Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pentecost 22-C: A humble confession

Lectionary: Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Mechthild of Magdeburg was a medieval mystic known for her poems, songs, and writings on spiritual matters. She was a remarkable Christian whose wisdom continues to benefit those of us who learn from her. One of Mechthild’s poems speaks directly to Jesus’ parable in our Gospel story:

In pride I so easily lost Thee --
But now the more deeply I sink
The more sweetly I drink
Of Thee!

It’s a concept that is counter-intuitive. We don’t like to sink because it means letting go of our own efforts. It’s more natural for us to fight to live, to kick against the current and struggle to keep our heads above water. But Mechthild presents such a beautiful image of the truth of our lives as Christians – drowning, as in the waters of Baptism, means letting go of self and relying totally on God for our life, our breath, our very survival.

In today’s Gospel story, the Pharisee assumes that God will be pleased by his good behavior, so he reminds God that he fasts, prays and tithes, that he doesn’t steal, cheat on his wife, or exploit his own kind for profit. He’s not like that tax collector over there. (whom he assumes does all those things because most of them did).

But the prayer of the Pharisee reveals to us that he is not in right relationship with God. He is relying on himself, his own efforts, and it has led him astray. As Mechthild once said: “When I … cherish some sourness in my heart… my soul becomes so dark… that I must… humbly make confession… Then only does grace come again to my soul…” The Pharisee’s prayer shows that arrogance has darkened his soul and soured the purity of his heart.

The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that his life isn’t anything to brag about so he makes a humble confession instead, praying simply: God, be merciful to me a sinner. And this is the prayer that pleases God. This is the heart that presents itself purely and is therefore justified.

Rather than celebrating disparity, as the Pharisee did, the pure of heart will long for unity and work for reconciliation. The pure of heart will not stand alone in their temples reveling in their closeness to God, they will be out there among the sinners, the suffering, and the scorned, embodying God’s love and giving generously from their gifts so that all they meet will know that they are not alone, that they matter to someone, and that they are beloved of God.

But we don’t want to be too hard on the Pharisee. He was faithful and he was praying. And if we’re not careful, we might find ourselves silently giving thanks to God that we are not like the Pharisee… but we are. Everyone is …at least sometimes. Like the Pharisee, we often get distracted by our score-keeping - measuring our value by the good things we do, the success of our efforts - rather than keeping our hearts pure, trusting in God’s plan for us, not in our own ability to judge the present moment.

Notice also that Jesus doesn’t tell us in this parable whether or not the tax collector repented. That’s because that isn’t the point of the story. The point is that we are all sinners in need of mercy which God gives us generously.

It’s a lesson that is part of our history as people of God. In the continuing story from the prophet Joel, the people of Israel have broken the covenant so habitually that they don’t even know how to be in relationship with God anymore. And God’s response (through the prophet) is this: Rejoice O children of Zion, for God has vindicated you. God has delivered you from blame and from harm. Everything you need will be given to you – to overflowing, as only God can give, and you shall praise the name of the LORD your God who has dealt wondrously with you…You shall know that I am in [your] midst [God says], and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. Then, when the Day of Judgment comes, everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.

This is how generously God responds to us. How can we possibly cling to any fear? How can we resist offering a pure, trusting heart back to God?

Jesus showed us the path of the pure of heart – a path that led to the giving up of his life on the cross. We remember this each Sunday in our Eucharistic Prayer, when we ask God to unite us to [the] Son in his sacrifice that we may be acceptable through him. (BCP. 369). We are made acceptable through him… not by our right behavior, or even by right belief. We are made acceptable through Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world (BCP, 368) who humbly gave up his own life so that we might live eternally in him.

Jesus made clear that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. To be exalted is to be lifted up - as Jesus was on the cross. We are called to do with our lives as Jesus did with his. We are called to humble ourselves and give up control of our lives, trusting God with all we are, all we need, and all we should do.

That’s why each Sunday, as we gather for Holy Eucharist, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor. We intentionally remind ourselves that we sin – not just as individuals, but also as a community, as a people.

But we also remember in our Eucharist how God has dealt wondrously with us – bringing us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, and out of death into life… We hear over and over again the amazing truth that we have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit of God. (BCP, 368, 369) To be sanctified is to be made pure, to be freed from the power of sin, and to be set apart for a holy purpose.

We have a holy purpose and it isn’t what we think – it isn’t anything that we do by our own efforts. Our holy purpose was described for us in the second letter to Timothy. Paul is dying. He has been deserted by his friends, whom he has forgiven, and he says: …the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all… might hear it.

The message – that’s our purpose – to be instruments God can use to proclaim the message, individually and corporately, so that all might hear it. Our actions, our decisions, and our words proclaim our message. So the question is: whose message are we proclaiming? If we are spending our time proclaiming any message but the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ for the whole world, then we have strayed like the Pharisee did.

So, setting aside all of our pet priorities, that is, anything that separates us from one another or from God, let us surrender our hearts to God, sinking deeply together right now, in this Eucharist, into the waters of our Baptism. Let us let go of our plans, our fears, and our pride, and rely totally on God for our life, our breath, our very survival. Then will we have pure hearts to offer to God. Then will we be the ones through whom the Good News is faithfully proclaimed.

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