Preached Sunday, October 24, 2010 at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB
Propers 30, Year C, Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14
`God, be merciful to me, a sinner.“ Luke 18:13
“Good to go” is a military phrase with several layers of meaning. When a soldier is “good to go”, it can mean that the soldier is prepared with all the gear and kit necessary to do a specific task. More frequently, “good to go” means that a soldier is ready for whatever challenges may come her way. Being “good to go” to Afghanistan, for example, means that a soldier has the gear, the training, a care plan for loved one and dependents, and most importantly, the courage and the resolution to meet the expectations of their comrades and of their chain of command. It’s not a phrase that soldiers take lightly. I remember the moment just before my unit left on a winter exercise when the company commander passed me and asked “good to go, Padre?”. He wasn’t just asking me if I had remembered to pack my toque and mittens. Really he was asking me, “Are you sure you’re up for this? Have you got what it takes to be part of the team rather than a burden? Can we count on you?” After that experience I learned that being “good to go” is a source of pride for a soldier. Pride in the military is highly encouraged, if you have what it takes and if you can do your job. Pride makes good soldiers.
Pride however doesn`t make for good Christians. If we translate the phrase “good to go” into Christian terms, we could say means “righteousness”, or being right with God. Take today’s gospel lesson from Luke 18. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable is telling God that he is spiritually “good to go”. Because he is a Pharisee, meaning a person who is very intentional about following the rules and requirements of the Torah so that he can be considered a faithful, orthodox Jew. In other words and in Christian terms, he is a regular churchgoer (rather than a Christmas and Easter visitor), never misses a service, leaves a good sum in the collection plate, and does more than his share of church and committee work. He’s the type who assumes that he is “good to go” to heaven because he takes his faith so seriously that God is bound to love him.
The Tax Collector in Jesus parable doesn’t believe that he’s “good to go” to heaven. In fact, he doesn’t think he’s good enough even to look up at heaven. Jesus probably put a Tax Collector into his story because there could be few worse people to faithful Jews of Jesus’ day. This person was theological pond scum because he was a collaborator, collecting revenue for the pagan Romans who who oppressed God’s chosen people of Israel. In Christian terms, he is the sort of person who has done something that causes him great spiritual guilt and distress, so that he might go into a church door but he won’t go anywhere near the altar (Jesus says that the TC was “standing far off” 8:13).
Now the parable is obvious enough that we all get the point fairly quickly. Luke even tells us Jesus’ point before it begins: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (8:9). If we have some experience of churches, we probably have encountered at least one congregation where the membership bar was set so high (a 10% tithe enforced by disclosure of member’s tax returns, high expectations for attendance, some sort of righteous remnant theology) that a certain spiritual pride set in. These kind of churches can be attractive if you want to be sure that you’re “good to go” to heaven. But if you’re like the Tax Collector, troubled by some sin or sense of unworthiness, a “good to go to heaven” church isn’t likely to be attractive or even welcoming. The pastor Mike Erre, in his book The Jesus of Suburbia, tells this story of such a person. “A man recently approached me with an all-too-familiar story. He believed in Jesus but as a young man had wandered away for many years. He stood at the door of our church and asked if God was OK with his coming back. I was dumbfounded. God is more than OK with it! I pointed him to Luke 15 and the story of the Prodigal Son, but I grieved that he even felt he had to ask me.” (71-72).
Stories like this one raise a question, which we could put as a variant of our good to go phrase , which is, do I have to be “good to go” to church? Like Mike Erre, I’ve met people who have believe that they had to be good in order to earn God’s love. Sometimes these people say things like “Padre, you won’t see me on Sunday, because I’d burst into flame if I ever went inside your church”. Often this kind of remark is just an excuse, a cute way of saying that the person can’t be bothered , but if anyone said this to me seriously, I’d point them to the Tax Collector in today’s parable and say “Do you see him in flames?” No, he`s not on fire because there important truths that the Tax Collector understands. One is the reality of his own imperfection. I daresay that all of us in this room have some awareness of where we fall short in God’s eyes. Second, the Tax Collector understands the character of God, which is why he asks God to be “merciful”. In his simple prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”, there is the hope that God’s character of love and mercy has the power to close with and destroy whatever there is in our character that keeps us from being the wonderful creation that God intended us to be. In theological terms, we call this reconciliation, the closing of the distance, the reconciling that brings us back to God and overcomes whatever we have done that has offended against God`s law. So, do we have to be good to go to God? No, we don’t. But, we do have to go to God to be good, because reconciliation only comes from God.
In today’s parable, we don’t hear how the story ends. We don’t know how the Tax Collector’s prayer is answered, or how he is changed. The point of the parable is that God will hear a prayer which comes from the honesty of self-knowledge and the trust that God in his love will not abandon or condemn those who turn to him. We know and believe as Christians that God’s son died on the cross for sinners, for all of us. Nowhere in scripture does is say that Christ died for a small spiritual elite who were made perfect by their own efforts. But scripture is pretty clear that Christ died for sinners, for people like the Tax Collector and you and me. The challenge of Christ for those who believe in him is to resist the temptation to declare ourselves a spiritual elite, the saved. If we can resist that temptation, then we can see our fellow men and women to be people like us, sinners who need God’s love and mercy as much as we do. Once we start seeing the world this way, then we escape the trap of the Pharisee, who is alone in his little spiritual corner, congratulating himself that he deserved God’s love but others didn’t make the grade.
Let me finish with an attempt to show how today’s gospel might apply to a recent event and a spiritual trap that might lie within it. If you are a Canadian, you will know that Russell Williams, a former Canadian Forces Colonel and Base Commander, was sentenced last week to life imprisonment for two murders and numerous other convictions involving crimes against women. If you are a Canadian Forces member, you may have read Friday’s message from the Chief of Defence Staff, saying how we are all “shocked and repulsed“ by this man`s “heinous crimes`. As soldiers, we looked to commanders like Williams to embody and affirm our values. When such men said that we were good to go, we took pride in their approval because we felt that they were good. The CDS calls on us to repudiate Williams but to keep our faith in the system. Fair enough. As a soldier, I believe in the values of the CF and I accept the CDS`s statement that Williams has `lost the privilege of calling himself a member of the CF community“. As Christians, however, we need to recognize an important truth about God`s love, which is that if Russell Williams, in his prison cell, should one day sincerely echo the prayer of the Tax Collector, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner`, then we cannot tell God how to answer it. If we were to say that some people, like Williams, are beyond the love and mercy of God, then we fall into the false piety of the Pharisee in the parable, who presumed to judge others on God`s behalf. What will transpire between God and Russell Williams is a mystery that you and I will only learn on the day of judgement As for ourselves, we can take comfort in knowing, like the Tax Collector, that we do not have to be good to go to Go, for only God can make us good to go.