Sermon for September 11th, 2022

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Luke 18:9-14

9 He 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. 11 The 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I 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.”

Music & Message: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash, Part I

For anyone older than the age of maybe ten, Johnny Cash and his music need absolutely no introduction. And yet, he used to introduce himself at every performance, saying in his characteristic humble style, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" -- as if he wasn't the recipient of 18 grammy awards, seven inductions to various halls of fame, including being one of only two individuals inducted to both the rock n roll and country music halls of fame (the other was Elvis Presley). Johnny Cash had hit songs and albums in every single decade from the 1950s to the early years of the 21st century. When he died, this is what Rolling Stone Magazine had to say about him:

"If there were a hall of fame for creating a larger-than-life persona, Cash would no doubt have been elected to it as well. His 1971 song "Man in Black" codified an image that the singer had assumed naturally for more than fifteen years at that point. Part rural preacher, part outlaw Robin Hood, he was a blue-collar prophet who, dressed in stark contrast to the glinting rhinestones and shimmering psychedelia of the time, spoke truth to power."

But despite all this, from the very beginning of his musical career, to the very end, what Johnny Cash really wanted to be most was not a rock n roll icon, not a country music star. All he ever wanted to be, in his own words, was a gospel singer. There was something about the gospel message, the scriptures and the music that conveyed it that moved him deeply, and he kept coming back to those songs throughout his life. He was unashamed of his Christian faith, even when he didn't always live up to it. The song you just heard, "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" is an old gospel song that actually shows up in a lot of hymnals--but Johnny Cash made it popular far beyond the church walls. The song functions like a metaphor for his own life and faith journey--and ours, too. In the words of Hebrews 13:14, "For this world is not our home; we are looking forward to our everlasting home in heaven."

The next song Patrick is going to play for us is a prayer, called "Help Me." It was written by Larry Gatlin (of the Gatlin Brothers) but Johnny Cash made it his own, and recorded it multiple times, including once near the end of his life. Larry Gatlin also sang the song at the funerals of both Johnny and June Carter Cash, and dedicates the song to them whenever he sings it. It's a prayer for help, but also a prayer of confession. There is no more basic prayer to God than acknowledging "I never thought I needed help before; I thought that I could get by, by myself; But now I know I just can't take it anymore; And with a humble heart on bended knee; I'm beggin' you please, for help.

Our scripture passage today is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Jesus tells his disciples the story of of two men--one who is a proud, upstanding and respectable member of society (the pharisee); and another who is a self-professed sinner (the tax collector). But in an ironic twist, Jesus says that it is the humble sinner, who knows his faults and confesses them passionately to God, who is justified in the end.

I'm certain that Johnny Cash knew this parable. What's more, his life and songs reflected it. Throughout his life, he struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism. He never painted himself as a role model or a moral and ethical leader. In fact, it was the opposite. His songs are filled with genuine remorse, with painful honesty about his struggles, and a strong hope for mercy and forgiveness at God's hands.

The next song we'll listen to has a connection with the last one: "Why Me, Lord" was written by Kris Kristofferson when he attended a church service where Larry Gatlin's song "Help Me" was played. It inspired him to write his own prayer, which Johnny Cash would later record and would often play when he sang at revival meetings held by his long-time friend, Billy Graham. Just like "Help Me," this song is a prayer of confession...but listen at the end for a change, when the words move from confession to offering and action: "Try me Lord, if you think there's a way that I can repay all I've taken from you. Maybe Lord, I can show someone else what I've been through myself on my way back to you."

Johnny Cash never completely overcame his struggle with addiction. But I think he was successful in the way Jesus most wanted us to be: No matter how many times he stumbled, he kept on finding his way back to God, and he did use his life as a caution and a warning for others, and a reminder of how much we all need forgiveness and God's redeeming grace.