Sermon for Year C, Pentecost Proper 25
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
October 20, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
What did you hear just now?
I heard about a Pharisee who is really too full of himself to stand before God,
And I heard about a tax-collector who is so empty-handed and humble by contrast
That he has nothing to give, except himself -- just his raw, naked, vulnerable self;
A self that he doesn’t see as being worthy of offering --
And so all he can do is to ask God for mercy.
Jesus says that when they each turn away from their prayers and go on their way,
Only one of them does so in grace and in favor.
As they walk away from us, the spotlight is on the tax-collector.
Jesus’ parable seems to be saying, Do This; Be Like This One.
So it is.
The mature Christian is someone who knows that he or she really isn’t all that great:
Someone who refuses to believe his or her own press;
Someone who sees him- or herself as small, unimportant, and insignificant;
Someone who has sat in the darkness, and come to see the world honestly:
To see that most of the time people are self-interested, self-motivated, petty, and cheap;
But are also, occasionally, stunningly capable
Of reaching well beyond their usual limits to further the causes of Christ.
In short, the mature regard themselves as sinners,
And they know there is no way to peel off that label:
For that is what we are -- sinners --
And no amount of angel-wrangling or mental gymnastics can change that.
In other words, as much as the Pharisee insists he is not like the tax-collector,The tax-collector knows that he is just like the Pharisee.
We’re sinners. We sin. It’s our lot. It’s what we do.
And this is all true, of course, in so far as we take the story further, and remember to confess
That we “believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
We are sinners who believe that
“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
We are regular sinners who regularly confess our sins,
And then are told in no uncertain terms that “Almighty God [has] mercy on [us],
Forgive[s] [us] all [our] sins through our Lord Jesus Christ,
Strengthen[s] us in all goodness,
And by the power of the Holy Spirit keep[s] [us] in eternal life.”
What a 180-degree turn my life has been!
The religion of my childhood taught me to divide the world into two kinds of people --
Saints and sinners.
The saints were saved, had their names in the great book, and were bound for Jesus’ right hand.
They didn’t need much more work -- maybe fine-tuning it(?).
The sinners, though -- they were doomed to hell unless they changed their ways.
Now I’m a little older, and I have come to understand
That nothing I can do will change the fact that I have always been, am now, and will be a sinner
Up until the last of my breath comes rattling out of me,
Which does not give me reason to be complacent, but rather should quicken my love of God.
Now I’m a little older, it seems like quite the farce
To imagine I can make God love me any more than God already does love me --
Which is totally, and completely, and everlastingly to begin with --
As though I could somehow amp up the grace factor and make my situation better.
As though God’s grace is somehow insufficient and needs enriching.
No matter how we think about people, the truth remains:
There are no saints among us, until they pass from this earth.
Again: this is our lot. We’re sinners. We sin.
We purposely disobey what we know to be the will of God.
While we’re at it, let’s add injury to insult.
In Richard Rohr’s book on masculine spirituality, called Adam’s Return,
He names the five things that every man should know.
These things are meant to bring us low.
I would expand this list in this one way: I would say it’s true of everyone, not just men,
And should be applied even and especially to the great and successful among us --
That in the end, there are no exceptions to these rules.
These five big lessons are:
1) Life is hard.
2) You are not important.
3) Your life is not about you.
4) You are not in control.
5) You are going to die.
It makes you want to pull out the long knives, doesn’t it, to hear such teaching?
Who squeezed persimmons into Father Torey’s coffee?
This all turns out to be tremendously important teaching for anyone wanting to grow up in Christ
(“Growing up,” by the way, being something you can do at any age).
Because we have to come to realize that truly, we are trapped.
If sinners sin because it is their nature;
And if life really is hard, and if we really are unimportant;
And if your life really isn’t about you and if you are not in control;
And if we really are all going to die someday,
Then it seems to me that all any of us can do in a sense is to wake up to this reality.
To begin, perhaps, to see the living of our lives as a kind of exercise in awareness.
In other words, there isn’t much we can do. We can wake up, open up a little.
After that, it becomes incumbent upon an outside force to intrude and change our hearts,
Lest we remain irretrievably stuck.
An outside force, ironically, that is more deeply you
Than you yourself are you.
To say it simply: the only answer for sin is grace -- God’s unfailing and unearned mercy.
So the tax-collector in the parable has it precisely right!
He’s a sinner in need of mercy.
He has perfectly understood and articulated the basic human problem and paradigm.
Forget the other guy, the Pharisee: He’s too filled with himself to see anything but himself.
In the beginning, when our parents Eve and Adam tested God
And ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,
They suddenly came to see the truth of their state with clear eyes.
In shame they covered their glory,
And in shame they sought to put some distance between themselves and their Creator.
Distance. A measurable space.
The word for sin in our ancient texts is harmartía.
It means “to miss the mark” by virtue of an error in judgment.
“Missing the mark”: the archer loads his arrow and pulls back on his bow,
And when he lets it fly, it falls wide of its intended target.
The arrow wanders off the right path.
Misfired, it puts distance between itself and its target.
Know this, too:
That the archer is not alone.
His sin, his hamartía, his missing of the mark,
Is but one of many.
He shoots and misses and sins in a crowd, as it were.
“Have mercy on me, a sinner” might just as well apply to US and not just me.
Sin is not a singularly individual issue:
It happens at all levels.
Even so. No matter where it happens, ...
I am one of those impetuous ones who believe that nothing is outside the redeeming love of God.
That there is no distance God won’t walk to pick up a misfired arrow,
No distance God won’t cover to find Adam and Eve,
No distance God the Good Shepherd won’t range over to find the one lost sheep
When the other 99 are safe in the pen.
Why such extravagance? Why go so many miles just to locate one mangy sinner?
Why does God do anything? Why is God what God is?
The only answer that makes any sense is the one that God provides to Israel
When they are stuck in the desert and contemplating going into a land of milk and honey.
Remember, the Lord tells Israel,
I saw you when you were being harassed by Pharaoh;
I fell in love with you because you were small and had no one to protect you.
So let me be your God, and you will be my people.
God is extravagant because God loves because God has seen us and has had pity upon us.
“I saw all the snares that the enemy spreads out over the whole world,”
A wise desert monk said, many, many years ago --
“I saw all the snares that the enemy spreads out over the whole world,
And I said, groaning, ‘What can get through such snares?’
Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.’”
Sooner or later on their journeys of faith, followers of Jesus may find themselves
In the shadow of prayer next to the tax-collector,
Downwind from the braggart Pharisee.
Sooner or later, followers of Jesus may find themselves
Filled up with emptiness
Having nothing to commend themselves and nothing to offer God
Except a plea for mercy, made in the deepest and most desperate humility.
Sooner or later, Jesus-followers may find themselves
Led past the point of their own abilities, resources, and networks.
They will scrape at the dirt and beat their chests.
And that is precisely where God wants them to be --
Not holding us down like some bully,
But finally able to be seen without all our comforts getting in the way.
Is it any wonder that the most popular prayer in the world,
Uttered by millions of spiritual pilgrims and seekers over the years,
Is a prayer of deepest humility just twelve words long:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
A wise teacher named Thomas Merton wrote
That “Pride makes us artificial, humility makes us real.”
We must learn to wake up, and to shun what is untrue, and to choose what is real.
There we will find the grace we so desperately seek.