How’s ‘Your’ Ministry Going? A sermon on 10-24-10

Luke 18:9-14
9Jesus 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.”

Children’s Time: Do you like to build with building blocks? Let’s see how tall we can make this tower? Sometimes we try to build ourselves up before God, like the Pharisee in our lesson today. We might think we’re pretty special because we….
Go to church every Sunday
Read the Bible every day
Give and offering in Sunday School
Am kind to other people
Say our prayers before bed at night
Obey our parents
Share our toys with friends
Hold the door open for others… and
Never talk about our friends behind their backs.

…but will doing all those things make God love us more? No. If it’s up to us building a stairway to heaven, then we’re headed toward a fall when we rely on our own good works. (source:

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Well, if there’s any good news in today’s little parable by Jesus… it’s in the fact that we will never be able to stand before God based on our own tower of blocks. The Pharisee tries but only looks like a hypocrite. And we try, too, to get by on our own merits.

And that’s what makes this parable so tricky. It’s not just about our having to choose between the Pharisee and the tax collector… …or about “being humble” rather than “full of yourself.” If this story is just a lesson in humility then our own ‘success at being humble’ becomes the goal!

Jesus sets us up with this parable! Almost immediately we begin to pray, “I thank you God that I’m not like that Pharisee” …which makes us exactly like the Pharisee! “Look how humble I am, Lord!”

It’s been said that whenever we draw a line in the sand between ourselves and someone else… Jesus is standing there on the other side.

Well, there are plenty of sides to choose from during this Election Season: And it’s normal for candidates to give an account of their accomplishments: “Here’s what I’ve done this far.” Etc. In fact, I’d rather hear that than tearing down their opponent. I’m not like her at all. I’m you. (whatever that means)

I think the Pharisee does a little bit of both, here: listing off his accomplishments and tearing down the tax collector. This is what happens when we treat faith like an election – as if God would choose one over the other. Isn’t there enough mercy for ALL to go around?

And yet, the Pharisee is unable to see his own need for mercy. I mean, the life of a priest was not one of reckless abandon and drunken debauchery. I lived by a code… and was correct in stating his own righteousness.

Bruce Modahl, pastor at Grace Lutheran in River Forest, IL provides this vivid description of the work of the priest:

“The priests are up well before dawn. They rub the sleep from their eyes as they begin stoking the great fire at the altar. The musicians arrive in clumps, tune their strings and complain about the early hour. The ram’s horn player warms his instrument in his hands and under his cloak, then gently blows air through it. A priest’s assistant pulls a lamb from its pen, binds its legs and brings it to the altar. As dawn breaks the ceremony begins. The musicians and singers take up the familiar tunes of the psalms. The priests march in procession. At the altar one priest raises a knife to the lamb’s throat, drains its blood into a basin and throws the blood on the fire at the altar. The sacrifice of atonement is made. The sins of the people are covered. Now the priests light incense, and plumes of smoke indicate that it is the time for the prayers of the people to ride along on those scented clouds to God.” (Christian Century, Oct 19, 2010 p.20)

….And this happens again later in the afternoon, thus setting the scene for our story today, in which two people come to offer their prayers to the Lord.

So how do we pray without getting caught up in ourselves – or in tearing down those around us? After all, it is Stewardship Season… All month long we’ve been hearing stories about the work that we do – the important ministries the people of Holy Cross participate in. You’ve fed the hungry in partnership with the N. St. Paul Food Shelf – you’ve cared for children, in partnership with Building Bridges – you’ve raised up leaders for the church, through our student scholarships – you’ve done all that and so much more!

But you haven’t done it alone.

When I was a pastor-in-training I visited the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. We had coffee with one of the local pastors: Noah Brokenleg. He was a Lakota. And the one word of advice I still remember from him to this day was this:
“It’s never ‘my ministry’ it’s God’s ministry.”

That’s easy for us to say… and hard for us to live. God calls us to participate in great things! In the changing of lives! In the sharing of the Gospel! It is both humbling and awe-inspiring!

This is why Paul could write to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith!” At first glance it may sound a lot like this Pharisee: “Look at me, Ti-mo-thy!” But in very next sentence, he sets the record strait: “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed.”

How do we humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord? We remember we are but earthen vessels – that the Lord pours forth the Holy Spirit into us so that we can do great things on Christ’s behalf. Only then can we be truly poured out as an offering to others.

That’s why we preach stewardship – the pouring out of our time and our talents and financial support to the ministry of the church.

Because “it’s God’s church,” God’s ministry. And thanks be to God who loves both the tax collector and the Pharisee! Even if we are covered in God’s mercy and can go down from the temple justified in God’s sight.

Let us pray: O God, we give you thanks that you have looked past our petty attempts to puff ourselves up and seen the person we really are. Help us to trust in your mercy rather than any human effort we can muster. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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