Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22
Psalm 84:1-6
2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
Luke 18:9-14

A reading from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

We are about a third of the way in to the book. The children have journeyed through the wardrobe and into the wondrous and dangerous land of Narnia. And the three of them (Peter, Susan, and Lucy – Edmund has just slipped away to join the White Witch) are speaking with a couple of their hosts: Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, two of the talking animals who populate this magical place. They are learning they will soon meet Aslan, the Christ character who sits at the centre of all of the Lewis’ seven Narnia books.

Their conversation goes like this:

“Is – is [Aslan] a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the great Emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there is anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe.

“But he’s good.”

One of C.S. Lewis’ great gifts was his ability to use captivating stories to express the big questions of Christianity, the big challenges of Christianity, the big promises of Christianity. And in this exchange between the three children and their animal hosts, he tackles one of the great questions:

Is God safe?

Across Christian history, a whole lot of people have tried pretty hard to make the answer to that question “yes.” Beginning way back in the early 4th Century when the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Empire (a strange fate, by the way, for a movement that began on the margins of society and whose central figure was executed by the state) and extending into the present day, there have been Christians doing everything that they can to make God into a figure whose primary job is to safely affirm and celebrate and bless the way that we already live our lives.

We see this safe understanding of God in the contemporary American phenomenon called the Prosperity Gospel: the theology that says that my wealth and my social status and my stuff are direct rewards from God for my fidelity to God, for the holiness of my behaviour. The Prosperity Gospel is so prevalent in America that it subtly infects our speech and our thinking even when we don’t directly subscribe to it. Every time, for instance, that we look at our finances or our possessions and we say, “I’ve been really blessed” – and by necessary and unspoken extension, that those who are living with poverty and a shopping cart filled with aluminium cans have not been really blessed – we are engaging in Prosperity Gospel theology. We are making God into someone who safely blesses worldly status. Much as in Constantine’s time, when God blessed Empire, God now blesses consumerism.

And we see this safe understanding of God as well every time that we mine scripture for passages or proof texts designed to back up our life strategies or biases or opinions. I get multiple emails a day from various advocacy groups that dress up pre-existing political talking points in the language of the Gospel. Now, I may very well be sympathetic to these political perspectives, I may very well want God to back them up. But I have learned that you and I need to be careful, that you and I need to get suspicious, anytime that we catch ourselves saying, “Isn’t it amazing how Jesus always agrees with me?”  Whenever we examine the great ocean of scripture in a self-oriented way, there is a danger that what we will end up in looking at nothing more than our own reflection. When we refuse to go deep, as my old boss Bill Ellis says, we turn Jesus into a Rorschach Test.

Today Jesus shares with us the second of a twin set of parables, the second, to borrow a turn of phrase from the visual art world, of a diptych, of two paintings that are designed to hang on the wall one beside the other. Last week we encountered the first of the set: the parable that we know as The Dishonest Judge. Today we encounter the second part. I’m not sure that this second painting has as clearly an agreed upon name as The Dishonest Judge. I’ve heard it called The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and maybe that’s a good enough name for us to work with.

The parables that make up the diptych have at least two significant common elements.

First, both The Dishonest Judge and The Pharisee and the Tax Collector are funny. In each of them, Jesus uses over-the-top humour to lampoon a certain way of being in the world. The judge and the Pharisee alike are wild caricatures of pompous and aggressively selfish men: the judge, when giving his ruling to the persistent widow, says to himself, “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone”; The Pharisee goes to church in order to pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”

Second, both of these parables can be read in a way that makes God safe. When I hear Jesus’ stories, I often imagine them taking place in a contemporary setting and featuring contemporary people; on the stage of my mind, I am the director for Jesus’ plays. And if you live, say, in Portland in 2016 and, say, there is a Federal election going on, and you need to a contemporary figure to cast in the part of a pompous and aggressively selfish man…

The temptation to imagine judge or the Pharisee as Donald Trump is almost overwhelming.

My prayers are the best, everyone says so. Not like those other peoples’ prayers. Sad.

And doing that a lot of fun. But it is also a choice to make this story safe, to make God safe, to make God into someone who backs up what I already believe. Isn’t it amazing how Jesus always agrees with me?

Let’s see if we can encounter these pair of stories again, but this time let’s see if we can listen to them with the assumptions of someone living in the Ancient Near East. And let’s notice that, in both of these stories, the character who turns out to be pompous and sanctimonious and selfish is also the character who, according to the conventional rules of society, we ought to respect and to admire. A judge, then and now, is a person doing important and honourable work. We tend to hold judges to a higher standard than the rest of the population, there are rules, for instance, that say that judges must make every effort to appear neutral on political questions. And a Pharisee – a religious official – had a similar status in the Ancient Near East. These two men, by rights, ought to be the heroes of their respective tale. By contrast, a widow is someone on the margins. And a tax collector. A tax collector is a beneath contempt. A tax collector is a fraud and a thief. A tax collector is a collaborator with the occupying forces.

Maybe, if we want to hear these stories with the ears of Jesus’ original audience, we need to risk revising our casting. What if the Pharisee is an Episcopalian? What if the tax collector – well, what category could we draw on in order to feel the kind of visceral, immediate contempt that Jesus’ audience likely felt for tax collectors? – what if the tax collector is a terrorist, what if he is a young pharmaceutical executive jacking up the price of an HIV drug by 3000%, what if he is a pedophile?

The Episcopalian goes to church and says – maybe reasonably enough – “God, I thank you that I am not like those other people. I thank you that I am living a life of goodness and faith.” And the terrorist or the pharmaceutical executive of the pedophile says, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I tell you, Jesus says, this man – the second one, the terrorist or the pharmaceutical executive of the pedophile – went home justified.

Is God safe?

Now, before I go any further, I want to be clear that I am in no way suggesting that God is championing some kind of moral relativism, some lazy ethical standard in which everyone has their opinion and all opinions are equally valid, in which going to church every Sunday is no better and no worse than deliberately exploiting other people. I don’t mean that at all, I don’t believe that Jesus’ parables mean that at all.

What I am suggesting is that when Jesus tells us stories about judges and religious officials – when he tells stories about people like us (most of us gathered in this room have way more in common with judges and Pharisees than we do with poor widows or tax collectors) people who, by any reasonable standard, should be the heroes of his tale – and then he tells us how these respectable people’s disdain or contempt for others alienates them their neighbours and from the Kingdom of God, he is telling us through comedy what he will later tell us through suffering at the end of his earthly life.

Jesus is telling us that God absolutely refuses to exclude, that God absolutely refuses to make anyone into scapegoats. As Jesus hangs dying, he forgives the thief who hangs beside him. Staggeringly, he even forgives those who murder him. No one, Jesus tells us through these pair of stories; no one, Jesus tells us through his dying, is beyond God’s forgiveness. Or, to put that thought another way, when anyone says to God, “God be merciful on me, a sinner,” God always says yes.

Over the last century, our country has done important work. It continues to do important work. The end of state-sponsored segregation in the South was a triumph for justice. The achievement of marriage equality was a triumph for justice. And, in this ugly election season, I believe that there is good news hiding: as a nation, we are slowly awakening to how much racism and how misogyny much remains in our country. I hope and I believe that this awakening will lead us to work for a new triumph for justice.

As we continue to work for justice, Jesus reminds that God’s justice means holding no one, no one in contempt. We are simply substituting one injustice for another, one act of exclusion for another, if we stop holding people of colour in contempt and start holding Donald Trump and his supporters in contempt. We have just traded one outsider for another.

Jesus says: no more exclusion. As much as ostracism may strike us as fair or just, as much as we may want Jesus to back us up when we lock people out, Jesus won’t do it. Jesus won’t back us up any more than Jesus will back other people up when they lock us out. As unwelcome or hard or unfair as it may strike us, Jesus says that, in the Kingdom, there will be no outcasts.

Is God safe?

No.

But God is good.