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Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C (3)

I think we’d all agree that English is a funny language. Every region of the country has its own idioms, its own phrases, that make sense to us but sound ridiculous to people from other countries. In English, we have phrases like “a dime a dozen” to refer to something that is common. Or “too big for his britches” doesn’t speak at all to the size of one’s jeans. Rather it refers to someone who is over-confident or full of self-importance. Or if something is not complicated, we say, “It’s not rocket science!”  Every language has its own idioms that make perfect sense to its own people.

There are two particular idioms, one from China and one from Spain, that apply to our scripture lesson for today. There is an idiom in Chinese which is translated, “A crane among a flock of chickens.” It refers to someone who is better than those around them. So if you are ever in China and someone refers to you as a crane among a flock of chickens, you should take that as a compliment. Unless they say “He just thinks he’s a crane among a flock of chickens.” Then they’re saying you’re too big for your britches.

The Spanish idiom is more modern, and its literal translation is, “You think you’re the last Coca Cola in the desert.” It refers to someone who is proud, someone who acts superior to everybody around them. (1)

That’s the kind of people Jesus is speaking to in today’s scripture lesson: people who think they’re the last Coca Cola in the desert. It’s tempting to think this story isn’t about us. But what if it is? As I’ve said before, Jesus’ stories are always a glimpse into the heart of God. And Jesus’ stories are meant to change our life. Not just inspire us. Not just challenge us. Jesus’ stories excavate our true character and motivations and challenge us to follow Christ with a fearless commitment. That kind of commitment will change our life. So unless we really are the last Coca Cola in the desert, this story is definitely for everyone in this room.

Our story begins with these challenging words: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” This is a man who thinks he’s the last Coca Cola in the desert.

There’s an old joke about a psychiatrist who is seeing a new patient for the first time. The psychiatrist says, “I’m not aware of your issue, so maybe you should start at the beginning.”

The patient rolls his eyes and sighs, “Alright. In the beginning, I created the heavens and the earth.” (2)

The Pharisee in our story seems to think he’s God’s gift to . . . God. And, let’s face it, according to conventional values, he’s an upright guy. He’s not a robber, nor an evildoer, nor an adulterer. Surely Jesus is holding him up as an example of how we should all live, not how we shouldn’t. But didn’t Jesus begin this story by saying two men went up to the temple to pray, a Pharisee and a tax collector? The Pharisee was the polar opposite of the tax collector.

Tax collectors were hated by the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. They were often Jewish citizens who were hired by the oppressive Roman government to collect taxes from their fellow Jews. And Rome looked the other way if the tax collector added a few extra surcharges on top of the already-high taxes.

The tax collectors were held in such disrepute that they were not allowed to give testimony in court. They were considered societal outcasts, and utter disgraces to their families. (3) Such men were considered the lowest of the low—so much so that they were excommunicated from the synagogue.

Now let’s listen in on the tax collector’s prayer. Jesus continues in verse 13, “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” Wow! At least this man knows what he is—a sinner in need of God’s mercy.  Then Jesus gives the punch line to this story:

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Why, why does Jesus do this? Why is he so controversial? Why does he criticize the fine, upstanding religious leader and praise the worthless tax collector? Of course, we know the answer: with every story he told, Jesus was trying to reveal the character of God and the nature of God’s kingdom. His goal is never to shame us, but to show us what we’re missing out on when we don’t understand the heart of God. So, what does Jesus want us to learn from these two men and their prayers?

Notice that one man stood before God in his self-righteousness; the other man stood before God in his brokenness. Which did God prefer? 

Over 1600 years ago, the theologian and philosopher St. Augustine wrote to one of his students about what it takes to understand the truth of God. He said it requires three qualities. The first is humility; the second is humility; the third, humility . . .” (4)

But why are brokenness and humility necessary for us to understand God? Kyle Idleman wrote a book titled AHA: God Moments That Can Change Our Lives. Chris Carpenter of the Christian Broadcasting Network interviewed Idleman about his book and asked him this question: “What advice do you have for people who have tried and tried to change certain areas of their lives, and for whatever reason they’ve failed at it?”

Idleman replied the reason some people can’t move on to positive change in their spiritual lives is because they’ve never experienced real brokenness. He says, “As a pastor, I’ll ask people who are in the process of transformation and change, have you cried about it?” (5)

This is the point where most of us walk away. This is the point where we retreat into our comfortable lives and miss out on the joy of confession and repentance. “Have you cried about it?”

We avoid brokenness as much as possible. We try to protect our ego, our image, our self-sufficiency as much as possible. “I’m a good person, especially compared to them! Look at all the good things I’ve done. Look at how I’ve played by the rules.” We’re still trying to earn God’s approval. And there is an inverse relationship between earning God’s approval and receiving God’s mercy. The tax collector stood before God in his brokenness.

That’s the second insight we get from this Bible passage. Two men went up to the temple to pray. One thought he was the last Coca Cola in the desert. The other knew he was a sinner and the only chance he had was God’s mercy. There are five words used to express the idea of mercy, compassion or pity in the New Testament. In our story today, when the tax collector prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” he uses an unusual word for mercy. He uses a Greek word that refers to pardoning a criminal or making atonement for another’s sin. Atonement in the Hebrew Bible is translated as “to cover.” God instituted the practice among the Hebrew people of making an animal sacrifice to cover over their sins. This was an atoning sacrifice. When the tax collector pleads for mercy in this prayer, he is saying, “God, I’m a sinner. I’ll never be good enough to deserve your forgiveness. I need you to take my place and be my atoning sacrifice.” And, of course, Christ himself became that atoning sacrifice.

In March 2018, a 25-year-old man armed with a gun entered a supermarket in a small French town. He shot a customer and a store clerk, then took all the other customers and staff hostage. At one point, the gunman used a female hostage as a human shield to protect himself from police. Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame of the French police force offered to take the place of the female hostage so she could go free. The gunman agreed with the trade.

After a three-hour standoff, Lt. Col. Beltrame was killed by the gunman when a tactical team stormed the building to rescue the hostages. Beltrame’s brother Cedric commented, “He gave his life for strangers. He must have known that he didn’t really have a chance. If that doesn’t make him a hero, I don’t know what would.” (6) We know about heroes. Christ is our hero. He is our atoning sacrifice. He gave his perfect, sinless life to cover our sins. To offer us the mercy we could never be good enough to earn on our own.

Two men went up to the temple to pray. One man exalted himself and left unchanged; the other man humbled himself and left justified. What did you expect when you came to worship today? Did you expect to enter into the presence of the living God, the Creator of the universe, the Almighty? Did you expect God to meet you here? More importantly, did you expect God to change your life?

It’s astounding to me how little we expect from God. We expect to walk out these church doors exactly the same people as we came in. And that is the tragic outcome of our self-righteousness. I’m good enough. I’m comfortable with my current priorities and agenda and good deeds. Nothing in me is broken. Nothing in me needs to die. If that is true, then why did Jesus say, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matt. 16: 24-25)?  

The tax collector stood in the presence of the holy God and didn’t try to hide his sin and his brokenness and his shame. He recognized God’s holiness and his own helplessness. So he confessed his sin and cried out for mercy, and he received the fullness of God’s love, the pardoning of all his sins, justification by God’s grace. Not because he deserved it, simply because that is who God is and what God offers to those who humble themselves and seek Him with all their heart.

Dutch Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen seemed to understand our struggle with self-righteousness and humility when he wrote this beautiful prayer:

Dear God,

I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!
Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?
Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?
Please help me to gradually open my hands
and to discover that I am not what I own,
but what you want to give me. (7)

Two men went up to the temple to pray. Only one of them left there pardoned, changed, set free from the burden of his sin. What made the difference? One man showed up with empty hands and asked God to do for him what he couldn’t do for himself. And God did the rest. I don’t know what you were expecting when you came to church this morning. I hope you were expecting to draw closer to God and be changed. If so, then come to God with honest confession, humility and empty hands. And leave here changed by the mercy of the God who gave His own life on the cross to save us and give us eternal life.

  1. “7 of the Strangest Idioms from Around the World,” December 10, 2019, Alicja Brady,
  2. Reader’s Digest.
  3. “Tax Collectors in Jesus’ Day” by James M. Rochford,
  4. Cited by David Domke, “Bush’s Victory Heralds Ascendancy of Religious Right,” Seattle Times, Friday, November 05, 2004. Donel McClellan, (
  5. “AHA: God Moments That Can Change Our Lives” interview with Kyle Idleman and Chris Carpenter, Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN),
  6. “Arnaud Beltrame: France lauds policeman who swapped with hostage,” March 24, 2018,
  7. From The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Lifeby Henri Nouwen (Crossroad: New York, NY, 2008),

ChristianGlobe Network, Inc., Dynamic Preaching Third Issue Sermons, by King Duncan




Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C (2)

Did you ever hear the expression, game face? It is used in sports when an athlete is so determined to accomplish his or her goal, that his or her determination is written all over his or her face. You can just see it. Nothing was going to keep him from getting a hit, from making a tackle, from completing a pass, nothing is going to stop her from scoring a goal, from stopping a goal, and so forth.

In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus has his game face on. The gospel begins, “When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” The actual words used is that Jesus resolutely set his face to go to Jerusalem. Some translations used to say “He set his face like flint,” From this point on the Gospel of Luke is a journey narrative with the goal, Jerusalem, always in sight. For it is in Jerusalem that Jesus would suffer, die and rise again. He would be taken up, up to Calvary, up from the grave, up to heaven.

Nothing was going to get in Jesus’ way. He was determined to complete the work of the Father. He was determined to initiate the Kingdom of God. If the Samaritans didn’t want to join in, so be it. That would not stop him. Nor was he going to let those brats, James and John, slow him down with their desire to show that they could share in his power and call down fire and brimstone on the Samaritans. Jesus rebuked them, said something like, “Knock it off!” and then went on to the next stop, the next village on the journey to Jerusalem.

Some people wanted to join Jesus. He told them that he journey would be vigorous. “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He is saying that this journey will not be easy.

Other people received a direct invitation from Jesus to join him on the journey. But they had excuses, “I’ve got to bury my father, I need to say goodbye to my family, and so forth.” Jesus told them that nothing can prevent the true disciple from journeying with Him to Jerusalem, from journeying with Him to establish the Kingdom of God, from journeying with Him to the Cross, to the resurrection, to the Kingdom.

We also need to journey with the Lord. To do this, we need to have our game faces on. We cannot allow anything to destroy our focus on the goal, the Kingdom of God. That means we have to be determined to fight off the pressure we have from those around us enticing us to join in with the drinking, the drugs and the sex. That means telling people in high school, college and beyond, “No, I don’t do that. I have a bigger goal in mind, a greater good.” We need to firm ourselves up and resolutely set our faces to follow the Lord. I remember one young lady telling me how she survived the negative pressures of high school and college. Her name was Rachel. She would say, “What effect is doing this or not doing that going to have on Ten-Year-From-Now- Rachel.” Nothing was going to stop her. Nor would she stop herself. She had her game face on. She had the determination of Joshua. When Joshua led the Hebrews into the Promise Land and after all their enemies were conquered, he told them to

choose God or choose the pagan idols, but, and this is Joshua 24:15 “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Game face.

Now, not everyone can hit a home run, no matter how determined he or she is. Some people just cannot hit a baseball or softball even if it were the size of a beach ball. That would be me. Not everyone can score a goal for the USA Women’s team, or block one, no matter how determined she is. There are many, many young ladies who are great soccer players, but not good enough to make the national team. Not everyone can become a nurse or a doctor no matter his or her determination. Some people just cannot do science and math and could never get into med school or nursing school. Not everyone can be a teacher. Some people just do not have the patience to care for a large number of children while at the same time teach them. Not everyone can set their face to achieve every goal.

But everyone can become a vital member of the Kingdom of God. Everyone can be resolutely determined to join Jesus all the way, all the way to calvary, all the way to the Kingdom. Every one of us can harness the power of God, the power of the Spirit, and complete the monumental task we have been created to perform. We can do all that God wants of us in our lives, but we have to be determined, we have to set our faces like flint and look towards the ultimate goal of our lives, service of God.

When it comes to living our Christianity, we have to have our game faces on.

Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C (1)


There is a story that has been around as long as I have been preaching, so the chances that you have heard it are right good. Even so, I share it.

A speaker was scheduled to address some cattlemen. A terrible sleet storm struck on the day of the meeting. When the speaker arrived at the meeting place there were just three men present. The three were seated on the front row of seats — two younger cowmen with an old man between them. After waiting in vain for more people to arrive, the speaker said,

“Frankly, gentlemen, I am somewhat at loss as to what I should do. I went to some effort to prepare a speech, and even more effort to get to this meeting place. But, now I find just the three of you here, and apparently no more are coming. Even the chairman did not make it. Do you have any suggestions as to what we should do?”

The old man, seated between the other two, said,

“Well, I sure ain’t no orator myself. All I know about is cattle. But I’ll say this: If I went down to feed a herd of cattle and only three critters showed up — I would sure feed ‘em.”

“That settles it,” the speaker said. “You asked for it.”

He thereupon proceeded to deliver the entire speech, just as he had prepared it for an expected audience of 300. After talking an hour and ten minutes, the speaker concluded his prepared effort, and remarked to his audience of three, “What do you say?”

The old man was again the spokesman, “Well, as I was sayin’, I don’t know nothin’ about speakin’. Cattle is my business But, it’s like I said, If’n I was to go down to feed a bunch of steers and only three head showed up – why, I would feed ‘em – but I don’t think I would give ‘em the whole load!”

Now, I share that because last Sunday I didn’t give you the whole load on Paul’s word about Christian freedom, and I want to continue today. Our text last Sunday was verse 1 of chapter 5 — a portion of our scripture lesson this morning. This verse is Paul’s Magna Carta of spiritual freedom. It is to such persons as we are – bound in bland conformity, and religious conventions, shackled by guilt which produces growth in dynamic discipleship – it is to such person as we are, smothered in our spiritual development, that this word of Paul comes like fresh air on a sultry day. Listen to it again: “For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand fast there fore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

We need to score that word indelibly upon our minds. We are set loose by Christ to be free persons.

 I want to consider the nature of Christian freedom.  For if there is any audience that knows the foundation of freedom it is those in the military that fight for it.

I’ll be saying three things this morning  One, freedom requires discipline; two, freedom requires love; and three, the freedom of Christ sets the stage and provides the power for our becoming all that God intends us to become.”- In the military we know discipline, we also do it because of love of country and as the Army used to say “Be all you can be.”

Let’s look at those three aspects of the nature of freedom.



First, freedom requires discipline. Actually, the freedom Christ gives us, is a freedom to be responsible. Look at verse 13. “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love, be servants of one another.”

The Greek word, aphormi, translated here as “opportunity” is sometimes translated and literally means “a place for jumping off.” It’s interesting that Paul alone among the New Testament writers used this word and it was one of his favorites. Originally the word designated a point from which to launch an attack, hence used in military parlance to weapon a base of operation.

Get Paul’s picture in mind. He knew that if freedom was interpreted merely as the removal of restraint, sin would seize the opportunity, and use the weakness of human nature to launch attack against the spirit.

So, freedom requires discipline. The freedom of Christ is a freedom to be responsible.

How often have we seen people throw off the bonds of legalism and rigid moralism, and then excuse their irresponsible behavior with such words as “I’m only human.” It’s one thing to acknowledge that we are weak sinners; it’s quite another to do so with a shrug of the shoulders and a nonchalant attitude that makes us content with lesser values and a below par performance.

Many of us here have rightly thrown off a depressing legalistic approach to Christianity. The Christian life is never to be measured in terms of law. It is not a moralistic system of do’s and don’ts. Some of you remember that ditty which was a caricature of Christian piety: “I don’t smoke, and I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls who do.”

We don’t accept as credible those who reduce the Gospel to a set of demands and prohibitions and who would have a few paramount virtues by which they measure everyone. But I want to tell you, friends, that’s not the problem today. The problem today is that we have turned our freedom into license. There are dramatic results of this irresponsible freedom. Sexual promiscuity that is running rampant that plays havoc with individuals and families; the use of drugs at the elementary school level; abortion on demand; crime in the executive suites of big business.

Pleasure has become our God. Escape has become our goal. “If it feels good, do it”, is our unofficial motto.

Later on in this 5th chapter of Galatians, Paul gives a summary of the fruit of the Spirit and many of us know that list: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithful ness, gentleness, self-control.

Most of you are familiar with that list, but how many of you are aware that immediately preceding that list, Paul for us the works of the flesh, the works of the result of freedom becoming license. That list includes impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, strife, outbursts of anger, drunkedness, and jealousy.

So, Paul pictures the life of the Spirit in opposition to our sinful nature — the fruit of the Spirit fighting against freedom turned into license. And having set those two lists in contrast, Paul urges Christians not to grow weary in well-doing and then he reminds us that a person reaps what he sows.

If freedom is not to become license, then we must discipline ourselves to be responsible. That responsibility is primarily disciplined obedience to Christ. Our situational decisions are not made according to whim of the moment, nor by whether we can get away with it or not – but according to who we are by the power of Christ. The liberty Christ gives is responsible liberty that draws us out of ourselves with a transforming power to serve others. And that brings us to the second truth.



Christian freedom requires love. Paul says that the criterion to guide our Christian freedom is love. See it there in verse 14:

“For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’ Interestingly, this is the love that was defined in the law by God to Moses in Leviticus 19:18; and reiterated by Jesus in Mark 12: 29 — 31. Paul simply restates it. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This is what Jesus meant when he said we would save our lives by losing them. If we give our life in love to others, we will find it. But as Paul said in verse 15, “If you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another.”

Here is the losing and finding of life in a person. Marian Preminger was born in Hungary in 1913, raised in a castle with her aristocratic family, surrounded with maids, tutors, governesses, butlers, and chauffeurs. Her grandmother, who lived with them, insisted that whenever they traveled, they take their own linen, for she believed it was beneath their dignity to sleep between sheets used by common people.

While attending school in Vienna, Marian met a handsome young Viennese doctor. They fell in love, eloped and married when she was only eighteen. The marriage lasted only a year, and she returned to Vienna to begin her life as an actress.

While auditioning for a play, she met the brilliant young German director, Otto Preminger. They fell in love and soon married. They went to America soon thereafter, where he began his career as a movie director. Unfortunately and tragically, Hollywood is a place of dramatic illustrations of people “biting, devouring, and consuming” one another. Marian was caught up in the glamour, lights and superficial excitement and soon began to live a sordid, promiscuous life. When Preminger discovered it, he divorced her.

She returned to Europe to live the life of a socialite in Paris. In 1948 she learned through the newspaper that Albert Schweitzer, the man she had read about as a little girl, was making one of his periodic visits to Europe and was staying at Gunsbach. She phoned his secretary and was given an appointment to see Dr. Schweitzer the next day. When she arrived in Gunsbach she discovered he was in the village church playing an organ. She listened and turned the pages of music for him. After a visit he invited her to have dinner at his house. By the end of the day she knew she had discovered what she had been looking for all her life. She was with him every day thereafter during his visit, and when he returned to Africa he invited her to come to Lambarene and work in the hospital.

She did – and she found herself. There in Lambarene, the girl born in a castle and raised like a princess, who was accustomed to being waited on with all the luxuries of a spoiled life, became a servant. She changed bandages, bathed babies, fed lepers…and became free. She wrote her autobiography and called it All I Ever Wanted Was Everything. She could not get the everything that would satisfy and give meaning until she could give everything. When she died in 1979, the New York Times carried her obituary, which included this statement from her: “Albert Schweitzer said there are two classes of people in this world – the helpers, and the non- helpers. I’m a helper.”

What an obituary! It is the way we find ourselves — by losing ourselves. The criterion of Christian freedom is serving one another in love.


And that brings us to the last truth on which we need to focus. The freedom of Christ sets the stage and provides the power for our becoming all that God intends us to become.

The reason Christ’s freedom provides a dynamic power for becoming is that it’s a freedom that has come through forgiveness. We’re no longer slaves to the past, weighed down by guilt, by morbid regret – we are set free, because Christ has wiped the slate clean, as it were.

Let me ask you a question. When you think about God, do you become sad and remorseful and quiver because you are aware of your past sins, or do you rejoice with exhilaration because you’re so aware of God’s loving forgiveness?

I was stimulated to ask that question because Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher—theologian, once said that a person rests in forgiveness when the thought of God does not remind him of sin, but reminds him of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the dynamic power in our lives that it should be, when the past is not a memory of how much we have trespassed, but of how much we have been forgiven, and of the exciting possibilities before us.

I’ve never seen this as dramatically as in some friends of mine. A chaplain and his wife I know their story well a story of heart-break and despair. A ten year recent span in their 30 years of marriage had become empty. Neither was sensitive to the other’s needs. The relationship deteriorated to the point of near destruction for both of them. She came to the breaking point on drugs. They separated, then she was committed to a state mental hospital.

At the edge of divorce, with the woman, still institutionalized. One day the minister was praying for his wife. “Clearly,” he said, “a voice said to me, “You’ve got to turn your prayers into action now. You must love Dale – love her with no strings attached love her like Hosea loved Gomer.”

Of course that meant total forgiveness.

Well, it’s a modern day miracle. Dale has been completely transformed, and, amazingly, has become, I believe, a great poet. She’s teaching in one of the great universities of our country. Listen to one of her poems which celebrates the renewal of their marriage —— the fact that we are empowered by the freedom of forgiveness to be what God wants us to be. She called her poem, “Prodigal Wife”.

Oh, call out the guards and stop the search
Tell my love that I’m found again.
Wandering is over, back home at last,
Saved from the storm, returned to the fold.
Oh sing out the welcome, find the ring.
Turn out the others, reclaim our name.
Spread out the banners, destroy the blame.
Tell my love, I’m home again.
The heart is at rest, the present is here.
Blessings restored, come happiness now.
United in joy — resolved in love.

Ask that couple. They’ll tell you about the freedom of Christ setting the stage and providing the power for our becoming all that God intends us to become.

For freedom Christ has set you free. The clanking chains of slavery loosed by Christ as we are judged and forgiven. We’re then free from the sins that burden us down, free from meaninglessness, guilt, and the threat of death —— set loose to become the unique sons and daughters God created us to be.

A certain chaplain was greeted each Sunday morning by a man whose life as an alcoholic had been turned around by God. He had been free from those burdensome chains. They met in the narrow corridor that led from the chaplain’s office to the chancel of the sanctuary. Each week the alcoholic who had been set free by Christ would stop the preacher and take his hand and say, “Tell the congregation that they can!”

That’s what I’ve been doing telling you that you can if you realize that your freedom requires discipline and love, then that freedom will set the stage and provide the power for you to be all that God intends you to be.

I’m telling you – you can!