Monday, October 25, 2010

The Plane and the Seat-belt

There is a story about Muhammad Ali getting on an airplane.
He was asked by the stewardess to put on his seat belt.
Muhammad Ali answered, “Superman does not need a seat-belt.”
To which the stewardess replied, “Superman does not need an airplane either.”
This is what our parable is about this morning.
It is about recognizing who we are and where we belong.
We are not Superman.
We are the ordinary humans in need of God’s mercy and grace.
Often the trap of this parable is that it is familiar to us, and seems straight forward to us.
It appears that it is only about being humble.
We all know that it is important in our lives of faith to be humble.
The reason the parable is often a trap for us is because we very quickly turn being humble into a badge of self righteousness.
In fact, my initial sermon to you this morning was going to be about people who watch reality shows and how they like these shows so they can judge the people on them and think to themselves, “I am glad I am not like that person”.
But then I realized that if I preached that sermon I would be judging people who watched reality shows.
In essence I would fall into the trap of saying, “I am not like those people who watch reality shows.”
The message of our Gospel reading today is really more than a morality play on the importance of being humble.
Because being humble can be turned into a work that we do and then ultimately we end up judging others for not being as humble as we are.
It is about recognizing that we are not superman and we need both the seat belt and the plane.

The problem with the Pharisee is not what he does.
It does not lie in the fact that he fast twice a day or gives a tenth of his income.
These are good things that one does as a spiritual discipline to grow closer to God.
The problem is how he sees himself.
The Pharisee sees himself as justified before God because of the things that he does.
He does not recognize that everything he has is God’s.
Unlike the tax collector who recognizes God as his only hope for mercy.
The center of the parable is about God.
It is God who justifies, God who makes us righteous, God who gives mercy.
To recognize this is to understand where all things come from.

Too often we fall into the trap of seeing our good actions as things that we choose to do.
This includes religious practices.
It includes coming to church, praying, caring for the poor, giving money, going to bible study.
These are things not that we do, but things that God through the Holy Spirit calls us to.
These are things that God makes us do beyond our will.

Just as a small example, on Wednesday night we have Bible study here at our church.
I am always amazed that anyone comes to it.
Not because I think that people don’t like Bible study, but because I think there are always other things people could do with their time.
There are television shows to watch, dishes to clean, mouths to feed, people have had full days they are tired or worn out.
But on Wednesday night there are always ten or so souls that show up.
I believe that it is God who has brought these people together.

Just as I believe that all of you who have come this morning are here because God has brought you here.
And there are many different reasons to be here.
Some of you might be searching for something.
Some of you might be here out of habit.
Some of you might be here because you want to hear again the words of God’s mercy.
But we are all here out of the mercy of God.
Thank God that you are here this morning, thank God that we are together to collectively thank God for his mercy to us this day and every day.
But we who have come here this morning are no better and no worse than the people who are not here this morning.
All of us need that plane and seat belt.
We rely on the same God as the person who wanted to sleep in and read the paper over their cup of coffee.
We are just as sinful as the person who went to play golf this morning.

It is hard I think this because we who are here think we have done so with great care.
It appears as if the person who does not come does so without even thinking about it.
The truth is that we all suffer from the same sickness, the same sense of loss.
We who are here this morning are naming that sickness and seeking the cure through Jesus Christ.

The trap in the parable is to think that the tax collector was somehow a good guy.
He was evil bad.
He was collecting taxes for Rome who was a conquering power over the people of Israel.
His prayer is appropriate because he is what he says he is a sinner before God.
I wonder how many of us here this morning can own that too.
I am a sinner.
Can you say that?
Say it right now out loud with me, “I am a sinner.”
Good for you.
Didn’t that feel good.
I hear many people denying it in rather subtle ways.
I am a good person, I try to do the right thing.
And maybe you are a good person but that is not the point.
The point is that we all are in need of God just like the tax collector.
We all have failed to live up to God’s standards.
And that is why we do things like give, pray, and study the Bible.
It is a recognition on our part of where our lives really belong, and who we really are.
We give because we recognize that God has given to us.
We pray because we realize that things are not as they should be.
We study the Bible to hear the comfort and mercy we seek.

Since today we are welcoming new members into our congregation I was thinking about what I would offer them as words of welcome into our congregation.
And I came up with this quote, “The church is the only institution in the world whose membership is based on unworthiness to be a member.”
We welcome today Jim and Ken, the Maurer family Chris, Rene, Julia, Katherine, grace, and Ben into our imperfect family.
We welcome you to be with us every Sunday as we collectively get down on our knees and beat our breasts and ask for God’s mercy.
This congregation is not about perfect people, it is about a perfect God.
What we invite people to be part of is our imperfection.

This is freeing.
It allows us to be ourselves.
Be yourselves while you are with us.
The church is a collection of people that are never fully right with God, but who are called to righteousness through Jesus Christ.
It is why our congregation does the things it does.
We don’t sit around and say well since we are sinners we can’t do anything.
We say that because of Jesus Christ we are called to love the world filled with people just like us.
We are called to love all the people we find in this world, because we are no different than them.
This is what our recognition of our sinfulness hopefully leads to a deeper humanity.
It leads to the Pharisee and the tax collector seeing their common need before God.
The lesson today is not: don’t be a Pharisee.
Some of us are.
The lesson is that if we are Pharisees we should acknowledge the true source of our life and work God.
This is why our congregation reaches out to help all in need.
Not because we are some great church, but because God has called us to help those in need, love each other as sinners, and tell of the saving grace of God.

We are not Superman, or Superwoman.
We need the plane and the seat belt.
We need God’s mercy and grace every day.
Thanks be to God that we have it.


  1. The reality show analogy was perfect! Thanks Pastor Jon.

  2. thankyou pastor john for wonderful message..usually people will not accept that they are sinners..i hope this message will definitly reveal why we should accept that we are sinners in the sight of the god,ie nobody can live upto god's standards except with his grace n mercy.thankyou for reminding..