My father was an alcoholic. My father loved me very much.
As a kid, I took these two truths and created a story about them. The story I told myself was that if I were the perfect daughter, my dad would quit drinking for me. If I were the perfect daughter—got good grades, didn’t cause trouble, excelled at music and writing (which were two things he loved)—if I were the perfect daughter, that would be enough that he would take on this terrible disease, this overwhelming addiction, and he would conquer it out of love for me.
I didn’t tell him this story. I just told it to myself. And I tried to live into it: I worked diligently to be the good daughter, not make waves, get good grades. I had to be right about things. I had to be perfect. And every time he went on a bender, I felt as if I had failed somehow, that this was in some way my fault. I was trying to make his problem something over which I had some ounce of control.
The reality, of course, is that he was in the grips of a horrible addiction, a ravaging disease that had nothing to do with me. It was its own thing, and I had no control over it at all. But that reality and the story I was living into—those were two different things.
Have you heard the question “Would you rather be happy or right?” This is a trick question for me, because for the longest time my answer was I would rather be right. Or being right made me happy. I could be smug and superior, like the Pharisee. And yet I sensed that was the wrong answer. You’re supposed to say you would rather be happy. So ironically in order to give the right answer I would have to say I would not rather be right. You can perhaps appreciate that this created a certain conundrum for me.
This is the kind of thinking that formed the basis for the theology in this passage from Joel that we read today: If the Jews did everything right, followed all of God’s 600-some rules, then God would bless them with abundant crops, lots of healthy children, peace and prosperity.
This kind of thinking gave them a sense of control over their destiny. Follow the rules, and your life will be good. Follow the rules, and you will be justified before God. And God would never make bad things happen to good people, right?
But you can see the flip side of this kind of theology. What happens when the locusts come? Earlier in the book of Joel we hear that the cutting locusts came and ate the crops, and what they didn’t eat, the swarming locusts ate, and what they didn’t eat, the hopping locusts ate, and what they didn’t eat, the destroying locusts ate (Joel 1:4). Desolation everywhere. No grapes or even leaves left on the grape vines. The fig trees are all dead, their wood stripped and bleached white. The fields of grain are empty. Just dirt. When you’re already living on the edge in a desert landscape, swarms of locusts mean that people die. There simply isn’t enough food.
If this disaster is somehow your fault, what do you do? Joel calls the people to repent of their sins, because surely that is what angered God enough to send such disaster. It must be our fault. We must have brought this on ourselves.
Can you see how this theology is a way of trying to control the uncontrollable? This is actually a way of trying to control God.
In the passage from Luke, when we see the Pharisee and the tax collector go to the Temple to pray, the Pharisee is checking off a list of all the ways in which he is following the rules. He fasts twice a week, gives one tenth of all he has to the Temple, and on and on. In a sense, his message to God is, “I’ve got everything under control. I’m doing everything perfectly; therefore you owe me love and blessings and abundance, because that’s the deal.” He doesn’t actually even seem to need God. The Pharisee would rather be right than happy—or maybe it makes him happy to be right all the time. He has the illusion of control over his own life and over God.
The tax collector has no such illusions. He knows that his work compromises him in society, makes him do things that oppress his fellow Jews, puts him in bed with the Roman oppressors. He makes a good living by extorting money out of poor people in ways that push them off their land. His wealth depends on their homelessness, their poverty. Perhaps he has to be something like the gang members in Central America that Deborah Senn described to us recently: they come around to struggling taco stands and say, “You have to pay us $200 a month in protection money or else we’ll kill you.” He’s that guy. No wonder he’s not welcome at their community gatherings. And he knows this.
So he comes to God and just says, “God, this is all so messed up. I’m a wreck. This is not who I want to be. I never intended to sell my soul in order to have money. Have mercy on me.” He has hit bottom. In 12-step programs there is language about recognizing that our lives have become unmanageable—they are out of control—and we turn things over to God. That’s this moment. The tax collector needs God because he does not have it all together himself. He hates his life. He wants help.
So when we come before God, it’s not about being in control and having everything all together and wearing our Sunday best. It’s about being real. It’s about getting past the old stories we’ve told ourselves about needing to be right, needing to have control.
Instead, we get to open ourselves to mercy and love. We don’t have to earn it. We don’t get to control it.
So if we want to be in right relationship with God, it’s not about doing everything correctly and then blaming ourselves when the swarm of locusts come or when your father happens to be wrestling with a terrible disease. It’s not about all that.
It’s about coming before God just as you are, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter how bad—or good—you think you are, bringing your whole self and saying, “Here I am, God. Please be in relationship with me. I would really like that.”
In our culture there is this deeply engrained image of God as a superhuman, this big white man with a robe and flowing beard. God is male, old, wise. God can punish with a bolt of lightning. I’ve mentioned before the “Far Side” cartoon of God sitting at a computer watching some guy walk down the street with a piano on a rope dangling over his head. And God has his finger poised over the button on his computer that says “Smite.”
I invite us to think instead of God as some kind of flow of life and love in the universe, a nonhuman force that dwells in everything and everyone—or rather, we dwell in it. Everything in the universe exists within this life force, this power of love. How we connect to it, how we center our lives in it, how we step into that flow and let ourselves be carried in its current—that’s the part that’s up to us. It’s not about whether bad things happen to good people and that somehow is our fault. Things happen. They just do. You have an alcoholic father. It’s not your fault. Somebody gets cancer and dies. It doesn’t mean that person deserved it. Things happen. A hurricane or a flood or an earthquake or a wildfire—as in California right now—destroys your home. God is not hitting the “Smite” button.
The question to ask is not whether you made this thing happen that is totally outside of your control. The question to ask is how we can connect with God no matter what else is going on. No matter how we have messed up—or not. Whether the crops have failed or are abundant. Whether we are law-abiding citizens, Sunday-go-to-meeting Christians, or something else. Whether we come to worship in our Sunday best or have been wearing the same clothes for a week because they’re all we have. We get to connect to God and say “Help” or “Thank you” or “Be with me” or “I love you.” The Pharisee says none of these things. The tax collector does.
Instead of being right or wrong, what if we just get to be real with God? What if we get to be forgiven and happy and loved instead of right? So I practice. And I know you practice, too.
Imagine if the Pharisee had said this: “I fasted twice this week, and I could feel how present you were for me when I cleared away all the distractions. I treasure this relationship and thank you for loving me and for guiding my steps. I tithe to you because that reminds me that all I have comes from you, and I love to say thank you in this way. And I hope that this tax collector who came into the sanctuary with me is all right, because he looks pretty miserable. Give me courage to reach out.” What a different prayer!
Maybe on a good day our prayers sound something like that. On other days we might pray like the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” We can bare our souls, ask for forgiveness, and then be open to God’s love and grace at work in our hearts, transforming our lives.
Would you rather be happy? Or right? God help us to figure out the most loving answer. Amen.