October 23: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

The sermon for Sunday, October 23, was preached by Valerie Cole Kelley, a member of St. Hilda St. Patrick who has served on the Bishop’s Committee, as senior warden, and is a retired educator. The sermon was based on the manuscript below and was delivered as a response to Luke 18.9-14.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

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.”

What do you think of this tax collector when you hear this story today? We can more easily identify with him in this day and age, partly because we aren’t as shocked as the disciples would have been that such a despicable person would be justified by God. But it’s important to realize how uncomfortable the idea of this traitorous villain tax collector being praised over a pious, upstanding Pharisee was in the 1st century AD. In today’s context, the tax collector might be like a drug dealer selling fentanyl to high school students; vs. the Pharisee, who we could compare to a hospice nurse who prays constantly for her sick patients as she expertly cares for them. Or maybe – picture your most despicable relative. The tax collector might be the cousin who hates all immigrants and criticizes the Thanksgiving turkey while disparaging your niece – vs. the Pharisee – your prayerful Aunt Dorothy who helps lovingly raise her grandkids while feeding the homeless every weekend. When I think of the characters in this Gospel like this, I have to admit – it’s more difficult for me to relate to the tax collector.

But it’s the tax collector who is “justified”. Why? He’s a bad dude.

Today’s parable from Luke, like other Parables of Jesus, can be challenging. This one comes directly after the parable we heard Jesus tell through Luke last week. As you may remember, Jesus was on the road to Jerusalem with his disciples, when he told them about their need to PRAY always and not to lose heart. In today’s story, Jesus continues trying to help us understand how to talk to God. By flipping the script and making the awful tax collector more humble than the righteous Pharisee, he wants to surprise us into understanding that our attitudes and motivations matter when we pray. Why?

Prayer is a complicated and important subject. There’s a reason we need help with it. It’s sometimes hard to know if we’re doing it right. Or if it makes a difference.

I hear Jesus say that through humble prayer we are transformed.

All of us have experienced this dichotomy – unless we are honest with ourselves and with God, we can’t make lasting changes in our lives.

If we pray while focusing our prayers on our own accomplishments and pride, we fail to experience the grace God pours upon us. But when we present ourselves humbly in prayer, we acknowledge this truth – that everything we have comes from God.

It’s easy to use prayer to focus on ourselves rather than God. Some of us, including many people who try to live faithful lives, have used prayer as a weapon or an ATM machine. I had an uncle who believed that God would give him whatever he asked for, and he asked for a lot of things for himself. Like the Pharisee in the story, for Uncle Fred it was all ME ME ME. It seemed like God was a means to an end more than anything else. I hear Jesus telling us that this kind of prayer hinders our relationships with God and with the world.

God grants us grace despite what we do, not because of what we do. The tax collector is still a bad person. He doesn’t promise to do anything different. He just knows he doesn’t have all the answers, and he talks to God with the willingness to admit his own imperfections and to seek mercy.

Just like the tax collector in this passage, when we pray with humility, we recognize that God is our only hope.

Clearly, the Gospels teach us to be good people. To love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. Most of us try to do good most of the time, and we believe that we usually do. But we’re all hypocritical. We’re all sinners. And in our society, we live in a culture focused inordinately on individualism and accomplishment – not on humility.

But the self-assurance and pride that we use to help us through each day can turn into arrogance and self-satisfaction – and contempt for others – if we bring these attitudes into prayer. Jesus is saying that this deceit can hinder our relationship with God; with our fellow humans; and with ourselves. We can lose sight of the fact that all of us are children of God, deserving of the mercy so freely given to all. That knowledge empowers us to try to do better.

Another thing I hear in this parable is God flipping the script. Jesus is intentionally playing with the norms and expectations of his listeners by comparing the vile tax collector and the pious Pharisee in an unexpected way. He seems to be telling us that what we expect is not necessarily what we get. Our satisfaction with – and understanding of – “how things should be” can be an impediment to hearing and obeying God. Our families and culture and religious training teach us ideas that often feel immutable and eternal. But God has different motivations, and our job is to listen carefully.

We can hear God in many ways – through prayer and silence, as we do when we worship in church every week; or We can hear God through those who are ignored in our communities, if we’re willing to open our ears. If we’re honest, it can be uncomfortable to hear about the real experiences of those who suffer or cause suffering to others.

We also hear God through our own minds, hearts and bodies as we experience the ups and downs of everyday life. Did anything uncomfortable happen at work or school or at the Dr. office this week? God speaks through friends and family – even that vile cousin – if we care to listen; or through the natural environment around us if we pay attention. Jesus seems to be saying that deep listening with a willingness to hear the unexpected is our responsibility as faithful servants. What has God said that surprised you lately?

This parable tells me that how I present myself in conversation with God affects my life and heart – and actions. Approaching God with an absence of pride and a willingness to admit my imperfections, and with an open, listening heart gives me the opportunity to truly experience grace. It’s a challenge, but I look forward to the ongoing, surprising conversation.

I’ll close with a collect from the New Zealand Prayer book:

Blessed are you,
God of growth and discovery;
Yours is the inspiration
that has altered and changed our lives;
Yours is the power that has brought us
to new dangers and opportunities.
Set us, your new creation,
to walk through this new world,
Watching and learning,
Loving and trusting,
Until your kingdom comes.

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