God Crosses Our Lines

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 23rd Sunday after Pentecost + October 23, 2016

Readings: Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22; Psalm 84:1-7; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

I’ve mentioned The Church of Another Chance many times before in sermons here: it is the church my friend Pastor Scott leads in the Davidson County jail system. When I attend worship there, the part of the service that moves me the most and stays with me for weeks and even months afterward is the time of prayer. The group shares the things we are thankful for; we share our current struggles or the struggles of people we love; when the people are ready to be really vulnerable with one another, we sometimes hear stories of childhood trauma. Often men cry while those around them say, “It’s okay, take your time.”

This prayer time may even become a time of public confession. One day an older man stood up; he looked around the room, making eye contact with many of the young men in matching orange jumpsuits before speaking. “I used to be you,” he said. “I got locked up for the first time when I was 19. I’m 64 now; I been in and out of places like this my whole life. I just keep doing the same dumb things. I get out, and I swear, Things are gonna be different this time. And I try, but then my friends are like, ‘Hey just come have one drink with us,’ and then that turns into other stuff, and then I’m dealing again…and then I’m right back here. Again.”

I prayed silently in my head: Lord, thank you that I am on the path I’m on. Thank you that I didn’t get caught up in that kind of world.

The man continued “So I just want to say to you young guys: don’t be stupid like I was. Don’t do what I did. Get your head right, change your thinking, change your behavior. Stay outta here. You got your whole life ahead of you. And I just want to say, pray for me; it’s hard to change.”

So which of us — me, the pastor; or him, the inmate — went away from that worship service justified by God?

It’s easy for us to miss the shock of Jesus’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, easy for us to miss the wide reach of its meanings. We’re quick to think we’ve got the message: Proud, hypocritical Pharisee = bad; humble, repentant tax collector = good. Don’t be a proud hypocrite. Admit you’re a sinner. Got it.

 But if we could hear this parable with first-century Jewish ears, it wouldn’t be so easy to stomach. With our 21st-century Christian ears we are used to hearing stories where Pharisees are the hypocrites in need of Jesus’s correction, and we are used to hearing about how Jesus hung out with tax collectors. We even carry the tradition that one of our scriptures (the Gospel of Matthew) was written by a former tax-collector. We’re comfortable with those characters.

But Jesus’s original audience would have carried the opposite assumptions. They may have heard nothing wrong with the Pharisee’s prayer of thanks that he walked the righteous path. After all, the Pharisees were righteous members of the community, religious leaders, and they were probably admired by most Jews. Why shouldn’t the Pharisee give thanks for the life-path he was on, glancing over to the tax collector and whispering, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”?[1]

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were far more despised than IRS agents. They collected taxes, but they did not go to an Israeli government. A tax collector’s job was to “take money from the local population and funnel it [into the treasuries] of the invading empire.”[2] They were betrayers of their own people; they were selfish survivors with no backbone and no sense of duty to the community.

In their daily lives Jesus’s listeners probably would have seen the Pharisee and the tax collector as representing the two opposite ends of the religious-ethical spectrum: the Pharisee represented righteous people who held tightly to the laws and traditions of their ancestors, given to them by God; the tax collector represented the people who become puppets of the pagan foreign rulers. But in this parable Jesus made the tax collector the role model. Jesus ripped apart the way his listeners saw the world; he ripped apart their ideas of where God stood in relation to their world.

What would Jesus rip apart today?

Often times we stand in a place similar to that of Jesus’s first listeners. We draw lines to help us make sense of this big, crazy world. And as we do so, we draw lines to categorize people: these are the ones we should try to be like; these are the ones whose behavior we should criticize. These are the ones who should teach us; these are the ones we should mistrust. Then we tell stories to prove why those lines exists, and we retell them enough that they feel natural and undeniable. And then when we meet someone from the other side of one of those lines, we think we already know their story. We might whisper, like the Pharisee, “Thank God I am not like that tax collector over there,” and, like the people listening to Jesus, everyone around us might nod in agreement, “Yes, thank God.” Because, of course, that tax collector is on the other side of the line.

Churches are often places where these lines and stories are affirmed and even sanctified as if they were given to us by God. For example consider the ways many U.S. churches have reinforced the lines between white and black Americans throughout our history. In the 1800s Christians quoted the Bible to prove that slavery was part of the divine plan. They preached from texts like the cursing of Noah’s son, Ham, and his descendants (Gen. 9:20-27), saying that these descendants were the people with dark skin, and their God-given curse was slavery. During the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, Christians again turned to this Bible story, and they paired it with the story of the Tower of Babel and the dividing of peoples there (Gen. 11:1-9), saying that these stories proved that segregation was instituted by God.[3]

These are fairly strong, dramatic examples, that might feel distant to many of us, but I’m sure you can think of other ways that you have experienced churches upholding the lines we draw in society. And because God is perfect, we assume that God must be a little more present on the “good” side of our lines; we think that if we are looking for God, we ought to look mostly at the people who are closest to perfect.

The problem is that — according to this parable — God seems to ignore all our lines. Actually, God transgresses the common way of seeing the world throughout the Gospel of Luke, and throughout the Bible’s stories. God doesn’t often take side with the perfect and exalted people. God shows up most clearly among the suffering, the outcast, the weak, and even the despised. God chose the tiny little nation of Israel; God chose the youngest, smallest son to become King David; God sent prophets on behalf of the poor; God’s Son was conceived in the womb of a young, poor, unmarried woman; Jesus made a name for himself by healing the sick, eating with the most despised of sinners, and standing up on behalf of the needy. The New Testament itself was written by and for a group of people who suffered often, facing hardships, ridicule, and even persecution as members of this new religious sect.

So maybe, if we are looking for God among the “most perfect,” the most exalted people and places, we are missing most of what God is doing and saying today. Maybe we need to be listening to the experiences of the suffering, the outcast, the weak, and the despised — for their benefit, yes, but also for our own as people of the God who ignores our lines and sees only people in need of grace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides one powerful example of the transformation that can occur when we hear the gospel with the help of those who suffer. Many of you are familiar with the story of Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who stood up to the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 40s. He was eventually arrested and then killed at the Flossenburg concentration camp just two weeks before U.S. soldiers liberated the camp.

In his earlier days Bonhoeffer was not nearly so radical. At the age of 24, already holding a doctorate in theology but too young to be ordained as a pastor, Bonhoeffer came to New York to continue his studies. While there he actively attended Abyssinian Baptist Church, an African-American congregation in Harlem. Forming relationships with African-Americans, Bonhoeffer came to understand the suffering caused by racism from the point of view of those who experienced it. And Bonhoeffer came to understand the gospel from the point of view of that suffering. He grew familiar with the writings of the Black theology and the Harlem Renaissance, writings like those of Countee Cullen, a poet who connected Christ on the cross with the all-too familiar image of the black man on the lynching tree, writing:

How Calvary in Palestine,

Extending down to me and mine,

Was but the first leaf in a line

Of trees on which a Man should swing

World without end, in suffering

For all men’s healing, let me sing.[4]

From the African-American preacher at Abyssinian Baptist Bonhoeffer heard the message that the gospel loses its meaning if it is “disconnected from a suffering world.”[5] The gospel offered essential spiritual comfort, yes, and it also demanded that Christians work to relieve physical, economic, and political suffering.

African-American churchgoers, preachers, and writers had a tremendous impact not only on Bonhoeffer’s own religious views, but also on his later fight against the Nazis. Perhaps when Bonhoeffer saw the Nazi party targeting the Jews, Roma, African-Germans, people with disabilities, and others, he heard echoes of the suffering already familiar to him from his time among African-Americans. We know that he had a clear sense of what the gospel demanded of him in response to their suffering.

We, too, may hear the gospel in new and powerful ways when we are willing to step over our lines, to lay down the stories we tell about other people, and to listen without assuming we know better, or we know where God stands. We need to listen with humility, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

[1] Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew, (New York: HarperOne, 2006 ), 40. Referencing Timothy A. Friedrichsen, “The Temple, A Pharisee, a Tax Collector, and the Kingdom of God: Rereading a Jesus Parable (Luke 18:10-14a),” Journal of Biblical Literature 124.1 (2005): 89-119 (94).

[2] Levine, 38.

[3] Lucinda Borkett-Jones, “Why white US Christians are repenting for the Chruch’s role in racism,” Christianity Today, 26 June 2015, referencing Stephen Haynes. Available online http://www.christiantoday.com/article/why.white.us.christians.are.repenting.for.the.churchs.role.in.racism/57175.htm. Accessed 22 October 2016.

[4] Countee Cullen, “The Black Christ,” The Black Christ and Other Poems, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1929), 69. Available online http://library.missouri.edu/news/special-collections/the-black-christ-by-countee-cullen-with-illustrations-by-charles-cullen Accessed 22 October 2016.

[5] Alan Bean, “The African-American roots of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity,” Baptist News, 30 October 2015. Available online https://baptistnews.com/article/the-african-american-roots-of-bonhoeffers-christianity/#.WAj7rJMrKt8 Accessed 22 October 2016.


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