“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Luke 18:13
I was driving down the Turnpike on Friday morning, headed to meet with some colleagues near Princeton. That’s when I saw it. A giant billboard with this question in big, bold letters: “Are you preparing to meet Jesus?” The question was accompanied by a simple but stark visual: the readout from a heartrate monitor, showing the ups and downs of a beating heart followed by the flatline that indicates death. The message seemed to be something like “You’d better get your act together in some specifically holy way, or else you’re going to die without measuring up to Jesus’ standards.” The sign didn’t say exactly what would happen if Jesus found you wanting, but the suggestion was that it wouldn’t be pleasant.
Maybe it was because Reformation Sunday was on the horizon, but my immediate thought was, “Martin Luther would have some things to say about this message.” Let’s interrogate that billboard a bit. First, the billboard assumes that we have to die to have an encounter with Jesus – when, in fact, we encounter Jesus in all kinds of ways. We encounter Jesus in the waters of baptism, where he promises to be with us always. We encounter Jesus in the sacrament of Holy Communion, where he promises to show up every single time, closer to us than the bread stuck in our teeth or the wine dripping off our tongue. We encounter Jesus in every person we meet – every single person, formed into flesh and blood by God to be exactly who they are.
Having never died myself, I can’t say exactly what it will be like to meet Jesus after death. But I know this – we don’t have to wait until death to know that Jesus is with us. Jesus is always coming to us, reaching out to claim us again and again – even when we are doing our best to avoid him.
The second assumption of the billboard is that we have to do something to prepare for an encounter with Jesus. We have to measure up. We have to make sure that we have answered the right questions with the right answers. And if we don’t prepare adequately, then our very soul could be at stake. But the people who paid for this billboard have missed the message of Romans 3: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…”
That passage from Romans – and so many other places in scripture – tells us that, left to our own devices, none of us can measure up. All of us have sinned. All of us have fallen short in our own individual, sometimes creative ways.
And yet we are also released from that sin by the grace that only God can give. The book of Romans says we are “justified by God’s grace as a gift.” And we don’t have to prepare to receive a gift. We don’t have to earn it. That gift of grace means that we are defined neither by the worst things that we’ve done nor by the best things we’ve failed to do. We don’t have to worry about being measured on some sort of holiness scale and found wanting. Justification before God means we have a freedom that only Jesus can provide.[i]
When we obsess about whether we are measuring up to some sort of divine standard, we can easily become like the Pharisee in today’s gospel. This religious leader stands there in the public square and boasts of his spiritual accomplishments: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers…I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’”
The thing is, the Pharisee was probably telling the truth. He most likely did pray and fast and give away his money. But he seems motivated by the desire to look good more than the desire to do good. He acts as if those spiritual commitments are part of a competition that requires him to out-fast, out-pray, and out-give the people around him.
But it would be the ultimate irony if we were to hear today’s gospel, and say, “Thank God I am not like that self-righteous Pharisee, bragging about himself all the time.” We all have that Pharisee within us. We all have some person or group of people that makes us say, “God, I thank you that I am not like those people…” (I know who those people are for me. You know who those people are for you.) We play the comparison game because it makes us feel better about ourselves, forgetting that God’s grace sets us free from the toxic game of spiritual scorekeeping.
I don’t want you to leave today thinking that we don’t do good works. Of course we do. We pray. We worship. We give money and food and clothing and shelter to those in need. But we don’t do those things out of fear. We do them out of freedom.
The tax collector gets it. He knows how people see him. The tax collection system was “notoriously corrupt.”[ii] One scholar describes tax collectors at this time as “slimy opportunists and collaborators, willing to victimize their own neighbors while assisting the occupiers.” They “upheld Roman interests at the expense of the people of God.”[iii]
We don’t find the tax collector boasting. We hear him offering a simple, straightforward confession: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Jesus says that the tax collector went home justified – restored to a right relationship with God, freed from the sin he has named. The people listening to Jesus would have been surprised by that statement. They would have preferred to see the tax collector as beyond God’s forgiveness. To know that he, too, could receive God’s grace as a gift – well, that was quite a shock.
Today we remember the Reformation – our Lutheran origin story of over 500 years ago when a monk named Martin Luther wrestled with the expansiveness of God’s grace. Luther couldn’t stand to see the church pressuring people to pay for salvation when he knew that it was a divine gift freely given. So he wrote his 95 Theses in protest, and he set off a firestorm that continues to reverberate all these centuries later.
Our Confirmation class has been learning a bit about that history over the last couple of weeks. We read a handful of Luther’s 95 Theses and worked to understand what they mean. And then the confirmands tried writing some theses for our time – some declarations of what people really need to know about God in today’s world.
Here are a few of those theses for today. (You can read all of them on the doors to the sanctuary.)
Don’t compare yourself to others because God loves us for ourselves.
Money is not what makes God love you.
No matter what, God will always love us.
You can always be forgiven for your sins.
God loves everyone and does not hate anyone.
God’s love is everlasting.
God’s love comes free.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“And will not God grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will God delay long in helping them?” Luke 18:7
You’ve heard it said many times. Hindsight is 20/20. And of course that’s true. It’s often when we’re on the other side of an experience that we can see it with clarity and insight. But when we’re in the middle of a challenge, when we’re pursuing a good outcome, we don’t have the benefit of knowing how it will turn out. A diagnosis. A legal tangle. A conflict. When we are standing in the proverbial rising floodwaters, we can’t tell whether the waters will recede in time to save us or whether they will keep rising and pull us under. And that can be terrifying.
So consider the widow in today’s gospel. She keeps coming back, again and again, to seek justice against her opponent. Who is that opponent? We don’t know. What kind of justice is she seeking? We don’t know that either. What we do know is that she is persistent. She does not give up, even when faced with a judge who does not seem to care much about anyone’s best interests but his own.
Remember that as a widow, this woman is especially vulnerable in a culture that expected women to be attached to men in order to have financial security and social status. There’s a reason that the Torah names widows as a special category of people for whom the law required provision, along with orphans and foreigners and the poor.[i]
If the judge was familiar with the mandate to care for widows, he seems perfectly willing to ignore it. About the only thing he gets points for is self-awareness: “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,” he admits. His actions suggest that this is true.
And still the widow persists. She is so unrelenting that the judge is forced to admit defeat. He says, “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” He actually uses a kind of boxing metaphor here. In the Greek he says, “Because this widow causes trouble for me, I will give her justice, so that she may not, in the end, give me a black eye by her coming.”[ii] It’s unfortunate that the judge relents only because he is annoyed by the widow’s persistence and not because he is actually committed to justice, but the widow gets her justice all the same.
What I find most compelling is that the widow persists even though she has no way of knowing how her quest will turn out. The odds were very much against her, so it could not have been easy for her to keep the faith. Still, she does not give up.
We often don’t know how our own quests for justice will turn out. Whether it’s getting the care that a loved one needs or working hard for a particular cause that we believe in, or trying to find a peaceful resolution to a conflict, we find ourselves entirely unsure of what the end result will be. These are the things that stay on our minds during the daylight hours and keep us awake when we should be sleeping. It’s hard to remain faithful in the midst of that uncertainty. It’s hard to hold on to hope.
Then there are the excuses. I can come up with a million excuses for not pursuing justice. I’ll do it when things are less busy. There are just too many issues right now. I need to do more research. I need to wait until conditions are more favorable.
All of those excuses might be valid. But then I think about that widow, denied justice again and again. She doesn’t make excuses. She just keeps showing up, clear about what she wants and undaunted by a system that does not want to yield to her demands.
In recent months I have gotten intrigued by the story of Derek Black.[iii] I first encountered Derek’s story in Eli Saslow’s excellent book Rising Out of Hatred. Derek Black grew up in a prominent white nationalist family. KKK leader David Duke was his godfather. Derek and his father co-hosted a daily radio show that broadcast white nationalist and white supremacist ideologies. They organized conferences for their fellow white nationalists. They helped run a website devoted to white nationalist propaganda. Derek had even been responsible for designing the part of the website that targeted kids. Everyone assumed that Derek would take over as a leader of the movement.
Eventually Derek renounced those white nationalist beliefs publicly – in op-eds that ran in prominent newspapers and in interviews like the one I heard recently on the On Being podcast.
What most fascinates me is what happened to transform Derek from the heir apparent of a white nationalist empire to someone who admits that those hateful beliefs are damaging and wrong.
Derek’s change takes place while he is a student at New College in Florida. For a while he lives a divided life, continuing his white nationalist activities off campus but living under the radar as a smart and dedicated student on campus. When his identity as a white nationalist is revealed on campus, the backlash is intense. Many students want him expelled. Derek faces rejection, ridicule, and sometimes violence– which, you may be thinking, only seems fair given the pain and violence toward people of color that could be traced back to the movement he had helped to lead.
Enter Matthew Stephenson, an Orthodox Jewish student who knew Derek only in passing. After Derek’s exposure as a white nationalist, Matthew does something unexpected. He invites Derek to his Friday night Shabbat dinner. And Derek – somewhat hesitantly – accepts the invitation. Several other students who attend this weekly dinner are reluctant; a few of them stop coming to the dinner. Some of them later return to join the conversation.
Derek participates in those Shabbat dinners with a group of Jewish students, even though Jewish people had been among the targets of his white nationalism. The thing is – at these dinners they don’t talk about white nationalism. They talk about many other things, including religion. The conversations are long, sometimes serious and sometimes lighter. They continue over the next couple of years, week in and week out.
A friendship emerges. The relationship deepens. Things begin to shift.
There are others too, including a young woman named Allison, who also develops a deep friendship with Derek, even as she abhors his commitment to white nationalism. Together they explore the beautiful beaches and other sights near the college. They spend a lot of time talking – not just about his beliefs or her disagreement with them, but about music and literature and all those things that college students discuss late into the night.
But Allison does challenge his beliefs. She finds research studies to show him that his beliefs are wrong – and to make him see the harm that racism does to people, both individually and systemically. Allison is the one who eventually convinces him that it isn’t enough to change his mind. If he was willing to spread the hatred publicly, he needs to be willing to renounce it publicly.
I’ve thought a lot about Matthew and about Allison and the role they played in Derek’s repentance. The story has what we might call a happy ending, but they couldn’t know that it would turn out that way. When they were in the middle of building this relationship with Derek, when their friends and family members were telling them that they were crazy for doing so, they somehow had to trust that it was worth it. They kept showing up. They stayed in conversation with their friend, and they changed his life as a result.
What does persistence in matters of justice demand? It means laboring without knowing what the outcome will be. It means believing that people can indeed change, that redemption and repentance are more than fancy church words we dust off on Ash Wednesday. It means trusting that God, unlike the judge in our story, does respect people and does value justice. Not just values it, but longs for it. God desires justice for us and for the whole world. As Jesus reminds us, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will God delay long in helping them?”
Pursuing justice demands trust. Trust that God is the One who can bring about transformation. Trust that God hears our cries. Trust that the outcome may not be what we expect or unfold according to the timeline we want. Trust that God is with us in the uncertainty.
In the words of our psalm, in the pursuit of justice the Lord neither slumbers nor sleeps. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore. The Lord will keep your life. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[iii] I first learned about Derek’s story from the excellent book by Eli Saslow titled Rising Out of Hatred. I also encountered Krista Tippett’s interview with Derek and his friend Matthew on this recent episode of the On Being podcast: https://onbeing.org/programs/derek-black-and-matthew-stevenson-befriending-radical-disagreement/#transcript