Have Mercy On Me, a Sinner

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What we think of ourselves says a lot about how we approach God and how we treat others. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus uses a story of two men at the Temple praying in order to teach us a thing or two along those lines.

One of the men is a Pharisee. He is devout and schooled in theology. He knows the Scriptures in and out. He has mastered the disciplines of his faith. He knows he is good.

His prayer is a picture of self-righteousness, “Thank God I’m not like everyone else.”

The other man is a tax collector. He is considered a traitor to his people and his faith. He gets rich working for the bad guys while lining his pockets with the neighborhood’s money. He is despised. He knows he is broken.

He prays from a place of humility and contriteness, “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Jesus explains it is this man, not the “good” one, who leaves the Temple right with God.

Now sometimes us church folk fall into the category of Pharisee. We start thinking we are better or more holy than others because we do the right things or avoid the wrong ones or at least don’t do them as much as other people. The problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is not that it isn’t true, but that it is built on what he has done and dripping with pride.

This mindset is graceless. Here being right with God is about behavior modification. Here we forget we need God just as much today as we did at our lowest point. And here we become hypocritical judges in our assessment of everyone else. We reassure ourselves of just how good we are and miss out on God’s work in our lives and transformational relationships with people around us.

This is a dangerous place to live.

There is another mindset that isn’t mentioned in the parable but is prevalent in our culture. Sometimes we model a similar prayer, “Thank God I am just like everyone else.”

Here we aren’t bothered by our brokenness, we are just glad we aren’t the only ones experiencing it. We excuse our behavior/thoughts/attitudes because everyone else seems to be on the same page and, hey, we’re just human after all. Here the idea isn’t to elevate ourselves over tax collectors, but to lower the bar for what is required of us.

We like being broken, so we don’t change. We rest in the comfort of knowing there are other broken people, so we don’t want to see them change.  We enjoy our sin. Or perhaps its too hard to resist so we’ll just stay right where we are.

This too is a dangerous place to be. Here we find cheap grace. Cheap grace is as useless as no grace.

The only proper approach is that of that tax collector. It is here we realize how much work needs to be done in us. That scandalous sinner or pious preacher, I need God. It is here we see regardless of how good or bad our behavior is we must have mercy.

Change without mercy is fine, but cannot save anyone. Mercy without change is easy, but meaningless. Mercy, when experienced with a humble heart, has the power to bring about change in us.

This is the mindset the Church is to have: acknowledging our need of mercy and allowing mercy to transform us.

That means more than mouthing these words in prayer, but allowing this understanding to shape us through and through. We are to embody this concept in attitude and action. It should guide the way we take inventory of our hearts. It should affect the way we approach our neighbors and our God.

O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

May these words be on our lips and in our heart. May we pray them and live them. May we be humble and contrite. And may we find the mercy we so desperately need.

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The Politics of Palm Sunday

The masses were in a near frenzy on what would become known as Palm Sunday.

After centuries of oppression, abuse, displacement, corruption, and disgrace, they were finally hopeful. After being forced to pay taxes to pagan Caesar and shuffling past Roman guards on the way to the Temple, they were angry. After watching friends and neighbors turn their backs on the nation and their faith in pursuit of a buck or some political position, they were fed up.

On that Sunday the stories of a coming savior swept through the crowd. Could this finally be the promised one? Could he overthrow the bad guys? Could he restore our nation?

The people lined the streets as Jesus came in. They waved palm leaves, a symbol of military victory. They laid their cloaks on the ground and cheered. Longing for liberation, they threw him a conqueror’s parade in anticipation of what was to come. The people stood and shouted “Hosanna!” which means “Save us now!”

The crowds were ready, but they were ready for all the wrong things. They were ready for war and political gain. Ready for revenge. Ready to expel their enemies. They were ready for power. Wealth. Vindication.

But they weren’t ready for Jesus. Six short days later they would move from “Hosanna! Save us now!” to “Crucify him!” Jesus wasn’t the savior they were looking for after all.

Sometimes I wonder if we have failed to learn the lesson here. We seem to want the same things the crowd wanted. We still want a savior that looks more like Caesar than Jesus. We want strength and might. We want power and prosperity. We want the bad guys to pay. We have a thirst for political and cultural significance.

And, like them, I’m not sure we are ready for Jesus. We aren’t ready for his command to love our enemies. We aren’t ready to welcome the stranger. We aren’t ready to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, or give to those who accuse us.

Too often we prefer stallions to donkeys, vengeance to mercy, power to servanthood. We applaud brashness and ego, while ignoring meekness and humility. We think it soft not to return evil for evil. And loving our neighbor as ourselves isn’t really the American dream so we focus on what is in it for us.

We, like those crowded on the street that day, are looking for the wrong kind of king and the wrong kind of kingdom.

Jesus isn’t interested in making Judea great again. His platform is not based popular opinion or national security. He is interested in a world that looks a whole lot different than one we see before us now.

A world where lions and lambs lay down together. Where swords are beaten into plow blades. He desires a world that isn’t divided by geography or nationality or culture. A world full of justice and peace. A world without selfishness.

It is a different kind of Kingdom led by a different kind of King. A King who lays down his life for his enemies. A King who carries our shame and guilt, our destruction and our death. A King who doesn’t do it for votes or donations or favors, but out of love and grace and selflessness.

This is a King who doodles in the sand rather than draw lines in it. He rejects “us and them” thinking. This is a King who is attracted to the lowlifes, the tarnished, the untouchable. He didn’t have the best of anything because he gave up his privilege and comfort. This is a King who lays down his rights, not demands them.

I’m not sure we are ready for a King like that. Because this King asks us, repeatedly, to follow his example. To have a King like that means letting go of all the things we naturally find ourselves fighting for. It means swearing allegiance to something broader than national boundaries and political parties. It means saying “no” to ourselves and being willing to forsake our own privilege and comfort and rights.

And it’s a hard sell. It doesn’t drive the masses into a tizzy. No one is outside hawking t-shirts and ball caps. There isn’t 24/7 news coverage. This kind of campaign seldom gets a parade or endorsements from movers and shakers. And yet it is exactly the kind of campaign we need.

May we remember that the crowds missed it that day. May we remember that their desire to have things set right looked a whole lot different than what God had in mind. May we not get caught up in the wrong things: anger, bitterness, division, violence, and a quest for power.

And may we not miss the man on the donkey who came to save the world from the very things we are chasing after.

Hosanna. Save us now, indeed.