Monday, October 24, 2016

"Keep On Trusting in God's Mercy" - Sermon, October 23, 2016

Community UMC, Quincy
“Keep on Trusting in God’s Mercy”
October 23, 2016
Pastor Andrew Davis
Luke 18: 9-14

       What a great joy it was last week to hear Susie preach a powerful message about prayer, faith, and patience as we celebrated laity Sunday last week.  As we pick up with our series, “Keep On,” we have talked about the need to obey - aka just do it - when it comes to what Jesus commands us to do.  We have talked about the need to keep on healing all who we encounter, even when it means crossing barriers.  We had the reminder from Susie last week to keep on praying while staying faithful and patient.  And now, we come to today’s text from Luke, “keep on trusting in God’s mercy,” which is an extension of prayer.  But whenever we pray and ask for God’s mercy, we also have this amazing opportunity to experience that mercy firsthand and share about that experience with others! 
Before we engage with our text, how many of you have been in a situation where you know you messed up big time, yet when it came time to face the music, it ended up not being as bad as you thought it would be -- in other words, you experienced mercy?  We’ve all been there at one time or another, whether it was in our workplace, our relationships, our community involvement, or even right here in the church.  Let's face  it, we have all messed up at one time or another.  Or there are other times we may have come into something, thinking that it’s going to be so great, only to have the train come off the tracks very quickly, in which we actually need to ask for a mercy.  
I recall almost seven years ago coming into work in my previous job one morning expecting it to be a really great day, maybe an easy day since it was a Sunday and Sundays tended to be a little more relaxed.  Or so I thought.  When thinking those uber-positive thoughts, which we should strive for each day, my own cockiness, and perhaps my righteousness caught up with me very quickly.  Instead of a great day that was easy and relaxed, things unraveled very quickly and I ended up having a really stressful day where it felt like Murphy’s Law was in full effect, anything that could go wrong did go wrong.  In some ways, it became like Judith Viorst’s book Alexander and the Awful, Terrible, Horrible, no good, Very Bad Day where the main character had that kind of a day, where nothing went right. Pretty much as the shift went on, nothing went right that day.  I had a long list of things to do, was being pulled in what felt like a thousand directions between customers, other departments, checking up front, then had an unexpected visit from one of the district managers - on Sunday of all days.  And to cap it off, I made a huge mistake towards the end of my shift, which messed things up on both the store’s end and the customer’s end, being costly to both. 
I was so glad to be off the next couple days, as I really needed it.  But, I really couldn’t relax and enjoy those days off because my stress and anxiety was at a very high level, and I knew things would not be good when I got back to work a couple days later.  Tossing and turning a lot at night and worrying for two days straight, I actually wondered if I was still going to have a job  since I tended to be prone at making a careless mistake here and there and seemed to be in that season of doing so at that time.  But, I decided I would do the right thing and take full responsibility for my mistake, pay the store back any losses out of my own pocket, and if it meant being terminated or suspended, would understand that they’re having to do what they have to do. 
However, to my surprise, instead of being chewed out and interrogated, or suspended or terminated when I started my shift after my days off, my department manager and the store’s manager ended up showing compassion and mercy, letting me off with just a stern verbal warning to pay more attention to what I’m doing.  Even the father of the customer who I made the mistake with was more than kind and forgiving towards me, showing me great mercy.  Plus, my young customer still allowed me to help him amidst that mistake.  Instead of being self-righteous and by humbly owning up to my mistake, by taking full responsibility, and by being willing to accept the consequences of my mistake, management was more compassionate than I expected from them.  And maybe it was an example of God’s mercy being shown through our store manager, as I know some managers would not have been as generous in showing such mercy.
That moment stands out as a valuable lesson along my faith journey, and perhaps some of you have had similar experiences along the way during your journey of faith or in the journey that led you to the Christian faith.  It’s in these experiences where we need to keep on trusting in God’s mercy, as God gives us mercy when we ask. God even gives us mercy when we don’t ask in the same way my managers did, even amidst careless mistakes that we make along the way.  So it’s no surprise that we deal with God’s mercy in today’s text from Luke, as we extend this theme of prayer and encounter a Pharisee and a tax collector both praying to God, but in different ways.  As we talked about in an earlier sermon, the Pharisees were religious leaders in Jesus’s time who loved God, but also LOVED the law and kept the law very strictly, avoiding those who they saw as impure.  See, “the Pharisees separated themselves from others to maintain their purity before God,” which is why we see the Pharisee and tax collector standing at different places when they pray.[i]  Meanwhile, tax collectors in Jesus’s time were not always held in high regard either, yet Jesus still reached out and even dined with them much to the Pharisees’ dismay (Lk. 5: 30).  For Jesus, he was crossing another boundary that met the Pharisees’ objection. 
As we observe the prayers of the Pharisee and tax collector in the text, we also see a contrast.  The Pharisee stands out by saying “I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector,” but then goes on to say “I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of all my income” (Lk. 18: 11-12, NRSV).  Like his love for the law, the Pharisee is still doing his duty to God, fasting and tithing, but makes himself look like he is without fault or sin, like he doesn't mess up while prefacing each petition with “I.”  Meanwhile, the tax collector prays to God, but humbles himself by beating his breast when he says “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk. 18: 13, NRSV).  It takes a great amount of humility to be able to tell God, “I am a sinner.” It’s very much like having to own up to our mistakes and shortcomings, as it takes a lot of humility to do so, no matter with who it is and even before God.  On the other hand, the Pharisee tries to justify himself in what he does FOR God, but not necessarily asking for mercy or confessing his sins, per se. 
Of course, when Jesus talks about the righteous, including the Pharisee in this morning’s passage, it’s like Jesus is holding a mirror up to the righteous. The Message’s translation says in verse 9, “some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance ... looked down their noses at the common people” (Lk. 18: 9, MSG).  Jesus explains to the disciples and for us as 21st century disciples why we need to be humble and why it is necessary to keep on trusting in God’s mercy, not being being righteous, but merciful.  He's showing us about compassion, not looking down our noses at others.  When it comes to the righteous that Jesus is pointing out, the author of “Luke takes great pains, however, to identify the true basis of righteousness and distinguish it from misplaced pride in obedience to God’s commandments.[ii] That’s one of the differences that distinguishes the way the Pharisee and tax collector pray before God, as the Pharisee tells God all about his own deeds, while the tax collector simply begs for God’s mercy, confessing that he is a sinner.  The Tax collector’s humble attitude is what Jesus points to when he tells the disciples and us in verse 14, “for those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk. 18: 14, NLT).  The Pharisee trusts himself and his own righteousness, while the tax collector seeks out God’s mercy, a very stark contrast in prayers, but also the difference about trusting in ourselves and trusting in God’s mercy.[iii] As New Testament scholar David Lose puts it,
there is no note of repentance in the tax collector’s speech, no pledge to leave his employment or render restitution to those he has cheated, no promises of a new and better life. Nothing, except the simple acknowledgment that he is utterly and entirely dependent on God’s mercy. The tax collector knows the one thing the Pharisee does not: his life is God’s -- his past, present, and future entirely dependent on God’s grace and mercy.[iv]

As followers of Christ, it is good to remember that our lives are also God’s and depend on God’s mercy.  It definitely takes a lot of humility to seek God’s mercy and like prayer, faith, and patience, trusting in God’s mercy when we come to depend on God is absolutely crucial.  I was once told before starting seminary to learn to trust God more than myself and trusting in God’s mercy requires that we trust in God more than ourselves, not mistaking righteousness for that misplaced pride. 
Just as I did in my previous career and in other instances in life, we’re all going to mess up at times and make careless mistakes.  It's part of our human nature. We’re even going to have those awful, horrible, terrible, no good, very bad days or weeks.  Yet no matter how badly we think we have messed up or bad we think things are, the good news is that God’s mercy is there and available for us when we come before God and like the tax collector, we too can say to God, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18, 13, NRSV).  As we think about what it means to keep on trusting in God’s mercy, how do we show it in the way we live our life each day?  Do we act like the Pharisee, feeling so right and so overconfident that we look down at others who don’t see life in the way we do?  Or do we live our lives like the tax collector, being willing to ask for mercy from God and trusting in God’s mercy?  Then as we experience God's mercy, are showing that same mercy to others who we encounter day to day?  Just like obeying Jesus’s commands, healing all who we encounter, being persistent, faithful, and patient, in prayer, we can have a small part of changing the world for the better when we keep on trusting in God’s mercy. 
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen. 

[i] The New Interpreters Commentary, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 341. 
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ministries, Discipleship. ‘Lectionary Calendar’. 2016. Accessed October 20, 2016.
[iv] Lose, David. ‘The Pharisee, the Tax Collector, and the Reformation by David Lose - Craft of Preaching’. October 21, 2013.

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