The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25, Year C - October 23, 2016

Preacher: 
The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 25, Year C

October 23, 2016

All Souls and St. Paul’s Shrine Mont Retreat

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `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!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14)

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Good morning! It’s chilly out here, but I cannot think of a better place to be rubbing our hands and tapping our toes to keep warm!

This weekend at Shrine Mont has always been, for both of our congregations, a special time –when time itself stretches out, so we can linger for a while and have the kinds of conversations with one another, with ourselves, with God, that we just can’t fit in during our busy weeks, or during coffee hour or ministry team meetings.  A time to connect, to laugh, to share our stories.

As most of you know by now, the theme of the All Souls retreat this weekend has been “Go tell it on the mountain.” And we’ve had a great time telling our stories on the mountain, knitting them together, and discovering the great beauty of the crazy quilt they create.  I know that all of you at St. Paul’s have also considered stories.  The story that our culture tells us in contrast to the story that Jesus told. 

The stories we tell…about ourselves and about others, shape the way we view our present reality, don’t they?  Not only do they make a difference in the way we see ourselves, but how we understand our relationships with each other, and with God. What are the stories you tell others about yourself?  What do you tell yourself about yourself?  What stories do you tell about the people you know?  About the world we live in?  The stories you tell, the way you tell them, color your world, they affect your mood, your attitude, they shape your choices in life. They shape your future, too.

Jesus told a lot of stories.  And the way we interpret those stories has often as much to do with our own stories, our own way of seeing the world, as in any meaning that Jesus originally intended to impart.  In fact, I think he told stories in such a way that would connect us to our own, tease our minds to search out our own hearts, rather than communicate a straightforward message or a set teaching.

The parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel is about two men – a Pharisee and a Tax collector – who each offer polar opposite prayers, each with their own stories – the story they tell themselves about themselves and the story they tell themselves about the other.  The contrast between their two prayers is impossible to miss. The Pharisee stands apart, probably so that his litany of virtues can be heard by other worshipers and by the tax collector. HIs prayer keeps the focus on himself. It is "I" this and "I" that. His list of virtues separates him from the “other people,” and not only that, it divides the community, perpetuating an us vs. them mentality that we know, all too well, in our own day.[1]

The tax collector, on the other hand, stands, on the margins, “beating his breast.” In the Ancient Near East, this physical gesture was associated with women rather than men, which emphasizes the unexpected nature of his actions. He keeps his head bent. His words are simple. He does not embark on an eloquent litany of his sins to match the Pharisee's virtues. He hopes in God alone, not in an extravagant outpouring of remorse. Like other powerless outsiders in Luke and in the Old Testament—the poor, the widow, the stranger—the tax collector casts himself on the mercies of God, and God hears and upholds his prayer.

One thing that stories such as this do is invite us to identify with the characters. Human nature being what it is, we like to identify with the more positive characters in a story. The Pharisee wouldn’t of course be my choice – if I were to identify with him, it would be like admitting I am proud of my adherence to certain moral virtues and standards of achievement – something that I’m sure you at St Paul’s probably touched upon this weekend in your conversations about our culture.  For me, being like the Pharisee would mean that I secretly felt my credentials and education and good intentions made me better than others and more deserving of God's attention and salvation and quite frankly, as priest, that would be an embarrassing thing for me to admit in public!

And so, I would rather identify with the humble tax collector, not, of course, because he is hated by his community due to his exploitative profession, but because God liked his prayer better.

Just like all stories, however, this parable that Jesus tells is a slice of life, and the tax collector comes out, in this particular scene, looking good. But what if we came back tomorrow and he was still there? And next week, and he was still there? Would persisting in a static confession be a positive lesson for us today?

The late Professor William Muehl preached a famous sermon on this parable entitled, "The Cult of the Publican." He pointed out that the tax collector looks good in this story because he is in a two-person lineup and the other person is one of our stock villains. 

He goes on to talk about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Marble Faun which has one of its characters complain about a piece of statuary that catches the human figure in a transitional posture. “The living form,” the character objects, “should never be frozen by the artist in such a halfway position that one viewing it for the second or third time longs to cry out, ‘Well, get on with it. Throw it or drop it. Stand or fall. Live or die. But don't just hang there in between!’" [2]

Muehl points out that the stance of self-deprecating, self-loathing penitence is not to become our permanent “posture” and he makes a good point. If this prayer for mercy was the only one the publican ever recited for the rest of his life, if his sense of unworthiness invaded and dominated all his thoughts and self-perception, if that is the story he tells himself and others, over and over, then he is the last person with whom we would want to identify.

There comes a time when we need to trust that we are forgiven and accept the grace of God to move beyond regret, remorse, and repeated acknowledgment of our shortcomings - into the arena of transformation, of being blessed to be a blessing to others. We certainly can't do that if we are arrogant like the Pharisee. But, neither can we do it if we remain habitually mired in a sense of our unworthiness.

The kinds of people who felt unworthy may not have been the original audience of this parable, but it does have a message about the stories we all persist in telling, not only for those who persist in being puffed up, but also for those who have become comfortable in their lack of confidence and use it as an excuse for inaction.  It makes me think of what we hear in the Eucharistic prayer we will use this morning, “do not presume to come to this table for solace only and not for strength, for pardon only, and not for renewal.”[3]

The stories we tell about ourselves, to ourselves, to others, to God, they do shape our present reality, and they shape our future.  To be truly healed, saved, transformed, we are invited to tell a different story, to live a new story.

At the bishop’s clergy conference this past week, a poem about healing was read during our service of Holy Eucharist, which included a Rite of Healing.  It is called “The Healed Heart,” by Susan Cherwein, and I want to leave it with you:

God is the midst of the people

And God has healed

God goes as presence among us

And we are saved

How then shall we show our praise?

By praying again and again to be saved?

(I have saved you, says God.)

How then shall we adore?

By praying again and again to be healed?

(I have healed you, says God.)

How then will we spend our days

As a healed and redeemed people?

By the fair laying of hands –

By the offering of God’s good gifts –

The making of heartlifting melody –

By living as healed hearts.

How then shall we spend our days

As a healed people?

O God,

prosper the work of our hands.

 

Amen

 

 

[1] I am indebted to Alice McKenzie’s 3013 commentary on this passage for some of the ideas presented in this paragraph and on the subsequent page.  For further reading, see. http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Power-Persistence-Alyce-McK...

[2] As quoted by Alice McKenzie in the commentary referenced above.

[3] Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 372

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