Monday, October 29, 2007

A Humble Gift

A Humble Gift
Luke 18:9-14
October 28, 2007
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: This is a rich and fascinating passage. Are we justified in the eyes of God through the declaration of our own righteousness, or by acknowledging honestly that we are sinners in need of redemption? In this parable, Jesus uses a stark contrast to demonstrate how justification works. The passage also tells us that the proper way to give is in humility, in the recognition that we don’t even deserve that which we give.

Sermon Function: To teach listeners the importance of giving with the right frame of mine. We do not give because we are capable and others are not, or because we are declaring our own righteousness. We give out of the deep gratitude we feel for the grace we have received in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

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We’re very close to November, now. The cooler air has invaded our tropical climate, and I can’t help but reflect on the fall season and the coming turn of the Christian year with the beginning of Advent.

In the church, fall represents a time of anticipation and planning, both for the liturgical year to come, and also for the mission life of the church. And as fall progresses, your session is preparing to enter into a planning and budgeting phase for the forthcoming year.

That means that this is the time to reflect on the future, and to pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit, so that we all might discern what it is God wants us to do. When a pastor mentions the word “stewardship” from the pulpit, many people immediately think about fundraising and making financial commitments to the church. Now, I’m not going to discourage that kind of thinking; it’s entirely appropriate and necessary. But there are other ways of thinking about stewardship. I talk about this in the latest issue of our church newsletter, Tidings. On the front page, I ask all of us (me included) to reflect on two key questions as we formally begin the planning and pledging cycle for the coming year:

Question one: “Am I fully using the talents and skills God has given me for the benefit of His Kingdom?”

Question two: “Am I demonstrating my faithful commitment to the mission of Jesus Christ with the monetary resources for which God has made me responsible?”

Both the scripture passage for this week and the one for next week can help us find answers to these two questions.

Listen now for God’s word to us.

[Read Scripture - Luke 18:9-14]

Opening Illustration

Sara and I had the pleasure of attending the Corpus Christi Metro Ministries annual Poor Man’s Supper at the American Bank Center just over the Harbor Bridge. A member of Sara’s church invited us. Upon our arrival, we were introduced to those we’d be dining with, and we were also introduced to the prominent Corpus Christi couple that sponsored our table for the evening.

We were surprised to find ourselves sitting at one of the tables closest to the stage. Sitting at the table next to us was the Mayor of Corpus Christi, Henry Garrett, and his wife, and Bishop Edmond Carmody whose see is the Diocese Of Corpus Christi, along with both the President and the CEO of Corpus Christi Metro Ministries. I was shocked. Also sitting at the table next to us was the keynote speaker for the evening, Rudy Ruettiger, the man who became the inspiration for the wonderful movie Rudy, which is often called a sports movie, but really is much more than that. Mr. Ruettiger made a name for himself with his pure perseverance. After serving in the United States Navy, he spent ten years at Notre Dame, working incredibly hard to graduate, as well as to play for the Fighting Irish football team. He realized his lifelong dream to play on the team when, in the last game of the year, he was put in at the very end of the game and, with seven seconds left on the clock, sacked the Georgia Tech quarterback. It would be the only game he would play in, and in the history of Notre Dame football, Rudy is the only player to have been carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates.

Make no mistake about it: I love the movie Rudy and I really liked the genuine article. However, Rudy gave what could only be described as an “overlong” address to a group that had just been dining and drinking and hobnobbing. There were lots of funny anecdotes and some good basic advise, but for those of us who knew what the event was for – to raise much-needed money – there was a palatable sense in the crowd of “let’s get on with things.” In the interest of time this morning, I’ll only repeat what was the crux of Mr. Ruettiger’s speech – “You can do it!”

If you just set your mind on your dreams, you can do whatever it is you want to do. You can be an astronaut, and architect, a welder, a President, a pastor, etc. Whatever you can imagine can become reality. You just need persistent, patience, character, etc.

You can do it. The sports paraphernalia manufacturer Nike has also traded on a similar phrase – “Just do it!” And so we do. We do whatever we can to get ahead, to move ahead, to make progress, to achieve the fullest sense of self-fulfillment imaginable. The fat bank account is of particular importance because of the economic security it provides in the event of a layoff, as well as for the prospects of a happy retirement, a time of life reserved for pure relaxation, recreation, vacation, and travel, when nothing of particular importance needs completion. What? Retirement isn’t like that? Oh, yes. I know, I know! But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Our lives are governed by a pretty interesting set of expectations, motivated in specific ways by our need for mastery over our lives and rewards for making the right decisions for ourselves, our families, and for our future. It’s for me, for us, and for our future.

The Pharisee

You will likely not be surprised, then, when I share with you the reality that life isn’t that simple, and that frankly some if not all of those ideas aren’t particularly biblical, by which I mean they normally don’t make the best recipe for a life of faithful discipleship.

Jesus’ parable features two men. One a Pharisee, the other, a hated and despised tax collector. You may be interested to know that not all Pharisees were like the one in today’s account. The Interpreter’s Bible tells us that the Talmudic literature contains many examples of instances where Pharisee’s display extraordinary humility.1 But in this story, we get the picture of a man who is secure in his own future, in his own righteousness, a righteousness he imputes to himself because he has made all of the right decisions, and because he has taken steps beyond what was required in order to be righteous in his own eyes. He has, for all intents and purposes, responded fully and robustly to the admonition that, when it comes to righteousness and salvation, “you can do it!”
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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ (Luke 18:11-12 NRSV)
You will notice in this brief prayer that the word “I” appears throughout. This is a prayer about the self and what the self has accomplished to make the self righteous and therefore somehow pleasing to God.

And we are not immune to such temptations ourselves, are we? I sometimes make fun of myself in the office by literally giving myself a pat on the back for a job that I’m particularly proud of. The Pharisee in our story is doing something remarkably similar here, through he’s not looking for laughs. He’s serious. He is addressing God as one who has accorded righteousness to himself by doing all the right things. The term for this in Protestant Reformed Presbyterian theology is “works righteousness.” It is the view that says we can buy our way into heaven just by doing all of what we think God requires. Faith, in this way, is reduced to completing the simple items on the salvation checklist:

Pray every day. Check.

Get baptized. Check.

Volunteer at the local charity. Check.

Attend worship every week. Check.

Give money at the offering each week. Check.

Ahh, giving money at the offering each week, or promising to do so each year during our annual stewardship campaign. Hmm. That strikes a bit close for comfort, given that the pastor has and will be talking about giving to the church.

Giving, Tithing, and Faith

Rather than the declaration of self-righteousness recorded on the part of the Pharisee, our giving is expected to be out of faith, a faith borne of the knowledge and full acceptance of the basic truth that we cannot save ourselves and declare ourselves righteous. Any righteousness we have is a gift of God, a gift made possible by the precious sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. It is in Jesus that we receive salvation, not through the transactions we conduct each day in the hope that we will have built up enough “street cred” to buy entrance into the God’s kingdom.

Our giving should be, in a way, confessional prayer. We should give in humility, using a voice similar to that of our friend the tax collector. He stood away from the crowd, ashamed of the life he had been living, a life of ripping off the people by grossly overcharging them tax on behalf of Rome and pocketing the balance. The ancient tax collector lived large off the people and was considered a traitor, complicit with the occupying Roman Empire. Rather than declare himself righteous by completing the appropriate tasks, the tax collector instead throws himself upon the mercy of God, beating his breast in anguish, ashamed even to look up to heaven (a common prayer practice at the time). “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” he cries. The danger here, then, is that our giving can be considered a payoff, which is yet another way of saving ourselves through righteous acts. The tax collector left the temple justified by his humble faith. The Pharisee already received his reward, the knowledge of self-justification and self-righteousness that meant he was better than everyone else.

How Do We Give?

When we consider where we are as a church, and what we, in hope, envision for the future, we need to remember that our gifts of talents, time, and money are not works we do to earn salvation, nor are they divine payoff to avoid condemnation. For us, gifts of time and money are given in utter gratitude, in the knowledge that what we give isn’t really ours to begin with. Everything we have is from God, and we are charged to be good stewards of what we have been given. So, in this season of stewardship, we should, in humility and gratitude, consider the two questions I mentioned to you earlier:

“Am I fully using the talents and skills God has given me for the benefit of His Kingdom?” And,

“Am I demonstrating my faithful commitment to the mission of Jesus Christ with the monetary resources for which God has made me responsible?”

And as we consider these things, we need to remember that life isn’t a “just do it” kind of experience. Our steps are ordered instead by the Holy Spirit. In this season of giving, let the Holy Spirit in to your life, so that when you consider the two big questions of faithful stewardship, you may respond like the tax collector, in gratitude and humility.

“Am I fully using the talents and skills God has given me for the benefit of His Kingdom?” And,

“Am I demonstrating my faithful commitment to the mission of Jesus Christ with the monetary resources for which God has made me responsible?”

After telling this parable, Luke then tells us about Jesus’ encounter with another tax collector named Zacchaeus. And if you’d like to know what’s next, we’ll see you next week in church.

Let us pray.

Oh God, who alone can probe the depths of the heart, you hear the prayer of the humble and justify the repentant sinner. Grand us the gift of humility, that we may see our own sins clearly and refrain from judging our neighbor. We make our prayer to you through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1Gilmour, S. MacLean. “The Gospel According to St. Luke.” Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. VIII. New York: Abingdon Press, 1953, p. 308.

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