Year C — The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Commentary for October 27, 2013

by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s texts
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Joel 2:23-32
I love re-reading Joel every time I begin to doubt God’s good intentions for our lives. Even after a time of judgment or tragedy, God is more than capable of “restoring the years” that have been consumed by the plagues of sickness, hardship, ill will, or sinful choices.

While there is a “great and terrible” day coming, the hope God offers is for salvation in the name of the Lord. In other words, get thee to Mount Zion — and with haste!

Psalm 65

Have you ever stopped to consider what it is that you owe to God?

The psalmist says that “praise is due” to the Lord. I don’t often enter the sanctuary with the idea of a bill or check for services rendered in my hand…but, maybe I should consider it!

Sirach 35:12-17

The wisdom of Sirach offers us a startling reminder and perspective: our giving is only to be done in proportion to the ways that God has given to us. If God has not blessed you in the past week (or month, or year, etc.) then you needn’t bother with an offering of thanks. 

I wonder how many of us would actually make that deal? As my pastor said WIWAK* — “You just can’t outgive God, boys and girls!”

* When I Was a Kid (thanks to Len Sweet)

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

Confession is good for the soul. 

At least, that’s what they say. Jeremiah would agree, I think, and our gospel lesson for today certainly has something to say about it. 

Psalm 84:1-7

My soul faints for the courts of the Lord.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a “fainting spell” — but the word causes me to think of times in my life when I have wanted something so desperately that I did not think I would be able to stand the intensity of the desire and feelings surrounding it.

Maybe that’s the descriptor of our desire for coming to worship God? 

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Who wouldn’t like to be able to utter Paul’s summary upon arriving at the pearly gates? (so to speak…)

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” We will do so, according to v. 17, as the Lord gives us strength and as we rely upon that strength. Neither Paul nor Daniel were rescued from the mouths of lions because they were good, strong guys in and of themselves.

Luke 18:9-14
Okay, quick: who would you rather be in this story? A Pharisee or a tax-collector? Doesn’t sound like much of a choice right off the bat, does it?

Another interesting question for our congregations as we ponder this text: at the beginning of the story, which of these gentlemen would you choose as a candidate for membership in your church: the guy who everybody sneered at when he walked into the room, or the fellow who came to church every week and gave his (rather large) tithe check regularly?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
(see Bonus Sermon for Reformation Sunday here)
Most of us are familiar with the “the valley of the shadow of death” in Psalm 23 and the “valley of the dry bones” in Ezekiel, but really; how many of us remembered there was a “valley of Baca” in the Bible.  When I read that I thought, “What? The valley of what?”  I’m embarrassed to say I took an entire semester’s class on the Psalms and I didn’t remember anything about a valley of Baca.  Sorry Dr. Murphy, wherever you are.
So, I looked it up. It’s one of those semi-obscure Hebrew words that the commentators say things like, it could mean, or it might refer to, etc. etc.  But the consensus, based on the context in the Psalm, is that it means “the valley of the weeper.”
What an image!  The valley of the weeper.  A place of sadness and spiritual dryness.  A place where one feels the pain of being separate from others, from one’s better self, from God.  A place to weep bitter tears of contrition and remorse.
It is in the valley of the weeper that we find the tax collector in today’s Gospel lesson.  We can’t know why he is standing apart from the rest of the community, why he beats his chest, why he hangs his head and chokes out a sobbing confession of sinfulness and sorrow.  But he does. 
Part of it is that to be a tax collector at that time and that place was to make one’s money cheating other people, or at least strong arming them.  A tax collector was at the bottom of the Roman Empire’s exploitation scheme.  The Emperor made financial demands of the Governors and kings under him; they in turn made financial demands of regional officials, and so it went down the line to the tax collector, who was given a certain amount he had to collect and turn in.  anything he got above that was his salary.  It was a system that led inevitably to corruption and resentment.
So perhaps he had woken up to the evil he was a part of.  Not just the evil of his own personal actions in coercing money from others, but the evil of participating in a system of governance that abused and oppressed his own people.
And perhaps he was confessing the greed and avarice that had pulled him further and further away from his God and his own true self as a person of faith and morality.  So perhaps he woke up one day with the realization of what had who he had become – or perhaps it was a gradual realization over time and he had been struggling with this confession for a while, working up his nerve to come into this holy place before a holy God and admit his sorrow and his sorry-ness. And so he stands apart, in his own private little valley of Baca, valley of the weeper, and sobs out his misery and remorse.
And standing across the room, as far from him as he can get, there is a man in the first century equivalent of a Brooks Brothers suit.  He looks over his designer glasses at the tax collector, he straightens his silk tie and pulls his cuff-linked collars straight, rolls his eyes and throws his head back as he looks up to heaven and begins to speak,
 “O God, thank you for making me such a fine fellow, with such a fine character and such a fine life.  I especially thank you that I am not like one of the little, insignificant people; especially not like that awful tax collector over there. Your Humble Servant, George M. Farasee, Esquire.”  Or something like that.
Luke ends the story there telling us that the tax collector went to his home “justified.”  That is, he went home right with God and at peace with himself. He came through the valley of Baca, of weeping and sorrow and found there springs of God’s mercy and pools of God’s love.  He found his soul washed and cleansed and made right and ready to go forward.
On the other hand, the Pharisee walked away empty handed.  Or more correctly, empty-hearted.
His prayer left no room for God to come in; it was full of self, indeed the Pharisee pretty much addressed it to himself.
The question for us today is; “Who am I in this story?”  and I suspect that most of us, most of the time, are a little bit of both.  As Dr. Luther said, we’re all saint and sinner at the same time. 
All of us have a little bit of Pharisee in us.  We want to think that we are good people doing good things.  And most of the time we are.  And all of us look with contempt on some other people sometimes.  It’s a part of being human.  As one of my country preacher mentors told me once, “Son, if people was perfect they wouldn’t need you or Jesus.”
And all of us have taken a trip or two through the valley of Baca, the place of sorrow and remorse.  All of us have those dark places and dark times we’d rather not admit to or revisit. 
And yet we must; because we are pilgrims and the only highway to Zion goes that way.  The only route to Christ leads by the foot of the cross, his and ours.
And so we come to this place on this day to pray, to open up our hearts and lives to the one who already knows all there is to know about us.  So we stand, not apart but together; and first bow our heads and then lift our hearts, knowing that our God loves us with a perfect love and sends us out to find other pilgrims to lead through the valley of Baca to the spring of God’s grace.
Amen and amen.

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