Draw Close to Grace

By Annette Brownlee

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see
Such is the promise to this morning’s gospel

Was blind but now I see. We are born with one pair of eyes through which we see ourselves, our neighbor, and God. And through God’s grace, over time, we are given a new pair, a new pair through we see ourselves, our neighbor, and God. Such is the promise of today’s gospel.

Whenever there is a story in the gospel with only two people, it’s a good chance Jesus is creating a comparison. Last week he told a story about an unjust judge and a persistent widow. This morning he tells a story of what is going on in the temple in Jerusalem during morning prayers.

There are two men. It’s a comparison. Of what? Well, they are standing in the temple. That is, taking their place in God’s house among God’s people. The Psalmist tells us this morning that everyone — all of God’s creation — is given a place in God’s house:

My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.

Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God. (Ps. 84:2-3).

So the Gospel is a comparison of how we find a place to stand in God’s house and world.

The first man, a Pharisee, is wonderful. He is honest, he prays, he is generous with his money; he is faithful in his marriage. He works hard and most likely has time for other people. I am not being facetious — he’s a good guy — like so many of you. I’d like my classes at Wycliffe to be filled with students like this. I’d like a dozen such people to walk through our doors, sign our visitor’s book and stay for coffee hour. And so would you.

The second man is not as attractive. He collects taxes from his fellow Jews for the Roman Empire, which is an occupying force, and skimming off the top (as was common).

So one man is a wonderful human being and the other shady. And yet — and this is hard to swallow — Jesus tells us that the second man — the tax collector — goes home from the temple justified in God’s eyes, which is probably unacceptable, if we think about it.

Why could Jesus possibly say this and expect us to come back next week? Because of the promise of the gospel: I once was lost and now am found, was blind, but now I see.

The first man, wonderful as he, is blind to himself, to his neighbor and to God. He lists all the ways he is a good person, all the ways he has kept God’s commandments, written in the law. What does he ask God for? Nothing. Nothing. He does not praise God. He does not repent. He does not prayer for himself. He does not pray for others. Why? Because he is blind.

First, he is blind to who God is. God is the giver of all good gifts: our limbs and minds, our families and the air we breathe.

Second, he is blind to himself. All his accomplishments could be gone in a day, in one walk across the street from the temple; in one brain aneurism. Our accomplishments do not last, they are a false lens through which to view ourselves.

Third, he is blind to his neighbor. He sees the other man, the tax collector, also standing in the temple. And what does he do? He begins his only prayer of thanksgiving to God by again speaking about himself: Thank you, God, that I am not like that other man. He does not pray for the man. He does not pray for his relationship to the man.

He has pushed the other man down, so he can stand higher. Such is his desire to see himself in the wonderful light of all the good things he has done.

So back to the comparison. How has this first man found his place to stand in God’s temple? By distancing himself from others, from his own human frailty, from God’s goodness and grace.

The biblical term for this first man’s actions is self-justification. That’s when our place in the world, or our place among the people of God, rests on what we do and accomplish instead of God’s grace that is self-justification. And self-justification and judging others go hand in hand.

I thank God that I am not like — and you fill in the blank. We say it in our hearts and look for ways to make it known publicly. I thank God that I am not like so and so, because I work harder, I show up on time. I am organized. I make life easier for other people. I’m a team player. You make your own list. That is mine.

The second man, the shady tax collector, doesn’t even try to justify himself. There is no list of accomplishments. No list of reasons to justify what he does: I know I collect taxes for the Romans, which is lousy, but I need a job. I have a new baby at home and can’t quit. No one would hire me anyway because they hate that I am a tax collector. So, God, what am I to do? There is no attempt to justify his shady life. He simply prays, God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

And Jesus tells us this man went home justified. Now, we’d like to hear that he repented, that he changed his life. We’re not told that. But still he went home justified because that is what God does. Only in his grace can we come close to him. Only through God’s love, God’s mercy — that is, God’s actions — can we come close to him. And this man knew that — he knew he was a sinner — and he prayed to the God of such mercy and grace. That is, he knew who God is. God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

How can we tell if we see ourselves, God, and neighbor through the new sight God gives us in his grace? How can we tell if we are seeing God, neighbor, and ourselves through or our old sight? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor, wrote this to his students who were trying to be faithful Christians in the middle of Nazi Germany, which was teaching them to hate their neighbor:

It is the struggle of the natural person for self-justification. He finds it only in comparing himself with others, in condemning and judging others. Self-justification and judging others go tougher, as justification by grace and serving others go together. (Life Together, 91)

Self-justification and judging others go tougher, as justification by grace and serving others go together.

Jesus tells us this about how we find our place among God’s people. Not by judging others, pushing them down so we seem taller. Not by distancing ourselves — I thank God I am not like — but by service. By drawing close.

So what does this service look like, This drawing close as Christ draws close to us?

Kathy Fletcher and David Simpson have a son named Santi, who attends Washington, D.C., public schools. Santi had a friend who sometimes went to school hungry. So Santi invited him to occasionally eat and sleep at his house.

That friend had a friend and that friend had a friend, and now when you go to dinner at Kathy and David’s house on Thursday night there might be 15 to 20 teenagers crammed around the table, and later there will be groups of them sleeping in the basement or in the few small bedrooms upstairs.

The kids who show up at Kathy and David’s have endured the ordeals of modern poverty: homelessness, hunger, abuse, sexual assault. Almost all have seen death firsthand — of a sibling, friend, or parent.

It’s anomalous for them to have a bed at home. One 21-year-old woman came to dinner last week and said this was the first time she’d been around a family table since she was 11.

And yet by some miracle, hostile soil has produced charismatic flowers. Thursday dinner is the big social occasion of the week. Kids come from around the city. Spicy chicken and black rice are served. Cellphones are banned (“Be in the now,” Kathy says).

Around the dinner table each week, the kids talk, help with the dishes, and say please and thank you. They celebrate birthdays and help with college applications. The kids around the table are encouraged to bring their gifts to the table. One read a poem he wrote; another talked about his love of repairing engines.

The gifts the kids receive are immeasurable — food, a dinner table, friendship, material and practical support. But maybe the most precious, lasting gift is the one we hear about in today’s gospel. True sight: to see themselves, their neighbor, and maybe a glimpse of God through the eyes of his grace:

This is what one of the young people said about this family. “They give us a gift — complete intolerance of social distance. When I first met Ed, I held out my hand to shake his. He looked at it and said, “We hug here,” and we’ve been hugging and hanging off each other since. (David Brooks, “The Power of the Dinner Table,” The New York Times, Oct. 19, 2016)

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see

The Rev. Annette Brownlee is chaplain, professor of pastoral theology, and director of field education at Wycliffe College, Toronto.

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