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The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25C)
24 October 2010

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-2
Psalm 84 1-6
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

One of the most annoying sins in our world today is smugness. Those of you who, in the 1990s, read Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones books will remember her brilliant epithet, “smug marrieds,” for those already in relationships who lorded their domestic state over Bridget’s. Before I was a parent—and Jacalyn and I were married for quite some time before William came along—I remember transferring this notion to all the people with children who were so clear with us just how incomplete our marriage was without a little one or two or three. So many people today seem so certain of their superiority. Whether it is their piety, their financial condition, their (as we say in the Facebook age) “relationship status,” or their brilliance, people everywhere suffer from smugness. Perhaps I am being smug right now about how smug I’m not? It’s certainly possible.

Over and over again God calls us to a realisation of our true nature. Over and over again God calls upon us to be ourselves. Over and over again, God calls us to look into the mirror and behold our faces as they are, warts and all. God calls us to this honesty, to this work of reflexion, not to show us that we are insignificant worms in the face of his power, but rather for quite the opposite reason. He calls us to this honesty because he wants to show us—to use another turn of phrase from Bridge Jones’ Diary—that he loves us “just as we are.”

We are called to a life of humility and honest self-appraisal and this is what Jesus is clearly getting at in the parable from today’s Gospel. Jesus holds up before us two men. One is the clearly successful and respectable one; the other, the one with the suspect job. Jesus also holds up two ways of life, but not in the way his first listeners might have suspected.

The Pharisee knows and has the temerity to announce aloud that he is “not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” He makes a point of his piety, fasting “twice a week,” giving “tithes of all that” he gets. He is confident that he lives a just life, satisfied with his accomplishments and is looking for a reward. He is not thankful. He feels that what he has he deserves and, in fact, that he deserves further rewards for his excellent life. Worse than this, he thinks himself superior to other people like the tax collector he sees standing far off to the side. In short, he is smug.

The tax collector, on the other hand, does not even think he is worthy go to the centre of the temple precincts. Rather, he stands far off to the side and simply asks God for mercy. “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” he says with downcast eyes. He knows what sort of man he is, what sort of work he does to make ends meet. He knows what his life is like, how he is seen, and how he sins. He wells up his courage and asks God for mercy. He humbly seeks to be in relationship with God.

Jesus, in his explanation to his friends, makes it clear that we are to emulate the tax collector, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” We are called not to catalogue our accomplishments, not to be self-congratulatory about what we manage to do, not to be satisfied, indeed self-satisfied or complacent about what we do or are able to do. We are, instead, called to the tax collector's way with God.

The reality is that while many of us act like the Pharisee, we are all like the tax collector. None of us is perfect. We make mistakes and misuse out gifts. That is the reality of life. Yet we are all seated here in this church this morning. We are all seeking God, full knowing our limitations, knowing that God will accept and love us no matter how we may have sinned. Indeed, God is always waiting for us to come to him, acknowledge our humanity, acknowledge our weaknesses, and offer ourselves up to his service.

We come here before God, humbly and with thanksgiving, and make our offering so that we might be one with God and with each other. Jesus shows us how we are called to thank God for what we have been given and to humbly offer our lives up to him. We are called to offer up our lives as they are and as we clearly see them, sins and all. Indeed, this is what we do in the Eucharist we celebrate here each Sunday and throughout the week. Acknowledging and being forgiven for our sins, we humbly give thanks to God and offer out gifts. In this act God in Christ becomes present with us in the bread and wine and we become united with him and with each other.

Today as we being our Stewardship Campaign for 2011, we remember that we are called to humbly offer to God our talents and gifts in our several occupations. We are called to offer up the fruits of our labour in thanksgiving to God. In this way, our Stewardship is Eucharistic. We are not, therefore, called to catalogue and be satisfied with our accomplishments like the Pharisee. We are not called to use our talents and resources to suit our narrow self-interest. Rather, are called to see ourselves plain and turn to God and offer our lives to his service. We are called to take stock of our lives, recognise where we come-up short, acknowledge all the gifts we have been given—both the material goods as well as the love we have received from others—and be thankful.

For many of us who call this Church our parish home, this means taking stock of where we are as a community, where each of us fits-in in our life here, and see how we may work together to make this a stronger Church, a clearer beacon of God's love into the City, a more effective agent of that love as we work to serve the needs and concerns of our neighbours. For many of us who call this Church our parish home, it is time to consider how we will support the work and mission and ministry of Saint Ignatius of Antioch with our time, with our talent, and with our treasure. How grateful are you for what happens here? How grateful are you to God for the gifts you have been given? And rather than sitting on your laurels, we all might ask how we can take that sense of thanksgiving and do something concrete in support of this Church and its work, as imperfect as it is.

Because of all that you have done here over the past three years since I arrived here to be your Rector, we have worked together to see this Church grow in numbers and in ministry. Today this Church is as vital as it has ever been and this is due to what we have done together. While we still have a long way to go to secure our future, I am extremely grateful for all you have offered, and I hope that we can all continue to walk together humbly in the sight of God and keep doing the work we have been called to do.

 

Andrew Charles Blume+
New York City
Saint James of Jerusalem, 23 October 2010

 

© 2010 Andrew Charles Blume