First Reading Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Second Reading 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Gospel Reading Luke 18:9-14
Sermon “Where Do You Stand?”
Over the last few weeks, we have looked at a number of Jesus’ parables as he taught both his disciples and the crowds that gathered around him on his journey to Jerusalem. The Parable of the “Pharisee and the Publican” today is told as taking place in the temple itself, and it continues Jesus’ practice of using these stories to make us stop and think. Now in this case, we have to be just a bit careful not to simply take a quick look and go confidently on our way. At first glance, knowing that Pharisees are regularly cast in the gospels as Jesus’ opposition, we might all too easily judge the Pharisee to be a convenient villain, a self-righteous hypocrite and assume that the moral of this story is to be humble. The problem with such an interpretation, is that we might as well end up leaving here saying, “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble.”
In order to avoid that kind of self-congratulatory reading of the parable that the parable itself would seem to condemn, it may help to note that, actually, everything the Pharisee says about himself is likely true. He has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law. He is not a thief, an adulterer or an infamous tax collector So before we judge him too quickly, we might reframe his prayer slightly and wonder if we have uttered it ourselves. Maybe, as one commentator puts it: “we haven’t said, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people…”, but what about, on seeing someone down on his luck, “There but for the grace of God go I”? It isn’t that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing. As Luke states in his introduction, the Pharisee has trusted in himself.
So there he is in the temple, standing no doubt in a place of prominence and respect, arms proudly uplifted to the heavens. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself. Actually, some of the old manuscripts say “He prayed to himself” and the King James version says “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself” – which ever way – his focus is himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.” And so he stands apart – “Standing by himself” the parable says. Self-reliant and self-congratulatory. And he goes home feeling fine and admired, but without the justification of God.
The tax collector, too stands apart from the crowd. “Standing far off”, the parable tells us. He knows that he possesses no means by which to claim righteousness. He has done nothing of merit; indeed, he has done much to offend not only the law of Israel but also his countrymen. He is at best collaborator with the Romans and many in his profession were greedy cheats as well, padding the tax bill to enrich their own pocket. This man was hated and despised by the people, but also ashamed of himself. For this reason he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord. And our Lord is merciful indeed. This man goes home justified, Jesus said. He asked for grace and received it.
It’s an interesting picture isn’t it: Two men standing apart from the crowd, one by self congratulatory choice, but the other from exclusion and critical self awareness. The temple was a place of prayer and worship – a place to come and meet with God. One of these men was brought close to God – but it was not he who moved. God met him right where he stood. That’s Grace. The Unmerited favor of God. The Tax collector knew he didn’t deserve it, but he also knew he desperately needed it. And God supplied his need.
Our readings this mornings include yet another reference to this issue of standing – in Paul’s second letter to his young apprentice Timothy. Like our other two examples from Jesus parable, Paul takes stock of his life saying “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” Now what makes these words different from the words of the Pharisee? Both have a favorable view of how they have lived do they not? Yet these are different. Paul is able to look back at a life of service and mission lived not for his own sake, but for God’s. The reward he values comes from God alone, not from the admiration of the crowd. The reward is also not only for Paul but “also to all who have longed for Christ’s appearing.” That’s a good feeling, to look back at a difficult time and know that you have lived faithfully and obediently for God and for others.
Paul is still in a difficult place. He is in prison in Rome facing likely execution and he too seems to stand alone, because he has been abandoned in that lonely place. He says in verse 16: “At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them!” But Paul finds that he is not alone after all for as he says: “… the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.  The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Paul’s sense of the presence of God gave him the ability to face the emperors court and bravely defend the faith. Now that is a great place to stand and stand firm.
So now let us consider ourselves. Where do we stand? Who stands with us? Who do we stand with? Are we willing to take a Stand? It’s very close to election season and we are hearing a lot of people urging us to take a stand for one issue or another, for one candidate or another, one party or another. But that is far removed from what I mean here, and maybe even the far opposite in some cases. Those political ads we are bombarded with these days are words usually primed to get a quick emotional response and short cut the difficult work of dealing with the basic problem.
First: Where do we stand? We stand in need of a Savior! We are a fallen race, totally unable to live lives worthy of our Holy God. Our best and highest deeds and thoughts fall immeasurably short of the glory of God. This was the Pharisee’s problem. He had forgotten his need of God’s grace and did not understand his desperate need of God, even though he devoutly believed in God. As Isaiah says in 64:6 NIV
 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” Who would ever get elected admitting something like that? We are seldom willing to admit the truth with the simple honesty of the tax collector.
So: Who stands with us? Thanks be to God that we are not left in such a state. God is gracious and merciful and fully justifies us for the sake of his Son, Jesus. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has taken our sins on himself and has opened the way to God. Not only has Jesus paid the debt for our sins by the cross, but all who believe in Him are also promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. What a wonderful gift to know the abiding presence of God with us each and every day of our lives. Even when things are difficult and grim, God never abandons us. Earthly friends and family may but God never will leave us. We too can say with Paul “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength”
In the Strength of that abiding presence then it is time to ask “Who do we stand with?”
There, at the Temple, were “insiders” and “outsiders,” and according to these rules there was no question of where the Pharisee and tax collector stood. But when Jesus died all this changed. As Luke records, the curtain in the Temple is torn in two symbolically erasing all divisions of humanity before God. Paul confidently asserts that there are no distinctions before God. Galatians 3:27-28 NRSV  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
So why do we keep on dividing ourselves – us and them. Standing to the side like that pharisee saying I thank thee God that I am not like that … fill in the blank. – matters of race do not matter with God. Christ died for all. Nationality and citizenship does not matter with God, Christ died for all. Rich and poor, Young or Old, educated or not, banker or ditch digger – Christ died for all. How can we dare treat them any different. We are after all members of Christ’s own body here on earth.
So finally, are you willing to take a stand? Are you willing to be an ambassador for Christ in this world. To speak God’s truth of Grace, Salvation and service into a culture that idolizes power and position and wealth no matter the cost? It means being willing to claim the name of Christ in a society that does not honor God. It leads us to claim the cross and offer ourselves in service when those around us find themselves in need. It means to love the unlovely at times and to risk reproach from those who value status and exclusivity.
The Gifts of God: Grace, Mercy, Forgiveness and love are given to freely to all who know their need and will but ask. The Gifts of God are also given to be shared, never hoarded or gloated over. From the smallest child to the most senior among us, all stand dependent on the grace of God. That’s where I stand, how about you?