Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sermon; Proper 25C; Sirach 35:12-17; Luke 18:9-14

Today's first reading comes from the Apocrypha, those middle books between the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And our gospel lesson comes from Luke. Sirach talks about generous giving and helping those on the margins, while Luke relays the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector praying in the temple. What connections do you hear between these two readings?

The connection I hear between the two readings is honesty.

“Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford,” says Sirach. This has the possibility of being misused by church leadership (especially around pledge time) by trying to squeeze every last dime from people for the operation of the church. I have visions of televangelists or other leaders continually telling their followers that they can afford to give more.

But this isn't really the point of this passage. The point is that if we are honest with ourselves we will take note of all the gifts a generous God has bestowed upon us and that we are called to reciprocate by being generous ourselves.

The passage continues: “Do not offer him a bribe, and do not rely on a dishonest sacrifice.” Again, it's all about honesty.

In case you've forgotten, “bribe” is defined as persuading one to act in your favor, illegally and/or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducements. The classic bribe with God is, “Dear God, if you get me out of this mess I will attend church every Sunday and give more money than I’m giving now.” Let's face it, nobody has actually followed through on that, even though God did get them/us out of that mess. It's a dishonest way to have a relationship with God.

Over in the gospel we get the well-known parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple. And again, honesty is the theme.

“I thank God I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers and tax collectors. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all my income.”

On the surface this is probably an honest prayer. He's not a thief, rogue, adulterer or tax collector. He probably did fast twice a week and he probably tithed a tenth of his income as prescribed by the law. But within this prayer of surface honesty lies a bed of dishonesty.

The Pharisee of the parable is drawn from those people who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt. I think they treat others with contempt because the others are not like them. The others are from the wrong neighborhoods, have the wrong upbringing, are of the wrong social class, or have any number of things that mark them as different. And whereas God through Jesus exhibits unconditional love, the Pharisee only loves conditionally – I’ll love you when you meet my demands. That is a dishonest way to love, not the least of which is because those demands never cease.

With regards to the fast and the tithe, the question is, “Why?” Why do those things? What do you expect to get from them? Or better yet, what do you expect to give God with them?

If fasting doesn't have any affect on you, it's pointless. If I fast from cookies at lunch twice a week, it means nothing. It's dishonest. An honest fast is one that impacts you in a significant way, and which allows (forces?) you to acknowledge your reliance on God.

As for tithing, again, Why? Here's a hint: if you feel the need to announce your tithe, you are doing it wrong. If you tithe so you can be considered a pillar of the community, you are doing it wrong. Why pledge or tithe to the church? If it is giving to God the first fruits from the gifts you have received, that's one thing. If it's to get your name on a plaque, that's something else entirely.

Why do you give to the church, and are you giving in proportion to what you are receiving? I don't think the Pharisee in the parable answered this question honestly.

And finally there is the tax collector. He doesn't fast. He doesn't tithe, let alone pledge. But he is honest with himself and with God. We don't know what happened when he left the temple, but he's made a good start.

How many of us are dishonest with our own confessions, either by downplaying our minor sins, justifying them against the sins of others, or even blaming others for our sins? I'm reminded of those favorite faux apologies by politicians, pop stars and sports heroes that begin, “I'm sorry if any of you were offended by my actions,” and get worse from there.

The connection between Sirach and Luke is honesty. Are we honest with ourselves about the gifts we have received from God, and do we honestly return to God in kind? Do we have an honest relationship with God, or are we constantly trying to make deals? Do we honestly view other people – people not like us – as being created in God's image? Do we honestly confess our sins, or do we downplay them in relation to those thieves, rogues and adulterers who aren't like me? Are we trying to reflect the image of God, or are we trying to make God in our image?

However you look at pledging, the poor, the sinner, the other, I hope you do it with an honest attempt at looking at all these things as God might, rather than looking at them through self-justified righteousness.

Because in all honestly, it is God who will have the final say on whether or not we are getting this right.



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