The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
October 27, 2013
Readings: Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
In the name of the Father and of the Son, of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
On a cold January morning in 2004, I was lying on the grimy concrete floor of the parking garage of the Continental Apartment building at the corner of Vermont and Meridian downtown. I was covered with my leather jacket, and I was trying not to whimper in pain. I heard the clack of high heels approaching.
|Photo: Moyan Brenn, distributed under a CC BY 2.0 US|
Moments earlier, I was standing upright, striding in confidence to my car. This despite the thick layer of ice in the alley, the warning on the radio not to go outside unless you absolutely had to. It was just dawning on me that the same inch of ice in the alley was also layered on the windshield of my car when I crumpled to the ground and thought I heard a crack. I sat up, pushed my briefcase aside, and saw my left foot twisted in a way it should not twist. I started yelling for help.
The click of the high heels came closer.
Two men had responded to my yells, and helped me into the garage out of the cold. One called 911 and waited outside for the ambulance.
The high heels paused. Then they started moving away. A moment later I heard voices outside the door. A woman asked, "Do you know anything about the homeless guy sleeping in the garage?"
A few years before this happened I had fallen away from the church. There’s no dramatic story here. It’s just that one Sunday morning, a Sunday I was scheduled for acolyte duty, if I remember correctly, I decided not to get out of bed. Or maybe I didn’t even decide - I just didn’t get out of bed. And then the next Sunday I didn’t. And then the next, and the next, and the next.
The All Saints community did everything right, by the way. For a few weeks people called to see if things were ok. But I never answered. I didn’t know how to explain myself. I was embarrassed for not showing up when I said I would, fearful of being judged if I came back through the doors. I missed church, for a while. But after a while, my membership at All Saints became one of those things I used to do. I never lost my faith, exactly. But it seemed my time as a serious Christian was just another phase, no different from my teenage years as a vegetarian, or my more recent flirtation with CrossFit. My spiritual life atrophied. I didn’t think about God much.
But you know, it was fine. I was a young single man in the city, with a big downtown apartment, a good job, a kayak, and a car. I was going to school at night to get that next promotion. And even if I didn’t go to church I was an upright citizen, dutifully doing things like calling into the public radio pledge drive. I was having trouble quitting smoking, but I’d get around to it. It was in my power. I was on my way.
So now I’m lying on the parking garage floor being mistaken for homeless. The ambulance comes. I spend hours in the ER, at some points moaning in pain between morphine injections. It’s a triple fracture in my ankle. It requires surgery. I’ll be in the hospital for days. It’s my left ankle and I drive a stick shift. I can’t drive to work. I can’t get groceries. I can’t get to school at night. I could really use a cigarette.
For a couple nights when I come home from the hospital a friend checks in on me and brings dinner. We watch the Super Bowl together and I see Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction through a painkiller haze. Two coworkers who live not too far away take turns driving me to work and night school. Classmates drive me home every night. My family ships me some fancy frozen dinners. People at the office bring coffee to my desk. Friends bring me groceries. No one brings me cigarettes. I never smoke again.
For that stump of my faith, neglected, dry and buried in the ground, all this is a long awaited rain, the scent of water trickling into dusty soil. I started to perceive God working in my life, calling me back into the relationship I had abandoned, reminding me that I had never been alone. Soon after I was off crutches, I was back in church.
Well, Christ Church Cathedral, anyway. After three years without entering a church, I limped into the back pew at an 8am service during Lent. I didn’t talk to anyone, but it was a step in the door. It took a while longer to find my way back to All Saints, but that’s another story.
Recently a series of videos launched online called the NALT Christians Project. NALT - N-A-L-T stands for “Not All Like That”. The project is inspired by the “It Gets Better” campaign from a few years ago, and it aims to show that Christians are not universally opposed to LGBT equality, and many are passionately engaged for it. Many of the videos are moving, and I commend them to you.
But while I support the project and its aims, I gotta tell you, I cannot get comfortable with the name. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” says the Pharisee in today’s text. Not like the “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even this tax collector.” The Pharisee, you see, is a good guy. He does what he’s supposed to. “I fast twice a week,” he says. “I give a tenth of all my income.” He’s doing the right thing. It’s in his power. He’s on his way, on the fast track to righteousness.
And yet, Jesus tells us, he’s not. No, it is the tax collector, the one who beats his breast, who dares not look up into heaven, who probably had to work up some nerve to even come into the Temple, who says simply, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” - it is this man who goes home more justified. Jesus tells us that even though the tax collector is in the Temple, he is “standing far off”. That’s not all that unlike my first Sunday sitting in the back pew at the 8am service, barely looking at the altar, talking to no one. I was still a little embarrassed, still a little scared. I imagine the tax collector felt the same.
But let’s be real. Let’s not fall into the trap of romanticizing the tax collector. We’re not talking about an unfairly maligned, but fundamentally ethical IRS employee here. We’re talking a guy whose day job probably involved a little extortion, the kind of guy that elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus has to remind to take only the taxes due, and no more.
Remember, the Pharisee is doing the right thing. He fasts, he prays, he gives a tenth of all his income. The Pharisee’s problem is not that he’s doing the wrong things. It’s that he views his relationship with God as transactional, that by doing enough right things, he will be good enough under his own power.
He’s got the relationship wrong. He gives thanks to God that he is not like other people. He is confident that he is a good man because his good works make him good. But he is blind to the inevitability that he will eventually stumble, or blind to his current failings - it appears he could be falling a little short in the pride and mercy departments.
Where, in my opinion, the Not All Like That Project goes a little off course is not in the truth of its message, but in failing to recognize that in some measure, in some way, we are all like that, subject to myriad sins, failings, and blind spots. The tax collector recognizes this. He knows who he is in relationship to the perfect, the infinite, the almighty. He knows he falls short. But he trusts enough in God’s love to come into his courts and ask for mercy.
The Pharisee is not good because he does good things. No, the Pharisee is good, the tax collector is good, you are good because God created each of us in God’s own image, and God called us good. The Pharisee is good, the tax collector is good, you are good because God loves us all. We are not good because we do good things. No, we do good things in response to the love we receive from God and from each other.
In his forthcoming book, The Restoration Project, Father Christopher Martin describes the church as a hospital for sinners and a school for saints. All of us are both, always, in some measure, simultaneously healing our wounds and growing in faithfulness to God.
The great thing about the church - the reason I suspect you are here - is that it is so much better than any one of us can be alone. Together you make up for each other’s failings (and for mine). You mourn each other’s sorrows, celebrate each other’s joys, and share your gifts in worship, music, prayer, and service.
You also do one more holy and loving thing. You give money. I don’t know if you feel holy when you write your checks, or do online billpay, or put your credit card number into PayPal, but you are. Your gifts make this place that sets our minds on God and our hearts on love possible. You make sacrifices week in and week out to run this hospital for sinners, this school for saints. Even when it is hard, you give. And for that you and I should be deeply thankful to each other. You do this not because giving makes you good, but because you know whose you are. You know who loves you.
We are, it should be obvious by now, at the point in the year where we are thinking about what we will do in the next. What will we do more of? How will All Saints open its doors even wider? How will we make this the year of more mystery, more gratitude, more light, more art, more blessing? There are plans afoot to build on the momentum of the last year of growth in attendance and involvement, to expand our music programs, to unleash Mother Suzanne to be even more involved in our community, to open our building even more to the arts. As an example, we are exploring what it would take to turn our organist/choirmaster position into a true 20-hour a week job. This would allow us to expand our wonderful music program for more than supporting our worship to being a tool for outreach to people in our community who are not already connected to our church. How big we can go depends on this question: what resources will you provide?
I can’t tell you what your answer should be. Our good friend the Pharisee gives ten percent of all his income. Some members of our parish do give at that level, or have committed to working toward it. If we all aimed that high, Mother Suzanne, the finance committee, and the vestry would have to come up with even bigger dreams for next year than they already have.
But let me suggest this. Expanding our programs requires an increase in pledge income of about ten or fifteen percent. Wherever you are today, try to take a step up. And if you worry the step you can take is so small it won’t make a difference, remember that it is not the size of the step that matters but the direction in which you set your face. This is not about guilt, failure, or shame, or embarrassment. This is a school for saints and we keep trying. What you give or don’t give isn’t what makes you good. You are good because God loves you. We give in gratitude.
Sometimes in the morning when I’m putting my socks on I run my finger up and down the scars in my ankle. Under the skin a pair of metal plates are screwed into my bones. At this point the scars are pretty faded, but I read in them, written on my body, the history of a journey back from wilderness. I see me, foolish in confidence, sprawled on the ice in an alley. I hear the click of the heels of a woman asking about the homeless guy sleeping in the garage. I see friends and strangers who cared for me. I see the hand of God, leading me back here, to this place, to the most important place in my life. I feel the open arms that enfolded me, a sinner returning home, when I came back through our red doors. I see hundreds of communions, hear hundreds of hymns. Maybe I remember a sermon or two. I see our old friends who worship silently with us in the walls. I feel the touch of hands and holy oil as you have prayed for me and I for you.
There’s not much in my power. I am not on my way. But you and I are all here, at home, in this hospital for sinners, this school for saints. And for that I am so very, very grateful.