20 Pentecost C
How are You Standing?
Here’s a story you know better than I do. It’s harvest time. A local farmer gets sick or injured. The farmer can’t bring in the harvest. It’s a crisis for that family.
Soon, help arrives. Neighbors come with combines, trucks, tractors, grain carts, and fuel. Meals are organized and delivered. In the blink of an eye, the farmer’s harvest is in the bin. Disaster is averted. Scenes of tearful gratitude make the local news.
Why do people do that? Well, it’s just what neighbors do, right? Most of you can’t imagine doing anything else. In that scene, differenced disappear. Old resentments recede into the background. Competition for ground is put on hold. We’re all in this together. Nothing else matters.
Why do you do it? It’s more than a sense of obligation. It’s not just repayment of previous help. Ignoring that neighbor would make us feel less human. Answering the call makes us happy. We get real joy in coming together around deep human need. Responding to that need makes us whole, content, more fully human.
It’s what God has made us for. I thank God today for all those times when you’ve helped a neighbor in need. I thank God today for all those times when you’ve dropped everything and answered the call. And I thank God for all those times when you’ll do it all again.
Stories of harvest help create a painful contrast to day’s Gospel reading. It’s the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. When we’re helping, we’re at our best. When we’re at our best, we stand with each other and for each other. When we’re at our worst, we stand apart from each other and against each other.
Today’s reading asks a question. How are we standing? I hope that question rattles in your brain this week. How are we standing?
Two men go up to the Jerusalem Temple to pray. One is a Pharisee. He’s not a bad guy. He does everything right. In fact, the Pharisee does everything more than right. He should be the hero. But’s he’s not.
I need you to listen closely here. The Pharisee’s problem is NOT that he’s Jewish. There’s a lot of anti-Jewish garbage floating on Christian parts of the Internet these days. It’s wrong – theologically, historically, and morally wrong. The New Testament is not a stick to beat the Jews. Anti-Jewish perspectives are un-Christian.
The Pharisee’s problem is NOT that he’s Jewish. His problem is how he stands. In verse eleven, we hear that the Pharisee is standing “by himself.” He stands apart from others. He rejects community and connection.
He stands “by himself.” That phrase can also mean “toward himself.” That’s the more literal translation. The Pharisee is focused on himself. He is turned away from God and neighbor. The Pharisee’s problem isn’t his identity. His problem is that he is turned in on himself. So, his prayer isn’t about gratitude. It’s about self-congratulation.
How are we standing? Don’t stand like that Pharisee.
The Pharisee stands toward himself. So, he turns away from others. “I’m so glad I’m not like the rest of those people,” he prays. “I’m really glad I’m not like that stinking Tax Collector.” Tax collectors make easy bad guys in the New Testament. They were a combination of thief, traitor, and torturer. No one wanted to be “like” the Tax Collector – not even the Tax Collector himself.
But the Pharisee got it wrong. The Pharisee is like the Tax Collector in all the ways that matter. The Pharisee is created in God’s image and likeness – just like the Tax Collector. The Pharisee is in bondage to sin, death, and evil – just like the Tax Collector. The Pharisee needs to be put right with God and his neighbor – just like the Tax Collector.
These two are different in one way. The Tax Collector knows what he needs. “God,” the Tax Collector prays, “be merciful to me, a sinner.” The Tax Collector doesn’t have low self-esteem. He just sees himself as he is. That’s what it means to humble oneself. Humbling oneself isn’t about feeling bad or small. It’s just about telling myself the truth about myself.
How are we standing? That’s a question about direction, not distance. The Pharisee is in the front pew. But he’s turned toward himself. The Tax Collector is barely inside the back door. But he is turned toward God. Jesus says the Tax Collector goes home “justified.”
God turns the Tax Collector in the right direction – toward God and neighbor. That’s what being “justified” means.
God stands “toward” you. That’s the good news today, and every day. God stands for you. God stands with you. God stands by you. That’s who Jesus is and what Jesus does. No matter how I twist and turn, God is there for me. When I stand far off – wrapped in my own wrongs and regrets – God comes to me in mercy and love.
I think about these words from the Letter to the Hebrews. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness,” Hebrews 4:16 says, “so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” God comes to you in Jesus. Jesus untangles you from yourself. The Holy Spirit frees you to turn every day toward God and neighbor.
How are we standing? Do we stand toward ourselves? At our worst, we stand apart from God and against our neighbor. At our best, we stand with God and for our neighbor. Think about the joy in that harvest help story. Standing with God and for our neighbor is how we’re made. Standing that way keeps us straight with the world.
In the past few weeks, I’ve talked a couple of times with other ELCA pastors in our area. We’ve talked about the present and future ministries of our congregations. For some of those congregations, the present is challenging. And the future is troubling.
You know the issues facing those congregations. Average attendance is going down. Average age is going up. Their communities are declining. The way we did church forty years ago doesn’t work now. The way we did church ten years ago doesn’t work now. Those congregations can’t call full time pastors. Some might not last another ten years.
Well, Pastor, you might ask, what does have to do with Mamrelund Lutheran Church? That depends on how we’re standing. If we’re standing toward ourselves, those congregations have nothing to do with us. But I don’t think we can be right unless we stand with God and for our neighbor. It’s time for some of that harvest help in the church.
Mamrelund Lutheran Church is the “mother church” for many of these area congregations. Look at their histories. You’ll find Mamrelund pastors and members in many of those histories. Mamrelund has helped to birth new ministries in this community and across several counties.
When I started as an Iowa pastor forty years ago, I heard about Mamrelund Lutheran Church. I knew this was a leading congregation. I knew this place as the “cathedral on the prairie.”
Let’s remember this leadership role. I don’t know what that means for ministry here or with our neighbors. Neither does our synod staff. But we know the Holy Spirit knows. We trust that if we turn in the right direction, the Holy Spirit will lead us into a faithful future together.
Members of area congregations will discuss our futures on Sunday, November 13th. We’ll meet at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Red Oak from two to four p.m. We’ll speak plainly with and to one another. I’m inviting as many of you as possible to come to that meeting. I know it won’t work for some of you. But we need to have this conversation together. We need to do it for us and for our neighbors.
How are you standing? Toward yourself? Or toward God and neighbor? I’ll wrestle with that question this week. I hope you will too. Let’s pray…