Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost 23 October 2016
(Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 Psalm 84 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 Luke 18:9-14)
“I Thank God I’m Not Like Other People – So Now What?”
I thank God I’m not like other people—big deal—and now what?
Two men come to the temple, both seem to get there at the same time. Both are dressed really nice. The one because he is a leader of the temple. The other because of his shady profession that allows him to dress pretty well.
Both are in prayer–and this is where they begin to seem different from each other: one, standing upright, notices the other, and begins to make a case to God as to why he is righteous before God; “Thank God, I’m not like all those other people, especially that tax collector over in the corner.”
The other, not even looking to heaven, but rather beating his breast as he offers a humble prayer, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
The reality is that we live in a world today of mass confusion and passionate paradoxes. We spend our lives realizing that what seems certainly true on one hand seems just as false on the other. Life ends in death. What brings us joy will surely bring us an equal amount of sorrow. Faithfulness and commitment to a person or to an institution too often comes to an end.
“This is Life,” is easy to say, but there has to be more of an answer.
The collective wisdom of the spiritual giants of every age knew that the answer is not additional data or more information. The great truth of our faith lies in the awareness that only when life is lived in the discovery of the Spirit present to us in the common places of life, where the paradoxes and confusion lie, only then can we possibly live life to its fullness and examine life in its depths.
Most simply said: it is what goes on inside of us that matters for authentic spirituality. The spiritual life begins within the heart of a person, and it is from there where we find healing and forgiveness.
This certainly came home to me within 24 hours of my returning from a week away. I sit with a committee who works hard to put together a viable mission plan (a budget, if you will) for this congregation for the next year. I sit with the CEO of Source of Life Ministries as he tries to find solace in hearing that his church was totally destroyed in Haiti from Hurricane Matthew. I have a cup of tea with a woman who seeks comfort following the recent death of her son. I take Holy Communion to a 57-year-old woman who suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident and will spend the rest of her life in a nursing home. I meet with a 96-year-old mother to help plan the funeral for a second son whom she has had to bury. I get home later than I wish and the only thing on TV is the presidential debate.
The examples may be different for you, but we all seem to be living our lives at the epicenter of chaos and crisis; and when this happens we can, too easily, become weary and worn out from the daily stress that saps our energy, taxes our strength and challenges our faith.
The two men in the temple stand as stark opposites in the way our faith informs our lives. Although Pharisees held a liberal interpretation of the Scripture in order to make the observance of the Torah available to all. Today we are given a stock figure of a Pharisee: self-righteous, rule-bound, lacking in compassion and insight. Tax collectors were seen as collaborators with the hated Romans, usually unscrupulous and dishonest, but the image painted by Jesus in this story is one of humility, seeking God’s mercy.
So, in this story, Jesus communicates a profound truth that speaks of living one’s faith life trusting in the steadfast love of God (tax collector) and opposed to trusting in oneself above others and God (Pharisee).
It’s easy to be considered “good.” All we need to do is learn to look good in the eyes of others. It is a child’s trick that too easily becomes an adult’s lifestyle. We do what the world expects of us and the reward is instant holiness. We keep the rules of the institution. We defer to the opinions of the right people. We follow the crowd. And before you know it, we become the Pharisee in the temple, where, with that kind of faith, there is no need for God, for God’s mercy and forgiveness.
In contrast, the faith of the tax collector requires us to see Life (capital “L”) behind life, leading us to be open to the work of the Spirit and the steadfast love of God in our lives.
So how does our faith truly inform our lives? In a recent interview with Krista Tippet,1 the writer Parker Palmer leads us to the beginning of an answer. He asks us to face the difficult realities of our time head-on and to move forward with an operational attitude and willingness to work together, most especially when our collective disenchantment becomes a slippery slope to despair, and an easy way for us to couch ourselves in cynicism.
His words were related to the current political atmosphere in our country, but I want us to hear these words in light of today’s Gospel and our entire journey of faith. He says:
Culture change (religious change) is neither quick nor easy. It will take a long time to find our way through the smoke and mirrors. But all long journeys begin with one small step, so here’s a modest proposal. Palmer says, “Let’s reclaim ‘disillusionment’ as a word that names a blessing rather than a curse.
The Paschal Mystery, the very basis of our faith—Life, Death, Resurrection of Jesus—names Good Friday as the darkest hour of disillusion to those who were there. It was a curse. However, along the journey of faith, we now know it to be our utmost blessing.
From today’s Gospel text, I hear the invitation to not live our faith on the edges, and never to confuse faith lived on the circumference with a faith lived at the center. Let’s not claim the superficial to be the substance. That’s the invitation I hear in today’s Gospel text. It become so easy to describe the people on the other side of the aisle (we can construct whatever aisle we choose, we do it all the time), as less worthy than are we.
Today I hear a call to return to the very core of our faith, to a trust in the steadfast love of God, because it is only with such a faith that our disillusionments, whatever and wherever they may be, can be transformed from a curse, to a blessing. That’s the Gospel! Amen.
1 Losing Our Illusion. Parker Palmer on OnBeing with Krista Tippet.