Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Many of you know that I spent last week in hospital rooms with my family. As I have often found to be the case when sitting with other families during difficult situations, we found ourselves reminiscing. Telling our family’s stories to one another helped us focus on the joys we have shared and the sorrows we have overcome together.
One of our more famous family cooking stories is about the first time my mom made cookies. On this occasion my mother had decided to make cookies for her father without her mother’s help. She diligently followed her mom’s recipe and the cookies looked great – but when my grandfather took a bite, he had a hard time not making a face; it turned out that the cookies were bland and as heavy as led. When the powers-that-be finished their post-mortem on the incident the culprit was clear; my mom had put in baking SODA instead of baking POWDER. Nonetheless, my grandfather ate every one – a display of enormous love on his part!
It seems to me that this is a good analogy for what happens among the people who are called “Christians.” Just as every one of us has a favorite cookie recipe, so different Christians have their own specific ideas of what Christianity is all about, with each believing that their interpretation of scripture provides the best – and sometimes only path to salvation. This is not a new phenomenon. Our gospels have many stories about people who are drawn to Jesus but find they cannot live with certain aspects of his teachings. The letters from the apostle Paul to various communities, which are older than the gospels and form the basis for much of Christian belief, are almost exclusively about disagreements between early Christians. Sadly, similar disagreements continue to exist between Christian denominations, causing extensive separation among those who claim to worship Jesus the Christ.
One of the groups with whom many people have differences is the Westboro Baptist Church. Based in Kansas and structured around the teachings of Fred Phelps, the group is known for preaching against homosexuality and picketing the funerals of victims of violence and soldiers who have died in the service of this country. I have been reading the autobiography of Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, who left the church in her 20s because she no longer believed what it taught. One of the things she talks about in her book is the conflict between what she was told the Bible said – that her family is an elect group privileged for salvation and that all others will burn in hellfire for eternity – and what she herself read in the Bible. How, she wondered, is her family helping gay people (as she was told) by explaining their need to repent if they also believe that these people will not be saved?
Megan details her theological journey – the books she reads, the conversations she shares, the way her thinking changes – to come to terms with her confusion and fear. She is thoughtful and courageous throughout, but one thing consistently bothered me as I read the book: during her periods of doubt and worry she never speaks of talking to the one person who could easily answer her questions. She never references praying to God. Reading her story made me think that the God that Megan was raised with was not just angry and punitive, but also distant and unfamiliar- a god who sits on high to judge, but fails to care about the daily in the lives and concerns of his creation. It seemed to me that Megan believed that her salvation depended on her, while I believe that salvation is dependent only on God.
Today’s gospel is about that very question. The story of the two men praying in the temple is a famous one and is often quoted to demonstrate Jesus’s preference for those who are humble and most in need of salvation. One of the men praying in the temple has done everything right: he follows the law diligently and he thanks God that he has been able to do so. Now, most of us find his little soliloquy obnoxious and faintly narcissistic. It’s all about him and how great he is. Meanwhile, there is the tax collector, who freely admits to his sins and is obviously repentant. The moral of the story, as I learned it in Sunday school and repeatedly over my lifetime, is that it is not nice to be “full of ourselves,” but instead to play down our achievements, giving credit to God for all we are and all we have.
That’s not a bad lesson – but I don’t think it’s the right lesson. Certainly, humility is an attractive trait – and many church leaders and public officials would benefit from working on ours – but it is not the true problem with the Pharisee’s prayer. Because the truth is that the Pharisee is, by the religious standards of his day, a good person. Because Jesus often targets the religious establishment in his parables, we often think of the Pharisees as evil or wrong – but they weren’t. What they were was inflexible and self-righteous. They believed firmly that what they believed and did was right and that by doing right they could earn salvation. This is a common attitude among many Christians who do not understand the relationship between the laws of the Hebrew scripture and the centrality of grace in the New Testament.
It was the attitude of the writer of Sirach, who promoted a transactional religious philosophy: here is how you give to God and here is what you will get back. This kind of ancient quid pro quo theology is the basis for what we now call the prosperity gospel – the idea that when we do good we get more from God, and that those who have less must not be very good people. Jesus himself repudiated this gospel, telling people that salvation is not just for the few who “get it right,” but for all who will believe that they are saved through Christ.
Today’s reading from 2 Timothy confirms Paul’s belief in free salvation. Paul wrote extensively about the law, reminding his followers that Jesus came to fulfill it. The third of what are called “the pastoral epistles,” it is likely that the letter was not written by the historical figure we know as Paul, but in his style and spirit. In it, ‘Paul” tells the story of his own life, and communicates his understanding of it: God is just. God gives us strength; God rescues us from ourselves – and God’s salvation is given not only to us, but to all who long for it.
This is the crucial ingredient that is missing in many theologies; we cannot earn God’s grace. Grace, by definition is free and unearned. We are not saved by following the law. We are not saved by our own goodness; we are saved by the goodness of Jesus Christ. That is the lesson of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It is not that the Pharisee’s behavior was wrong and the tax collector’s was right. It is not that we should not continue to observe God’s laws as best we can- of course we should. It is not that we should condemn those that we believe are not “following scripture.” It is simply this: We must acknowledge that we are dependent on God and God alone.
I don’t know Megan Phelps-Roper, but it seems that the greatest flaw in the theology she was taught was not its exclusiveness, nor its hatefulness, but the fact that it did not teach her to trust in God – to understand that, as our Presiding Bishop always says, “if it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” Baking soda cannot be substituted for baking powder and rigid and legalistic interpretations of scripture are no substitute for the unearned grace given to us freely by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Do not think to save yourselves or to save others. Think rather to accept your dependence on God and be grateful for it.
Happy are the people whose strength is in God, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way, whose hearts and flesh rejoice in the living God. AMEN.