help you with?”
Whew, I’m REALLY not good at answering that question. Honestly my first thought was, ‘don’t you have something more important to do?’ as if helping me shouldn’t be a priority (that’s the demon of self-sufficiency rearing its head). I stammered for a bit, looked around as if the answer were on my desk or floor…and suddenly I said “Googly-eyes. We need googly-eyes.” Immediately after I said it, I felt ridiculous; but when the confirmands and I began setting up Messy Church, I felt this wave of joy seeing those packages of googly-eyes awaiting us. It feels GOOD to be helped.
Friends, it’s not really about the googly eyes is it? It’s about the connection we create when we acknowledge a need. When we let someone else help us, it’s good for everyone! It’s a more abundant life!
What part of your life needs more abundance? Are you struggling to find balance, to set priorities for yourself and your family? Maybe you’re lonely; or maybe the constant demands on your time mean only one thing: you’re in sheer survival mode. Wherever your need for more abundance might be, here’s the invitation…let someone know your need. Isn’t it crazy that it’s often the last thing we think of doing- asking for help? Invite another person into the mess that is life. If people have already failed you when you asked for help…start with prayer. Allow a connection with God to open your heart to new possibilities. You never know who will enter your life next. What we do know is this: no one can go it alone.
May we all find a buddy, a Nance who runs out and buys googly-eyes in our moment of chaos. May we discover connections anew right here in this church body as we gather to mourn; to sing; to laugh; to learn; to help; to worship, to talk; to hold hands and pray; to listen and to be heard. May we do the work of Christ’s disciples, delighted by the simplicity of our task: make a connection.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
Fear is a perfectly normal (and often helpful) survival tool. Fear alerts us to real dangers; Take for example abuse, which can happen right inside our homes, the very place we’re supposed to feel safe. Listening to fear and responding a certain way IS a valid coping mechanism. Plenty of other real dangers exist, and I don’t believe this scripture is meant to minimize any fear that keeps us safe. The problem is, we feel FEAR in our guts for a lot of reasons, and not ALL of them should we avoid. In fact, FEAR of a stranger is one of the most universal experiences. While it served us well in our hunting and gathering days…and OCCASIONALLY even today, often it doesn’t. Fearing what we don’t yet know keeps us from the kind of relationships that will enhance our wellbeing if we’re open to meeting new people.
Okay, a little theology here…you and I weren’t made to stretch ourselves in this way- we were created to be a part of family units; tribes; people we belong to. Being a part of a tribe is a good thing, but tribal love isn’t. Tribal love says, “I will love my people, those in my orbit, the folks who think like me and believe like I do. My tribe, I’ll love them.” Tribal love is limited at its best, and at its worst, it can lead to hate, simply because its limits define who deserves love and who doesn’t.
That’s why Jesus came, to abolish tribal love in favor of true love. God saw the kind of violence that becomes possible when we humans are left to ourselves. Jesus offers us another way of orienting ourselves in this world. He frees us from our human propensity to destroy ourselves by destroying each other. The author of 1 John says we need to be saved from the thing that keeps us from love. In a word, fear.
Vs. 16 “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.” That’s the only way we can learn to love strangers; by first accepting the love God has for us. We know this love is true, because one by one, each person Jesus encountered in his life of ministry was changed. The Jesus revolution remains as necessary today as when this scripture was written. We, empowered by Christ’s love for us, CAN redeem one relationship at a time by our ability to overcome fear with love.
On World Communion Sunday, I suggest we begin to practice this kind love with those who share our faith in Christ. One of the things I love about this day is the vision: SO many colors and creeds and languages representing the body of Christ. Lord knows we have a LONG way to go learning how to overcome fear with love in the Christian community. And if we can’t figure out how to love other Christians, how in the heck are we ever gonna love God’s beloveds who practice other religions or no religion at all?
When 1 John says, “In this world we are [to be] like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear,” it’s an invitation to claim the control we DO have over our feelings. Yes, fear is a natural human response to strangers AND we don’t have to engage in it, especially when it’s not helpful. We CAN choose love. That’s the good news.
So how does it happen? What’s the secret for overcoming our fear of strangers? Getting to know them. When AJ & I lived in NJ, we were a part of a church that welcomed in a motley crew of Christians. This South Dakota farm girl was intrigued, but also intimidated. Most Sundays during coffee hour, I tried to find a table with familiar faces; I recall one Sunday, however, when I mustered up the courage to sit across the table from a family who recently moved from Indonesia. I was really nervous. I didn’t know a thing about Indonesia. Our skin didn’t look the same, our voices could hardly be recognized by one another; we ate WAY different flavors in food, and I really wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t know if they spoke any English. After sitting a few minutes in nervous tension, I began to notice the smiles on their faces. And so I smiled too…and I don’t remember what I said or didn’t say that day, but I do know smiling together at coffee hour was enough to make us friends.
AJ & I went on to meet people from SEVERAL different countries and walks of life while in NJ. Here’s the coolest part. Not only did those relationships make it easier to keep choosing love over fear, but they also helped me gain confidence in my ability to see what I hold in common with someone else, more than what makes us different.
You wanna know a secret? Pierre, SD has SO many people from diverse backgrounds if only we have eyes to see and ears to perceive. Here’s what I find myself asking right here: Whose story have I yet to hear that will change me? How can I expand my vision of Christ’s love by engaging my fear with faith? Who might benefit from hearing my story?
Jesus’ ministry unfolded one relationship after the other, ours will too. That’s how it works. We allow faith to lead us toward love more than fear, and gradually- the knowing smiles of a shared experience will shape us into the eclectic, beautiful, gracious community God intends us to be. “Friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.”
Pick one person you’re a little afraid of- and exchange some form of loving action. It could even be anonymous, so long as it’s rooted in the love of Christ, it will be enough to change hearts…yours and theirs alike.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.