Saturday, October 27, 2007

STANDING IN THE NEED OF PRAYER

Luke 18:9-14

"The bigger they are, the harder they fall!" That could be the mantra of this season’s college football teams. Every time a team reaches number 1 or number 2 it loses. LSU, USC, South Florida, Cal. It’s like no one wants to be in the BCS Championship game. After USC got beat by lowly Stanford, it looked like Cal was in the driver’s seat to win the Pac10, especially after they squeaked out a win over my Oregon Ducks. Then LSU lost to Kentucky of all teams and Cal looked up and began to celebrate – only they went on to lose that same day to Oregon State. Even though #2 Boston College held on and won this week, it still has been a topsy turvy fall. And you know what? We like it that way. Unless it’s our team on top, we like to see the big guy lose. For some reason we don’t like the person or the business or the country or the team that’s arrogant, self-important, or snobbish.

As Jesus tells the story, two guys went up to the temple to pray. One guy was very righteous and the other was a sinner. Even though the first guy is an upstanding citizen and very religious there’s something about him we don’t like. He just seems too stuck on himself and too self-righteous as well. He does tithe and maybe serves on the board, but still, we just don’t like him.
The only word you can use to describe the second guy is that he’s a scoundrel. Tax Collectors, as we know, aren’t the best liked people in any town, and the tax collectors back then were really despised. They tended to be fairly well off, but they were like loans sharks. Not the kind of guy you want to normally hang around with, and probably not the kind of person you’d elect as moderator of the church board.
Jesus says that one of these guys goes away forgiven and the other doesn’t. Who do you think it is? Well, it appears it’s the shady character who stands off to the side, with his head down, almost afraid to talk. Both pray to God, but only the second guy prays for forgiveness. He prays: "Oh, Lord, forgive me. I don’t belong here. I’m a sinner. Please forgive me." Now we’re thinking – that’s a good prayer for that kind of guy, and yet he not the first guy goes home forgiven. He goes home forgiven because he’s the one who understands that he’s in need of prayer.

1. Recognizing ourselves in the parable

When you read this parable, with whom do you identify? I know, it’s a trick question. You’re supposed to say – the tax collector – but you really wish you could say it was the pharisee. But I think we’re all probably more like the Pharisee than we’d care to think. If you’re a good church person, give your offerings, pray, and do good things, well that’s pretty much what a pharisee was back then – a very religious person, who could, on occasion, be very snobbish.

But you’re right, you’re supposed to identify with the tax collector. You’re supposed to see yourself standing in the need of prayer. And yet it’s hard for us to think that way. When the world looks at the church, more often than not it sees self-righteous and unbecoming people. If I put on the shoes of the self-righteous religious person, do they fit? I expect, that at least on occasion, they do.

2. Standing in the Need of Prayer
For a moment, though, let’s try on the shoes of the other guy. Let’s recognize that we’re the ones standing in the need of prayer. And so we sing as we did earlier:

It’s me, It’s me, O Lord,
Standing in the need of prayer.
It’s me, it’s
me, O Lord.
Standing in the need of prayer.

We’re always being told to be self-reliant, to depend on ourselves. And we often take pride in our independence. Sometimes even when we need help, we won’t ask for it, because to ask for help is to admit we can’t do it ourselves. But Jesus tells this parable, Luke says, to those who "trust in themselves." Instead, Jesus says: When you pray, recognize that you come in need of God’s grace.

The flip side of being proud of our self-sufficiency is contempt shown to those who aren’t like us. This religious leader thought highly of himself and his ability to live righteously, He had it all down, and when someone didn’t meet with his standards – he looked down on them.

But the tax collector was under no such illusion. He knew quite well that he was an outcast. In fact, he probably took the job of being a tax collector because he was already an outcast before he had the job. Why else take the job? Oh, it might pay well, but there was a significant social downside.

If the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, which we looked at last week, encourages us to be persistent in our prayers, this parable reminds us that we must come to God humbly and without any pretense that we’re better than the others.

3. Broadening the Circle of Prayer

The Pharisee in this story had a fairly narrow focus to his prayers. The eyes of his heart were on himself. The tax collector also focused on himself, but that was understandable. He wasn’t self-righteous, he was self-conscious. Either way, it’s easy to get focused in on our own lives and concerns.

Last week, after church I was having a conversation about the sermon and about how we tend to pray – whether in church or in our personal lives. It’s great that we take the opportunity to pray for one another. But what about the world outside our own circle? How does that world – whether it’s people or nations or the environment – fit into our prayers?
For instance: Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies. What does that mean? I don’t think it means we should pray for their untimely death. I think it means that we should pray that the things that divide us will no longer divide us. If we pray for the ones we love, then perhaps if we pray for the ones we don’t love, we will come to love them.
We could add any number of items to our list – poverty, global warming, racism, injustice, hatred – what’s the focus of our prayers? If we stand in the need of prayers, surely the world itself is standing in need of prayer. So, as we pray today, let’s pray for the people affected by the fires, for the people suffering the effects of war – like the people living in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Burma, and Sudan – or for people dying of starvation in Somalia and Darfur. And we shouldn’t forget the sabers rattling from the White House to Turkey to Russia.
Yes, the circle of those standing in the need of prayer is quite wide. Jesus says that if we pray in humility – there will be no contempt in our hearts for the other person! Let’s pray.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
October 28, 2007

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