A Matter of the Heart
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; October 27, 2019
19th Sunday after Pentecost
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
A few years ago, a novel penned by Joanne Harris was made into a movie. The cast of “Chocolat” included such names as Johnny Depp and Judy Dench. Set in 1959, the movie begins once upon a time in a little French village known for its tranquility—that is until a sly north wind blows in Vianne, played by Juliett Binoche. Vianne is about to do the unthinkable—open a chocolate shop across from the Catholic church during the season of Lent. The town is run by Comte de Reynaud, whose family has ruled the village down through the ages. Comte de Reynaud is the mayor and because he thinks of himself as the moral authority of the land—he even writes the sermons that young Father Henri delivers like a reluctant puppet on a string.
It’s no surprise that Reynaud isn’t amused by Vianne’s sweet temptations—nor does he appreciate her generous, compassionate nature that attracts people to her almost as quickly as her sweet confectionary treats. When Reynaud sees Vianne, he sees an adversary—a woman who’s leading his people astray.
At first it seems odd that the people follow Reynaud’s lead without question. Eventually, though, it’s clear that they aren’t evil—they’re just living unexamined lives, like tranquil sleepwalkers following the path of least resistance—that is until they wake up and smell the coffee, or in this case, the chocolate. In time Reynaud’s arrogance and anger get the best of him, and his reckless words influence a troubled man of the village to set a dangerous fire. When Reynaud realizes what he’s done, he’s brought to his knees—an act that starts him on his way toward a transformed heart—opened by love—touched by grace—shaped by mercy—and bent toward compassion.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is again teaching through use of a parable. But this time he isn’t targeting his disciples or the crowds that are gathered. Instead Jesus is bent on opening the eyes, and perhaps the hearts, of some who pride themselves in their righteousness while looking down on others with contempt. We read the parable and it’s meaning is crystal clear. If we want to follow the right path, we’ll align ourselves with the humble tax collector. But as is usually the case, whenever Jesus’ teaching seems crystal clear, it’s reason to pause and ponder.
So, let’s examine the text more closely, beginning with the Pharisee. Going up to the temple, he stands by himself, and prays ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ It’s interesting to note that the Pharisee stands by himself—not with the community. Also notice how many times the Pharisee says, “I.” I thank you…I am not like others…I fast…I give…His prayer is all about himself. It sounds as if he’s come to the temple to remind God just how fortunate God is to have him worshiping at all![i]
But let’s give the fellow his due. Likely he does lead a blameless life according to the law and is seen by others as a religious expert. He gives 10% of his income to the Lord and fasts twice a week. Dedicated to his faith, generous—surely, we’d love to have him as a member of FPC, wouldn’t we?
What, then, is his fault? First, while the Pharisee may be right about the kind of life he’s living, he’s confused about the source of that life. He is confused about God’s grace. Second, he fails to show compassion for others. So, while he prays to God, his prayer concerns himself. He misses the source of his blessing and he misses the opportunity to be a blessing. In the end, the Pharisee leaves the temple with a heart just as empty as it was when he came through the doors.
What about the tax collector? He, too, goes to the temple to pray. Standing far off, he doesn’t even look up to heaven when he says, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ He approaches God with an entirely different demeanor. But even here, in Luke’s telling, Jesus messes with our expectations because we expect the tax collector to promise to make amends—promise to give his own 10% —promise something. Make no mistake, the tax collector is not painted as a nice guy. His very profession defines him as a wealthy, low life who makes a living by collecting taxes for Rome, and it’s presumed, extorting profit for himself. There’s no doubt that the sins of the tax collector are real. And even though he enters the temple to pray, he doesn’t pledge to leave his employment or make restitution. He doesn’t even promise he’ll try to do better tomorrow. But what he does is open his mouth and speak words that reveal his heart. Somehow, someway, he recognizes his dependence on God. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The tax collector knows the one thing the Pharisee does not: Above all else, he needs God’s mercy and grace.
We hear this parable and, no doubt, we yearn to be in the place of humility instead of the place of arrogance but there’s still cause for caution. From the depths of our hearts, we dare not turn our eyes toward heaven and say, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee.”[ii] Once we make that shift, we cross the line.
It is our human nature to want mercy for ourselves and justice for others isn’t it? “Now wait a minute,” you might say. “I’m a good Christian. I am committed to Jesus and to this faith community. I give of my time by attending worship regularly. I give of my talents by singing in the choir and serving on a committee. I give generously of my income to support God’s work—here and in the world.” That’s a wonderful testimony, for sure. But Jesus, I believe, would ask one question, “How is your heart?” For being committed to the ways of God, is a matter of the heart. As Christians, we can tithe, we can fast, we can be Spiritual Masters, but we can still fail to be faithful.
Being faithful to God was the driving force of the Reformation which happened over 500 years ago. No doubt, many good things came out of the Reformation. Corrupt leaders of the Roman Catholic Church became less powerful. Scripture became available to people in their own languages. Bibles and other books became more plentiful, literacy grew, and schools and universities multiplied. However, the Reformation came at great cost. Faithful people died gruesome deaths for their beliefs. Religious art and religious institutions were destroyed. The unity of the Western church was broken. Sadly, division has become the hallmark of the Protestant movement which is evident by the 9000-plus Protestant denominations now found throughout the world. We have divided over the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, over forms of church government, over worship styles, over the ordination of women as Ministers of Word and Sacrament; over being welcoming and affirming to all people regardless of race, gender, and sexual orientation, and let’s be real—even over really important things the color of the carpet. We have divided and we keep dividing. This is a far cry from what the Reformers had in mind and surely, there is work still to be done!
But here is some good news to share: There is every indication that we are in the midst of a New Reformation. The Holy Spirit is on the move—challenging us to be courageous—challenging us to seek reconciliation rather than schism—nudging us, once again, to take the gospel out into the streets. The body of Christ was never meant to be housed in a building—neither in St. Peter’s Basilica, nor in First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta. Believers and seekers alike enter a sacred space like this one to worship, to pray, to learn, to grow, and then to return to the world equipped to BE the church. YOU are the church! YOU are the church when you shop at Publix or Home Depot. YOU are the church when you go to work or to school and or to a restaurant or to a movie. YOU are the church when you volunteer for Break Bread Together or for other ministries of compassion. You are the church when you provide words of encouragement on social media. YOU are the church when you seek justice for those who have no voice. YOU are the church when you obey the words of Jesus—to love God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
Today we give thanks for the Reformers of the past—even as we look forward to the future of Christ’s church. And on this Stewardship Dedication Sunday, we have the privilege of rededicating ourselves to the Lord—all that we have, all that we are, and all that we hope to become. In a moment, we will bring forward our prayer/pledge cards. How will we come to the Table? Will we come trusting in our own abilities? Or will we come fully aware that more than anything else, we need God’s mercy and grace? On this Lord’s Day, may we approach our Loving God humbly, with a deep yearning for a transformed heart—opened by love—touched by grace—shaped by mercy—and bent toward compassion.
[i] Feasting on the Word, E. Elizabeth, Johnson, 215.
[ii] Bruce Prewer at http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C59sun30.htm
*Cover Image: Damascus Stushie Art; Used by subscription