9[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Over the course of my life, I’ve begun looking at time a little differently. Specifically, I have begun to think about my past differently based on a number of different, pivotal moments in my life. For instance, I can now measure time with BK or AK (Before Kids or After Kids). There are these pivotal moments that dramatically alter the way we think of our lives. For me, one such event is vaguely called “Before Seminary” (I’ll let you figure out the acronym on that one). It’s a pretty common phrase, actually, especially when you’re, well, “At Seminary” or “After Seminary”, to say things like Before Seminary, I lived in Mason City, IA. Or I used to want to open a coffee shop, but that was Before Seminary. While these Before Seminary statements and moments do deal with our past, they also definitely pertain to our futures, too.
One such statement that I make is that, Before Seminary, I was a music therapist working for a hospice. While working there, I gained many skills that inform my work At Seminary and After Seminary. There’s something really humbling and sacred about the work of hospice. I learned an incredible amount about life while working with people who were near the end of theirs. One such lesson, taught to me over and over again, is that there is really no substitute for teaching humility and patience and gratitude like the suffering that can happen in life.
But the trick is that we tend to do anything we can to avoid that. I do. You do. We all do. And churches are maybe the biggest perpetrators of the myth that the world is all roses and sunshine. Many of us have our church smile on and we speak in our church voices and use our church words and wear our church clothes and we can easily try to pretend that what happens out there, the rest of the week, has no effect on us in here. But, let me say right now, that if you ever feel pressured to pretend like the world is always beautiful, you didn’t get that idea from the Bible. If we can see anything from our readings today, it’s that life, even a faithful life (maybe especially a faithful life) is subject to both the highs and the lows.
Our passage in Jeremiah finds us in the middle of a nation pleading with God for deliverance – they feel like they’ve been abandoned by God, they feel like they have been rejected, and they’re calling upon God to do something about it. They’re asking God to honor the promises made in the covenant with Israel, even though they admit that they haven’t been able to keep up their end of the bargain. Their failure and their suffering dominate their thoughts. Maybe you’re coming in here today and feeling something akin to that – abandoned by those you love, frustrated by your own failures, and depressed and dejected by what you see in the world around you. We’ve all felt that from time to time, but even so, it doesn’t take away from the immensity of those feelings.
Our reading in 2 Timothy drives home a similar point. The author feels like he’s being poured out like a drink. In our life, we run across this feeling sometimes, too. We can sometimes begin to feel like we have nothing left to give and we can’t imagine what life will look like in the future if we keep getting poured out without being filled up.
But, in life, we also have moments like the one we find in our psalm. The feeling of joy that seems to be found in every word and every movement of life and the contentment of letting life be what it will be. It’s the feeling on Christmas morning, before you open the gifts and you understand that you’d rather be no other place than right here. It’s the feeling after finishing a project or a workout or an assignment, looking back at it, and saying, “Yeah. I played a part in that. I worked hard. I finished what I started.” It’s looking at all that God has given us – our relationships, talents, resources – and just being profoundly happy about that.
And it seems to me that we have an example of a sort of tension that we often face between highs and lows of life in our gospel for today. We meet a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the temple. One is judging himself based on what he has done and who he is – the tax collector. He doesn’t seem to care that there might be other people who have sinned worse than him (if there is such a thing). Nor does he care that he isn’t putting on his church smile and using his church voice and using his church words. We find him in the midst of the lows of life, like we find in our Jeremiah and 2 Timothy reading, and we find him asking for forgiveness and asking for God to act.
Unfortunately, instead of finding the Pharisee measuring his joy based on who God is and what God has done for him, we find him measuring his achievements, his self-worth, and his holiness based on how much better he is than the tax collector. Instead of thanking God for love and talents and resources, he thanks God that he is not like that guy. Instead of understanding that holiness and holy living comes from God, he thinks that his happiness and joy comes from his own keeping of the law.
One of these men understood the reality that life can be both high and low, that pain and joy can be mingled together, and that is it only through divine grace that we can be made holy. He went home justified. The other one seems to think that he needed to justify his life based on the low points in others.
I hope and pray that we never run into that mistake and, when we do, we can be reoriented to recognize God’s amazing grace. Because the fact of the matter is that you are already enough for God’s love. There is nothing on earth that can separate you from God’s love. Through Jesus’ death, we know that God is there in our hardest times and through Jesus’ resurrection, we see that God’s grace and love and blessings give us all we need to be joyful. God’s love for you will never run dry, even when you feel like you’re being poured out like a drink and never filled back up. God’s love for you will never stop moving, just like it never stopped moving in and through the Israelites in all of their blunders and wanderings.
When you come to church, when you worship God, you are free, your blinders come off. You can recognize both the sin and suffering of the world, but also the incredible times of joy and contentment. God doesn’t want your church smiles and your church voices and your church words. God wants you to understand that God’s love for you is infinite, even and especially in the times when we feel like we’re suffering.
In my time in Before Seminary life as a hospice music therapist, I got to see that played out over and over again. I got to learn and see that love and sorrow aren’t exclusive to one another. God is there, in the midst of it all, and there’s no need for games of comparison and competition. You are loved by God. You are enough for God. In the good times and the bad, you are God’s children. In the present and in the future, you are God’s child. In the every moment of every day, in tears and in laughter, in fear and in assurance, you are God’s child. Thanks. Be. To. God. Amen.