October 23, 2016



Proper 25C

A Sermon Preached by The Rev Ian M Delinger on October 23, 2016


Despite the richness of and my love of parts of today’s first two readings, I was struck by something else. The Gospel story oddly reminds me of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in 1988. You know that moment when you read scripture, and something just jumps out at you? When I read this story about the prayers of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, what jumped out at me was Jim & Tammy Faye.  

The Bakkers were the husband-and-wife host of The PTL Club, an evangelical Christian television program. Jim was involved in sex scandal which led to his resignation. Then he was caught in accounting fraud, and he went to prison. You will remember the streams of tears as he and Tammy Faye asked for forgiveness on national television. It was widely lampooned, largely due to Tammy Faye’s heavy make-up running down her face during the dramatic and emotional appeal for forgiveness. (She actually had a second media career off that!)   


Why I am reminded of the Bakker scandal is because of the PTL’s bad model of prayer, and particularly the plea for forgiveness when more and more junk was going to come out. It’s the sanctimonious piety that bothers me, and that it went on for more than a decade in their ministry, and made them lots of money. I would imagine that most of that money was from genuinely good people who just wanted to nurture their relationship with God. What Jesus was criticizing with his parable were those who pray publicly for their personal gain...that is not genuine prayer. I am inclined to be less concerned about the affair than the accounting fraud. Taking people’s money for prayer and then betraying them is kind of like the prayer life of the Pharisee and the professional life of the Tax Collector rolled into one.   


There is more than just hypocrisy here. There is the fundamental nature of our relationship with God. The Oxford Bible Commentary de-emphasizes the idea that this parable illustrates that the Pharisee has an inner reliance on prayer and healing instead of relying on God. But Jerome’s commentary does pick up on the Pharisee's lack of need for God's justification, because he has justified himself. The element of where is one’s reliance is important. Self-reliance is not only egotistical (by the very nature of the word), it is dangerous. The more one is self-reliant, whether in prayer or in other aspects of life, the more others are excluded or even injured, including God.   


Whatever our practice of prayer, almsgiving and fasting is, it must be in relationship with God and in relationship with God’s people, with one another. Not only do we have to remember that we are praying to God and asking for help; we need to also turn to our brothers and sisters in Christ for help, support, guidance and love.   


The prayer we say at the beginning of the service is called The Prayer of Preparation in the Church of England’s recent liturgical revisions. A thousand years ago, it was originally a prayer for the priests to say as the prepared to celebrate the Eucharist. Thomas Cranmer brought it into our worship with the first Book of Common Prayer. It reminds us that God knows everything about us as we come to worship. It calls upon God to help us be worthy to worship God – to purify us as we come into God’s presence. The original name of this prayer is the Collect for Purity, a title that is still in use.   


Anglicanism was and is a hybrid of the Romish and Reformed traditions of the 15th and 16th Centuries. There is a heavy focus on penitential material, which would have come from the Reformers of the Continental Reformation. It’s to remind us that our reliance is on God, not on ourselves. That is not to say that the Church in Rome and those aligned with the Bishop of Rome did not have penitence as part of their regular worship; they very much did. I bring in this history to remind us just how penitential the Reformed traditions are.   


The seminary I attended was part of a theological federation of seminaries, much like the GTU in Berkeley. The organizing and leading of worship on holy days rotated around the colleges. My last year in seminary, the United Reformed Church’s college led Ash Wednesday. The URCs are essentially the combination of the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians in England. Peter McEnhill, my Theology professor, gave the sermon. This perfectly spherical, late 40s academic with a barely understandable Scottish brogue and a wry wit stood in front of about 200 theology students and staff, and his introduction was something like, “Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent. As a Scottish Presbyterian, I have never understood Lent, a period when we are supposed to be sad and miserable and focus on how sinful we are, because we Presbyterians are supposed to be sad and miserable and focus on how sinful we are all year round!”   


If you look at our worship, there are three places for penitence, for focusing on how sinful we are, and that’s the Confession, the Agnus Dei or “Lamb of God”, when we use it, and the Collect for Purity, right at the beginning. Those of you familiar with Rite I or the 1928 Prayer Book, you will know that there is a 4th moment of penitence, and that is the Prayer of Humble Access. Our worship, our tradition and our practice of faith ensure that we do not end up like the Pharisee. We are continually reminded that our prayer is out of humility, and that our reliance is upon God.   


Going back to the Bakkers…it's not so much about the sex scandal. For sure, all Christians are vulnerable to scandal, and many in the pews will remember the sex scandal that shook this Diocese when it was still young and vulnerable. It's about showing true contrition and lifting your concerns and sins to God, for it is from God that mercy and forgiveness come. The Evangelical tradition (which manifests itself across the Christian spectrum) is concerned about numerical growth, bringing more and more people to Christ. What was made clear with the Bakker scandal was that their success led to pride, probably a bit of a God complex, which led to self-reliance at the expense of good people.    


I do not want to suggest that people like Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker or the Pharisee are unworthy of redemption. Their relationship with God is what determines that, not my opinion of them. After serving his time for fraud and Tammy Faye divorcing him, Jim Bakker remarried and returned to televangelism. [A kind of redemption.]   


The ironic thing about Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker is that the “PTL” in the PTL Club stands for “Praise The Lord” or “People That Love”. I have no doubt that the Bakkers and their followers were praising the Lord or were people who love. The fallout and demise of the ministry is a modern day illustration of the Pharisee in which boasting about one’s praise or one’s expressions of love, on the surface, appear to be of more value than others. But in fact, as Jesus illustrates, it is when we come to God through prayer with humility and a penitent heart.   


Again, there is no one who is not worthy of redemption. That is in the hands of God. And in today’s reading from Joel, we are given the promise of redemption and restoration. That salvation is contingent upon one thing – not upon the strength of your prayer, almsgiving and fasting, not upon how many believers you create, not upon how much money you make.


The most consistent message of salvation throughout Biblical history is: that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.   

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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