The greatness of this gospel good news (A sermon on Luke 18:9-14)
It's three and a half years, now, since the day during a gathering of younger-ish Episcopal priests when they asked us each to go around the circle and identify a goal or something we wanted to be true about our ministry, and then they divided us into smaller discussion groups to work on change plans based on similar goals. And I said something about wanting to be more courageous about speaking up and saying what I knew to be the Gospel truth even when it wasn’t specifically my job to do it. But somehow the way I said it or they heard it, it didn’t land me in the “claiming our voices” discussion group. It landed me in the “success” small group - the people who wanted to be less concerned about ambition and landing in the right jobs and being noticed and respected by the right people to advance.
And it was clear to me that this was not the right group for me, and I mentioned that these concerns really weren’t mine - that I was happy to be an associate doing youth ministry, I had no desire to be a rector or dean or anything like that - and the gentleman across from me - we’ll pretend his name was Hutch - proceeded to mansplain to me that really I must actually be concerned about these issues because it was just part of being smart and capable and certainly I was wrong about myself.
And later when I shared this frustration - this sense that I was in the wrong group and had been chastised for thinking my own thoughts - with my weeklong small group, one of the guys in that group - we’ll call this one Donte - asked me, “So did you call him on it?” And I went “(pause) Oh. Um. No. No, I didn’t.”
And Donte looked at me and said with the world’s gentlest, most loving smirk on his face, “Hmm. Sounds to me like you were in the right group after all.” There is no commentary, no study guide (and I’ve read a bunch) that teaches me as well and deeply what Jesus is talking about in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector as this experience does.
In that moment when Donte said that, I knew that I had been like the Pharisee. I had taken my eye off of what I felt God was inviting me to work on, and I had gotten distracted by self-righteousness about not being tempted by ambition like Hutch was, and not being an annoying mansplainer like he was. I forgot what the Pharisee forgot, what's expressed so marvelously in hymn 469:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea
There’s a kindness in his justice which is more than liberty
There is welcome for the sinner and more graces for the good
There is mercy with the savior, there is healing in his blood
I should have remembered, I thought; I should have focused on myself, on my own growth, should have spoken up, should have been less judgmental. I spent quite a while, as they said on Saturday Night Live, “should”-ing all over myself. And eventually I had to realize that I had shifted from being the Pharisee to thinking more like the tax collector: I am a miserable sinner, and there is no good in me. None. Nada. I have failed and I will probably always fail because that's what happens to miserable sinners with no good in them.
The tax collector knows the sorrow of having failed to be what God wants us to be. But I came to the conclusion a while back that I’m not sure I like being the tax collector any better, and I’m not sure Jesus’ point was for us to *be* the tax collector, exactly. After all, the tax collector as stock character gets dressed down for other things in other parts of the gospel. I think here he may just be a foil, the other extreme. At least for me, too much time in the tax collector’s shoes leads me to self-pity and self-doubt, and I know that I can’t live in that place either.
And here’s where this little story of mine really helps me to reconcile the Pharisee and the tax collector in me and not get stuck in the parable. After Donte said to me “Sounds like you were in the right group after all,” I said “Oh. I guess so. I guess I missed that one.” And he continued on cheerfully, “But it’s not a failure, because you learned from it. So now it’s just a step along your path in the right direction - one step closer to speaking up next time.”
There are many parts of life that I believe work better if we hold them between us and take turns bearing the weight of them. Grief is like that - we heal better if we hold our grief in the middle of the community and each bear a part for the others. The creed is like that - each of us is free to wonder and question and come back to it and let different parts be hard or easy at different times because we say it together, so when one of us has trouble with part of it, the rest of the community believes it for us. The burdens of our national life are like that - on our own, no single one of us would be enough to bear up under it or to change it for good, and yet there is no part of our national life that can stand up to the larger body of us holding it in our midst with love and determination to find a better way.
I find that this *thing* - call it mercy, call it love, call it a grace too powerful to name - I find that it is more real, more nearly tangible, if we believe it for each other, and speak it to each other. Neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector was able to step outside of his own prayer enough to dare to tell the other that God's love is big enough and deep enough to be *for* us even when we look at ourselves and see an utter failure, and even when we look at ourselves and think that we are already righteous before God.
But we need to. We need to do it for each other whenever we can remember to believe it, because all of us have moments of looking at ourselves and seeing failure. I used to hedge my bets on that, I used to say "well, most of us" but I am willing now to claim that absolute because in eight years as a priest, not to mention 36 as a human, I have not met one single person who has not had at least one moment of looking in the mirror and seeing failure, whether it’s a failure to live according to what God tells us we should do, or a failure to be humble and merciful and not think too highly of ourselves. Most of us have these moments semi-regularly, and some of us have them frequently, even daily or more. So it helps a whole lot to be reminded sometimes, by someone who we know believes it’s true, that God's label for us is "beloved" and not "failure".
And so, it turns out, it is not about being a Pharisee or being a tax collector, but about being a beloved child of God, and letting that free us to tell each other that, yes - *you too* are the beloved of God. Donte, you are a beloved child of God. Hutch, you are a beloved child of God. You - *you* - *YOU* are a beloved child of God. Full stop.
That's plenty. That is full-time work - and so, I find, in the end, that if I can stay busy speaking *that* truth, I have a lot less time to feel either self-righteous or self-deprecating, because both are crowded out by the greatness of this gospel good news.