A couple of years later, the people of Christus Victor broke ground on a new building. The representative of Synod came down from Atlanta. The whole congregation gathered for a worship service. The pastor was there, my dad, and the president of council. The representative from Synod took a shovel that had been painted gold on the metal parts. My sisters and I knew it wasn’t really a gold shovel because we had seen my dad paint it. Shovel, painted gold, he pressed into the ground and pulled up a huge clod of dirt. Then everybody else bent down with their shovels too, because everybody had a small shovel. My dad had bought about a hundred of these beach sand shovels. Not plastic like they have now, but metal, steel. We had seen Dad paint them, out in the back yard on top of spread out newspapers. Before they were painted gold, these shovels had a happy, read white and blue tug boat on them.
So everybody, all the women in their wide, knee-length dresses and poofy hair, and the men in their dark suits and horn-rimmed glasses and narrow black ties, bent down and dug up a shovelfull of dirt with their gold shovels. But my sisters and I knew it wasn’t really gold. We knew that happy tug boat was still chugging along underneath.
The autumn of our first year there, my mother brought my sister to East Elementary School to register her for first grade. East Elementary School was made of yellow brick, with louvered windows and tile floors and cinderblock walls. You know the routine. But when my mom and sister got there, everyone was jittery as a drop of water on a hot frying pan. Just tight in the shoulders and tight in the voice. My mom asked what was going on and someone told her it was the first year of integration, when the African American kids and the European American kids would go to school together. (They didn’t say it that way back then.)
Schools integrated with no problem in Ocean Springs, because even though there had been Jim Crow laws and segregation and discrimination and terrible injustice, people knew each other. Families knew each other. They’re still integrated to this day.
Churches did not do so well with integration. At one well regarded, well attended church with a large facility on the street corner of downtown Ocean Springs, an African American family showed up and somebody panicked so bad they called the police! Sometimes churches do silly and hurtful things.
My dad said to the church council, “Anyone who comes to church is welcome to worship here, right?” They said “Right.” Had a few African American families over the years.
A couple of years after they built the building, Christus Victor was one of two churches, (the other one was St. Alfonsis Roman Catholic Church) that were the first to host an integrated kindergarten. Back then there were no public kindergartens on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The churches had them. Those two integrated. The guy who kept track of our numbers at church, very detail oriented, did people’s taxes for fun after he retired. Back then he worked as an accountant at the oil refinery in Pascagoula. He gave the money so that the church could subsidize the African American children’s tuition. So Dad went door to door in the African American section of Ocean Springs and said to people, we will pay your child’s tuition if you will send your child to our kindergarten.
I think a lot of time we want our churches to be gold. And that’s appropriate. We want to offer up our best to God. So it’s natural for us to want the church to be highly regarded and respectable and beautiful. But sometimes in an effort to look like gold, we end up doing silly and hurtful things.
When we are at our best we may or may not look like gold but we are made of steel, and we have a happy, tenacious tug boat called the Holy Spirit chugging along underneath, pushing and prodding and goading and drawing and dragging us kicking and screaming into the kingdom of God.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells about a Pharisee who has worked very hard to be gold. In a lot of ways, Pharisees were the gold standard of faithfulness in Jesus’ day. Many scholars suggest that Jesus argued so much with the Pharisees because they were the only ones even on the same page as him.
The party of the Pharisees had arisen from a movement of the common people a couple of centuries before Jesus. They cared about the common people, and felt that if only the common people, everyone, would obey God’s laws, everything would be great. If only everyone did the right thing then everyone would have a job and enough to eat and a roof over their heads and good families. Have you ever heard that before?
Problem was, by the time Jesus came along, the Pharisees had come up with so many new laws that you had to be rich in order to follow them all. If you worked all day every day, you could not take time to do all the prayers you were supposed to. You could not make the journeys and sacrifices you were supposed to.
But this Pharisee, he was devout. He gave ten percent of his income. That’s what we all strive for. Some of us can do it. He fasts twice a week. That’s commitment. He works hard to offer up his gold to God. His problem is that he compares himself to other people.
“Oh God, I thank you that I am not like other people, wicked, adulterous, greedy, or even like that tax collector over there.”
We may not stand up in church and say that. We’ve been taught better. But in the backs of our minds?
“Oh God, I thank you that I am not like those proud, self-righteous people over there. They look down their noses at everybody. I thank you that I am so humble.”
“Oh God, I thank you that I am not judgmental, like those other people other there who are judging this person and that person, this group and that group. I thank you, O God, that I accept everyone.”
We try to set ourselves up as gold in comparison to other people. We compare our jobs, our cars, our houses and the neighborhoods we live in. “I may not have as good a job as she does but I sure have a better job than him.” See how it goes in the backs of our heads. “I may not have a Rolls Royce but at least I don’t drive that junker.”
When we do our jobs well for the sake of doing them well, then our jobs are gold that we offer to God. When we use our cars to get from one place to another so we can serve people and celebrate life, our cars are gold, whether they are a Rolls Royce or a junker. When we make our homes a haven of peace, try to learn the eternal mystery of love in them, they are gold, no matter what our neighborhood, and whether we live in a one room shack or a million dollar mansion.
Don’t have to compare.
Jesus describes the tax collector. Unlike the Pharisee the tax collector really did bad things. Got as much money out of people as he could. It would be like a drug dealer coming in to church and saying “Have mercy on me, oh God, a sinner.”
Whether we are gold or not gold, well respected, upright or truly fallen, on a street corner or in a little store front church, whether we are silly or saintly, or something of both, here’s what makes people into steel. Here’s where that water comes from, that river into which the tug boat, that Holy Spirit shoves us every day. It’s when we know we need God. The tax collector knew he needed God. We come here to remember that we need God too, desperately.
And God loves us even more desperately. God loves us, always more. That’s what makes us into steel.
Have mercy on us sinners, oh God, have mercy. Have mercy.