Good Guys and Bad Guys
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always
acceptable in your sight, oh Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Good Guys and Bad Guys.
They fight against each other in movies.
We read about them in literature.
We see them on TV.
We cheer for the good guy.
We hope for the demise of the bad guy.
In the stories that we see and hear,
The good guy wins.
The Bad guy loses.
And we think we know the difference between the good and the bad.
But it’s not always quite so simple.
It’s not always so black and white.
It’s not always so either/or.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells a story about what appears to be a good guy,
and a bad guy.
Only the tables are turned.
It’s not what we would expect.
Because it’s not quite so simple.
Jesus begins the story by saying, “Two men went up to the temple to pray,
one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”
In Jesus’ time, the Pharisee is the good guy.
He Loves God.
He knows all the rules and he follows them meticulously.
The tax collector is the bad guy.
He’s a scoundrel.
If we modernize this story a bit,
We can see that we have the same standards and tendencies today.
At first glance, we assume that
The Christian who goes to church (like you and I) is the good guy.
The atheist down the street is the bad guy.
As a matter of fact, if Jesus were to tell this parable today, he might begin it by
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Christian, the other an atheist.”
Atheists wouldn’t go to the temple to pray!
They don’t even believe in God!
This idea is shocking.
And the same kind of shock value is inherent in Jesus’ ancient story,
The tax collector wouldn’t go to the temple to pray!
The shock reminds us that its not quite so simple.
Not quite so black and white.
Not quite so either or.
Instead, Jesus uproots our expectations.
He switches everything around:
producing a double shock.
In the story that Jesus tells, we learn that
The good guy isn’t quite so good.
The bad guy isn’t quite so bad.
It’s not what we would expect
It’s not so simple.
Because there’s no such thing as a purely good guy.
No such thing as a purely bad guy.
But there is such a thing as being purely human.
And both the good guy and the bad guy have human tendencies.
And we must bring those human tendencies to God in prayer.
We all have the human tendency that the Pharisee has:
We all want to be good--
Be better—be perfect.
We want to do things right:
For ourselves, for our loved ones, for God.
And we also have the human tendency of the tax collector:
We all mess up,
We all fall short.
We’re all sometimes scoundrels.
But we’re not just good.
And we’re not just bad.
And we need God’s help.
And this means that we have to be honest.
Honest even in our prayer.
You see, the Pharisee: Who we thought was going to be the good guy,
Who gets made out to be the bad guy:
Is actually just the guy who is extremely dishonest in his prayer.
In his prayer, he says:
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or
even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.
But he leaves a lot out.
Because he’s definitely not perfect.
He can’t be, because he’s human.
But he didn’t bring that to his prayer.
Instead, the surprise comes from the tax collector:
Who we thought was going to be the bad guy,
Who gets made out to be the good guy:
Is actually just the guy who is being honest about his humanity.
And that honestly is deeply good.
The tac collector, was standing far off:
He would not even look up to heaven:
Was beating his breast and saying,
“God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Jesus’ story today reminds us to be humble.
And being humble is often about being honest.
Honest about who we are.
Honest about our actions: both good ones and bad ones.
I’m not saying that we should be self-deprecating:
Or overly hard on ourselves.
But we should be honest.
Because if we’re really honest:
We’ll remember that we don’t have to be perfect.
We don’t have to be perfect before each other.
We don’t have to be perfect before God.
Because we’re really just human: And it’s not quite so simple,
Not quite so black and white.
Not quite so either/or.
And that’s not even the greatest news.
The greatest news is that God loves us anyway.
Bishop Visit and Confirmation
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, be always acceptable in your sight, Oh
Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The Gospel of Luke is full of stories of personal encounters between Jesus and
Sometimes with his followers,
Sometimes his opponents,
And sometimes strangers.
There are crowds of curious and hopeful individuals:
A tax collector,
A grieving mother,
A sinful woman,
A man inflicted with demons.
As Luke relates these stories,
He shows Jesus responding with love and grace,
Using the occasions to teach the values of God,
While challenging the contrasting and distorted ways of the world.
We find Luke telling a story about Jesus,
And 10 lepers begging for mercy.
These lepers most likely suffered from what we now call Hanson’s disease.
This illness, known among humans for thousands of years,
Went untreated in biblical times and caused permanent damage,
To skin, nerves, limbs, and even compromised the immune system,
It hastened death.
Though it is now known to be only mildly infectious,
The ancients considered it highly contagious,
And forced lepers to stay away from others,
Identifying their condition by announcing,
“Unclean, Unclean,” when approached.
As a result,
These people were excluded from the general society and forced to make their
Not unlike leper colonies that still exist in some parts of the world.
They became dead men walking--
At the mercy of others,
Ostracized, alienated from family life, and the comfort of communal religious
Like others, the lepers in today’s gospel were outcasts,
Who bound themselves to one another out of necessity and because no one else
would touch them.
All that mattered was their disease.
We know this,
Because among these lepers, was a Samaritan:
Who would have been a hated and shunned foreigner in mainline society.
But because he’s a leper. That’s all he is.
This band of 10 lepers had nothing to offer others,
Nothing to offer Jesus when they saw him coming.
But they recognized him:
Perhaps by his reputation as a holy man,
And approached within shouting distance the one they knew by name.
They cried out,
“Jesus! Master! Have mercy on us.”
Possessing enough inspiration,
Or maybe just a sense of desperation,
They reached out to Jesus with an appeal for healing that went beyond all
Jesus did not hesitate in his response.
He did not back off or require the lepers to confess faith in God.
He did not inquire about whether they were worthy.
He did not ask anything of them.
Jesus saw them and said simply,
“Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
Now, according to the Jewish law,
A cured leper had to appear before the priests,
Who would conduct a series of elaborate ritual actions in order to declare them
The lepers, who had hoped in Jesus,
Now displayed enough faith to obey him.
They immediately left his presence to go to the priests as required and to begin
the new lives that Jesus made possible.
What Jesus did for them, of course, bore remarkable significance.
Not only were they cured of a horrendous, disabling disease,
But the cleansing also enabled them to overcome what was perhaps the greater
Now they could return to the community,
To become a part of the body that had cast them out.
Now they could participate fully,
Restored physical and socially,
and surely experiencing the beginnings of emotional healing.
Yet we might ask,
Did they gain everything Jesus hoped for?
Did they achieve spiritual healing as well?
We will never know about all of them,
But we have assurance that one did--
The Samaritan who returned to give thanks.
If we wonder what led to his distinguishing himself by praising God and falling at
Jesus’ feet in gratitude,
We might speculate that it was easier for him--
As a double outcast--
Leper and Samaritan--
To see clearly the remarkable nature of what had happened.
More likely, however,
It was due to his greater maturity and deeper strength of character.
Whatever the reason, Jesus was saddened that he was the only one who turned
And he used the one and the nine to teach his disciples another lesson about the
values of God.
He was clearly disappointed by the behavior of the nine,
And in earshot of his followers,
He said to the now-cleansed Samaritan leper,
“Your faith has made you well.”
In place of the word “well,”
Some translations use “made whole” or “Saved”
There is ambiguity about the Greek meaning,
But its use by Jesus surely implies more than simply being cured from a disease.
“Your faith has made you whole,”
Seems to be closer to the way Jesus used this episode to provide a new teaching.
The Samaritan was not simply cured like the others,
But experienced something more important.
His response to being cleansed demonstrated that his view of God,
Was closer to what Jesus came to reveal.
He acted not out of selfishness to gain certification of his cure,
Not rushing to the priests without reflection,
But paused to put his cleansing in a wider perspective,
Seeing God as the center of the personal miracle he was experiencing.
Before anything else, the Samaritan gave thanks for the chance to renew his life.
This was the beginning of his transformation,
And it provided a fitting model for Jesus to honor.
He was not only cured physically,
But he also gained spiritual wholeness.
For us, there are several “take aways” from this story:
Community, inclusivity, and wholeness in the life of the world.
Think about the Eucharist this morning:
The moment we experience among our fellow worshipers today,
As we come forward to receive at the table together.
It’s a moment of unity in its purest form.
Receiving the sacrament of bread and wine,
The body and blood of Christ,
We are at one with God and one another:
In a sublime moment of grace.
Or: think about the moments we’ll have next week:
When we celebrate confirmation:
And pray with and for our two confirmands:
And rejoice with them.
In moments like these: just like the Samaritan Leper, we are made whole.
Even if we lose this reality as we go out the door or back to our pews,
We know it as a deep truth on which to draw on our journeys of faith.
In that moment,
We know that everyone is like the Samaritan,
Freed from alienation and separation from others in a realm of God that is a circle
of universal inclusion.
Luke’s story of this encounter between Jesus and the lepers allows him to teach
us about the disappointment Jesus felt because the nine failed to give thanks,
That the nine who failed to give thanks:
Still remained healed.
Jesus didn’t take that away, even though he was disappointed.
And at the same time, This story teaches us of the joy he experienced in
discovering that the Samaritan recognized some of the deeper truths of God.
Through this story: Jesus speaks to us, as well as to the disciples:
Today we are reminded of the sadness of our Lord when we,
Like the nine,
Fail to follow him and recognize all that he has done for us.
But we are also led to emulate the Samaritan.
We can take joy in committing ourselves anew to respond in love and gratitude to
the grace, forgiveness, and wholeness of God that we ALL can have: and that God
will never take away from us.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, oh
Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Across the church this week,
People are remembering and honoring St. Francis of Assisi.
We’re going to bless our pets:
And many other churches will do the same.
Some will put up new birdbaths, and say special prayers for nature.
But there’s a lot more to St. Francis than that.
Francis was the son of a wealthy textile merchant.
His father’s wealth, and Francis’ own charisma,
Made the young man a leader of the youth of his town.
And Francis gained a rock-star following by the Early 1200’s.
And he remains famous today,
Not just because of birdbaths and animals,
Not just because of his own words and actions,
But more because his words and actions conformed so closely to those of Jesus.
As a young boy,
Francis dreamed of earning glory and battle.
He got his chance at an early age when he enlisted,
Along with the other young men of Assisi,
To fight in a feud against a neighboring city-state.
Assis lost the battle and Francis was imprisoned for a time.
Defeat in battle and a serious illness in prison caused Francis to turn away from
his visions of glory on the battlefield.
The course of Francis’ life was profoundly changed by at least two formative
On a pilgrimage to Rome,
Francis saw a beggar outside of St. Peter’s Church.
They Holy Spirit moved him to trade places with the beggar.
Francis exchanged clothes with a beggar,
And spent the day begging for alms.
That experience of being poor shook Francis to the core.
Later he confronted his own fears of leprosy by hugging a leper.
Like trading places with the beggar in Rome,
Hugging a leper left a deep mark on Francis.
Shaped by his experiences with the beggar and the leper,
He had a strong identification with the poor.
Francis cut himself off from the rich lifestyle of his father,
And sought out a radically simple life.
By the time of his death,
The love of God had compelled Francis to accomplish much toward rebuilding the
He was known for preaching to anyone:
Even to birds!
He believed that God loved EVERY one: and EVERY creature.
He could look on thousands of lives transformed by his call for repentance and
simplicity of life.
Yet, Francis was simply a man transformed by the love of God,
And the joy that flowed from a deep understanding of all that God has done for
Francis’ approach to his life of Christian service fits with Jesus’ words to us in
Jesus tells those who follow him that they are to serve with no thought of reward.
Jesus says, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do,
‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
When you come in from doing something for God,
Don’t expect a reward, only more work.
Francis knew this. And he lived it.
I think we all know about this.
Do you get thanked every time you do the dishes?
Or mow the lawn? Or wash the laundry?
Or make your bed?
But if you wait too long without doing the dishes, mowing the lawn,
Washing the laundry, making your bed,
you are sure to hear about it.
These are thankless tasks and you take them on with no thought to getting praise
for doing them.
Sort of like:
Feeding your dog.
Or emptying your cat’s litterbox.
It must be done.
And you don’t get much thanks.
(although you might get a tail wag or a little meowing chirp)
Notice that in this Gospel story,
Jesus tells of the servant who does what he or she is supposed to do,
In response to the disciples asking for more faith.
First he tells them the parable of the mustard seed,
And how the tiniest amount of faith is enough to accomplish great things for God.
Then he goes on to describe the thankless task of serving God his father.
It is in serving God that we find our faith strengthened.
We are not to serve others for the thanks we get.
We are to serve others as serving Jesus,
Because that is the life God calls us to,
Knowing that we will benefit more than the people we help.
We will benefit in increased faith and increased love.
Francis took his mustard seed of faith and used it to trust that he could hug a
Though he was terribly afraid.
Francis took his mustard seed of faith and used it to grow in compassion:
By begging for alms in order to more deeply know another.
Francis took his mustard seed of faith, and preached to all God’s creatures:
Knowing that each of them was beloved.
In the process,
Francis found the faith to work among lepers,
And to become one with the poor.
And so, again and again,
His steps of faith emboldened Francis to trust God even more.
It’s the same for us.
Each small mustard seed of faith,
Strengthens our trust in God to follow even more boldly.
Nobody mirrors this more than our pets.
Who place their love and trust in us:
Whether we deserve it or not.
And that small mustard seed of faith that they place in us:
Strengthens and grows powerfully.
But our beloved pets mirror God too.
Through the unconditional love they offer.
Mark found this great song: God and Dog.
The words say:
“I look up and I see God,
I look down and see my dog.
Simple spelling GOD,
Same word backwards, DOG.
They would stay with me all day.
I’m the one who walks away.
But both of them just wait for me,
And dance at my return with glee.
Both love me no matter what:
Divine God and canine mutt.
I take it hard each time I fail,
But God forgives,
Dog wags his tail.
God thought up and made the dog,
Dog reflects a part of God.
I’ve seen love from both sides now,
It’s everywhere, amen, bow wow.
I look up and I see God,
I look down and see my dog.
And in my human frailty,
I can’t match their love for me.”
It only takes a tiny mustard seed of faith to start.
And then it grows:
But not because of the thanks of praise we may get for that small seed of faith.
It’s because that faith is an act of love.
We can join Francis in saying that we are merely servants doing what we are
called to do.
We call ourselves servants knowing that what we do,
We do for love,
For the one who knows us fully,
And loves us more than we could ever ask for or imagine.
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