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Crossing The Bridge + Luke 18: 9-14

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 25], October 22/23, 2016
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA – The Rev. Roy Almquist

Most good stories have a plot with a conflict. The narratives we most enjoy have a hero and a villain … a good guy and a bad guy … Harry Potter and Voldemort.

“Two men went up to the Temple to pray.” So begins our Gospel lesson today, Luke’s compelling story of two divergent personalities ~ a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. In his day the Pharisee would have been seen as a good guy … an upright person … a popular leader who tried to encourage people to live their faith every day. The tax collector would have been considered a bad guy … commonly condemned as a collaborator who collected taxes from the Hebrew people in support of the Roman authority. These tax collectors were the ultimate outsiders … often former slaves and immigrants.

To make these two characters a little more contemporary for us, I would suggest that Luke’s account depicts the one man as an arrogant, self-satisfied narcissist … the other one as a sorrowful, self-effacing scoundrel, who acknowledged his moral deficiency and simply begged for God’s forgiveness.

Our Gospel lesson speaks to what I believe is a central reality of the Christian faith … God’s unconditional acceptance of us all. It is not a story of what people should do to gain salvation or how people should live. Rather it is a story of how God reaches out to us precisely when we feel the most lost, when we are in pain and feel unworthy. The story also reminds us that in those moments when we feel the most satisfied in our personal accomplishments, we just may be very far from God.

This past week I spent two days at the annual Bishop’s Convocation of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Lutheran Church in this territory, an area that covers the same five counties as the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. Participating in this event is one of the few things I do to maintain a connection with the local Lutheran Church where, as you know, I served as the Bishop for twelve years.

The theme of this fall’s Convocation was … Crossing Bridges: Interfaith Relationships in a Pluralistic World. A major presenter was an eminent Lutheran theologian with expertise in interfaith dialogue, but the other significant participants were two leaders from the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia:
 Rabbi David Straus is the spiritual leader of the Main Line Reformed Temple in Wynnewood and a leading figure in the ecumenical movement in this region. Rabbi Straus is an old friend with whom I have traveled to the Holy Land and with whom I laid the original groundwork for the Interfaith Center that is now a reality. The other presenter was …
 Imam Anwar Muhaimin, a Philadelphia native who studied Qu’ran in Saudi Arabia and is presently the President and Executive Director of the Quba Institute for Islamic Studies and a leader of the Muslim community in our region.

Obviously it was a great challenge for these men … particularly our Muslim presenter … to come into a gathering of one hundred Christian clergy, predominantly white, meeting at a conference center in the heart of Berks County. Centuries of division, suspicions, and stereotypes have created a gulf of estrangement among our three faith traditions, faiths that all came out of the same desert and call Abraham our common father. Obviously, one conference does not change everything, but it was a significant undertaking toward the goal of Crossing Bridges.

We took some baby steps, but they were steps in the right direction. Reflecting on our Gospel lesson, while attending this Convocation, I could not help but think that, like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel lesson, we who make up the Christian majority in this nation are often arrogantly estranged from people of other faiths, often denigrating them and feeling superior to them.
 Many Christians, sadly, think of Judaism as an “incomplete” religion that could be made whole if Jews would simply accept Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah. Christians often talk about mission enthusiastically, but for Jews that seems like a plan to convert them. We also have a 2,000 year tradition of estrangement that culminated in the Holocaust in Europe in the 1930′s and 40′s.
 Although clearly repudiated by most intelligent, sensitive Christians, antisemitism continues to be alive and well in our nation, regularly rearing its ugly head through hateful comments, disgraceful jokes, and the vandalism of synagogues.
 Obviously this is a difficult time for Muslims in our nation. We could easily cite the harsh rhetoric of a major Presidential candidate, but anti-Islamic sentiment goes much deeper.
 Horrific terrorist attacks and the fear they generate have encouraged vast antagonism toward any and all expressions of Islam in America. Many people cannot … or will not … make a distinction between merciless Jihadist terrorists, bent on creating chaos, fear, and suffering with the use of Islam as a shield, and ordinary Muslim people, who love God, cherish this Nation, and simply want to live their lives with peace and security.

If we are not careful, we can become the Pharisee in our Gospel lesson, looking down our noses at those who do not worship as we do … who do not share our core beliefs. We can also foster a similarly negative attitude toward people who have no time for structured Christianity and see no value in religious faith.

Like the Pharisee, we can easily become self-congratulatory in our behavior. One way or another, we love chanting, we’re number One! … whether we are or are not. Devoid of self-criticism, we can readily consider ourselves to be always on the right side of history. Suddenly we become that haughty fellow in the Temple … who was confident in his “rightness” and dismissive of the one whom he believed did not measure up.

When this parable is properly proclaimed, we may find ourselves in one of these two men … either, looking upward toward God in hope of God’s blessing … or arrogantly looking down our noses at someone we consider well beneath us.

None of us are drawn instinctively to that fellow we call the Pharisee … the self-righteous one who looked down his nose at the man he deemed beneath him. At the same time we have no reason to value the Tax Collector in this story. But we should be drawn to the tax collector’s awareness that he was a flawed sinner in need of God’s mercy and blessing. That is one thing we must never outgrow.

Jesus once said: Those who are well have no need of a physician. Those who know they are sick know that they need a doctor [Luke 5: 31]. Let us never forget that we are always in need of healing … we must always work to deepen our tolerance and appreciation for those around us … particularly those of different background and traditions.

Finally, let us never forget that when this parable is properly proclaimed and understood, we will find ourselves with nothing to claim but our dependence on God’s mercy and God’s promise.
Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.      AMEN.