St. Philip Lutheran Church
23 October 2022 + Lect. 30c (Pentecost 20)
Rev. Josh Evans
Every Sunday, the service began with a medley of songs led by the band. As the final song concluded, the worship leader would welcome the congregation, often following the formula of “whether you are ____ or ____.” Gay or straight. Lifelong Christian or total newcomer. Cubs fan or Sox fan. (It’s a Chicago church, after all.) You get the point.
On this particular Sunday, during the words of welcome, the worship leader also included “whether you are a Democrat or a Republican” … which itself wasn’t unusual … until one awkward pause later, they continued, jokingly: “But do we actually have any Republicans here?”
“Well, not after that!” I remember myself thinking … and it still makes me cringe. Not necessarily because of my own political affiliation or the way I vote. But because this was a church that prided itself on welcoming folks from all walks of life – no matter their sexuality, gender, religious background, age, ability, or political ideology. And, well, the welcome that morning didn’t feel very welcoming.
That’s the problem with welcome, though. Especially in churches. We adopt a welcome statement, we tack up a rainbow RIC logo on the sign out front … and before long, our welcome has this tendency to almost border on superiority, even arrogance:
“We ordain women, marry same-gender couples, and welcome everyone to the communion table. Thank God we’re not like other churches: evangelicals, fundamentalists … or, worse, that other kind of Lutheran!”
Today, it’s easy to look at this almost deceitfully simple parable with its apparently obvious message:
Don’t be like the Pharisee – loud, proud, and arrogant. Be like the tax collector – quiet, humble, and contrite.
Well, that’s easy enough. We began our worship with confession, just like the tax collector, right?
“Thank God I know I’m not perfect and can admit it. I’m so glad I know better. I go to Bible Study every week and say my prayers. I filled out my pledge card and already set up the automatic transfer from my bank account. Thank God I’m not like other people … like that obnoxious Pharisee!”
Funny how the tables so quickly turn and our own prayer starts to sound a whole lot like the Pharisee’s…
Maybe the parable isn’t so simple after all.
The danger of this parable is the temptation to fall into the trap of binary thinking: Pharisee bad, tax collector good.
And yet binaries are rarely, if ever, helpful.
If you were to ask me, for instance, if something is spicy or mild, my answer probably won’t be very helpful to you because my tolerance for spicy food is pretty high. And there’s clearly more to spiciness than two extremes, and in fact, there’s even a special measurement for that called the “Scoville scale” that ranks the spiciness of different chili peppers along a spectrum.
The trap of binary thinking ignores all those nuances along the spectrum: “Twilight” is neither day nor night, and “room temperature” is neither hot nor cold.
In similar ways, “gay or straight” ignores our siblings who are bisexual or asexual, and “man or woman” ignores those whose gender is neither, or what we even call “non-binary.”
Then there is perhaps the most dangerous binary of all: us vs. them.
“Thank God I’m not like other people: those thieves, rogues, and adulterers! Thank God I’m not like them.”
We’re so good at drawing lines between “us” and “them,” perhaps even especially in the church: ELCA Lutherans and those other Lutherans. Progressive and fundamentalist. RIC and not RIC.
Lines protect. Lines box us in. Like little silos of “safety.” But of course, if lines box “us” in, they also keep “them” out.
And the interesting thing is that, as soon as we stoop down to draw a line in the sand, we often stand up to see Jesus looking back at us from the other side.
“Jesus is always on the side of the crucified ones,” Franciscan priest and spiritual writer Richard Rohr observes. “He changes sides in the twinkling of an eye to go wherever the pain is. He is not loyal to one religion [or] to this or that group.”
Jesus, by his very nature, resists neat and “respectable” boundaries and binaries. Fully God or fully human? How about both? Jesus’s gospel message took him to unexpected people and places and crossed every line there was.
Binary thinking divides us, like the Pharisee and the tax collector. And do we really need more division these days?
Instead, Jesus calls us to move beyond division and binary thinking.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t once condemn the Pharisee for his prayer, fasting, or almsgiving – all good and classic spiritual disciplines to which we ourselves aspire. The Pharisee is not entirely the “bad” guy in this parable.
Instead, Jesus draws our attention to the posture of the tax collector – whose occupation would naturally make him very much the “bad” guy – but whose act of confession makes things more nuanced.
The tax collector recognizes what the Pharisee can’t – or maybe doesn’t want to – see. The tax collector confesses his sinfulness. Notice that he doesn’t confess his particular sins (“I cheated my neighbors on their tax bill”), but something deeper … and, quite frankly, more disturbing.
The tax collector confesses, as one commentator puts it, “a refusal to become fully human” … an “estrangement” or “disconnection” from God and from others.
Sin is what happens when we divide ourselves from one another, when we draw a line between “us” and “them,” and fall into the trap of binary thinking: “Thank God I’m not ____!”
Confession is what happens when we open ourselves up to the abundant grace and mercy of God.
And from that confession flows an experience of forgiveness … of being made whole … of reconnection with God and with one another.
That forgiveness is for the tax collector, the Pharisee, and for everyone in between.
That forgiveness is for “us” … and for “them.”
Forgiveness like that reaches across every boundary and topples every binary there is, and it invites us to become a church that is more wholly and authentically welcoming.
At its best, the core of any church’s statement of welcome does mean being against certain things: Our commitment to full inclusion means rejecting things like sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. Such things are simply incompatible with the way of Jesus.
To be against such things, however, is not to be un-welcoming, but just the opposite. Instead, to be against such things is to resist harmful, binary, divisive thinking and to affirm the full humanity of people.
It is in that work of resistance and affirmation that our welcome grows ever deeper, wider, and more authentic every day.
We can begin today with the tax collector’s prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
God, be merciful to us, who divide ourselves from one another.
God, reconnect us.