Six Words

by Michael Usey

Luke 18.9-14, NRSVUE

We’re in the middle of a fall series called True Fiction, in which we are looking at Jesus’ parables that are found only in Luke’s gospel.  (Part of the vibe for this series is a meme on each bulletin cover.) Speaking of true fiction, if you haven’t been keeping up, you should know that the national Southern Baptist Convention voted this last week to disfellowship College Park.  They did this, they said, because of our endorsement of “homosexual behavior.”  Wayne Jones, our deacon chair, said all week he didn’t know what that phrase meant, (I’m so sure: he was in an NC State fraternity], but none of us would let him use our computer or phone to google it.  The phrase is that we are “welcoming and affirming” of LGBTQI persons as full members and fellow Christians as companions on our tribe’s spiritual journey.  

The NC baptist convention will kick us out later this week, working in tandem with the SBC.  This will have no effect on our healthy and current membership with the American Baptist Churches, the Alliance of Baptists, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Carlyle Marney, the famous Baptist Preacher who served Myers Park in Charlotte, once said that denominations are great buckets of excrement, so that you might as well stay where you are since you’re accustomed to the smell and you’ve made a warm spot.

This being kicked out of the SBC came as a surprise to us, since we left the SBC in 1999, last century literally, 23 years ago by unanimous vote. (Kari did warn me last year that she still found our name on an SBC website listing churches.) Mike Baumann suggested that we get a new sign for the front that says, “Welcoming and affirming for a quarter century.”  Kari suggested that we send the SBC a Mean Girls meme, Regina saying, “Why are you so obsessed with me?’ I told the Associated Press that this was like a high school girl breaking up with her boyfriend at age 18.  Years go by, she gets married, has a family, then at age 41, her former high school boyfriend finds her and tells her, “I’m breaking up with you.”  I guess the SBC is working through some stuff, and I’m glad our Ex is coming to terms with the break-up.

For a year, the national SBC and the NC Baptist Convention have sent us registered letters demanding that we define and defend our stance on homosexuality.  We answered none of these.  They have no authority over us, and we don’t owe them jack. Our website makes our stance clear, as does the sermons and bible studies on there. As I said, we left the SBC in 1999 by unanimous church vote, at which one of our oldest members said, “I don’t think we’re leaving the SBC; I feel they have left us.”  

Now, we were chartered as an SBC in 1906, so we share the ignoble aspects of the SBC’s racist origins. However, there was progress, and a huge amount of the progressive Christian work done in the US in the 60s -70s starting and supporting ethnic congregations was done by the Southern baptist churches.  This all changed in 1979 when the convention was taken over by radical fundamentals who were extremely authoritative, anti-jewish, misogynicist, and homophobic.  The SBC wasn’t healthy prior to 1979, but it was diverse. One by one all the seminaries fell, Southeastern falling first, and by 1999, the SBC was a rabid fundamentalist denomination.  So we left.

So to get a letter and national coverage from a denomination that we left so long ago is puzzling.  If we had gotten a letter saying we were no longer hasidic jews, we might have been just as mystified.  I don’t know if this is the case of bad record keeping, or if they are trying to keep focus off the sex scandels that are rocking the SBC.  SBC leadership is extremely political, so who knows? But it’s not a good look for them.

The church staff has gotten calls, emails, and messages all week.  They are running about 2-1 hate communications to ones of support, which is better than one might expect.  A couple of the negative ones seem earnest.  Got a call Friday afternoon from an older man who was kindly worried that my soul was going to burn in hell forever.  I did not convince him that faith requires courage, and that, yes, I could be wrong, but that he also could be wrong.  

I need to apologize to all our members that this madness happened.  We are blessed here with so many remarkable lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer Christians, and we as a congregation have worked so very hard making sure this is safe space for all our members, visitors, and staff.  This nonsense and hatred has intruded deeply into that sense of safety for some of you, and I am so very sorry (I don’t know why or how this stupidity happened, but it did).  That all this happened during Pride week here in Greensboro made it worse I believe.  To all our LGBTQI folx: we see you; we love you.  You are accepted and adored by us and God.  Do not despair. 

Jesus (finally we get to him) told a parable, a topsy-turvy tale about prayer and true spirituality. “Two men went to the temple to pray.” It is easy to draw this picture in caricature, two comic strip figures. We boo the self-righteous and judgmental Pharisee and cheer for the lowly tax-collector. Then we go home from church and say, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!”—which of course turns us into our own kind of Pharisee. So let us slow down, re-wind the reel and look at it again. 

First of all, our terrible history of anti-Judaism has conditioned the way we interpret stories that include Pharisees. Amy Jill-Levine, the brilliant Jewish professor of NT at Vanderbilt, has said, rightly so, that most Christian scholarship and preaching have tried to make Jesus look good by making Jews look bad. There was a century of German and European NT scholarship that villainized the Jews in the NT and tried to de-Judaize Jesus. It was a perfect breeding ground for Nazism and the Holocaust. Here on Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish High Holy Days, let’s have no part in those readings. So let’s not focus on the Pharisee as a Jew; rather let’s identify the Pharisee in us. 

In Jesus’ day the Pharisees were the group zealously committed to following the commandments of God. They helped Judaism survive when the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE and paved the way for Judaism today. Moreover, Jesus befriended Pharisees too, and ate with them. And there is the passage where Pharisees came to him to help protect Jesus from the murderous rage of Herod. So let’s not automatically villainize Pharisees, or anyone else for that matter.

Luke gives the lead-in to the parable with his own punch-line: “He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.” Which does happen, but it’s like giving the moral of the story before the story, which spoils the hearer’s exploration. 

So hear it again. “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.” One thought he belonged there; the other, well for the other it was a risk to step in there. He had been taught the rules. This was the last place he belonged. But somehow he summoned the courage to go in and open his heart to God. Note now their postures. The Pharisee “stood by himself” and prayed. By himself. This gives us a hint about his spiritual posture. There is the pride of singularity: “I alone Lord am righteous, good, faithful, etc. 

Richard Rohr has focused on the spirit which infects too much religiosity: the desire to be separate and superior. Most of us grew up being taught that our brand of religion was different than and superior to other kinds. We were taught to avoid those whose form of religion differed from ours. We can still easily fall into that kind of trap: “We alone are the real church, the true followers of Jesus!” I thank you God that we are not like those other churches! 

Friday I spent all day in court in Greensboro. I was a witness to a crime: one of my fellow escorts at the Women’s Clinic where I volunteer was hit by a car driven by one of the protestors.  I was wearing a body-cam that day, as were other escorts, and four of our cameras caught the crime.  The footage was clear: he hit her while she was standing and he never attempted to slow down or brake.  The man testified that it was his right to park there and she needed to move.  He was found guilty of simple assault, a much lesser verdict that we were hoping for, but nonetheless, he’s banned from the clinic and must attend 20 sessions of anger management at his cost.  One of our members, Lauren Bradshaw, a public defender, stayed with us all day.  She’s a justice rock star.

I found myself thinking of this parable all day in court.  Most of the protestors at the clinic are some sort of Christian.  Not very diverse: they are almost all white cis well-off people.  As a group, I don’t hate them; in fact, I pray for them while there, as I’m sure they do for me.  However, there are a handful of protestors that radiate contempt, the man whose car hit her among them, and I confess to God that I struggle not to hate them.  They openly despise us, and these contemptuous ones often openly belittle us.  I prayed the Pharisee’s prayer often this week, so I confess my self-righteousness is also a problem. I also said the prayer of Mulan’s dragon: Dishonor on you; dishonest on your family; dishonor on your cow …

Now comes the Pharisee’s prayer. He begins: I thank you God that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers. Could these words be something like saying, “There but for the grace of God go I”? He had been saved from some of the terrible fixes we get ourselves into. So he thanks God. 

But mixed in with the thanksgiving was another kind of spirit. While praying he glances over at another figure praying and says, “or even like that tax collector over there.”  It’s the sin of the side-long glance. Out of the sides of our eyes we size someone up and make our judgment. Ever been distracted in prayer by not so generous thoughts about someone else? Maybe even someone in church? The side-long glance turns our hearts and minds from God to someone else, ruining the prayer. Do you ever roll your eyes over someone else’s words or actions? I confess I do that. One form of the sin of pride is the rolling of the eyes. 

Then the Pharisee continues his prayer, and what he says shows him to be an exemplary religious person, a spiritual superstar. “I fast twice a week,” way beyond the prescribed instruction. “I give tithes of all I get.” Jewish law commanded tithes of this or that, but not of everything. This man goes beyond what is expected. 

But there’s a problem about reciting your resume every time you pray in order to remind God how religious you are. What is this guy focused on? His credentials. When we enter church we leave our credentials at the door. All of them. They just get in the way. Imagine a credentials box placed at the entrance of the church? Just drop them in. Now you are ready to worship.  

Now to the tax-collector. You may know his story from years of Sunday School. He is a gouger, a cheat, a colluder with Rome, a traitor. People despised him. But here he is in the Temple, where he no longer belongs, where he knows he’ll get the stares of everyone around him. But at some point, his life had become a nightmare to himself. So he made his way there. 

Look at his posture: “Standing afar off.” Alone, trying to be invisible. He looked down. “He would not lift his eyes to the heavens.” He struck his breast, an age-old ritual of repentance. And he prayed, a mere six words in Greek: “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” (The Pharisee’s prayer was 29 words.) Six words, a scrap of a psalm he had learned long ago in worship, before he had lost his way. Six words, a heart totally open to God, seeking the mercy of God. What gets in the way of opening our own hearts like that? Our credentials, our pride? 

Sometimes our shame over things we’ve done or said, a heart in hiding from all the terrible things people have said to us about us, terrible things we tell ourselves. Messages we’ve internalized. A heart protected. What gets in the way of our saying to God: “I need help. I need you. I don’t like myself as I am.” Perhaps the well-honed self-sufficiency we’ve built over the years leads us to being afraid of our own need, our neediness. Obery Hendricks, an African American NT scholar says “Throughout his ministry, Jesus treated people’s needs as holy by healing their bodies, their souls, their psyche.” Our needs are holy to God. 

Now to the topsy-turvy part of the parable. Jesus ends the story with these words: “I tell you, this dude (the tax-collector) went down to his home justified rather than this other.” Rather than. Jesus just pulled the rug out from under a particular kind of piety. The word “justified” may trip us up. What the word means at its deepest level is “in right relation,” right relation with God. The Pharisee came into the temple wearing his piety like a general adorned with all his stars, bars, and medals. The tax-collector came in with his need only. This is where a right relation with God begins: to come with our need only, and the little bit of faith we can cobble together. 

I read years ago the true story of a young U.S. Marine returning home after a long tour of duty. His mother and the neighbors were so excited. They gathered around the front porch to welcome Juan home. But his name was no longer Juan, but now Josephina. He had transitioned into his womanhood while he was away. As the taxi door opened, Josephina stepped out and walked her way to the door. The gathered friends became awkwardly silent. What to do, or say? But when she walked into the house, her mother took her in, first with her eyes, then into her arms. And her first words were: “Are you hungry?” 

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton identified the secret to humility when he said, “Humility is being precisely the person you actually are in the presence of God,” which means that the secret of humility is not to focus on behaving in a certain way but to focus on the presence of God and yourself being in that presence always.  This is a cromulent humility.

That’s what God cares about most: “Are you hungry?” And that’s what God says, when we wake up on Sunday and put on our clothes and walk through the doors of this church. And that’s all God asks when we leave our chairs and come to this table of grace.