The baby screaming bloody murder from the shopping cart
Raising the blood pressure and drawing the glares of the shoppers within earshot
All she can think about is getting the kid in the car
She leaves the cart and goes to her car door, no power locks on her beat-up, used Chevy
And the baby, terrified at being abandoned,
Ups the tempo, raises the pitch of her screams to the unbending wail of a siren
As the frantic mother presses the unlock button, races around the car, swings the door open, moving too fast,
And she hears an awful thump, her heart sinks, she is too late,
And she pulls back the door and there, in the perfect line of the black Mercedes SUV parked in the next space over,
Is a dent.
Not just a door ding that might be fixed with a magic marker.
This is a real, in-erasable dent.
Her head falls forward, her whole body collapsing into the space between the door and her car.
She cannot think, because the baby is still crying and the groceries have to be unloaded and her useless insurance won’t cover this.
She turns and looks at the woman with the perfect car.
Slim, well-coiffed, Mercedes holds a single reusable grocery bag in one hand, a Coach bag in the other.
“I’m so sorry. I opened it too fast…”
The nicely-dressed woman lifts a manicured finger to the dent. “This is a new car.”
“I know. I’m so sorry. I know my insurance won’t cover it. Can I just pay you out of pocket? I get paid at the end of the week.”
Mercedes takes in Chevy’s birdnest hair, the stained sweatshirt, the screaming child, and assesses the probability of getting a penny out of this woman.
“I’ll take your insurance information.”
As the tired mother searches for the insurance card, buried somewhere in the glove compartment—she prays it’s not expired—she hears the screech of tires and both their heads turn.
She leaps out, into the parking lot, where her son, who should have known to watch his sister, is standing inches in front of a van. The driver rolls down his window. “Lady, you better watch your kid! He almost got killed! What the heck are you doing out here?”
“I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry.” She grabs him by the hand.
"Whatever." The driver mumbles something under his breath and drives off.
Joey whines, “Mom, I was just…”
“Get in the car.”
She ensconces him in his booster, scoops the child, still wailing, into the car (just in case that one should get away), and fills out the insurance information on the back of Joey's "art" project.
“Here you are. I’m so sorry.”
Mercedes snatches it up, saying only, “You’ll hear from the dealership.”
She clicks a button, and drives away, her car dented but her life appearing enviably smooth.
Mercedes-Benz drives away, thinking to herself, what a disaster. People should need a license to procreate. Probably on food stamps. I bet I’ll be stuck with this repair bill. She glances down at the steering wheel at her perfect rust-colored nails. I’m lucky I don't have to live like that. Not lucky, rather, I’ve made good choices.
A parking lot and a world away is Chevy, owner of a beat-up Impala and a pint of quickly melting ice cream, custodian of two loud children.
She opens her trunk, and the screams are released at full blast.
She doesn't react the way she wants to, which is to scream right back.
Instead, she closes her eyes, and she utters a prayer, one of the only ones she knows. The prayer she learned in rehab, the prayer that helped her get off drugs and get her kids back. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.
She opens her eyes. Her life is still in chaos. Her soul is at rest.
How often do we judge the children of God?
How often do we pat ourselves on the back for our own good choices?
How often do we mock God with our self-righteousness?
So easy to condemn the poor, to judge other cultures or groups in our schools, our businesses, our communities, even to judge others in our own church.
There’s something that feels good when you look at someone who’s clearly a disaster.
That gawker feeling driving by a bad accident,
And you think, thank God I’m not them.
It's a good feeling, is judgment.
You feel smug, you feel justified in the life you are living.
You feel happy about your choices, the way you are living your life.
Which must be the right way, the righteous way, because you’re not one of them.
The Pharisee in Jesus’s parable prayed, “God, thank you that I’m not a thief, a miscreant, an adulterer, or like this tax collector.”
What would someone pray today? Who do we as a society view as the screw-ups, the sinners, the disasters? “God, thank you that I’m not an addict, a welfare mom, an ambulance chaser, or a homo?”
We do choose people to condemn, to look down our noses at, people we have to judge in order to feel better about ourselves and our lives.
I saw a billboard this week that I can’t get out of my head: “Millions of Americans are living happily without religion.”
When I saw it I was surprised by what a good job the irreligious are doing of evangelism.
They’re spreading their message far and wide: who needs religion?
Who needs to be involved in a religious community or participate in a church?
Who needs to hear "God loves you"? You can love yourself just fine.
Millions of Americans are living happily without religion.
Of course they are. Without religion, there’s nobody to tell you how messed up you really are.
In church we are made to go through the motions of confessing our sins and receiving pardon, week after week after week.
Some churches don’t do that. I don’t think it’s popular among the newer mega-churches.
Confessing sin is pretty much a downer.
For me it’s essential.
Because I am a person more like Chevy than Mercedes.
Anybody remember Highlights magazine? Goofus and Gallant?
Anybody else here identify with Goofus?
I have a lot to confess Sunday after Sunday.
But as a church, are we confessional, or are we just comfortable?
Are we in the pews more like Chevy or Mercedes?
Are we as smug in our own righteousness as the Pharisee in Jesus’s parable?
He's pretty comfortable with his relationship with God.
He's giving ten percent...not an easy feat.
He's fasting, that is, going without food two whole days a week, giving it up to God.
Isn't that enough? Shouldn't it be?
Isn't what we're doing enough?
After all, we're Christians, we're the minority that actually comes to church. We're the good guys. Jesus high-five!
Do we assume we’ve bought God off by tithing, ok maybe not 10%, more like 5%, but hey, that’s still good right?
Or making it to church once a week, or….once a month.
Doesn’t that secure our place among the good people? Aren’t we square with God?
Like the Pharisee, who asks nothing from God, because he needs nothing from God.
He’s got all he needs.
Is the prayer of the Pharisee really a prayer, or more of a little spiritual pat on the back?
But the tax collector, on the other hand, does ask something from God.
He asks for mercy.
Jesus is specific on the physical position of these two men.
Though they were in the same place they were far apart.
The Pharisee is by himself, standing apart from other people, perhaps to emphasize his own purity, perhaps because he feared pickpockets or contagions.
The tax collector, too, stands far off, like the new people in church, who sit at the back,
Afraid to come too near the holy.
The tax collector’s prayer is so strong that it takes over his whole person.
This is not a silent, whispered prayer.
He is beating his breasts.
He is so broken, so destroyed, so dented that he must reflect in his body the urgency, the anxiety of his prayer to God,
“God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
The Pharisee is smug, secure, comfortable in his holiness and religious knowledge.
When just a few feet away is a person who is yearning for God and the Pharisee does nothing.
Why is the tax collector justified and the Pharisee is not?
Is it just that the Pharisee refuses to acknowledge his brokenness, his need, his dented heart before God?
Or is it also that the Pharisee’s lack of true love for God is revealed in his utter contempt for his neighbor?
Here is a man clearly in need of a word of hope...and the Pharisee walks right by.
To receive mercy, we must be merciful.
To receive forgiveness, we must be forgiving.
To avoid God’s judgment, we’d do well to withhold judgment ourselves.
What if the Pharisee had prayed the prayer of the tax collector?
What if the Pharisee had realized that God doesn’t need our righteousness,
God doesn’t need ardent fasting or generous tithes,
We need some of those practices, but God certainly doesn’t.
What God wants is our hearts. What God wants is for us to stop trusting in our own righteousness rely on him fully, completely, totally.
To fall back on his grace and mercy.
That’s why God, perfect God, became sin for us.
Became broken, bruised, and dented for our sakes.
In Jesus Christ God identified with us, screwed up people like us, so that we could rely not on our own perfection, but on his.
What Christianity proposes—uniquely among all religions of the world—is that we aren’t saved because of our own perfection but because of God’s perfect love.
What if the Pharisee had prayed the prayer of the tax collector?
God, have mercy on me, a sinner?
Then when he turned and walked from the temple, would he have seen a disaster, a screw-up, a sinner, a tax collector, a thief, a miscreant, an adulterer, an addict, a welfare mom, an ambulance chaser, a homo, or a fellow sinner in need of grace?
Would he have walked over to him and delivered the good news, that God’s mercy is boundless, his love greater than our sin, his forgiveness wider than the sea?
Instead of leaving feeling his prayer was unanswered, the tax collector would know that despite everything he had done, he was accepted. He was loved.
Instead of continuing on his road to judgment, the Pharisee would experience God’s saving grace.
Instead of going their separate ways, each would leave feeling a little less alone.
What if Mercedes had begun her day with a humble prayer for God's guidance?
If she had, when she came to her car, would she have seen first not the dent in an inanimate object, but the brokenness of another woman’s spirit?
What if she had said, “It’s OK. Happens every day. Don’t worry about it, I’ve got good insurance.”
What if she had kept an eye out for the kids, helped poor Chevy get the kids in the car, the ice cream in the trunk?
What if she had listened while Chevy told her about her struggles to put her life back together?
What if she had cared?
What if she had opened her own heart and said, “I’ve been through tough times too. And I think you’ll get through this. This might seem odd….it even feels odd to me, and I don’t know if you’re a believer, but there is something I wish…well, can I pray with you?”
What if instead of going their separate ways, each left feeling just a little less alone?
None of us is perfect.
We all have our dents, whether we choose to see them, or not.
Do you see your dents as imperfections that must be fixed, so that you can believe you are perfect once again,
Or does your dented-ness remind you of your need for God?
When you see others who are hurting,
Do you move away quickly, so that their problems won’t rub off on you,
Or do you extend to them the mercy that Christ so freely extends to you?
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.