The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25)
28 October 2007
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
You all will discover over the coming months and years that I am a fan of the parable. These little stories, using real life examples, are designed to make us connect with an idea intuitively. They are not allegories in which each character or event has a direct corollary with another, higher meaning, but rather stories that are meant to evoke familiar situations and people to help make difficult concepts understandable. When you finish hearing a parable, you really should be able to say, “yeah, I have been there, seen that happen, recognise this from my own experience and now understand a bit better about how the world goes and God’s involvement in it.”
Unfortunately, I have never been good at creating my own parables, but luckily the Gospels are full of them. Indeed, the parable was probably Jesus preferred method of explaining what he was up to. Each of these little stories—from the parable of the “sower who went out to sow” in Mark to the forgiving father (better known as the prodigal son) in Luke—reaches out to the intended hearers in a way that was just for them. Jesus talked about fishing with fishermen, about agriculture with both labourers and landowners, about the cost of doing business with merchants, about the law with lawyers, and about the practice of religion with the professionally religious. There is no way that any one person could really, from their own experience, get all of Jesus’ parables and this is no coincidence. From looking at the parables alone, we learn that Jesus reached out to everyone and was willing to talk with them about their lives. He wanted to talk to each person about the things that mattered to him or her and show them that God cared deeply about their lives, about their experience. This was true for rich and poor, young and old, men and women.
The parable we heard (and remember parables were meant to be heard, in the company of others, and not simply read) this morning is no exception. We are coming to the end of Jesus ministry in Galilee before he sets off for Jerusalem and he is teaching lots of different people about the Kingdom of God—which is his reign of Love. He has told the story of the rich man and Lazarus, he has talked about an unjust judge, and now he is talking to people about their experience of public prayer.
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
Each of these two characters would have been familiar to those gathered around Jesus. The Pharisee, the respectable, religious man of some means was someone who would be recognised from his dress and appearance as a man who followed the Law. The tax collector was someone also identifiable from his appearance, but as one who was not so respectable. He would have been a Jew who collaborated with the Romans in carrying out the financial machinery of the Empire. He would certainly not have been welcomed into peoples homes and, from his choice to stand apart when praying, he even felt funny about going into the Temple, possibly fearing being shunned if he even dared to enter.
The Pharisee is like lots of us who go regularly to Church. He is pleased with himself for his regularity in attendance. He always puts his envelope in the plate. He always sits forward making sure the preacher knows he is listening. Indeed, these characteristics are not bad in themselves. But then we hear him say, “I am so glad I am not like all those people who do not do as I do; I am glad that I am better than they are.” And we know that there is something wrong. And we also know that each of us can fall into this trap. We all can be like the Pharisee sometimes.
The tax collector—he is a publican (a barkeep) in the King James Version—also feels the way many of us do quite often. He feels like he never gets it quite right. He knows that in his work he may not always do his best for other people or even that he is in the wrong line of work but can’t get out of a rut. He feels that he is somehow unworthy to be in relationship with the God to whom he is drawn, the God who he knows to be all about Love. And what does he do? He stands apart. He won’t even go into the Temple, but stands outside and offers a simple prayer to God: “be merciful to me a sinner!”
This parable offers two messages—two messages to each of us. Indeed, we must remember that there are not simply Pharisees and tax collectors, but rather we find elements of each in all of us. To the Pharisee we say, do not be complacent, do not judge yourself better than others. We are all works in progress and can all use a bit of humility, which is nothing more and nothing less than a recognition of our flaws and of God’s immense love for us no matter what. To the tax collector we say that recognising your faults and noting all the things that you think separate you from God means that you are really in no way separated from him and from his love. To the tax collector we say, come, you are not only welcome to enter the Temple, but you are worthy to do so by the very fact that you are human, made in the image and likeness of God.
This morning, at the nine o’clock Mass we have the privilege of baptising Grace and Sophie and of welcoming them into the Body of Christ. We have the privilege of inviting them into a new relationship with the God who was there at their birth, who has already travelled with them, and who already loves them more than we can imagine and whose love has been clear to them in the love shown them by their parents. This new relationship binds them to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who showed not only in his teachings, but in his life, that Love, which is what really matters, is more powerful than death.
Today Grace and Sophie enter into a community that tells stories in parables, that connects the experiences that they have had and that they will have with God’s deepest longings for them and for us. Most importantly, as today’s parable teaches us, they will, with all our help and witness, grow to learn that it is O.K. to recognise their shortcomings and to have a sense of perspective and of humility and at the same time know that God counts them worthy to be a part of what he is achieving in the world, that they are worthy of love and respect and that they are to treat those they meet with the love and care that they themselves receive.
I pray, as we will pray in a few minutes, that God may give them the joy and wonder in all his works and that all of us will come to the Temple, seeking God’s love and leave it, eager to help spread it abroad to the honour of God almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Andrew Charles Blume+
Alfred the Great, 26 October 2007
©2007 Andrew Charles Blume