October 23, 2016
We are in the middle of an incredibly divisive presidential campaign. That's not news to anyone here. I'm going to try to address this campaign in my sermon this morning, not to convince anyone of who to vote for because I don't even pretend to know the answer to that; but because we can get so caught up in the negativism that's going on around us, we can forget just who is ultimately in control.
I read this little statement last week and it seems a good place to start: "We saw what a mess this race has become, and also how lucky the two nominees are, because what's now clear is that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are running against the only person they can possibly beat."
I heard that Mr. Trump got a call from his worried campaign manager, “We need to get to Ohio next, the Clinton campaign is telling all kinds of lies about you!” Trump responded, “I think we'd better go to Florida first...they are telling the truth about me there!”
Mrs. Clinton was taking a test along with a banker and an electrician. One of the the questions was what term best describes the problem when outflow exceeds inflow. The electrician answered, “overload”, the banker “overdraft”, Mrs. Clinton said, “I don't understand the problem.”
I try to lighten the mood a bit as we have two candidates running for the highest office in the land and the majority of Americans don't want either one. And as we follow their campaigns, we listen to debates filled with disrespect-for each other and for those watching; debates filled with half-truths and outright lies. They both seem very sure of themselves even as every day seems to bring more disparaging news about their own campaigns.
The point can be made that in many ways we are getting, as a nation, just what we deserve. I don't have the author of this but it seems there is a lot of truth to it, “The wall of public decency has been battered down. Did we really think we could outlaw decency, and yet somehow still have decency? Did we really think that we could routinely entertain ourselves on the kind of vice-ridden fare that Hollywood churns out, and not have it make us vice-ridden? Did we really believe we could blow a hole in the hull of decent discourse and still have the ship stay on the surface?”
Our society as a whole has become more base, more coarse and less civil in our conversing and our general respect for one another; especially those with whom we disagree. And I realize that is a sweeping statement and it doesn't apply to each person here. But it seems especially evident in this presidential contest.
I come to this topic today under the message that Jesus gave us in today's gospel. It seems very much to me like we are witnessing these two candidates standing in our midst, not praying as in the parable, but like in the parable, two “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” It is not a perfect illustration, but I think we can follow this a little further. Can you hear Donald Trump giving thanks that he is not like Hillary Clinton-- “I did not put the nation at risk with personal email account, I did not lie to escape prosecution, I do not avoid paying my fair share of taxes”...well, maybe not. Or Hillary, “I am not like this man, I don't put up with abuse of women, I'm not a thief or an adulterer” ...too true of Donald....
I'm not doing this to make a political statement. I'm doing this to bring this 1st century parable into the 21st century. It is easy to recognize the difference in attitude in the parable, easy to see those “attitudes” in our presidential candidates. But how are we at examining our own lives? As I considered this question, I recognized a tendency of mine and it seems to show up in our small group discussions. How does this compare to the prayer of that Pharisee? “I thank you God that we are not like St. Paul's Lutheran who won't pray with us. That we are not like Cornerstone who seems to be stealing members from our churches. That we are not judgmental like other churches....” I do it myself. Self righteous, self aggrandizing prayers.
We can do it with our own fellowship here at church; “I thank you God that I am not like those other members who don't come to bible study...that I am not like those who don't have time to be an officer...that I am not like those who are not voting the same as me....”
Jesus exaggerated a bit in his parable, but maybe not as much as it looked like at first glance. He is calling each of us to examine our life and see where we are judging others to be less than us because they don't do what we see as righteous. He calls us to understand that we are not made righteous by convincing God that we are better than so and so, by comparing. We are made righteous by Christ. And so he is calling us to make sure we have, at some time, acknowledged our great need for the mercy and grace of God. The Publican's prayer is a prayer we all need to pray, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' Wm E Gladstone, former British Prime Minister, was once asked what is the great lack of modern life? He replied, “a sense of sin; that is the great lack of modern life.” We as Christians dare not lack that sense that we are each a sinner, forgiven by God. Gladstone's explanation of our lack of a sense of sin certainly comes through in the public square. I began with a look at the lack of humility and basic decency seen in our politics. But the question should come to us as a personal question—am I aware of the sin in my life? Which of the pray-ers in the gospel are you? Which one are we in the statement Jesus makes? “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." It is easy to look at Donald and Hillary and say “that's just not right”. It is a little tougher to look at our own lives and see where we are falling short of Christ's example of humility.
The Pharisee and the Publican certainly give us a contrast, in many ways. We have heard about the Pharisees so long, we normally see them as bad guys. But at the time Jesus told this, the Pharisee would have been seen as the good guy; the publican—the bad--as he worked as a collector of taxes for the Romans. Publicans were despised and hated. When the point of the parable became clear, that the Pharisee was wrong and the Publican was right; his listeners would have been shocked. Even so, they may have recognized and even approved of the self-righteous attitude of the Pharisee. Luke put it this way, the Pharisees “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” That attitude separated them from the common people, the sinners in their world. An attitude of self-righteousness separates us from one another. When we think too highly of ourselves, we determine our worth and the worth of another by our comparisons. And if we are constantly judged by ourselves to be more worthy, we separate our lives from the lives of others whom we've judged less worthy. And ultimately, we separate our lives from God...we don't ever truly come into God's presence if we are busy promoting our own worthiness.
It is a lesson for us on the attitude of prayer. There are many teachings on prayer; some will say we are allowed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to come boldly into the throne room of God and demand that God hear us. And that is true to an extent. But we are not to be so bold that we display an attitude of self-righteousness and self-commendation as the Pharisee displayed. A prayer full of self-pride and self-righteousness is not the boldness that is written of in the scriptures. Rather we are bold to come into God's presence only through the righteousness imputed upon us by the righteousness of Jesus. We talked about doctrine in the adult study last week. It is a doctrine of reformed belief that we are considered righteous in God's sight only through Jesus. R. C. Sproul is a leading apologist for the reformed faith. He puts it this way, “By faith we receive the transfer or imputation of the righteousness of Christ. Faith is not only necessary, it is sufficient.... Christ fulfilled the law for me and gained the merit necessary for my justification. This is the ground not only of my justification, but also of my assurance of salvation.” Kind of some religious jargon, but I hope the point is clear, it is not because we, in the words of the Pharisee are “not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” We are not sinless, we are not worthy...except as we are made righteous in Christ. That is both the grounds for our hope and the assurance of our salvation, for God is faithful.
Finally, I want to get back to Donald and Hillary and the hopelessness we may feel. Author and pastor Max Lucado shares some hope for us: “We are really ready for this presidential election to be over. We’re ready for an end to the rancor and tackiness. Voters on both sides feel frustrated, even embarrassed by it all. There is a visceral fear, an angst about the result. What if so and so wins? When we wake up to November 9, post-election, when the confetti is swept away and the election is finally over, what will we see?
I have a prediction. I know exactly what November 9 will bring. Another day of God’s perfect sovereignty. He will still be in charge. His throne will still be occupied. He will still manage the affairs of the world. Never before has His providence depended on a king, president, or ruler. And it won’t on November 9, 2016. “The LORD can control a king’s mind as he controls a river; he can direct it as he pleases” (Proverbs 21:1 NCV). Understanding God’s sovereignty over the nations opens the door to peace. When we realize that God influences the hearts of all rulers, we can then choose to pray for them rather than fret about them. Rather than wring our hands we bend our knees, we select prayer over despair.
Then he shares this verse from scripture: 'This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s loving kindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. (you recognize this as our verse for September (Lam. 3:21-23)”
It will be okay. Remember this if nothing else I say, it's not about the donkey or the elephant...it is about the Lamb! The Lamb reigns in heaven, the Lamb who died and rose again has dominion over all of creation!
Now we each have our responsibilities; to study the issues and the platforms of the candidates, to make sure to vote, and to hold the whole election up in prayer. Our next hymn is a prayer, an expression of our hope for this world and our place in it. We don't just wish for a better world, our actions are often how God makes it a better world. Live humbly, act justly, show respect, share with others, love your neighbor; and trust in the great faithfulness of our God. Amen.