Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
March 10, 1999


Never, Never, Never Give Up.
The Rev. Dr. John R. Claypool
Rector, St. Luke's Episcopal Church
Birmingham, Alabama

Be now, between us, a bridge across which your truth can move. Deepen our sense of trust. Through Christ our Lord. Amen

The theme that has run through my three sermons, if you've been here before, is the element of surprise that is always a part of memorable truth. I've been suggesting that familiarity not only breeds contempt, it also breeds dullness and apathy. When a story goes exactly as you expected, we tend to take it for granted, not make too much of it. But when a story takes an unexpected turn, when suddenly we find ourselves confronting the unanticipated, that has a way of arousing our attention. Those truths have a way of making a more lasting impression.

I've been suggesting that Jesus understood that principle 20 centuries ago, because, again and again in his favorite vehicle of teaching, which is the parable story, he would start out in a very conventional way and then suddenly startle people by the direction his truth took. [It reminds me of] that wonderful African-American who used to talk about slack-jawed amazement as an appropriate response to some of the surprises that are found in Jesus' parables. On Monday, I tried to identify the most familiar, perhaps, in which Jesus shockingly said that a Samaritan—a social outcast, racial half-breed—was really more godly than those who worked for the Temple, a priest and a Levite. Yesterday, I talked about the shocking way that a vineyard owner chose to do what he did with his great affluence. But I dare say neither one of those had quite the shock value of the one that I want to talk about today. It's remembered only in Luke's Gospel, and this is the way that Jesus said it:

Two men went up to the Temple to pray; one a Pharisee and one a tax collector. Now the Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get. But the tax collector standing far off would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. God be merciful to me a sinner.

Jesus said: I tell you, this man, the tax collector, went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Jesus starts off here with two individuals who would have been well known in first century Palestinian life. Everybody knew what a Pharisee was. They were the most devout people in the culture. The word Pharisee comes from a root that means pure, and that was their utter passion. They were so anxious to live up to God's ideals, they took the Law of Moses seriously. They were the pillars of respectability. They were considered the very best folk in all of that population. They were the ones at the very pinnacle of moral achievement.

The other person was at the opposite end of the social scale. Nobody was despised more than a Jew who had become a tax collector. This profession was the unique creation of the Roman way of governing. The Romans were very wise in not overly antagonizing citizens when they conquered a country. Rather than send in some foreigners to collect taxes, which is always very disagreeable, they would find opportunistic natives, people who lived by the creed, "In order to get along, go along." Then they would give them the ominous task of collecting taxes from their own people. It was very lucrative financially, but it carried a high social liability, because naturally the people in a conquered country despised some of their own who had sold out to the other side and had gone to work for the occupation forces. So there was nobody that society thought less of than this tax collector. No one that society thought more of than this Pharisee. [They were] two people whom everybody Jesus spoke to would have quickly understood.

There is no surprise at all when Jesus says that the Pharisee went up to the Temple to pray. That was something Pharisees did all the time. And there is really no surprise in the form of his prayer. Because you see, these people were good and they knew they were good, and they didn't mind letting everybody in hearing know about it. So when he describes himself as not being like other people—not an extortioner, not unjust, not adulterous, certainly not like this tax collector—when he says I tithe everything I get and I fast three times a week, he was really describing the rigorous kind of life that he was living as someone faithful to the Law of Moses.

So it was not surprising at all to have the Pharisee where he was or praying as he did. And it was a mild surprise for Jesus to say that a tax collector would be in the Temple. These were people that did not usually come to religious confines, and they were certainly not known for their contrition. Maybe in the dead of night the tax collectors had uneasy consciences, but they were not in the habit of letting anybody else know that they felt badly about the way they were abusing their own people. So to say that a tax collector had dared to come into the temple and was in such abject contrition, that really was a measure of surprise. But that was nothing, nothing compared to the earthquake of shock at the thing Jesus then says; he dares to affirm that the tax collector went down to his house more in the favor of God than this very pillar of respectable religious piety. Talk about turning the world upside-down; talk about taking conventional religious wisdom and standing it on its head. I can imagine a gasp went up from the people who first heard Jesus tell this story. They could not believe their ears. Jesus is saying that a tax collector, who has abused everything that we call moral, was more pleasing in the eyes of God than the Pharisee, who has done everything right from the beginning of his life. It was utterly unthinkable.

I want to pause and say that I can understand that initial reaction, because on the surface, it does sound like Jesus drifted off in a kind of moral relativism. Are we to conclude that it doesn't matter how well and how faithfully and honestly we live our lives; that it is of no consequence to God that this one had done all of these things, whereas this other person had done almost nothing but just come in and say, "Oops, I'm sorry," and, "Let's let bygones be bygones. [It has been said] that you can tell that religion is important to a person if it affects two aspects of his life—his stomach and his pocketbook. Most people don't take religion, their faith, seriously enough to let it [affect] their comfort zone. And to take that special kind of potency that is involved in money and to voluntarily give 10 percent of that to something else…. Here was a man whose faith really did mean a great deal to him. He was as rigorous in the way he disciplined his body as some marathon runner, and he was wonderfully, wonderfully faithful to that business that is called tithing. Years ago the Episcopal Church put out a bumper sticker that said, "If you love Jesus, tithe. Anybody can honk." I think that the point is that if our faith is really going to be significant, it's going to show itself in the way we live comfort-wise and the way we live in our stewardship. But most people, let's face it, don't let the church get that close to the center of their lives.

I heard this story once about two men who went out fishing one Sunday morning. And one of them said, "You know my conscious is bothering me. I really ought not to be here. I ought to have gone to church." The other man said, " I couldn't have gone to church today anyway; my wife's sick." Now that's the kind of lackadaisicalness that most people have when it comes to their faith. And here is a man who was utterly different—a Pharisee who had given incredible energies and discipline to his moral development. Then here's [someone else] whom we know nothing about save he was in a despicable profession and for some reason he had gotten into trouble and therefore had come to ask for help. For Jesus to say that this one is more favorable to God than the other really does perplex us in terms of the way we have always seen the moral universe.

I think it would be very easy to make a superficial reading of this parable and miss the point altogether. We've got to look at something deeper than the performances of these two people. I think if you would put a frame of reference around this parable that suggests something about the divine, then maybe you can see that instead of being shocking and instead of being moral relativity, that Jesus was really touching on something profoundly significant for all the living of our lives.

Now the thing about God that is going to make sense of this parable is the simple statement that "God is more interested in the future than in the past." God is more concerned about what a person can yet become than what a person used to be. And if you will take that frame and put it around the behavior of these two men, then you may see that Jesus senses something in each of them that was tremendously important.

The Pharisee had a brilliant past. He had up to that point done so many things right. He had disciplined himself. He had taken the Law of Moses seriously. He had a wonderful record as you look back over the life that he had lived up to that point. But my sense is that at this mid-point, he made a crucial mistake. He took his eye off the ultimate goal that God has for each one of us, which is according to Jesus, that we should become perfect, complete, full-grown, just as our creator is perfect, complete, full-grown. This is the omega point toward which all of creation is aimed. God put us into this world so that we could become totally and completely like God, to share in his joy, to come to the fullness of our potential. That is the great goal that God has for every one of us. The tragedy was that this man, for all of his magnificent achievements, had taken his eye off that ultimate goal, and, just as in my talk yesterday, had indulged in the side-long glance and begun to compare himself to the way other people were doing rather than to what it was that God had wanted to make of him. When he took his eye off that ultimate goal, two very debilitating things happened. First of all, he became contemptuous of other people because they were not as morally developed as he was, and even worse, he became complacent about his own unfolding. Can you imagine the Pharisee, having prayed as he did in the Temple, walking out and saying, "There is still much that I need to learn. There are still areas where I need to grow"?

St. Paul says at one point, "Forgetting those things that are behind and reaching forth for the things that are ahead, I stretch toward the prize, the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." Now can you imagine, the Pharisee, with a complacency that was borne of taking his eye off the goal, beginning to say, "I still have room to grow."? Which means, here was a person who had a past but tragically did not have a future, because he had become complacent, and he had stopped growing.

On the other hand, the tax collector—and we don't know any of the circumstances of his life—had somehow been knocked to the ground, had somehow been brought to his senses, some trauma had happened that made him see how absolutely, absolutely imperfect his life was. And out of that profound sense of his own unfinishedness, of how far it was that he still had to go, he came to the temple and honestly acknowledged where he was and did that crucial thing of reaching out for the grace of God and asking that God help him grow. Which is to say that, though he had nothing in the past to be proud of, the tax collector was in a better stance to grow toward the future than this proud Pharisee.

I think what this parable says to us that is so important is that we [must] keep clear why it is that we have been put in this world. I suggested yesterday that the question, Compared to what? is so important. Compared to what you were a year before you were born gives you the occasion for unbounded gratitude. But compared to what God intends for you to become, there are still miles to travel, and there is so much growth that is yet to be done. If we have that sense that God wants us to become complete and full-grown, and that the grace of God is the way we move toward that goal, then we never indulge in self-satisfaction, we never become complacent and say that there is nothing yet to learn or to do or to grow. We are in this constant sense, like St. Paul, stretching forth to try to go on to that place where God wants every one of us to be.

It is so important to realize that those famous words at the last part of the fifth chapter of Matthew, "Be you therefore perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect," are a promise and not an imperative. It is so important because in the Greek there, the future and the imperative are spelled the same way. If you hear it as, "you've got to be perfect in order to earn God's favor," you have missed the point altogether. Hear it [instead] as the promise of what God's grace wants to make of you eventually, hear Jesus saying, "If you will let the grace of God into your life and keep acknowledging that you need that and that you want to grow, then I promise you perfection, full-grownness, completeness." That is where God is going to take every one of us, because the goal God had in creating us was that we would share God's kind of joy and come to the fullness of the measure of the stature of Christ. It is promise and not demand that is the essence of the gospel.

I have an Episcopal priest friend who used to teach at Virginia Seminary right outside of Washington. He said one winter Saturday night his phone rang about 9 o'clock, and the voice on the other end of the line identified himself as a young man who had grown up in the parish which the priest had served some years before. The young man said that he was at the bus station in downtown Washington and that he had gotten involved in the drug culture in college and had dropped out, that he had used up every resource he had known, and he was out of work, had no money and no place to go. He said, "I remembered when you were our rector, and I remembered that you were in the Washington area. Is there anyway, anyway, that you could help me?"

My priest friend said that though it was Saturday night and he had much to do, there was something about that plaintive call that lay deep hold of his compassion. And he said, "If you will stay right there, I'll come get you and you can spend the night with us." He drove through the snowy streets, found the young man in a terrible condition—emaciated, drugs had taken a terrible toll on him—brought him home and fed him supper. [The young man] poured out the lament of how he had abused his life, and my priest friend listened to him. Finally, my friend said, "Have you ever considered asking Jesus into your life to help you with all the things that you are up against?" And with that, tears came to the boy's eyes and he said, "You know, I have been so far for so long from ever even thinking in those ways, that no, I haven't even given that any consideration." But then he straightened up and said, "You know you are right. When I get myself together and when I get everything back in shape, I'm going to start going to church again, I am going to consider letting Christ come into my life." And my priest friend said, "It'll never happen that way my son. We don't get ourselves together and then go to Jesus. We go to Jesus in utter contrition and need, and that's where the energy comes from to get ourselves together."

I think that is why Jesus sensed that the tax collector really had more promise of finally fulfilling the goal that God wanted than the Pharisee who had done so well up to that point but had taken his eye off the goal. He had let the side-long glance begin to distort his sense of commitment, and he had stopped growing in the middle of his life, which is a tragic possibility for every one of us.

Fifty years ago, I played football for Hillsboro High School in Nashville. We never did have a terribly distinguished season, but I'll never forget one of the things our coach used to instill in us. He used to say, "Nothing is more irrelevant to the final score than the score at half-time." If we were ahead at half-time, he was always afraid we'd become complacent. If we were behind at half-time, it was always the occasion to stir us up. I'll never forget his saying, "Nothing is more irrelevant to the final outcome, than the score at half-time." And I think that's why Jesus said of these two, One went down in the greater favor of God than the other, because at least the tax collector was aware of his need and was wanting to grow by the grace of God. The tragedy of the Pharisee is that he had a brilliant past, but because of his complacency, he had no future. Whereas the tax collector had no past whatsoever to be proud of (he was in kindergarten in terms of moral development; the Pharisee was in the tenth grade), and yet his willingness to admit his need and to grow meant that what is more important to God than anything else—our future—actually had a brighter prospect for him than for this other person.

Therefore, the word this morning is that we are to keep our eye on the goal. The measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, that is what we were put in history to become. It is the gift of grace; it is not something you have to do by yourself. It is something you have to let the risen Christ help you to become. "You shall be perfect" is the promise, if you'll admit your need and how life is one unending experience of growth, and let the grace of God take you to where he wants you to be. We don't get ourselves together and then go to Christ. We come to Jesus, and that's our only hope of finally achieving the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

Back in 1965 something happened that has never happened, I'm told, before or since. There was a commencement address given at a university in the central [part] of England that is remembered by everybody there verbatim. Can you imagine? Most commencement addresses are easily forgotten. Most of them are platitudinous, and you just sit there hoping to get through as quickly as possible. But at one moment in history, a graduation address was given that everybody there remembers word for word. The speaker was Winston Churchill. By this time he was a very old man, very feeble of body. He'd been asked to give this address, and they had to help him up on the stand because he was so weak. In fact it was the last time he ever appeared in public. When he was introduced, they had to help him to the podium, and those there said that he stood there for a long time gripping the podium. They weren't even sure he had strength enough to speak. But then, they said, he lifted that great head of his and that voice that had called England back from the very brink of despair during World War II, that great voice said the last public words that he'd ever utter. And do you know what they were? "Never, never give up. Never give up." And with that, he just turned around and took his seat. They said he was absolutely electric. If you know Churchill's career, time and again he'd been knocked to the ground by failure. Time and time again when it would have been easy to give up. Time and time again when he could have become complacent. But he continued to press toward the mark for the prize.

The high calling of God and Christ Jesus—and the reason I think Jesus said, This man went down justified rather than that one—was that this man, despicable as his past was, embraced the ideal of never, never giving up. And my brothers and sisters, if he could do it with his kind of past, all of us, all of us can. Never, never, never give up. Amen.

Would you stand.

Go now, go with God, be not afraid. Let God go before you to guide you. Let God go behind to protect you. Let God go beneath you to secure you. Let God go beside you to befriend you. Go now, go with God, be not afraid. Amen.

Copyright 1999 The Rev. Dr. John R. Claypool

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