“Pull Up A Chair”
The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – October 27, 2013 – Proper 25C: Luke 18:9-13
So there’s this beer commercial that’s out now (which might be one of the best opening lines to a sermon ever.) You’re with me right? THERE’S THIS BEER COMMERCIAL PLAYING NOW and it goes like this:
There’s a group of about eight guys playing full court basketball and (here’s something different) – they’re all in wheelchairs. They’re sweating, playing hard and for those of you who have never seen a wheelchair basketball game before it’s incredibly intense. It’s fast and it’s competitive, and it’s very, very physical – the chairs and the guys in them literally ram into other a lot and sometime there’s tipping over; the chairs themselves are built to take a beating, because that’s part of what happens in these games. Now in the commercial a voice over enters in at some point to frame the experience for the watcher: “Dedication,” the voice says. “Loyalty. Friendship.”
And at first you think that the choice of wheelchair basketball is the main twist this commercial offers. It’s unusual enough to catch our attention and make a point in itself. But then there’s something else that happens. The guys play on, shots are taken, missed and made – there’s a lot of back and forth – up and down the court and then someone calls it. And they stop and smile, high five, congratulate each other a bit and say that they’ll be back next week to play again. And then – twist number two – all of the guys but one gets out their wheelchair and they all hit the locker room. And it’s sort of an amazing moment when you realize that the dedication and loyalty and friendship wasn’t about the game. It was about the one friend who could only play from a chair and this group of people who wanted to be able to all play together. And so they found a way to do it that was good and fair and (especially for a beer commercial,) loving, and even profound.
Now in today’s parable the Pharisee (the one who prayed, very, very well and prided himself on that) had essentially separated himself from most of humanity. He was very clear that he was very different from the thieves, the rogues, the tax collectors, the sinners – not the physically broken necessarily – but he had separated himself from those who weren’t playing the game as well as he was, or exactly like he was. The Pharisee was the all-star in his world – the one who was chosen first – the one who never sat the bench – the one who scored the most points in the eyes of his people and who (in his own eyes and heart anyway) was head and shoulders above all the rest.
But as hard as he was playing, and you gotta believe the Pharisee was playing hard – pouring his heart and soul and life into being one of the best – but even given all of that, the Pharisee was missing the point. And that’s what this parable is all about.
Now I realize that metaphors have limits but (hang in there with me non-sports fans) I’m going to take this one step further: there were people in wheelchairs all around this Pharisee – people who were struggling to find their legs, their mobility, so many who were unable for so many different reasons to stand among their people. And the Pharisee was sort of off by himself slam dunking it over and over again because he believed that that was what God wanted him to do.
The image itself is ridiculous isn’t it? Hurting and broken people all around. People who were doing their own version of “best” but due to mistakes, sins, lack of a good coach, circumstances, bad choices – whatever the cause – they were sinking to the bottom rather than rising to the top. And really what they needed wasn’t an all-star. They needed someone to pray with them. Someone to be with them. Not someone who was busy showing the world or God how well he could pray, but someone who would pull up a chair and have a seat, so that together they could enter into the merciful presence of something like holiness.
And the beauty of this parable is that that’s probably what the Pharisee needed too. Lonely at the top? Sure. Being separated from the rest of humanity doesn’t only hurt humanity, it also hurts the ones like the Pharisee in this parable who thought of himself primarily as a star. He was broken too – he just couldn’t show it to himself, or his people, or his God. So Jesus was offering even the Pharisee a way to be healed.
Dunking over and over again can get old. Not that I’ve ever experienced that – but I hear it’s true. Better to be able to pass it around. Shoot from different places on the court. Run into others now and then. Learn some new moves from those who come at the game a little differently than we do. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
So, pull up a chair. Pull up a pew. Let’s play. Let’s pray. Together.