“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
[The first story was shared only with those who were at the Service].
I wanted to watch the game because I love the underdogs. Washington started the season off terribly. They almost fired their manager Dave Martinez it was so bad. They were 19 and 31 in mid-May. They climbed back. Won the Wild Card. Won the Pennant. And I hope they win the World Series. I love the underdogs.
One of those small, independent films has come out about Dr. Jim Allison. The closest it ever got to Hatfield was this past week in Cambridge. To see it now I’d have to travel out to the West Coast. Jim Allison was and is an iconoclast. In his rural Texas high school science class, his teacher didn’t believe in Evolution and wouldn’t teach it. Allison objected and was constantly being punished. But he stood alone.
He made it into college. Got his PhD. Worked in a cancer lab. But again, he bucked the accepted thinking and studied how to treat cancer unconventionally. He was ridiculed and sidelined by many in his field, but he persisted. Last year he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine. In the movie, they interview the woman who was almost dead because of her cancer and is now cancer free. When Dr. Allison talks about her, his eyes tear up. When she talks about him, the same. I love underdogs.
Today’s Gospel is special. Can’t go into now, but we could in Bible study. Keep that in mind. Today’s passage is the finale of ten chapters worth of specifically Lucan material in the Gospel. These are stories that Luke adds because for him they are too important not to tell. They help us better understand who Jesus is and who Jesus expects us to be. And it’s a story about underdogs.
“Tax collectors and prostitutes.” “Tax collectors and sinners.” “Tax collectors and Gentiles.” “Even tax collectors came to be baptized.” These phrases from the Bible may sound familiar to you. It’s a recurring theme in the Gospels. Tax collectors are a meme. As soon as they’re mentioned, everyone listening to Jesus had an image and a story in their head, and it wasn’t flattering. Tax collectors were despised, and they were outcasts.
Tax collectors stood anonymously as a group. Who they were as people didn’t matter. It’s like “All immigrants are bad.” “All Democrats are bad.” “All whatever … are bad.” And one of these despised-ones sneaks into the Temple. He stays toward the back. He never raises his head. He needs to be there, but he knows he’s not welcome. He’s hoping no one recognizes him.
He’s even afraid to talk to God. And all of the baggage that others had thrown upon him as a tax collector weighed him down. Whether he was or was not, he has been forced to see himself as a sinner. He has come to believe what all the others have said about him. “All tax collectors are bad.”
The Pharisee in the Temple, however, is in his element, and he knows it. He struts around confident and proud of all that he does, and he makes sure that God and others now all about it. But he’s not satisfied with all that he does. He feels that he must drag others down to make himself seem even higher.
In a prayer said loud enough for everyone to hear, with eyes unashamedly looking directly at God, and with a sideways glance at the tax collector to make sure he hears too, the Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector.”
And the weight on the tax collector’s shoulders bent him over even further to the ground.
The Pharisee regarded this other person with contempt. He ignored him as a person. And in doing this, the Pharisee, for all of his praying, and fasting, and giving, showed himself to be unrighteous – in the story that Jesus tells. His words were meaningless to God because his actions were so much convincing.
And this parable is how Luke closes his special ten-chapter addition to what we know about the life of Jesus. Now Luke can return to telling the received story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to Jerusalem where it will be Jesus who is the outcast in the Temple.
Did you hear the outcast prayer of Esmerelda that we shared with the children? She prays in her equivalent of the Temple and asks Jesus, “Were you once an outcast too?” Were you the underdog? From Luke 2,000 years ago to Walt Disney today that image of Jesus as the outcast, the underdog, who is the advocate for the outcast and the underdog, was and always will be compelling. Jesus is God made humble so that even the most humble can feel close to God. I love underdogs.
Think about the passage Michael read for us. Paul is in prison. He may die there. He is a perfect example of the outcast. And yet when he should have felt defeated, when everything is pointing to failure, Paul remains strong. Not because he was strong enough on his own, but because Jesus was an outcast just like him, and he writes, “But the Lord, [the Lord Jesus, He] stood by me and gave me strength.”
As people of faith, we hear in today’s readings the warning against thinking ourselves too important, that we matter more to God than others. Faith is a blessing not a boast. Esmeralda sings, “I thought we were all children of God. God help the outcasts when no one else will.”
And He does. This is when we hear the amazing and powerful message that the outcast, the underdog Jesus, stands with us and gives us His strength. He knows what it is to be on empty. He understands what it’s like to be overwhelmed. He gets it when others would try to define us rather than to know us. And this is why faith is a blessing not a boast. I love the underdogs. And I love that our God was willing to be one so that we could always count on Him by our side, and always count on His strength.
I close with a prayer that I often encounter in the UCC and it comes from the prophet Micah: “What does God require of us but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?" Amen.
Faith, love and chitchat.
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