“A Tale of Two Church-Goers”
February 18, 2015
Immanuel Lutheran Church—Bossier City, LA
INI + AMEN.
Tonight we have for our consideration a story about two people who went to church.
Clara was older now. She’d always been active in her church. After all, she was a life-long member of St. Martin Luther Evangelical Lutheran Church. Baptized and confirmed by Pastor Gruntzwald. She was married by his replacement Pastor Hermann. He’d baptized and confirmed her children. Then there was Pastor Walsh who married her two daughters, and Pastor Smith who’d guided and counseled her son, Richard, who was now a pastor because of Pastor Smith’s influence. Now there’s Pastor Valdez. He hadn’t been there too long before he buried Clara’s husband a little earlier than anyone expected. She’d loved all her Pastors. She’d always loved her church. She’d always been very active, but it was less when she went off to college, but she remained as active as she could even at that time, coming home on breaks and being active during the Summer.
Now that she was older, her impact on the church was palpable. She’d served on almost as many boards and committees as there were boards and committees—some of them several times! Her influence could be seen in some of the banners that hung in the sanctuary. The memorial for her husband Eugene was used to buy the newer Easter paraments for the altar, pulpit, and lectern. It also bought the matching stole for the Pastor to wear. She was a rock of the congregation. She hadn’t missed a church service except when she’d been really sick a few years ago. She was always in Bible class. She always had the best questions.
She was held very highly in the church. Everyone looked up to her. Her generosity. Her attendance. But most of all her wisdom and wit when it came to getting things done. While she wasn’t that old, only in her late 60s, she was very much loved by everyone and was sort of the grandma or motherly figure for both young and old, men or women. That comes with teaching Sunday school for pretty much everyone younger than her. Who wouldn’t love to be like her: always having time for as much as she did in the church, and doing it with apparent grace and energy.
One Sunday, Clara was walking into the narthex before late service. She’d always gone to that service once they added it a few years ago. She wanted to show her openness and solidarity with those who needed a later service time. She saw a group of her friends talking. She would’ve normally stopped to talk with them, but she had talked with her friend, Elaine, after Bible Class and so she was running late. As she was passing by she could overhear part of the conversation being tossed around “Did you see who walked in?” “I can’t believe he’s here!” “I know!” Normally Clara would’ve stopped and added more than her two cents. In fact, she almost did, but she was running late so she stayed focussed and kept walking. She grabbed her bulletin from the Elder and headed into the sanctuary. “The prelude’s already playing!” she thought. Right when she entered the sanctuary, she saw him. She say him so quickly because he was in her pew! Now she understood the snippets of conversation as she walked in. It was Max.
It was hard for anyone to remember the last time Max had been there. Max was Elaine’s oldest son. He used to be good friends with Clara’s son, Richard, who was now a pastor. That all changed in the summer between high school and college. Max was first arrested then. Another friend had convinced Max to come on some errands. They took His friend’s mom’s car. It took some work, but his friend finally convinced Max that it was ok, his mom was cool with it. Somehow through the course of their errands, Max ended up driving. It was then that they got pulled over. Max’s friend’s mom wasn’t ok with them borrowing the car. In fact, she was so convinced that Max was the bad influence, she pressed charges. Felony Grand Theft Auto, and Max spent six months in jail.
Things went downhill for Max after that. He couldn’t go to college. He had to find work with his cousin at an auto body shop. He moved in with his girlfriend. They had a couple of kids. Then she up and left him. She moved to another state or something. Max had lost track. She left him with the kids. That was about 4 years ago. About a year or so before this Sunday morning, the stress got to Max, and it landed Max with a DUI. His cousin was forced to fire him because of it. He would’ve ended up in jail again, but the judge knew that he was the sole provider for his kids. Max only had to go to a treatment facility for six months. When he finished the program, Max, of course, had a hard time finding work. He finally found it as a bouncer at a well-known nightclub known for its less than reputable clientele. For the past few years Max had only come on Christmas, maybe. Since he got his job at the nightclub, Sundays were out. He usually had to work until close, and that meant staying even later than that: to make sure the female waitresses got to their cars safely. But he’d finally convinced his boss to let him off early.
“What’s he doing here?” Clara thought. “Why couldn’t he have gone to early service with Elaine and his kids.” She’d forgotten that Katrina and Caitlin were sick with the flu and hadn’t come to church. “If he came more often, he’d know that was my pew.” Clara begrudgingly took the seat behind Max with a huff. “I hope that he takes something away from this service to get his life in order.” “Dear God, I’m glad that my son didn’t have so much trouble like Max. I’m glad Richard was able to keep his life in order,” she prayed. “I can’t believe where he works. Maybe the pastor can help him get a more decent job.” “Dear Lord, I’m glad that I don’t have to work at a place like that to take care of my family. I’m glad that I can give back to you what I know You want and deserve from me. I’m glad I’m not stingy like others with my time or my money.”
The conversation with the Lord was going much differently in Max’s pew. He could barely look at the gold cross sitting on the altar with the Last Supper carved in wood on the front of it. “Heavenly Father, have mercy. I’m glad that you’ve sent Pastor Valdez to minister to me. He’s the one who convinced me to come. I know I don’t deserve to be here, but Pastor Valdez told me, ‘If that’s how you feel, Max, then that’s exactly where you need to be.’ I pray that you would forgive me, Father. I’m a sinner. Pastor Valdez told me that the forgiveness spoken here, the readings, the sermon, Holy Communion are here waiting FOR ME. For me, Lord! Lord, I’m not worthy. Have mercy upon me for Jesus’ sake. I know you won’t do it for my sake. I know what I’ve done. But for Jesus’ sake, I know you will. Amen.”
With that the prelude was over. The organist started playing the opening hymn: “Chief of Sinners though I be.” Max was thankful for Clara’s beautiful voice. She always sang with gusto. That day Max, with tears in his eyes, could barely even sing it.
At the end of His parable, Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” He was talking about the tax collectors of the world. The Maxes of this world. He came for them. He bore their sins. He suffered for them. Died for them. Rose on the third day victorious over them. He washes their sins away at the Font. He unites Himself to them with His body and blood. He’s blood Brother with sinners through His Supper. That’s what it means to eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus, to become one with Him. He makes you one with Him when He gives you those things. Jesus speaks His absolution to the Maxes and Tax Collectors of the world. But not just them. The Pharisees too! Jesus comes for all sinners, but it’s usually the tax collectors and Maxes of this world who end up receiving him.
This story about Max and Clara gives you a better idea about Jesus’ parable. It’s not just more knowledge about what Jesus meant and what His hearers heard when He said, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” It lets us see not where others should see themselves in the parable, but where Jesus wants us in the parable. Were the things that Clara helped with bad? No! But it all hinges on why Jesus tells you and me this parable: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”
During this season of Lent, let our prayer continually be that we would trust in Christ alone. That we don’t trick ourselves into thinking “I’m pretty good because of XYZ.” Are XYZ bad? Do you trust in them and in yourself because you do them? That’s what’s bad. Jesus points us to the tax collector. “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!’” I’m the only one, says the tax collector. I’m the only one. My only joy is seeing the Lord’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness being poured on other sinners just like me.
INI + AMEN.