God is in the Buisness


Once there was a pastor who lived near a Title-Max title pawn and passed that title pawn every day.  And everyday, as the pastor would go by, he would think what a scourge it was on the city and what a blight it was to the people who had to see it.  He thought about what kind of vampires must have come up with the idea for giving people a loan for their car title, explicitly overlooking bad credit, no credit, and bankruptcies; and directly marketing to people who have no hope of getting a loan anywhere else.


If these title-pawn services were looking to help people in need, people really at rock bottom and desperate for a helping hand in an uncertain hour, they would probably at least, in the interest of transparency, be forthcoming about their interest rate.


When you go to their website and livechat with a representative named Charlene, however, they absolutely refuse to disclose the interest rate associated with a loan.  It is nowhere on the website and when you ask explicitly they will only give you the address for their nearest office and, promptly, Charlene terminates your livechat session.  Which tells you everything you need to know about the interest rate.


So these two men come to church on Sunday: the pastor and the Title-Max branch manager.


The pastor comes to pray:  “Thank you God for helping me live the life you have called me to.  Thank you for saving me from pursuits that would ruin my life and hurt other people.  I thank you that I’m able to tithe and give of my resources.  I’m thankful to have a robust prayer life.  I’m thankful to be able to serve in the community.  Thank you that I am not like this title-pawn manager.”


But the title-pawn manager comes to pray and stands far off beating his chest.  He can’t even look up, but hangs his head saying, “God!  Be merciful to me, a sinner!”


And Jesus says: “the Title-Max Manager went home justified and in the right relationship with God rather than the pastor, because all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”




And Jesus, as they say, drops the mic.


If Jesus were to tell his story set in our own time this is how it might go.


Originally, he told his story to some people who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt.


There is no doubt about it then.  As they were hearing the story, they would’ve identified right away with the Pharisee (or the pastor in our retelling).


Pharisees were upstanding people and the one in the story doesn’t seem to be saying anything in his prayer that is untrue:  Because of his religious devotion he would’ve fasted, tithed, and lived a life focused on God.


How shocking then that the Pharisee is not lifted up as the example of how life ought to be lived.


And this newer telling of the story might get at how vilified and hated the alternative character in the story would have been back in the day.


First century tax collectors gouged the poor to enrich themselves.  The tax collector would pay the Roman Empire a set amount for the privilege of gathering whatever he could squeeze from the people in his neighborhood.  And while he would’ve been personally responsible for the money his district owed, he would be free to collect as much MORE money as he liked and anything above what he owed to Caesar would be personal profit.


These tax collectors were especially despised because they employed people to do their dirty work for them so they didn’t even have to look at the people from whom they were collecting money face to face.


So as surprising as it is that the Pharisee is not lifted up, it’s even more surprising that the tax collector is lifted up as the example.


Jesus’ surprising story is one of REVERSAL.


The Title Max manager goes home in right relationship with God and the pastor goes home empty handed.


God reverses what we might expect:


The exalted will be humbled and the humble will be exalted.


I wonder if we could rewind this story to the place right before we hear the ending and right before we hear what happens to each of the characters, if we would find ourselves identifying with one of the men more than the other.


We may see ourselves as religious insiders who feel very at home in worship, in a Bible study, praying, and talking about our faith…or we may see ourselves as uncomfortable with this whole church thing, only here because of family pressure, or a sense of obligation.


We may see ourselves as people who have been too proud…or people who have known that our past is littered with disappointments and mistakes.


We may see ourselves as ones who kept ourselves separate from “certain kinds of people” with whom we wished not to associate… or we may see ourselves as people who have separated ourselves from others by breaking relationships and hurting others.


We might identify with one of these men over the other, but the truth is we are both of these men.


We have been both, and we are both.


Dr. Martin Luther diagnosed the truth of our human condition with the Latin phrase: Simul Justus at Peccator.  That is, we are simultaneously saints and sinners.


Simul justus et peccator means that a Christian is at the same time both righteous, justified by God’s grace, and a sinner, in need of God’s forgiveness.


Not only one or the other, but both at the same time.


The doctrine of simul justus et peccator  is not an excuse to say ‘Well, I’m a sinner so I might as well go out into the world and do what I want,’ or to continue in sinful acts without putting up a fight, but instead, it helps us understand that our inner struggle to remain faithful to God is real.  And that God’s grace and kindness to us are just as real.


Relying on the goodness of our behavior or despairing because of the brokenness of our behavior…both of these are wrong!


Relying on Christ – this is right!  This is our hope!  And this is God’s gift!


So in the end, we are invited to see this story Jesus tells, much more than being about the pastor or about the title loan manager…as being about God.


Through Jesus we see: God is in the business of reversing fortunes.  God is in the business of hearing us when we cry out to him in despair.  God is in the business of forgiving sinners.


God loves and forgives judgmental pastors, and Charlene and people who have hurt the vulnerable, and God forgives you and me, because of Jesus Christ and for his sake.


God loves us and forgives us.  But to really experience it, and taste it, and let it animate our life we have to learn to love and forgive others.


As Jesus says earlier in the Gospel of Luke, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  Do not judge, and you will not be judged.  Do not condemn and you will not be condemned.  Forgive and you will be forgiven.”


How good that our Lord walks with us and promises to help us.


If time and money were no object I’d say let’s all meet later this afternoon at Richmond International Airport and fly to Tel Aviv, catch a bus to Jerusalem, and then hire a cab to take us through the border checkpoint to the old town of Bethlehem.


We would go to Manger Square out in front of the Church of the Nativity, which was commissioned in 327 and is built over top of the cave in which tradition says Christ was born.


Standing out in Manger Square you see the huge church made of imposing rock that covers the landscape.  But the only entry door, while it’s is wide enough for several people to pass, is only as high as you waist.


It is called the “Door of Humility” and to enter, no matter who you are or your life circumstance, you must kneel.  You must humble yourself.  It requires you to physically, intimately genuflect in realization of whose birthplace you are visiting, and it also calls to mind His own humility.


Our Lord, who is One with God the Father Almighty, stooped to walk this way with us in kindness.


And e still comes to us in the most surprising of places: in water poured, in bread broken, in the handshake of peace.


He still comes to he most surprising people….sinners and saints, like me and you.







Living, Busy, Active


Yesterday the park nearest our house was full of children running, climbing, sliding, shouting, fighting, singing, and swinging with the level of energy that can only be built up over the course of entire week of quiet indoor activities done while waited for the sun to come out.


When the clouds opened up, the children descended upon Crump Park. They were outside!! And their parents and grandparents were trying their best to keep up.


In the midst of the fray, there was a father and daughter at the tallest slide.


High up above him this three years old girl with a furrowed brow and a very unsure look in her eyes.


It was pretty clear, part of her wanted to slide down the slide, but she was still trying to make up her mind. You could tell she was physically big enough and strong enough, but maybe she hadn’t done it before, or maybe this slide was bigger than others she had gone down.


Whatever the reason, her dad stood at the bottom of the slide and you could tell he wanted so badly for her to come down the slide.


He knew she could do it.


But she was unsure.


The little girl said, “Daddy, I can’t do it.”


The dad said, “You can do it. I am right here. I’ll be right here at the bottom. I can even hold your hand while you slide. “


And you could see her thinking about it, weighing her options, trying to decide if her dad really knew what he was talking about.


And just like that little girl at the top of the slide, the disciples need a little encouragement.


Unsure of what to do, standing at the top of the slide, they are weighing their options and wondering if they can do what Jesus is asking of them. Can they trust him completely?


Because he is asking them to leave everything behind:


“Whoever does not hate their father and mother, spouse and children, brother and sister, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”


“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”


And now Jesus says this they must even leave their pride behind; leave “being right” behind.


He says: “If someone sins you must rebuke them, and if there is repentance you must forgive them. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent,” you must forgive.”


Like the little girl at the top of the slide who is unconvinced, they say, “We can’t do it!”


But Jesus, like a proud and enthusiastic dad, stands with them, willing to hold their hand, knowing that while they doubt their own ability, they can do it.


Jesus, like a dad trying to coax and encourage his child says, “If you just have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can do it. You could even say to a mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey.”


Jesus says, “If you’ll just let go, and trust me completely, it will change the entire landscape of your life and I’ll use you to change the entire landscape of history!”


Perhaps we have all been there at the top of the slide wondering if we can trust Jesus.


Maybe we let Jesus have control over parts of our life but we don’t want to, or we can’t seem to, let him into every part of our life.


Do we keep Jesus at arms-length at school, at work, when it comes to thinking about our future; in our finances?


Perhaps for many reasons, we wonder: Can we trust Jesus, completely, with our whole life?


We all struggle with our faith and when we struggle with our faith, sometimes we must rely on others.


Paul, writing to Timothy says, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your Mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”


Timothy’s grandmother and mother brought him up in the faith and their faith stood in for his when he needed it.


This week I visited a woman who has dementia and is grieving the loss of her memories. Her daughter called to let us know she is getting worse.


As we visited, the mother said, in tears, “I am ready to leave this world, but I am so worried about my children and grandchildren. I just want them to be alright.”


The daughter said, “Mom. We will be okay. God will take care of us and we will take care of each other because you taught us to take care of each other.


We prayed together and celebrated Holy Communion.


And when we came to pray the Lord’s Prayer, this woman with dementia prayed every word with us.

The mother was having a difficult time in her faith, wondering if God would provide for her family, and the daughter believed for her.


The daughter shared her faith with the mother who had first shared faith with her.


When we cry out to God, “Increase my faith!” and when we struggle with our faith, this is the very best place to be.


Here in this place, this congregation will sing and pray for you when you don’t have a voice with which to sing and pray…and I will hope you will sing and pray for me when I do not have a voice with which to sing and pray.


We all cry out for more faith, and perhaps as a congregation we have at times cried out for more faith.


There is nothing wrong with asking God to increase our faith!


In fact, there are two wonderful things about it:


When we ask God to “INCREASE OUR FAITH!” we acknowledge two critical things:


One is that faith is a dynamic thing. It is like a seed in the ground, like a child playing at the park, like a friendship, faith isn’t just a head-trip or a feeling in one’s heart but faith must become action or its nothing.


Jesus says it’s like a slave serving dinner to a master. It’s an active thing, and the slave does it because the master deserves it.


But Jesus didn’t say faith is like thinking about food, or thinking about serving food to someone, or talking about serving food to someone, but faith is like serving someone dinner….it is active.


Faith is like a father making dinner for his family, faith is like a mother taking her children to volunteer in a food pantry, faith is like a grandmother fixing her grandchild a snack.


Faith is like going to work and building up ones’ co-workers, faith is like serving on the PTA, faith is like voting.


Faith is like preparing the altar on Sunday mornings, faith is like teaching Sunday school, faith is like praying for the people on our prayer list.


Faith is, as Martin Luther said, a living, busy, active, mighty thing.


And the other critical thing about faith is where faith comes from.


Faith is from God. We do not muster or conjure or invent faith on our own, but it is given to us.


Jesus Christ is the mercy of God for us. A perfectly free gift.


And, in the end, our faith doesn’t save us, Jesus Christ saves us.


The truth is: we don’t stand on our faith, we stand on the faith of Jesus.


Whether or not you believe in Jesus, Jesus believes in you. Jesus believes you are worth living for and worth dying for. Jesus believes you can love others. Jesus believes you can forgive. Jesus believes you can serve in his name.


Like a dad with a love-swollen heart, Jesus looks at you, and believes in you.


At the park yesterday, the little 3 year old girl laughed with delight when her father caught her at the bottom of the slide.


For her it was a surprise.


For her dad, the outcome was never in doubt.


He knew she could do it.


And she was able to go down the slide because her father was there.


Her father knew it would be okay, and her father believed for her.


Thanks be to God, Jesus has caught us in his arms of love.