THE BLIND SIDE
9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, NRSV)
There have been some great rivalries throughout the history of professional sports, the NBA has given us the Boston Celtics vs. the Los Angeles Lakers, the NFL has given us the Green Bay Packers (Nick Fisch) vs. the Chicago Bears, boxing has given us Joe Frazier vs. Muhammed Ali, and then my favorite rivalry in professional sports, the New York Yankees vs. my beloved Boston Red Sox (Marge Sandarg). When wearing my Red Sox cap around town, people ask if I grew up in Boston. No I reply. I only lived there for 2 years, but it was the first time I lived in a major sports city. Sure I had been to minor league games at home in Tennessee, but no major league games. Tennessee, which now has 3 major professional sports teams, had none when I left for graduate school in Boston 25 years ago. The same was true at the time throughout the south with only Atlanta and New Orleans having teams. Yes there were teams in Texas, but that’s the southwest. Yes there were teams in Florida, but since Florida has more New Yorkers than New York I don’t count it either. All of this is to say that the very first major league stadium I ever walked into was Boston’s Fenway Park where I had a religious experience and became a Red Sox convert on the spot. They were a terrible team back then so I had no moral qualms rooting for them. As a true fan, I suffered under the Curse of the Bambino until the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004, the first time in 86 years.
Growing up I had no real interest in professional sports because everyone I knew only cared about college sports like Alabama vs. Auburn and North Carolina vs. Duke. I went to Mississippi State with a little help from a drum scholarship. Being in the 300 piece marching band that traveled to perform at halftime all over the south was great fun. I very quickly learned to hate Mississippi State’s arch rival, Ole Miss. So last month when I heard that the Ole Miss football coach, Hugh Freeze, had resigned in disgrace I was understandably thrilled. The NCAA will slap them with violations and they won’t have a good recruiting class for years.
As a Mississippi State fan and a liberal Christian it was easy for me to dislike Hugh Freeze. He was overly open about his Evangelical faith to the point of being smug, texting daily Bible verses to his players etc. Freeze first became famous in the book and movie, “The Blind Side,” based on the true story of a young man from Memphis, Michael Ohr, who drifted between foster homes and homelessness. Through a series of fortunate events, Ohr ended up as a football star at Briarcrest Christian School, my alma mater from 30 years prior. Why were the book and movie called “The Blind Side?” Because Michael Ohr played left tackle meaning that he protected the blind side of right handed quarterbacks. Hugh Freeze and Michel Ohr both ended up at Ole Miss with Freeze as a coach and Ohr as a highly recruited tackle. Ohr was drafted and played in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, the Tennessee Titans, and the Carolina Panthers. He helped the Ravens win the 2013 Super Bowl. Sadly, like many NFL players, Ohr now suffers the effects of too many concussions and is currently unable to play. (Which is a whole other sermon.)
One of the things that makes the whole Ole Miss football scandal so salacious is that Freeze apparently called escort services using his university issued cellphone. It is unclear if he made the calls for himself, his players, or both. So much for smug Bible thumping.
Here is my dilemma, how much can I revel in the misfortunes of the Ole Miss football program? Obviously in my heart of hearts I feel bad for Hugh Freeze’s family and for him personally as he’s clearly in a bad place right now. If I did not feel this way I would in effect be on the wrong side of the parable in today’s scripture lesson about the Pharisee and the tax collector.
A contemporary translation tells the story like this.
9-12 [Jesus] told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like that tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ 13 “Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’” 14 Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself” (Luke 18:9-14, MSG).
It is so easy to be the Pharisee. There’s something in human nature that loves to compare ourselves to someone who is clearly inferior. Have we ever said to ourselves, “I’m a polished professional, look at that pathetic garbage collector. I’ll bet he’s overpaid”? Or, scoffing at those in the King Kullen parking lot, I drive down Northern Blvd. with my reusable Whole Foods bags spilling over with organic, non-GMO, free range, hormone free, antibiotic free, nitrate free, sugar free, salt free, caffeine free, and gluten free food. Hopefully it will not be taste free! Or perhaps, I stop at a light driving my fully electric Tesla shaking my head at the jalopy in front of me, a rusted out 1983 Pontiac Bonneville station wagon which no doubt drinks gas, and is emitting more than its fair share of greenhouse gases. Yes, there’s something satisfying about looking down our noses at our so-called inferiors.
With whom do we see eye to eye in today’s parable? The humble tax collector, of course! None of us look at the self-righteous Pharisee and think, yep that’s me. In fact, progressive open-minded people of faith that we are, we don’t look down our noses at anybody, right? The parable gets tricky if later in the day the humble tax collector thinks to himself, well at least I’m not like that conceited Pharisee. And there it is—the human desire to feel superior to someone else, even if your pride comes from a seemingly inferior status.
It does get complicated. Is it good that we are law abiding citizens who’ve never spent time in jail? For sure, our world would be better off if we were all law abiding citizens. When we see people in the telltale orange jumpsuits picking up litter along the highway do we think that we are clearly superior people and that God loves us more than those criminals whose lives have gone off the rails? Hopefully somewhere in our hearts we know the truth, people are people and all equal in God’s eyes. God knows the whole story about the guy in the orange jumpsuit who maybe grew up in an abusive home, maybe dropped out of high school because he was bullied, maybe had no one to encourage him and no positive role models. These are not excuses, but they are the reality for many people who end up in prison orange. Yes we all make our choices, but some of us are presented with much better choices than others.
And now my personal confession, I’m more like the braggadocios Pharisee than I care to admit. Having grown up hyper evangelical though not quite fundamentalist, I went to seminary, had my eyes opened to other ways of thinking, and switched sides in the theological divide and culture wars. No longer evangelical, I jumped ship to become the progressive open-minded person standing before you. But here’s my confession, more often than not I feel superior to those adherents of the judgmental faith I left behind, which means I am straying from the teachings of Jesus. This too gets complicated. Are all religions created equal? By and large yes, to the extent that they encourage adherents to live upright lives and take care of the needy. But no, if the religion is in some sense hurting people, making them feel guilty for just being human, leading them to believe that God is impossible to please, fueling their self-righteous condemnation of people who are different than them, oppressing LGBTQ people, or making women feel like second class citizens.
Truth be told, we all have our blind sides, our blind spots when looking in the mirror at a distorted vision of ourselves. With God’s help, maybe one day our vision will be corrected and we will see the Pharisee, the tax collector, and the person in the mirror through God’s eyes, eyes full of non-judgmental compassion and infinite love. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
August 6, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
We offer our praise and prayers to you, loving God, who sends us out to offer peace and hope to others. We yearn to hear the call of Jesus in silence and singing, and we join him in speaking for the voiceless. Filled by your Spirit with faith and trust, lead us to serve others, humbly and lovingly.
Through Jesus our way, our truth, and our life we pray. AMEN.
(This prayer was written by Rev. Thom Shuman and adapted from http://lectionaryliturgies.blogspot.com/search?q=proper+25%2C+A)