Last weekend, I listened to a radio game show--one among many radio shows I listened to on my car travels from wedding rehearsals and weddings to more wedding rehearsals and weddings across this great state of Virginia. I spent nine hours in my car last weekend—nine hours! Norman Lear was one of the radio game show’s contestants on the show I listened to. We on this side of the sanctuary remember Norman Lear, right? He was an American television writer and producer for sitcoms in the 70’s--sitcoms like All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and One Day at a Time. Maybe you on this side of the sanctuary have seen some of these shows in reruns?
Norman Lear is 93 years old now. That radio show affirmed for listeners that he is still funny and smart. During the show, the game show host asked Norman Lear:
So do you have any tips for those of us who would like to arrive at 93 as spry and as successful and happy as you are?
Norman Lear’s response? (quote) “Two simple words. Maybe as simple as any two words in the English language - over and next. Over and next. And we don't pay enough attention to them. When something is over, it is over; And we are on to next and there’s a hammock in the middle. Between over and next, there’s a hammock and that’s what is meant by living in the moment.”
I pledged then and there, in my car, that I would share that quote with you in a sermon-- and, praise be to God, it actually fits with our scripture reading for today—I say it “fits” but actually it fits only if we narrow its application. Norman Lear’s philosophy relates to life in general, on the broad screen, but I want to apply it specifically and more narrowly to our life of faith.
In order to understand the parable, though, and then put it in the context of over and next, with a hammock in the middle, we have to first consider the main actors. We have two actors in today’s parable, the tax collector and the Pharisee. Who ARE these people?
We’ll start with the tax collector. He is a Jew—and he’s also an employee of Rome. He is charged with collecting taxes from his fellow Judeans. That means he’s working for the enemy. He’s a turncoat, a traitor. There’s more, though. As a general rule tax collectors working for Rome demanded more money than was required, and then they pocketed the overage. So not only is our tax collector a traitor to Judah, he bilks people. All to say, the tax collector in today’s parable, never, ever gets invited to birthday parties or weddings. People in his community cross to the other side of the road when they see him coming. Then they spit in his path.
We can assume that the tax collector in our story for today, does not come to the temple with any regularity. He avoids people, except when he is taking money from them.
He, IS, though, at the temple on this particular day. Why? Evidently, he has had a palm- smacking-the-forehead moment. He has suddenly realized that he is a wretched man, living a wretched life. He comes to the temple weeping, and beating his chest--desperate for some relief.
Our tax collector is living squarely in Norman Lear’s not over, but in what we might call the not over yet.
Not over yet. He’s not alone, of course. Lots of people live in the before—the depressed, the dejected, the recently divorced; the unemployed, convicted felons, alcoholics; drug addicts. Not over yet.
Among the many Bibles on my bookshelf at home—I have a collection—is the Life Recovery Bible. I got it for free at a used-book-drop-off-place in Charlottesville. The Life Recovery Bible—aren’t we all recovering, or haven’t we all at some point in our lives, had to recover from something? The front page of the Life Recovery Bible lists the twelve steps of recovery developed by the founders of Alcoholic’s Anonymous. Notes in the margin of the Biblical texts specifically address the challenges of alcoholics. In the margins of Luke 18:9-14, which is our scripture reading for today, we read “After examining our life closely we may feel cut off from God. Considering the scope of what we have done, we may feel unworthy to ask God for anything. Many of our sinful behaviors are despised as the lowest kind of evil by those whom we consider respectable. We may struggle with self –hatred.”
That describes our tax collector to a t, doesn’t it? He would have felt right at home at an AA meeting. “Let me pour myself a cup of coffee and then tell you about MY sorry life.”
That’s life in the “not over yet.” If we can ride it out, though, Norman Lear tells us it is followed by life in the hammock. Our tax collector eventually does put his past behind him. And then he can enjoy life in the hammock. We know that because Jesus tells us that the tax collector goes home justified. In other words, he goes home knowing that his prayers have been answered. He is a man forgiven. And because he knows himself to have been forgiven by God, he is finally able to forgive himself and move on.
When you know you have been forgiven and accepted by God—well that is powerful. Life changing. Born Again Christians know all about that. I’ve known a few. They are zealous in their faith—anxious to share their stories, and they wear religion on their shirtsleeves, their pant legs, their socks and shoes. They know the truth the way no one else knows the truth, because, hey, Jesus is their best friend. Which can get tiresome and annoying. Born again Christians’ are tolerable though, because they are so compassionate. They are compassionate because they have suffered mightily. Consequently, they understand other peoples’ suffering. And we will assume that is the case with our tax collector, too. Having weathered not over yet, our tax collector has learned compassion.
And now on to the Pharisee. Jesus tells us that in the temple he prays to God: “I thank you God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else! And I’m certainly not like that tax collector!” Safe to say that Pharisee has never, ever weathered a not over yet moment. He has never worried about being cut off from God.
And, also safe to say, our Pharisee wouldn’t be caught dead in an AA meeting.
He does, though, know the temple very well indeed. He has actually claimed a section of the sanctuary for himself—directly in front of the altar. From that central location, in full view of other worshipers, he offers praises to God every day, sometimes twice a day--his hands outstretched, his head tilted back, in a show of sanctimonious self-righteousness.
But here’s the thing. Since he hasn’t experienced a not over yet, our Pharisee never experiences the hammock. We should feel sorry for him, except who can feel sorry for someone so over-the-top egotistical? I heard this week that EGO can be used as an acronym for EDGING GOD OUT. EGO. So true, so true. The Pharisee has edged God out of his life, even if he does fast and tithe and spend several hours every day praying at the temple.
And now we are ready for NEXT. Remember, Norman Lear? Next?
Oh, my, don’t we work hard to avoid NEXT. We hate challenge, bad news, and public and personal scrutiny. We hate change. So we live in denial as long as possible, in our hammocks--until finally, finally, we just can’t anymore. Don’t you hate it? Why does there have to be a next? I’ll tell you why.
There’s an Indian word as in from the country of India, that I want to share with you. That word is Ghodiyu. Can you say Ghodiyu? A Ghodiyu is a kind of hammock, or better, a cloth cradle for babies. It is stretched, appropriately enough, across a Ghodiyu stand. When an Indian baby is fretful, Indian parents put their baby in that cloth cradle or hammock. They swing her gently and if all goes well, she settles down and drifts off to sleep. What I am getting at is, if we stay too long in the hammock, it becomes our Ghodiyu.
But we aren’t babies. We don’t belong there. God wants us to interact with the world—to grow and become; God wants us to learn, and share what we learn—God’s given us brains after all! God wants us to tear down and build up, using our God given hands—God wants us to sow and reap and to always, always serve others, for the purpose of bringing in the kingdom. Having been through before and having spent time in the hammock we are primed to do all that. Our faith is now secure. We have faith in God and now we know, God has never stopped having faith in us. That is good news! NEXT!
If we need more good news it is this. We WILL get through “NEXT” with a little help from our friends and our maker.
But back to the tax collector. What happens to him? What’s HIS next?
We will guess that he gives up his tax collecting. Maybe he has inherited some property, so he becomes a farmer. He takes a wife, settles down. They have two sons. When his younger son grows up, he asks his father, the former tax collector remember, for his inheritance—And so this former tax collector becomes the father-character in another of Jesus’ parables, the parable of the Prodigal Son. And because he has learned compassion, this story, too, turns out well for him.
Motto of AA:
God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom t