4 Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.
5 Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
6 They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion. (Psalm 84)
We are growing a new tradition in this country. It is about to become something along the lines of “apple pie and baseball” that define us as “Americans.” It is a deep compulsion that seems to drive our need to see ourselves as ‘over and against each other.’ We gnash our teeth at the political leanings of our families and neighbors. Those in leadership delight in roasting opponents on social media. We get giddy over clever Twitter wars particularly when directed at those we hold in disdain. Time spent on the internet can result in us feeling highly superior or deeply distressed. We compare ourselves with those who are different in some way and consider ourselves either more fortunate, more righteous, more disadvantaged. But it has become a national pastime to set ourselves over and against each other.
And then along comes our Gospel reading for today. I am not going to ask for a show of hands for which character we most relate to—even though this Gospel reading actually invites us to reveal in public our sinfulness—meaning anything that separates us from God, others, creation and ourselves. When we hear Jesus begin a story with one of the characters being a Pharisee, we can almost count on the fact that he will be the one we want to step away from and say, “Thank God I am not like the Pharisee.” But whatever their conflict with Jesus, Pharisees were the kind of people we would celebrate in most cases.
Pharisees were liberal interpreters of Scripture who aimed to make the law available to all. This person had many good qualities. He was faithful. He lived simply so that he could focus his devotion to God. His prayer to our modern ears was something like, “Thank you God that I am not like other people, especially those who don’t care about you or about making this a nation that follows you. I thank you that I am responsible, and faithful. I thank you that I have led a life that has kept me from falling into such problems as failing to pay my mortgage or falling prey to an addiction. I have always been faithful to my spouse and family. And in particular I thank you that I am not like that tax collector hiding back in the corner whose job it is to cheat people. I pray all the time, I fast even when it is not required just to honor you, and I give 10 percent of all that I make to the temple—right off the top. I recycle. I walk to work to cut down on greenhouse gases, and just last week I gave a couple of dollars to someone asking for help by the side of the road.”
And who among us want to be like the tax-collector. Yes, we applaud his humility and confession. But the tax collector made his living by stealing his neighbor’s possessions and giving them to the Roman oppressors. He may be stuck in a job he now recognizes as immoral, but he continues to participate in a cycle of abuse where he benefits from another’s hardship. His actions would have been known and reviled by all. So, while we easily recognize that self-reflection is important, being the tax-collector is not perhaps the character we would prefer either.
But Jesus sees differently from us. Jesus sees justification in the one who has recognized himself not over and against another, but standing in his own need of prayer. He has thrown himself on God’s mercy recognizing that receiving it has nothing to do with his own righteousness or merit, but comes only as a result of God’s pure grace.
What a powerful story to hear in our times. Many of you like me may wonder if we will ever get to a place where we will start seeing each other rather than simply condemning each other. When power will not be gained by one side denigrating others. When yelling stops so we can listen to each other. When blaming ends so we can begin working together to care for God’s people and God’s creation. When we will stop using hot button words to define whole groups of people and deny our connectedness to each other. When we will soften our hearts, open our minds and see that truly each of us are beloved of God—no exceptions. That each of us need each other, depend on each other, lead fuller lives with each other. And recognize that each of us are dependent on God’s grace that is pure gift and pure mercy—no strings attached–nothing we need earn or are entitled to or have been given based on our own merit. Simply, and astonishingly because God is good. All the time.
In the weeks following our most divisive presidential election to date of 2016, two young women, one an ordained pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and another young woman who is the founder of The Dinner Party, found each other. In a time when many people’s reaction was to gird up for a fight, to take to the internet and smear someone with different views as “evil”, the Reverend Jennifer Bailey and Lennon Flowers gathered people from diverse backgrounds and political persuasions around food to talk about things that matter—grief, loss, relationships, the human condition. The People’s Supper is an opportunity to hold hard conversations in a safe place that allows for candid conversation and forward movement using the age-old practice of breaking bread together. To date they have supported more than 1500 suppers across the nation and across the political, religious, racial, ethnic, and class divide.
The Reverend Jennifer Bailey who self-identifies as someone who is a part of the “political left and has been nourished and embedded in communities working and striving for social justice,” had many peers who took to the battlements after the election. But Rev. Bailey, in a time where many were throwing accusations at one another, had a powerful memory. She was 14 years old. It was her birthday and her mother had just entered the hospital after receiving a diagnosis of cancer. She was sitting at her kitchen table when there was a knock on the door. It was Mrs. Cherington, the mother of one of her best childhood friends, who was bringing her a birthday cake. Mrs. Cherington was a conservative Catholic, and while Rev. Bailey does not know how she voted in 2016, she was sure that they had not voted the same way in other elections. Yet here she was, showing up in love on this very difficult day. Rev. Bailey says, “for me, that memory of this connection with somebody who was part of a mothering community for me growing up, who had a very different political ideology than I did was the thing that called me back; back from the ease of cynicism, of accusation, and reminded me of the deep humanity that still existed in what I might call my political foe.
There are so many dividing lines these days. Building borders that separate people on the basis of race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious practice, immigration status, ability, socio-economic category. Each a cause of separation, seeing each other in the frame “Thank God I am not like____.” Often these borders are created in fear, sometimes they are created in ignorance because we have no idea of the story of the one we set apart. We have no idea of the burdens they are carrying.
The Pharisee was not a bad person. He was faithful and devoted. He was in the temple because he loved and ardently sought to follow God. But he had ignored something essential—he too was broken, he too was totally dependent on God’s grace. Instead he had directed his gaze outside himself to look at the brokenness of another, paying more attention to another’s deficits. He thanked God “he was not like him” and missed the reality that he too needed God’s mercy.
When we read this Gospel message, we may easily condemn the Pharisee for his exclusion and disdain. But in so doing we suffer his blindness, his sin. Have we not acted as if we are finished products, fully developed humans, confident that we know and are acting according to God’s will for the world? Have we not assumed that we understand a person’s life without first hearing their story? Have we not felt a rush of impatience and anger when someone acts or speaks in a way that violates our sense of righteousness? Don’t we rush to judge others on our own personal experiences and pieties that have nothing to do with Jesus’ open-hearted love and hospitality? Don’t we allow scorn—disguised as holy indignation—to take root and grow in our hearts until love sours and empathy dies? I don’t know about you, but I have.
But the reality that I know to be true in my quieter times, is that we are all on a journey—we are all on the pilgrim’s way. We are all in the process of learning what it means to be fully human in a life with many unexpected twists and turns, trying to be with each other in ways that choose life. And to do this we must be teachable. We must be moldable. We must be willing to be present with each other and recognize that we do not have all the answers.
Rev. Bailey and Ms. Flowers admit that the work of The People’s Suppers have not been easy. Confronting preconceptions and bridging division can stir up fierce resistance. Brain science teaches us that when we are reduced to our pain, our loss, and our fear, we cannot be our best selves. We cannot respond with the grace and mercy that is available to us. Ms. Flowers says that we need each other. “Part of what tethers us to life on Earth and makes it great are the people,” she says. “Sometimes I think we forget that we can be each other’s medicine.”
In this parable that seems so straightforward on its first reading, we find a much deeper instruction as to how to live in the world as God’s beloved creation. Jesus gives us an alternative to a binary view that is restricted to us vs. them, in vs. out, worthy vs. unworthy. Jesus moves us from isolation to tender mercies. Jesus moves us from me and my group to seeing each of us as both sinner and saint– everyone a neighbor, everyone standing in the need of prayer, everyone dependent on God’s boundless grace and mercy. Jesus invites us to see that the only way forward in life is with each other. Jesus shows us the way forward together, one step at a time in love.