For October 23, 2016
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Life, alas, has intervened in the fate of the Lec Lab Live podcast again. Between us, we have had four family medical procedures in the past week, and just enough time to get all our “normal” stuff done. As best as we can tell, we’ll be back next week.
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by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
I like to check out a variety of English translations of the Bible when I first read through the lessons for Sunday. Sometimes it helps me get a fresh perspective on something I’ve read many times before. This week, it made me sit up and think. In Psalm 84, verse 6 we have the words, “those who go through the balsam valley.” “What is a balsam valley?” I thought. So I tried the old Revised Standard Version: it says “the valley of Baca.” So does the King James, the Common English Bible and the English Standard Bible. But what’s a Baca. This is getting me nowhere. So I dug deeper, into the original language. Turns out it’s an obscure Hebrew word that probably 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 a personal “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 of which he was a part. 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 he had done and of 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 a 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?” Am I the repentant sinner or the self-righteous Pharisee? 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 we bow our heads and then we lift our hearts, knowing that our God loves us with a perfect love and sends us out to lead other pilgrims through the valley of Baca to the spring of God’s grace.
Amen and amen.