A sermon for October 27, 2019, the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Sirach 35:12-17, Psalm 84:1-6, 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18, and Luke 18:9-14.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
A couple of Saturdays ago, several of us from Holy Trinity joined others from the Diocese at a Global Missions Fair in Poughkeepsie. It was held at Christ Church, Poughkeepsie, a church I had never seen before. Christ Church goes way back, having been founded in the 1760s, it received a royal charter from the King George III in October 1773. The current building (the parish’s third) was built in 1888, and is a wonderful gothic mixture of wood, glass, color, and texture. I loved the red walls of the inside of the main church and I kind of envied the way they had built a big kitchen on the side of their social hall, separated by a glass and wood partition. As I spent the day in their buildings, I found myself comparing and contrasting with Holy Trinity. Their location is a bit suburban; we’re in the middle of a busy city. They had great stained glass; we have magnificent stained glass. Our space is grand, but their space if more versatile. On and on, the comparisons went, until I began to realize that I was wasting a whole lot of energy playing this mental and sometimes verbal game of “notice what’s similar or different in this picture.” I began to realize that I was missing some of what was right in front of me.
Perhaps the content of the talks and presentations, the people around, me, and even my experience of the church itself might better be enjoyed, might better be understood, by my simply receiving the place as it is and not trying to fit it into my view of the world based on where I come from and what I perceive as the norm. As I noticed myself doing this with a church, I thought about how often I do it with people. This person dresses differently. That person eats different food. This person travels around the world like they have money to burn; that person seems not to have much extra. Sometimes consciously, but often unconsciously, I compare myself to other people—sometimes feeling a bit superior, but often feeling for some reason or another inferior.
It was the diplomat and economist, Dag Hammarskjöld, who wrote, “To be humble is not to make comparisons.” He wrote,
Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe. (Markings).
While I certainly don’t claim humility, I do think Hammarskjold’s words speak to my own experience (when I go into other churches as well as when I encounter other people). Hammarskjold’s words also speak to the point of today’s Gospel.
If we were to take Hammarskjold’s advice, I think we would be very careful in our reading and hearing of the parable in today’s Gospel from Luke. Jesus is not calling us to compare ourselves with either the Pharisee or the tax-collector. Instead, he wants us to try to move beyond comparisons, and begin to depend upon the grace of God.
Perhaps the Pharisee seems familiar from what we’ve heard in church before. Since Sunday school—even in popular culture—the Pharisee is almost always typecast as the “bad guy.” It’s hard to imagine a good Pharisee, one who is kind or generous. It’s perhaps hard to imagine a female Pharisee. But the fact is that the majority of the Pharisees were probably good folks—hardworking, law-abiding, giving, praying, “doing” believers who tried as best they might to follow the ways of the God of Israel.
The Pharisee in today’s Gospel says as much in his prayer. I don’t think his prayer is as boastful as it is factual. He’s simply repeating what he’s done. He’s undertaking a kind of spiritual examen, reviewing his day, reviewing his week. Where did God show up? Where did God not show up? He has fasted twice a week, he has tithed (giving at least a tenth of all he has). He’s an upstanding member of the community.
In our day, the Pharisee would most likely be in church on Sunday morning, serve on community boards, attend PTSA meetings, maybe even coach soccer, and probably volunteer for a local charity or run in a money-raising marathon. If you can picture respectability, then you can picture a Pharisee. And it’s wrong for us to assume that this respectability is just a veneer. The Pharisee feels strongly about his beliefs, takes his commitments seriously, and lives out his values.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is a traitor. Palestine at this point is under Roman occupation. And so, the tax collector is a Jew who is collecting money from his own people to give to the Roman state. Tax collectors in the popular imagination were no good. They were thought to be liars and cheats, greedy and only interested in themselves.
In our Gospel, the Pharisee thanks God for the gifts God has given him. But the tax collector—strange even that he might have wandered into the temple—the tax collector asks for nothing but the mercy of God. There is no indication that the tax collector has quit his dirty-work. He hasn’t suddenly decided to take a new job or follow a different course. And it’s not even clear that the tax collector expects to be heard by God, much less answered by God.
The issue here is not that Pharisees are bad and tax collectors are good. It’s not about comparing the good, honest, upstanding folk who might be in church on Sunday with the folks who partied so hard last night that they’re still in bed this morning. The point of the Gospel come out in the prayers of the two characters.
The prayer offered by the Pharisee was very close to a common prayer offered by any faithful Jew in the temple, with one exception. There’s one little word that pops out, translated in the English as the word, “like.” The Pharisee gives thanks to God that he is not “like” other people, especially the tax collector. For the Pharisee, gratitude has crossed over into a sense of elitism—something that happens easily whenever we get into “we/them language.” The Pharisee’s prayer is false prayer as he compares himself with the tax collector. And had the tax collector in some way compared himself with the Pharisee, whether favorably or unfavorably, it would have been just as false. Neither person is any more deserving of God’s grace and mercy than the other.
Effective prayer reminds us of our complete dependence upon God. Faithful prayer is not a listing of what we’ve done right, or even what we’ve done wrong. The tax collector never loses sight of that. He knows that he really has nothing going for him but the grace of God, and so it’s for this reason that Jesus says the tax collector left the temple “justified,” or “in line with God.”
Those words of Hammarskjöld come back to me: “to be humble is not to make comparisons.”
And I think the same dynamic plays itself out in our relationship with God and with other people. Though we are created in community and God loves us as God’s children, each of us is unique. Each is incomparable. Each lives and dies by the breath of God.
As Paul writes, each of us is “rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue [us] from every evil attack and save [us] for the heavenly kingdom.”
May we resist the temptation of making comparisons. May we rest in the grace, mercy, and love of God that sustains us and keeps us alive.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.