Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY
October 28, 2007
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-1; Luke 18:9-14
One of the things I get to do as a priest is hear how much people think God disapproves of them. Mostly I hear this from non-church attendees who say things about the roof falling in if they stepped into a church or just the general assumption that they are destined for someplace other than heaven because their life has been somewhat less than up to God’s standards.
I’ll confess that I’m not very good at talking to such folks, at least partially because they are almost always strangers and I’m an introvert and it takes me a little time to launch into deep conversation with a stranger. But here is what I want to say to them.
You are not far from the kingdom of God.
I think that’s the point of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector that we have just heard. It may seem that it is mostly a lesson about humility, and that is certainly an aspect of it. But humility is a slippery slope—the second you’re pleased with your own humility, well…swoosh, down in the mud you go.
This parable is really just more of the same of what I have been preaching about all throughout this year we have spent with Luke’s Gospel. I’ve often thought that if Luke Gospel and its “second part” the Acts of the Apostles were printed as a novel, it would have one of three titles:
The Great Reversal or
The Upside Down World or
The Death of Religion
This parable is an illustration of all three of those sentiments. The despised tax collector goes home justified rather than the righteous Pharisee. That is a great reversal, an upside down world, and the death of religion, at least the Pharisee’s perception of religion and how it works.
We began this morning singing a version of the Song of Mary—the Magnificat—partially to remind you of that great song at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel where these same themes first came to the fore—the mighty cast down, the humble lifted high, the hungry fed, the rich empty. Mary dreamed of a world of great reversals, and her son acted them out, and then so did his early followers, so much so that they get called in Acts “those people who turn the world upside down.”
And here this morning Jesus is asking us, “Do you want to be justified before God?” “Do you want to be accepted by God?”
Just know how much you need God, how far you fall short, how much the church may shudder if you walk in the door, how destined you are for eternal damnation if what matters is how good you have been. At that point you are not only not far from the kingdom of God, you will go to your house justified, accepted.
OK, we in the church want to say, but also ready to change your life. We want to imagine that the next time the tax collector comes to the Temple to pray he will have found a new job, or at least become an honest tax collector, and he will be ready to fill out a pledge card and commit himself to one of our ministries.
In other words, we are willing to accept the tax collector if in his new found self awareness he is willing to become like the Pharisee, maybe not quite so arrogant, but I assume the Pharisee’s arrogance would not keep us from cashing his pledge check.
We want to believe, like the Pharisee in the story that ultimately we are responsible for our own justification, our own acceptance. We win approval from God by doing the things God wants us to do.
But that is religion, and, as I have said before this year, particularly as he is portrayed in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus did not come to either improve an old religion or start a new one. He came to declare the death of religion as the way God actually relates to you and me.
Does this mean that the tax collector never needs to change his ways? No, he does not, in order to win his acceptance. But, having accepted the truth about himself that he can old say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and discovered God’s acceptance of him in spite of that, God can do all kinds of things with him and will.
You see, when we go on some self-improvement project it inevitably either fails miserably or we end up like the Pharisee, overly pleased with ourselves and our own goodness. And then we usually begin inflicting that goodness on others.
But the secret to our lives really changing—the way Jesus taught us—was just to acknowledge our need for God, and God’s acceptance of that need, and then anything is possible.
You see, I am increasingly convinced that the only work we are called to do to get right with God is to be honest about the whole of our life and accept our own acceptance in spite of the fact that our lives are not quite up to God’s standards.
It is that accepting or our own acceptance that changes our life, sets us on the road to transformation. Why? Because of what we call this thing we have come here this morning to do—Eucharist, thanksgiving. Gratitude is life transforming. That’s really the core of Jesus’ message and the message that we are called to proclaim.
It is gratitude for our own acceptance that drives, or should drive, everything else we do: hospitality and evangelism, stewardship and works of justice and peace-making, serving in any ministry, including just living together in households. Whenever we get ourselves into trouble or indecision or distress or anger, we ought to have only one question on our mind: what does this have to do with my gratitude for my own acceptance?
I have to say that I believe this has been the heart of Jesus’ message from the beginning, but at various times in the church’s life it has been nearly lost. And it has been nearly lost in times in the church’s life that otherwise seemed quite good and produced good deeds. One of those times was the post-World War II period in this country, when the church reached its zenith of respectability in society. Our churches in those days, including this one, were full. But it could not last because we had confused the real message of our acceptance with the false message of our respectability.
Now our churches are not so full, and we are not always seen as the center of respectability. Some actually despise us, some fellow Christians will not walk in these doors because of the kinds of people who hang out here. It is sometimes very painful to experience that truth. And it has cost us the pledge cards of some folks like the Pharisees, who were not, are not, bad people, but who put more stake in their own respectability because of who they are instead of their own acceptance in spite of who they are.
In the 1980’s it was fashionable in some circles—perhaps it still is—to say that “the Church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners.” I first encountered that around 1981 on a sign outside of an Episcopal Church in Morristown, New York. I remember thinking then that there was something right about that.
But there’s something wrong about it too, because it still betrays our need to make ourselves right before we can be accepted by God—the message got it right that the Gospel is not about being respectable, but it got it wrong about God’s absolute commitment to our acceptability in spite of everything. I’ve been trying for a long time to think of how I would change that slogan to match what I think the true message of the Gospel is, and I want to use non-churchy language. So how about this:
The Church is not a club for the respectable but a safe haven for the unacceptable.
Well, something like that.
Let us commit ourselves today, and savor in gratitude the miracle of the gospel: the truth of our acceptance by God in spite of everything that will set us free from the slavery of our respectability in the eyes of the world.
And let us find ways to say to those who believe the church would find them unacceptable: you are not far from the kingdom of God.