Sermon, Oct. 16

Two men went up to the temple to pray. One of them was a Pharisee, a member of a movement within Judaism that was restoring the ancient practices of worship and piety described in the books of the Law. And the other was a tax collector – someone who worked for the occupying Roman government to collect punishing levels of tax from his fellow citizens. The Pharisee was standing by himself, and praying like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ Jesus said, “I tell you, this man, not the Pharisee, went down to his home that day justified. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Today we begin our annual Giving Campaign, the month in which members offer their pledges – statements of how much we plan to give during the coming year – to enable the church to develop its budget for 2017. At first glance, this is a TERRIBLE Gospel reading for the occasion. The Pharisee, who’s giving a tenth of his income to the Temple, comes out of this story looking like a jerk. His piety is held up as a mistake, not a model. So let’s talk about the Pharisee. Because it’s not his giving that’s the problem.

What’s wrong with the Pharisee? Well, Luke tells us that this story was directed at those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt. That’s what’s broken about the Pharisee’s faith, in a nutshell. He trusts in himself that he is righteous. He fasts, abstaining from certain foods as the religious laws demand; he gives a tenth of his income to the Temple; you can bet he follows all the other rules of his faith too. There is nothing wrong with those practices – in fact, there’s a lot right about them! Fasting and giving and praying, and all the other daily acts of faith, are ways we turn belief into action, into habit.

The practices aren’t the problem. The mindset is the problem. If you think you can get right with God by simply checking a set of boxes, then you don’t actually need God. Being a good person becomes a lot like acing a test, and God becomes irrelevant. The apostle Paul talks about this mindset a lot, because before he became a Christian, he was right there with this Pharisee – righteous under the Law, meeting all its requirements. And then he met Jesus, and realized how inadequate and empty it all was.

So, the Pharisee trusts in himself that he is righteous; and he regards others with contempt. His sense of his own righteousness is based to a significant degree on being better than other people. This is one of my favorite parables because it gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ keen sense of humor. Did you notice the trap he sets here, with this simple little story? You hear the Pharisee saying, Thank God I am not like that tax collector! And the immediate, natural thing to think is, Thank God I am not like that Pharisee!

Let’s call that the Pharisee Trap: the tendency to find our righteousness in being better than others. The Pharisee Trap can be a real risk for Episcopalians. I’ve heard too many church leaders who should know better say that what’s great about the Episcopal Church is that we’re not judgmental like the fundamentalists, or manipulative like the evangelicals, or rigid like the Roman Catholics. I’m sure I slip into the Pharisee Trap now and then myself. We love our church, and we find grace in its particular balance of Scripture, tradition, and reason. It’s great when we talk about that, when we proclaim it.

But we need to be intentional in talking about why we love our church and our way of faith in terms of our strengths, more than in terms of other churches’ weaknesses. I have the privilege of having pretty regular conversations with people who are coming to the Episcopal Church from other ways of faith. And I always try to ask, What was hard about what you’re leaving, what didn’t fit? And, what was good about it? what will you miss? And I try to say, Here are things I love about the Anglican and Episcopal way of faith. Here’s what’s earned my loyalty and my joy. And here are the things we’re not so great at. Because we’re not perfect, not the pinnacle of Christianity.

So that’s what’s wrong with the Pharisee: self-satisfaction grounded in the conviction that he’s got this God thing all figured out, unlike SOME. And if you think that smug spiritual arrogance doesn’t sound very Episcopalian – well, then you haven’t been to all the same meetings I have… Okay. Let’s turn to the Tax Collector. He comes out of this parable smelling like roses. He humbles himself, lowers himself, before God, and God exalts him, lifts him up, sets him right.

What’s right with the Tax Collector? Jesus describes this character in the parable in a way that invites us to notice his grief and guilt: the man is standing far off, off to the side, alone; he would not even look up to heaven; and he is beating his breast, a gesture of self-abasement. And then there are the words of his prayer: God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

Jesus paints a vivid picture with a few simple details. He wants his hearers to understand the intensity of the tax collector’s guilt and longing for mercy. However – I want to be clear that I don’t think Jesus wants us all to approach God this way. A lot of his preaching and teaching is focused on encouraging people to approach God with more boldness, trust, and love. To take one key example, when Jesus’s friends ask him how to pray, he teaches them to call God, Father. Or even, Daddy or Papa – the word Abba that Jesus uses, in the Lord’s Prayer, is one that a child would use at home. Jesus calls his followers to greater intimacy with God, and away from a distant and fearful piety. He doesn’t want us to stand off to the side, to be afraid to look up at God, even in our deepest sins and darkest moments. So those details he tells us about the Tax Collector, I think, are meant not to give us an example we ought to follow, but instead to tell us something about the depth and quality of this man’s spirituality.

So what are we to notice about the tax collector? He’s open to God. Both in telling the truth about himself, his brokenness and his need; and in expecting God to respond. Look back at our friend the Pharisee: his words are technically a prayer, because he starts with “God.” But it he’s basically talking to himself about what a great guy he is. The tax collector’s prayer is far simpler – and far more honest. He doesn’t have a list of what he’s done wrong, or right. He simply names himself as a sinner, as having fallen short of God’s intentions for him. And he asks for God’s mercy. For God to receive him with love and save him from his own weaknesses and failures. While the Pharisee thinks he’s fine already, and has no need to be open to God, the tax collector’s burdened conscience drives him to seek God, in pain, in truth, in hope.

And that leads me to the second thing I think Jesus wants us to notice about the tax collector: He leaves different than he came. Jesus says, He went home that day justified. Set right with God – forgiven – exonerated – his burden lifted. Imagine him walking out of the Temple feeling … lighter. Feeling hope, once more, that there is good in the world and that he has a chance to be part of it. The tax collector leaves the Temple changed by what happened there – by his own prayer, and by God’s grace.

And that, friends, is why maybe this is a pretty good parable for the beginning of a Giving Campaign, after all. Because let’s face it: the real question of a Giving Campaign is, why have a church? You could get together for meals without church. You could give money to charity without church. You could study Scripture without church. Why commit your resources and time and skills and care to helping this place be and become and endure?

A couple of months ago, Scott Gunn, Episcopal priest and writer, wrote a blog post that caught my eye, responding to a statement he’d heard several times: The church should be out in the world. The implication being that we might be indulging ourselves by making sure we have a safe, warm, and lovely place to gather for worship and fellowship. Here’s what Scott says about that idea:

“Sometimes you hear people saying something along the lines that the church shouldn’t be focused on worship when there are so many needs in the world. And I fully agree that any church which turns its back on the needs of the world is no church…. [But] there is not a zero sum… here. A focus on worship does not reduce our focus on the world. Rather, a focus on worship is the church’s work, and … worship rightly done sends us out into the world. I think we confuse the work of the church and the work of disciples… When the church is doing its work, it will be forming disciples of Jesus Christ who find the needs of the world irresistible and who find themselves called to respond. Worship is not a distraction from the world, but rather it is the thin place that opens our eyes to the glory of God and thus to the possibility of glory in our world.”

Scott is saying, in essence, that the purpose of church is to be a place apart. The word Holy, in all the languages of the Bible, basically means: Dedicated. Set apart. And set apart for a purpose. At church we gather from our daily lives, into this holy place, this holy time; and then we go forth as disciples into the world. And like the tax collector, we go forth different.

When we held focus groups last year to talk about why you all make church part of your lives, a lot of you said something like that: that church was a place of solace, of restoration, of re-orientation. A place to bring your thirsty soul and receive the water of life. A place to sit and breathe, and remember the big picture, the long arc, the great story. A place to get re-grounded to face the challenges of daily living. A place to leave different.

Now, in all honesty and humility, I’m sure there are many weeks for you when it’s just church. I know there are for me. Maybe it’s a bit much to expect transformation every week. But at the same time, I’ve learned – mostly from all y’all – that there are a lot of ways in which gathering here, spending this intentional time with God and fellow Christians, does change us. Does send us forth different than we came. Even in small ways.

Because in the face of today’s perplexities, Scripture reminds us of the long history of God’s people struggling and shouting and grieving and journeying and surviving and rebuilding. Because in a divided world, here we share faith and friendship with people of different backgrounds and different views – yes, however homogenous we may look, believe me, we contain multitudes! – and those conversations bless and challenge us by making us remember our shared humanity. Because in an everything-is-fine world, sometimes, here, we are able to name what’s really on our minds and hearts, in prayer and conversation.

Because we can do small, real things together here about the world’s woes, coordinating our efforts and getting diapers or notebooks or a jar of applesauce or the price of a new muffler to those who need them. Because griefs or concerns that feel big and new and strange to us are wrapped up in the capacious and experienced arms of the church’s prayer, to which no human pains are unfamiliar. Because there’s room here to offer the things we’re good at and the things we love to do; and when a community recognizes and receives and acknowledges our gifts, we feel seen, and blessed.

Because despite weariness or despair that can weigh us down, here the bright energy of children and the soaring notes of our hymns and the color of the leaves in the sunlight can lift our hearts and restore some sense of hope and meaning. Because our liturgy invites us to lay down our burdens, offer up our prayers, and be fed by God’s unconditional, unshakable, unending love.

Now, I’m in danger, here, of sounding like the Pharisee. Of saying, God, thank you that our church is such a great place! We welcome everybody, we have beautiful worship and vital ministries, and we’re WAY nicer than Some Other Churches We Could Name. It’s a fine line to walk… I want to celebrate what we do well. I am proud of St. Dunstan’s and I take delight in many aspects of our life together. But I can’t, I don’t ask you, to commit financial support and time and ideas and skills to the life of this body because we’re perfect. We’re not.

I ask for your presence and participation and support because we’re building a good thing here, and I very much want to continue that work together. To follow through on where God is leading us. I ask you to stand with me before God, as we look towards another year in our shared life of faith, with the heart of the tax collector: open to God, in honesty, humility, and hope, and ready to be made new and sent forth.

Scott Gunn’s blog post may be read in full here: