Faith is a Love Affair, Not a Job Interview
A sermon on Luke 18:9-14.
[Photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash.]
There once were two people who wanted to be right with God.
[Two actors smile & wave. One is standing tall behind the altar. The other is sitting on the altar steps, on the side away from the lectern.]
That desire is a good place to start, so let’s begin by giving them both credit, before we dissect how they went about it.
They both recognized the hidden longing in their hearts as something that they should bring to God.
They both avoided the trap of self-help affirmation culture that could have convinced them that they had no need for God.
They both really cared about investing in their relationship with God.
This is no small thing.
It’s a vulnerable position… the acknowledgement that the divine, perfect creator of the universe was aware of them…had an opinion about them… and that, by reaching out to God they were opening themselves up to that opinion.
So, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the first of these two people felt the need to sell herself a bit.
It’s only natural, in a high-stakes relationship, to want to put our best foot forward and emphasize the positive of all we have to offer.
Except, that’s not exactly what she did.
In her eagerness to make her case for divine acceptance…or perhaps out of her fear that she couldn’t make a good enough case on just her merits…she focused her prayer on the negative: touting the things she DIDN’T do.
[Standing confidently at the altar, arm up-raised, smiling broadly]
“God, I gotta tell you, you did some of your best work with me, really. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there is a LOT of bad behavior out there in the world, but don’t worry. I avoid it.
I am not one of those people who are just hungry and grasping all the time, always wanting MORE… more money, more beauty, more stuff, more achievement. They are never satisfied!
But not me! I am perfectly content with the good life you have given me. You won’t catch me complaining!
And then there’s all the injustice! People who willfully use their power to hurt or deprive others.
People who want to ban books just because they have queer characters.
And those who complain about “their tax dollars” going to food for hungry families or health care for immigrants. As if the Bible doesn’t directly talk about caring for “orphans, widows, and foreigners.” You and me… we know what’s up.
And don’t get me started on all the racists! They just make my blood boil. Thank God… I mean.. thank YOU that I’m good in that department. You know… not the brag, but I have several black friends.
Plus, you don’t have to worry about my sexual ethics. I am happily married – no thoughts of straying.
I mean, I have Netflix, so I know the kind of stuff that seems to be socially acceptable these days, but NOT a problem here!
No. I do everything that’s expected of me and fulfill my religious obligations. So… you can count on me.
God, I’m just so grateful that I don’t have to worry about falling short of your expectations.
So, you know… we’re good.
[Prayer ends uncertainly, sensing that this prayer has not gone where it should, glancing “up” to try to assess God’s reaction. – place mic down on the corner of the altar and move to sit-down.]
Hmm. I’m not actually sure how well that strategy worked out for her.
The instinct is understandable: the felt need to paint herself in a good light.
But faith is not a job interview. It’s not a matter of arguing our qualifications for the position and assuaging any concerns about whether or not we will be a good fit.
The hard sell may actually be self-sabotaging. Because it is a rejection of any vulnerability… an insistence that she doesn’t actually need anything from God after all… except maybe a gold star?
And once she has listed off all the ways that she has passed the test, what else is there to say?
She can’t admit to any needs… because that would be wanting more than what she has.
And she can’t lament any pain or loss… because that might reflect an attachment to her unjust privilege.
And she can’t ever slip up… because she has staked her right to God’s approval on her moral perfection.
And she can’t even find community with others, because she has judged everyone else in making her argument.
The prayer that was meant to draw her near to God has instead erected walls of expectation and performance that deny any need for God and any commonality with the people around her.
Leaving her insecure and isolated, despite all her self-congratulation.
So, what about our other parable character? Does he have any better success with his bid for God’s favor?
[sits slumped, glancing upward, but then hanging his head, looking defeated.]
He has heard the first prayer, (she wasn’t exactly using her inside voice) and I don’t think he found it very encouraging.
Maybe he felt a bit called out by some of those behaviors or attitudes she was so eager to deny?
At any rate, I don’t think he is feeling any LESS vulnerable about reaching out to the God of the universe. Let’s see what he has to say.
[slowly stands and picks up the mic, but keeps his eyes on his toes and shoulders hunched.]
Well, God… I’m not really sure what to say. I can’t make an argument for how great I am because… I’m not.
I mess up. I make mistakes. I hurt people sometimes and make bad decisions.
And I can’t promise that I will just stop and suddenly be perfect, because… that’s not very realistic. I am a reliably imperfect person.
So, since I’ll never be able to talk you into forgiving me for my mistakes… I guess I’ll just have to ask you to.
Ask you for mercy. Ask you to love me as I am.
Would you do that?
[looks up toward heaven and smiles, hesitantly.]
You, know… based on all I’ve heard about you. I think maybe you would. Maybe you will!
This prayer was a much more vulnerable prayer.
A prayer that made no bold claims and claimed no right to God’s approval.
But it’s a prayer that actually achieves the goal that both were seeking:
a right relationship with God;
a deeper, more honest relationship that that actually meets the soul’s longing for connection and assurance.
Because good relationships require us to open ourselves up and show all of our unflattering, imperfect jagged edges and unhealed wounds.
We don’t interview for love, we fall into it…often scraping our knees and banging our elbows on the way down.
And what makes love real and so, so powerful is the awareness that we don’t have to pretend to be anything other than who we are…
Which depends on the willingness to trust that we won’t be rejected… that we will be seen, and known, and loved just as we are. With no need to make our case for deserving it.
There once were two people who wanted to be right with God.
But what they didn’t know was that God already loved them both. There was nothing they needed to do to make that happen.
All they needed to do to experience God’s love and acceptance was to let themselves be vulnerable enough to admit they needed it.
No resume required.
Thanks be to God.