Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost + October 24, 2010
+ Grounded in and by God +
A very religious long-time member of Faith Lutheran Church did their usual scan of who was in the sanctuary one Sunday morning. They weren’t taking attendance per se, but did note who was or wasn’t in church, and of course noticed who came in late. It was one of those people who snuck in late that irritated them the most. “Visitor” they muttered to themselves… at least they weren’t dragging noisy kids with them.
But this visitor looked familiar, and not from worshipping at Faith before. This visitor had been in the news… Channel 3, an I-Team investigation story, and their picture had been all over the pages of The Courant. The tax evasion allegations were numerous, but what was most memorable was that this arrogant person worked for the IRS (and probably enjoyed auditing regular folks who had done nothing wrong). The member wondered what THAT person was doing here!?
The prelude was beautiful… but the member couldn’t help but be distracted and look back with an ice cold stare at the last pew, where THAT person was sitting. The congregation stood for the Order of Confession and the member proudly raised their head and in a loud voice said, “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” They glanced around to be sure others saw and heard their loud confession, and then upped the volume to almost booming… “We have sinned against you in thought word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone…”
In the midst of the confession with all aware of their seriousness, the member thought, “Thank God pastor was using the more familiar version of the confession,” and just to be sure THAT “Visitor” was as contrite as they were, the member turned to see if THAT low-life IRS agent was participating, “after all, it’s people like THAT one who SHOULD be confessing before God.” The member continued their booming confession…
Meanwhile the visitor to Faith that morning, who was indeed the IRS agent in the news, is standing in the last pew. The visitor doesn’t feel worthy to even raise their head, or even be in this worship space because of the weight of what they have done. The visitor is thinking they are a real scum-bag and is beating themselves up, shamefully barely speaking:
“God I’m such a looser, I really messed up. I deserve whatever punishment comes my way but I just want you to know how sorry I am. I want to ask you to help the people that I’ve hurt… and if there’s anyway for me to ever make it up to them, I want you to know that I would do anything… anything. Please God… go easy on me.”
German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave his life in trying to stop the Nazi death machine. He raised the first and virtually only voice for church resistance to Hitler’s persecution of Jews. Bonhoeffer said that the church should not just bandage or care for the victims under the wheel of the Nazi Regime, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself. He was executed for his participation in the German Resistance Movement and a conspiracy to kill Hitler.
He was a contrast of saintly pastor, standing-up to oppression, and sinful resister plotting a premeditated murder. But, Bonhoeffer’s saint and sinner self awareness and authenticity is captured powerfully in his poem “Who Am I?”
Who am I?
They often tell me I would step from my cell’s confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I?
They often tell me I would talk to my warden freely and friendly and clearly, as though it were mine to command.
Who am I?
They also tell me I would bear the days of misfortune equably, smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of, or am I only what I know of myself, restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness, trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation, tossing in expectation of great events, powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another? Am I both at once?
A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I?
They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
Who are we, really… the one others see, the one we and God alone see…? This question haunted Bonhoeffer, it haunts many, if I am truly honest with myself, it haunts me. It is through parables, the sharp stories of Jesus that often gives us the opportunity to see our true selves… both arrogantly self reliant holier than thou, and agonizingly self humiliated sinful screw-up. We are of course both Pharisee and Tax Collector, and more often than not both, at the same time.
Our old self, like Bonhoeffer and the Pharisee can be self-righteous… trying to control our world, forgetting whose world and more importantly, whose we are.
But thankfully we have a new self, like Bonhoeffer and the Tax Collector… humbled, forgiven, and justified reminded whose world and whose we are. Thankfully God grounds us and wants us to be grounded in the Word of God, heard, splashed on our heads, and shed and broken for us to eat.
Did you know that the word for humble comes from the root humus, no not the garbanzo bean and tahini staple of the Middle East that we eat with pita bread… humus which literally means of the earth. The God who created us in God’s own image and out of dust, the earth, to which we will also return, grounds us…
- God grounds us like a parent when we misbehave.
- God grounds us, washing us in water that bubbles up, flows through and upon the ground.
- God grounds us, feeding us bread and wine, fruit of the field and of the vineyard.
There are times when you and I need to be humbled, brought down to earth, reconnected to the humus from which we come. We begin worship each week reminding ourselves of God’s grounding in our lives, embracing our earthiness in humility, confessing to our selves, and to God “Who Am I?”
+ + +
Back here at Faith Lutheran, even when we give ice cold stares, wonder why THAT person is here, or take prideful comfort in the fact that we have never done the things THAT person has done, or thank God that we’ve never even thought of doing the things THAT person has done… Even when we might find ourselves thanking God that we were raised by good Christian parents, in a good loving home, and that we know (unlike many these days) the difference between right and wrong… God welcomes our old sinful selves and our new grounded selves unconditionally!
Author Kathleen Norris writes about a Benedictine friend of hers, a gentle, thoughtful man who has been in constant physical pain for years and is now confined to a wheelchair. He says of prayer, “Often, all I can do is to ask God, ‘Lord, what is it you want of me? ” Norris says it is through him that she has learned that prayer is not asking for what you think you want but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine.
The Tax Collector asked to be changed in ways that were unimaginable. We don’t know from the parable what the Tax Collector thought of the Pharisee asking for what he wanted through loud prayer nearby. Of course God already knows who you and I are…
- God doesn’t need us to loudly ask for our needs to be met.
- God wants us to be authentically who we are, to say it, to admit it, and to share and confess it.
- God wants us to be grounded, seeing ourselves as we really are and as God already sees, knows and loves us!