First United Methodist Church
October 23, 2022
Rev. Lauren Hall
The Heart of the Matter: Relationships are Matters of the Heart
Several years ago, B. J. Thomas produced a song called “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” It was a play on Country Western Songs, which really do bring up some of the worst things that can happen to a person. You may have heard the joke that if you play a country song backwards you get back your truck, your dog, your job, and your wife or husband. In their defense, though, the artists are very talented, and many of their songs focus on everyday truths that plague the majority of the population. Perhaps these lyrics are popular in our culture because they acknowledge our difficulties with relationships, but they also speak from the cynical or negative aspects of our culture.
When Paul wrote his letter to Timothy, he was probably expecting to be arrested at any moment – which indeed happened, and he was thereafter martyred. He could have avoided coming to that point, but it would have meant not being faithful to Christ and his work.
But he has no complaints. He looks back over his life with first, acceptance. He says plainly, "The time of my departure has come." He does not protest, beg, or express anger at the injustice of it all. Instead, he saw dying simply as the doorway to a better world. He was satisfied that the summation of his life was not its length, but his faithfulness.
Paul encouraged the church to think on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy (see Philippians 4:8). But our cynical culture makes it hard to focus on these things. Sometimes, even the church struggles to shift focus from the cynical and negative. That’s why we began our stewardship journey last week by taking our pulse. Just as ministry flows from the heart, our relationships are matters of the heart also.
Paul went on to say, "I have finished the race." He probably had a foot race in mind, but whether you consider the Indy 500, or the Kentucky Derby, or a marathon, if we compare life to a racecourse, we tend to think only of length. In God's eyes, finishing is determined by how the race has been run, not by who finishes first.
I’ve mentioned a few times that I like to run. I used to run races to win them – but as I got older and out of shape my race strategy changed. It changed from wanting to finish first, to not wanting to finish behind any 8 year olds, to finally finding someone who was struggling and encouraging them to finish their race – and then letting them finish ahead of me. I enjoy races more now, even when I’m standing on the sidelines.
With that in mind, consider this:
Essena, who is a native of Australia, had more than 200,000 followers on YouTube and a half million on Instagram by the time she was eighteen. By social media standards, that means she was successful. And then she quit. She vacated the social media space that had made her a star, explaining why in a final Instagram post.
I’ll return to Essena in a little bit. But first I want us to examine our parable from Luke, because it gives us a spiritual perspective to apply to our understanding of relationships.
In a very straightforward interpretation, one might say that the Pharisee is pretty confident in himself. He has devoted his life to his faith and to his synagogue. His prayer seems haughty, even arrogant, and more than a bit self-righteous. We immediately and intuitively know that this should not be our prayer.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is also in the Temple praying, but he stands at a distance from the Pharisee, away from the center where people normally gather. His prayer is quite different. He asks for mercy and acknowledges that he is a sinner. This is the one, Jesus says, who returned to his home justified.
And there you have it, the moral of the story: don’t be proud or arrogant like the Pharisee, but instead humble like the tax collector. Nothing is really hidden within this parable.
Except, perhaps, the secret to finding that crown of righteousness that Paul talks about in Timothy.
To be righteous, according to the Bible, is to live your life in accord with the law of Israel. The better you are at keeping the law, the more righteous you are. Now, we don’t use the word “righteous” that much anymore, but we could easily translate it as “successful.” If you are good at investment banking, you are righteous according to the standards of Wall Street. If you’re popular at school, we might say you are socially righteous. In the Pharisee’s case, he is successful at keeping the law of Israel. So this Pharisee is righteous – he has been very successful at living his faith. But he is not, as Jesus says, justified.
The tax-collector, on the other hand, is pretty much the opposite. He is a failure at keeping the law. He has nothing to boast about. No one looks at him as a success and no one would call him righteous. Far from it, most of his neighbors – off of whom he makes his living – probably despise him. And he knows this, and so he stands at the edge of the Temple – or, if he were here today, he would sit at the very back of the church – and won’t even lift his eyes toward heaven but simply asks for mercy. This is the one, Jesus says, who is justified.
Why? Because while righteousness is about what we accomplish, about our success, to be justified is to be called or counted righteous no matter what we have done simply because God says so.
In this parable the Pharisee leads a blameless life and for this reason is righteous. The tax collector does not lead a blameless life but asks God for mercy, asks God to look at him and judge him not based on what he has done but instead to look at him and judge him based on who God is – compassionate, loving, and merciful.
And this is what makes this parable so important. Because even when we get that we shouldn’t be self-righteous like the Pharisee, but instead be humble like the tax collector – in our humbleness we strive for righteousness; thus creating a situation in which we act just like the Pharisee!
Righteousness, whether achieved through humbleness or success, is never enough. Why? Because it’s based on our abilities and accomplishments. And here’s the thing: we will all eventually fall short. We can’t escape this.
Which brings me back to Essena. 200,000 followers on YouTube, and a half million followers on Instagram. She was, in every possible way, successful, even righteous, across multiple social media platforms. And yet as she described, it was not enough, precisely because it was based on comparisons. “Without realizing [it],” she wrote on a final Instagram post, “I’ve spent the majority of my teenage life being addicted to social media, social approval, social status, and my physical appearance.” “Social media,” she continued, “especially how I use it, isn’t real. It’s contrived images and edited clips… ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated self-absorbed judgment.”
Success, or righteousness, Essena discovered, precisely because it’s based solely on what we can achieve, and has its roots in comparing ourselves to others, is never enough. It’s not enough because no matter how successful or prosperous or righteous we are, we always hope for more.
Which means the secret to receiving that crown – and maybe to being a person – is not to strive to be righteous or humble, not successful or a failure, not rich or poor, not any of the things we can put on a scale and measure and compare, but instead to simply receive God’s acceptance, love, and mercy, and to place our hope in these things.
In the Christian faith, one of the ways we express our love for God is though our love for one another. This is a clear expectation of our faith.
This week’s theme encourages us to think about who you love in the church and why. Paul had a positive influence on the church because he encouraged the leaders he sent out, and he supported them as they journeyed in their faith. This style of leadership has continued throughout the centuries, and many of us can remember a person in our own journey who has had a positive influence in our faith or in our lives.
Every sanctuary and chapel in which we have worshiped, every church organ that has lifted our spirits, every pew where we have sat, every Communion rail where we have knelt, every hymnal from which we have sung, every anthem that has touched our hearts, every church classroom where we have gathered with our friends, every church kitchen that has prepared our meals, every church van that has taken us to camp, every church camp cabin where we have slept—all are the fruit of someone’s hope that their faith would have meaning in the future.
We have been the recipients of grace upon grace. We are the heirs, the beneficiaries of those who came before us who were touched by the generosity of Christ enough to give graciously so that we could experience the truth of Christ for ourselves. We owe the same to generations to come. (Schnase, pp. 41–42)
This week we celebrate people you love in the church. Consider an appropriate way to express your appreciation of these gifts of grace. Find a way this week to say I love you to your family members as well. Next week, we will explore what we would most like to see happen in our church in the coming year. What is your greatest hope and best vision for God to work through this congregation?
Let us pray:
Loving God, for the awesome wonders of creation, the abundant feast of family and friends, the plentiful riches of your presence among us, we give thanks. We remember the mothers and fathers in the faith who took bold steps in new directions to re-form your church. Pour out your spirit on upon us, that we might also dream dreams, see visions, and be equipped to carry out the courageous vision that you have placed before us. Give us the strength and courage to be faithful in our love for you and in our love for others. Amen.