Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below
How Clarence Came Fully Alive
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
23rd Sunday After Pentecost • October 23, 2016
Why were these men at the temple that day? We all have reasons to come to worship. Perhaps it’s a habit, perhaps it’s a hope. Something got us up, something made us do all the get ready things and come here today. So I wonder about these two men, I wonder why they are there. The most frustrating thing about the stories of Jesus to me is all the questions they raise.
Take the second man in this story. He doesn’t sound like a regular worshipper. What’s he doing visiting this day?
Tax collectors had a bad reputation in that time. The term itself doesn’t really translate the reality. Taxes weren’t collected directly by the government. The collection system was privatized; a business would buy the right to collect the taxes for a certain area, a county perhaps or even a whole state, a province. Some things don’t change: buy low, sell high is one and in this case what it means is that once you’ve paid for the right to tax, you make money by squeezing every last nickel out of every last person. In Jesus’ time, that’s just what was happening. Old, obscure taxes were being brought up; new ones were being thought up. Small timers and the poor who had escaped in the past were being pressed. All governments use force to collect taxes eventually and in this case, the force was the sword of the Roman legion. The Romans were very fussy about paying your taxes, they made our IRS look like fairy godmothers. The connection between threats from the Romans and taxes meant that tax collectors were seen as occupiers, also, traitors to the always simmering cause of Jewish independence. No good Jew would eat with a tax collector or invite him to their home or say hi in the street. If the tax collector sat down in a coffee shop, no one waved, no one cam by his table to ask how his day was going.
Lord Have Mercy
Yet here he is, a tax collector, at the temple. Watch him go in: he’s the one wearing the slightly worn suit, last year’s cut, serviceable but not stylish. He’s shaved; the Romans don’t like beards. He doesn’t look around as he goes in; he isn’t expecting any friends and he won’t find any either. Now he goes up to the place where you put your offering. No one really knows what it looks like but I like to imagine one of those banks of candles they have in European cathedrals. Each candle represents a prayer. But the prayers aren’t free. You have to pay. Go to Notre Dame and there’s a box where you’re expected to put in a 1 euro coin before you pray. I imagine him doing something like that, putting in his coin, standing there, head uplifted in the Jewish manner of prayer and saying nothing, noting at all.
I know the text quotes him, and perhaps his voice carries his thoughts or perhaps Jesus put the words in his mouth, words evident from his look. “Lord God, have mercy on me,” his prayer, isn’t simple or usual. It’s not a prayer you choose, it chooses you. I look at this man, praying this prayer and I think: this is a man who is dead and cries out to come alive. Maybe he couldn’t find any other job when he got out of school, maybe he was ambitious and hoped he’d advance under the Romans, the reasons don’t matter, somehow he’s come to a moment when he can’t stand himself and knows no one else can either and he’s wondering if God can. Have you ever wondered that? Have you ever prayed this prayer? Have you ever wanted to come alive again?
He’s not alone. There’s another man standing there, a Pharisee. He’s dressed for worship, finest robes, perhaps a leather pouch tied to his head containing a bit of the Torah—it’s a religious custom, observed only by the very careful. He puts his offering in too, he lights a candle too, and he prays. But notice how different his prayer is. The tax collector’s prayer is all about hoping God will do something: “Lord God, have mercy on me.” The Pharisee’s prayer is all about what he is doing: “Look at me, I thank you, I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of my income.” He’s not a secular man, he’s very religious. He’s doing everything he can. Imagine what would happen if we made these things a requirement for membership here. I can just see the conversation with a prospective member: “Now, in addition to agreeing to our church covenant, there are just a couple of other matters that we do ask of all members. First thing, we ask that you fast, not eat anything, two days a week. You choose the days, and you can indicate them right here on this pledge card. Oh, and by the way, you will, of course, be expected to contribute a full tenth of your income.” Now there’s a program for a membership drive!
The Pharisee in this story doesn’t get much approval, but it’s worth pointing out that he is there, he is at worship. Something brought him there too. Maybe it was the chance to show off his righteousness, but that wears thin pretty quickly. I wonder if he isn’t struggling also, just like the tax collector. Self-inflicted righteousness can get awfully lonely. All those ‘I’s’—so little space for God. Most of us were brought up on a diet of these stories in Sunday School, so I know right away when you heard the word ‘Pharisee’ you knew that wasn’t you and it certainly isn’t me—or is it? The Pharisees have gotten some pretty bad press but the truth, the uncomfortable truth, is that they were more like us than we often want to admit. They were the good people, the law abiding, worship going people, of their time. Many of them seem to have followed Jesus around, which makes me wonder: what were they looking for? Were they hoping to come alive too, just like the tax collector?
The Story of Clarence
Garrison Keillor tells a wonderful story about a day when a man named Clarence came alive.
One day Clarence was standing in the shower when he felt something that could have been a heart attack. It wasn’t a heart attack but for 10 seconds or so it might have been and it made Clarence think that life could be very short. It was Sunday and Clarence thought if life was short, maybe there wasn’t time to sit through a sermon. But he got dressed anyway and went downstairs and when someone asked later how he was feeling, he said “I’m fine.” Clarence is Norwegian and Midwestern. Norwegians and Midwesterners could be torn to a bloody pulp and gasping their last but if asked, say, “I’m fine.” At church, he checked out of the sermon fairly early because it was one of those where you really don’t need to listen, you can just pick up the last two or three sentences and get the whole thing, and when the pastor’s voice sounded like it might be near the end, Clarence took out his wallet and saw he had no cash. So he got out his checkbook and wrote a check for thirty dollars. Of course, he didn’t want anyone to see him writing while the pastor was still talking so he tried to do it without actually looking at the check.
Then came the hard part: how to get the thing out without making that awful ripping noise but he folded the thing back and forth over and over until Mrs. Tollefson frowned at him and it slipped out. When Elmer passed the plate, he put the check in and kept it moving and just after he handed it along, he realized he had written a check not for thirty dollars but for three hundred. What to do? Can you sneak in where the Deacons are counting and say, “Hey, there’s been a little mistake, I meant to write 30 and I wrote 300, it could happen to anyone.”? How do you say, “I gave more than I meant to”? Was there even that much in the account? At this moment, Clarence felt terrifically awake, totally aware, completely and fully alive.
Isn’t this the key?—we come fully alive when we have given more than we meant to, more than we can afford. This isn’t about amounts of money; it’s about giving ourselves. We’ve all heard the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector before, maybe heard it many times before. But what’s the difference here? Why does one go away with what he sought and one without? No one can afford to pray, “Lord have mercy on me”—it’s a prayer you come to when you are spiritually bankrupt, empty, nothing left. It’s the last prayer, the prayer when you can’t do anything else, can’t pray anything else. The tax collector is beyond what he can afford. The Pharisee still thinks there’s something he can do, that it is in fact just about him and what he does when the truth is, fully alive, abundant life, is God’s gift. Clarence is a Norwegian and a Midwesterner and he’s lived his whole life from what he can afford. But he comes fully alive when he goes beyond it.
In a few weeks, we’re going to meet as a church to decide on a plan for next year. In a few days, we’re going to have to decide what to give to support that plan. There’s a terrific urge at such times to consider what we can afford and to plan the same way we do in a good business. Good business practice is fine but we ought to remember that we aren’t a business. We are a church, a church of Jesus Christ, and no one comes here because of our great business skills. They come here, we come here, because Jesus Christ offers life fully alive, life beyond death. His life, lived in us; his life, living in us.
Come Fully Alive
I don’t know what happened to that Tax Collector when he left the temple; I don’t know what happened to the Pharisee. I don’t even know what happened to Clarence. But I do know that whenever someone has come fully alive and lived from that excitement, it began when they moved beyond what they could afford. That’s how Clarence came fully alive; how are we going to do it?
Note: The story of Clarence and the collection is told as Collection in Leaving Home, by Garrison Keillor, p. 22.