Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sermon for the Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Jesus parable starts off like a joke:

‘Two men went up to the temple to pray,
one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.’

And like that oh so familiar joke, the point is juxtaposition.

In the joke, it is usually that one particular group of people,
whether it be based on race, region, or religion
is singled out as being stupid, or odd,
or whatever ever peculiarity that comes from their culture.

By their difference, they are placed on the outside of the norm.

Their difference is seen as a reason to discredit them,
and they are put outside.

It’s a bit like that in Jesus parable.
Yet it is not a joke. It is serious.
It is a matter of who is truly justified.

Now, we know from Paul, particularly his Letter to the Romans,
that we are justified by faith, not by works.
We know this.
Do we believe it?
Do we live it?
Is it the way we really live out our faith?

This is a very tricky area for us in the church.

You see, we know we are doing the right thing.
We know by coming to church,
by giving of our money and our time and our gifts,
we are doing the right thing.
The church survives because people like us continue to worship
and continue to give.

And that makes us feel pretty good.
We may at times feel we are better than those who don’t do those things.
We may feel justified because we do those things.

A dangerous and slippery slope.

Let’s change it around a bit.

‘Two men went up to the temple to pray,
one an Anglican Priest, the other a drunkard.’

The Priest, standing by himself, was praying thus,
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people:
thieves, vandals, adulterers, or even like this unemployed person.
I pray twice a day; I spend my time talking to people about God, I give my time and money to the church.”

Now, those of you who have prayed with me,
or have heard me pray in church
know full well I wouldn’t pray in such a way.

When I sit at the pub and see some of the nonsense that occurs,
do I feel better than those people?
Well, sometimes, I guess I do.

I remember doing those same stupid things when I was younger,
and I remember the hangovers, the empty wallet, the regret for saying stupid and mean things.

But it isn’t really that I think I am better than them,
rather, that I think I am now making better decisions.

Am I justified because of my decision to serve the church rather than drink every night?

No. I am justified because I believe in Jesus in my heart.

This is the danger of comparing ourselves with others.

You see,
when we place ourselves in a position as being better than others,
or that we are holier than others,
or that we do more for the church than others,
or that we give more money to the church in others,
or what ever it is that we think that we are better,
we are falling into the trap of vanity, or judgement,
of being exactly like the Pharisee in the parable.

We all want to lead holy lives,
we want to live the way God leads us to live.

If we follow the way of the Pharisee in the parable, we miss the point.

The tax collectors prayer is a far better way.
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

If we can recognise where we have gone wrong,
where we have missed the mark,
we put ourselves in a much better relationship to God.
To recognise our shortcomings,
to admit we have gotten it wrong,
to ask for forgiveness from God,
and from those we have hurt opens us up to the presence of God.

That presence gets cloudy and blurry when we are boasting or judging or whinging about someone else.
When we behave in such a way, we move ourselves away from God.

It is a humble heart that is open to God.

for all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Sometimes our greatest sin will be our sense of entitlement, superiority, or self righteousness.
This is the sin that the Pharisee was committing. This is the sin we commit when we judge others as not being as holy or faithful or as good as we are.

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

This is where we need to place ourselves.
Rather than seeing the fault in others, we need to see the faults in ourselves.

This can be an unsettling experience.
It can be hard to admit how we have gone wrong.
It is a humbling experience.

for all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

It is a humbling experience. To think that God who created all time and space cares about how we go about our lives is humbling.

And the fact that he forgives us is both humbling and exalting.

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