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Today’s parable from Jesus is one of those short parables that seems pretty straightforward at first glance.  Jesus describes two men who go to the temple to pray.  One is a Pharisee – a law-abiding, God-fearing man who offers a prayer of thanksgiving, albeit one that is full of self-righteousness, comparing himself and his choices favorably against those of others – suggesting in a sense that others are outside of God’s favor and grace.  The other is a tax collector – a corrupt collaborator with the government who, full of shame, humbly confesses to God his sins.  Jesus tells us the tax collector, “went down to his home justified rather than the other.”

Our temptation is to hear this text and conclude something quite simple:  the Pharisee is bad and the tax collector is good; bragging about yourself is bad and being humble is good; being a faithful person who misjudges God’s abundance is bad and being a self-aware sinner is good.  The problem with reading the text in this black-and-white way is we miss little details.  With such a stark reading, we can find ourselves walking out of church today thinking, “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee!”  And before we even notice, we realize we are praying the same prayer as the Pharisee from the parable!

But this week, I stumbled on a little translation difference that shifted this parable for me.  In verse 14, Jesus says, “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other…”  But scholar Matt Skinner argues the preposition, “rather than,” should be translated instead as “alongside.”  So, verse 14 becomes, “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his home justified alongside the other…”[i]  Skinner argues there is much more nuance in this parable than we often allow.  That both men are praying, both men have faults, and both go home justified in different ways.  Sure, the Pharisee limits the extent of God’s grace, and he is unaware of his sinfulness in such exclusion, but the tax collector is no innocent.  Both men go home justified alongside each other.

One of the things we have been celebrating this stewardship season is our identity.  When we say, “We are Hickory Neck!” we say we are a people who have raised over $170,000 for local charities, who have over 50 volunteers on a given Sunday, who support one another through spiritual offerings like Lectio Divina, Book Club, Bible Study, and Jam Sessions, who nurture children and young families, who welcome newcomers, who work hard, and who have fun.  We are all those things are more – I imagine each of us here has a mental picture about what we mean when we say, “We are Hickory Neck!”  One of those things is that we walk home justified alongside each other.

That is what I love about this community.  This is a community that is passionate about Jesus and take’s Christ’s light out into the world.  This is a community that is passionate about caring for one another – where all can feel loved and affirmed, and all can find a place to thrive.  This is a community that is passionate about serving our neighbors – those young families looking for a sense of belonging and affirmation, and those retirees looking for a new sense of home.  This is a community that is passionate about liturgy, music, having fun, sharing sorrows, honoring history, dreaming about future possibilities, and laughing – lots of laughing.  This is a community that is passionate about investing our individual resources into Hickory Neck so Hickory Neck can bless others as Hickory Neck has blessed us.  We are Hickory Neck!  We are a community who walks alongside each other.

But that’s just me.  I want to know what gets you excited about Hickory Neck.  I want to know what saying “We are Hickory Neck!” conjures in your mind.  At your tables is a list of ideas from our Stewardship Committee.  Reread those ideas, and then talk with the people at your table about what you think of that is not on the list.  Write them down as you talk, so the Stewardship Committee understands what is important to you as we support and fund ministry.  You have about five minutes to chat and make notes, and then we’ll regather with a word of prayer…

Let us pray.  God of abundance, we come to you as self-righteous, sinful followers, who regularly mess up.  But our heart is with you.  We want to be agents of your light and your love.  Help us to love you abundantly.  Help us to support your kingdom generously.  Help us to walk alongside one another, shining your light for others so they may give glory to you.  In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[i] Matt Skinner, “Sermon Brainwave #686 – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 30),” October 19, 2019, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1192 on October 23, 2019.