Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25, Year C)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on October 28, 2007. 
Based on Luke 18:9-14 (Proper 25, Year C).

Thursday morning; 6:30 am. It was dark; it was cold; it was pouring rain. Two local Episcopal priests were slogging through a six-mile run at Rockefeller State Park. And as Patrick Ward and I were discussing this morning’s gospel we were simultaneously quite pleased with ourselves for our virtuous dedication. We weren’t like those other runners who wimped out. Those other runners who looked out the window and stayed in
bed.

And it occurred to both of us that we didn’t need to discuss the parable from Luke’s gospel because we were enacting it. That we were being self-righteous and regarding others with contempt – precisely what Jesus warns us against. Because while we were half-joking, our comments mirrored that Pharisee whose prayer begins, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”

I love this passage because of its absurdity. But it also resonates because of its reality. I don’t think anyone actually prays like this – thanking God because he’s better than others. But we all certainly act like this. We are all vulnerable to pride and self-righteousness. It makes us feel good; it lifts us up; it sets us up as better than others. Which in itself is absurd but it’s also deeply embedded in the human condition. Sometimes it comes so naturally and subtly that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. So it’s not really a matter of whether we adopt the attitude of the Pharisee in this story but of how we do so.

Do you thank God that you’re not like those people in that lower tax bracket? Do you thank God that you’re not like those people who live in trailer parks? Or like those people who don’t have a college education? Or don’t have a job? Or don’t have legal immigration status? The list goes on and on. And so when you thank God for the blessings of this life are you really thanking God that you aren’t like those people who are not similarly blessed?

These are hard questions especially in light of the example Jesus holds up as the one who is more righteous. This tax collector, this outsider, this sinner is precisely the type of person we’re likely to be thankful that we’re not. He is the epitome of “those people.” And so highlighting his virtue is shocking. But his approach to God – his abject humility – is precisely how we need to enter into relationship with God. Because this tax collector trusts in God without condition. He recognizes that all that he has and all that he is comes from the Lord. The Pharisee on the other hand trusts exclusively in himself. Even though he does all the right things in his outward relationship with God – he prays regularly and tithes his income – he has in fact supplanted God with himself. And that’s what Jesus is warning against: trusting in the power of our selves rather than the power of God. Because when we do so we’re building a house on sand rather than on rock. And it will all come tumbling down. Maybe not immediately, maybe not for a long time, maybe not even in our lifetime, but rest assured that it will collapse. And we’ll wake up from the fantasy with nothing. Recognizing that our lives have been spent chasing false hopes and
dreams; that our lives are empty and our souls left unfulfilled.

Ironically, it is the Pharisee’s outward religiosity that proves a barrier to God’s grace. When he goes to the Temple he stands by himself to pray. Wanting to maintain his purity before God and remain undefiled by “those other people,” those sinners, he stands apart. He isolates himself from the mass of sinful humanity. The tax collector, on the other hand, stands “far off” beating his breast and “would not even look up to heaven.” And so the posture of these two mirrors their individual prayers: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people” versus “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” One’s a prayer rooted in self-righteousness; the other’s a prayer rooted in the mercy of God. One’s a prayer of self-exaltation; the other’s a prayer of humility. And Jesus makes it quite clear which approach brings a person closer to God.

I find it interesting that much of the liturgical language of humility has fallen out of favor over the years. It’s seen as overly penitential even as groveling. With successive Prayer Book revisions the focus has shifted, rightly so in my opinion, to the joyfulness of God’s presence among us rather than the utter depraved sinfulness of humanity. But if we never use this language of humility before God we tend to forget our place in the world. Our self-righteousness can take over and we slowly but surely put ourselves on the same plane with God rather than taking our place as humble servants of the living God.

Some of this language is retained in Rite I, the church’s traditional language service. The Prayer of Humble Access, said just before the distribution of bread and wine, speaks of our unworthiness to “gather up the crumbs under God’s table.” And in a line from the confession at Morning Prayer not retained in the current Prayer Book, “But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.” While this may sound old-fashioned or even hurtful to our modern ears, we’re poorer for it if some of this spirit isn’t retained in our spiritual lives. We are worthy as long as we recognize our place in relationship to God –
without God we are utterly hopeless. And this is easy to forget in this age of self-affirmation and self-reliance and self-indulgence and self-justification. So, ironically enough, we are worthy as long as we remember our complete unworth.

As you come to this holy table this morning I bid you to reflect upon your unworthiness before God. But at the same time to recognize the goodness of God’s loving mercy and grace as God welcomes and beckons and affirms you even despite the limits of your humanity.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2007

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