1. Back in the early 80s, my great Aunt Pearl died.
a. My father discovered that she left behind very little money.
b. That was not surprising.
c. What was surprising was where it had all gone;
2. For years she had been writing checks for thousands of dollars,
a. To the Praise the Lord ministries run
b. by the Rev. Jim Bakker, and his wife, Tammy Faye.
3. Jim and Tammy were famous back then,
a. but they would soon become infamous
i. as the press revealed that Jim and Tammy
b. had used the money given to their ministry to fund their lavish lifestyle
i. and as hush money for Jim’s affairs.
4. We were horrified that my great aunt had bankrupted herself by her donations.
a. But of course, my aunt was not horrified;
b. nor were the tens of thousands of people who made similar donations.
5. They understood that Jim and Tammy were rich because they were blessed.
a. And that if someone gave to support their ministries; God would bless them too.
i. It was kind of like having a subscription to the lottery;
ii. keep paying and one day, you’ll win!
6. I guess it is easy to judge Jim and Tammy for their crimes.
a. Televangelists are the stuff of Saturday Night Livecomedy routines.
7. And yet, the theology they used,
a. is nothing to laugh at – indeed it is all too familiar to us.
8. Who here has not looked at someone who is wealthy and wondered,
a. how did they get that way?
9. Who has not looked at someone with a nice home, nice family, nice job,
a. and wished somehow, we had these things?
10. Who here has not looked at others,
a. and thought ‘Boy, are they blessed!”
b. and not wanted to be the same?
i. That desire caused my aunt to bankrupt herself before she died.
ii. That desire was a part of the world in which the first reading was written.
11. For in the ancient world it was plain as the nose on your face
a. that the gods played favorites:
b. For in a world where it was difficult to find enough calories to survive,
i. The rich were well fed.
c. In a world where housing was basic if available at all,
i. The powerful lived in mansions and temples
d. In a world where the vast majority were poor and lived and died in anonymity
i. The famous were praised as heroes,
ii. Honored as leaders,
iii. And occasionally worshiped as gods.
12. IT was as clear to the people back then as it was to Jim and Tammy and all their supporters who the gods’ favorites were;
a. their wealth power and popularity were proof of that favor.
13. Ben Sirach, who lived about 150 years before Jesus, lived in that world.
14. Its why he writes what we hear in today’s first reading;
15. BUt while it was no surprise to him that the gods played favorites,
16. what was surprising was who the God of Israel’sfavorites were: They were
a. The oppressed whose rights were taken from them
b. The orphans, who never had rights to begin with
c. The widow whose rights were lost with her husband’s death.
17. People whom no one listens to – But God does
18. People whom everyone ignores – but God does not.
19. IN world where it is obvious that God’s favorites are the rich famous and powerful, according to Sirach, they are not.
20. And neither are they for Jesus.
a. And we know that from the story he tells his listeners
i. Using two stock Characters found in all his stories –
1. the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
21. The pharisee was a member of a new religious movement at the time of Jesus.
a. The pharisees taught that God’s favorites
i. were those who were faithful to God’s law
ii. By following the law to a degree not previously required by Judaism.
b. It cannot be emphasized enough how popular the pharisees were
c. For they offered a way that had nothing to do with money or power or fame
i. BE RIGHTEOUS! And you can be God’s favorites too.
22. However, there is a problem.
a. If God’s favor depends on our effort,
i. Well, we know what happens when we are successful
b. But what happens when we are not?
c. What happens when our weakness intervenes?
d. What happens when our lack of foreknowledge
i. causes us to fall into situations where we are trapped?
e. What happens when the decisions of the rich and the powerful,
i. keep us from fulfilling the law?
23. Enter the Tax Collector
a. While none of us like paying taxes, most of us know
i. that the roads we drive on, the bridges we cross and the subways and buses we take for granted would be impossible without them.
b. But what if our taxes instead of being used for our benefit, flowed into the pockets of our foreign enemies, of the rich and powerful people who oppress us?
24. What happens is the tax collector,
a. IT cannot be emphasized enough how despised tax collectors were.
i. They worked for their oppressors, the Roman Empire
ii. They handled Roman money with the graven image of the emperor on it and thus were unclean
iii. They extorted money from people so that they could make money from tax collecting.
iv. The tax collectors were the archetypical bad guys.
25. But then Jesus tells a story about a pharisee and a tax collector at the temple;
26. One goes away from worship justified; the other not. And guess who is? That is right – the tax collector.
27. Jesus confounds the expectations of his listeners; that is not surprising.
28. What is astounding is why?
a. The answer is rooted in the heart of the biblical tradition
b. It lies at the heart of what Ben Sirach proclaimed in the first reading
c. And is the core of what makes the “good news” so good.
29. That God shows favor NOT to the rich NOR to the powerful NOR to the famous.
a. Despite all evidence to the contrary.
30. Nor even to the righteous;
a. especially when all their striving only results in self-righteousness.
31. God shows favor to those who confess that they are unworthy of that favor.
a. The tax collector is honest.
b. But that honesty opens the door for God to have a real relationship with him.
c. For the rich and the powerful the popular and the pious
d. Are not god’s favorites because of what they have earned, achieved, obtained and have.
e. and neither are we.
32. We are loved by God because of whose we are.
a. We belong to God – that is the source of a relationship that is strong
b. Because nothing – not even our sin can destroy it
c. We can only deny it, when we, through our own self-righteousness think we have earned it; or think that we can force others to earn it too.
33. Jim and Tammy had to learn this the hard way.
a. They were prosecuted for their crimes,
b. Jim spent time in prison.
34. After he divorced Tammy in 1992 he remarried and still continues to preach his message
a. – though hopefully under better financial scrutiny.
35. Tammy on the other hand, began to reach out to people she and her husband formerly shunned.
a. Most notably the LGBT community,
b. caring for AIDS patients at the height of the AIDS Crisis.
36. Needless to say the evangelical world was shocked.
a. For if there was a group that filled the despised place of the tax collector in the 80s and 90s it was the LGBT community.
37. What happened?
a. Perhaps she began to listen to the Jesus we hear today
b. who speaks about a love
i. that is stronger than our judgments
ii. stronger than our prejudices s
iii. stronger than our sin.
c. which does not demand that we somehow justify ourselves through our works.
d. But justifies us through in love;
e. and only asks that we share the good news of that love with others.
38. Like tammy tried to do before her death in 2007
39. Like we are invited to do today.