Will We Accept God’s Love? Proper 25

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

A prayer by Jacqueline Bergan and S Marie Schwann says, “Lord my God, when Your loved spilled over into creation You thought of me. I am from love, of love, for love.”[i]

What an awesome claim! When God first created, God did it with us in mind. In fact, the reason for creation itself was so God could create us in order to receive God’s love, to participate in God’s love, flourish in it, take joy in it. We are no afterthoughts, no fortunate bystanders, no accidents. God made us from love, of love, for love.

The fundamental question every single human being asks is, Do you love me? And the answer from God is an unequivocal, unashamed, unabashed, yes.

Will we accept that love?

The prayer is beautiful, but it presents a challenge. “Lord my God, when your love spilled over into creation, you thought of me” Really? Isn’t that a little too much? A little over-stated? Can it actually be a fact that not only is there a God, and not only is the nature of God love, but the divine love that threw the stars and molded the dry land and set all the protons and neutrons and quarks and photons humming and buzzing–that divine love is actually directed at us? Us in particular. And God is just longing to love us and rain down on us an abundance of grace and favor, and all we need to do is receive it? Can that really be?

Although biologists and psychologists, physiologists and sociologists say we are hard-wired for relationship, and theologians say we are created for relationship with a God who loves us just because we exist, somehow, we get this idea we have to be worthy of being loved. We have to deserve it, earn it. We turn the question, “Do you love me?” into “What must I do to be worthy of love?”

If you’re not ready to admit this for yourself, think about all the examples of people you know who operate under this assumption. Think of every bad decision a friend has made in a relationship in order to prove herself worthy of love. Think of every poor choice a teenager has made to prove himself worthy of some affection or attention. Think of every child who fears, even for a moment, that something they have done will cause their parent to love them less.

Think of every time you’ve heard something like this: the woman said to the girl, “Remember, we’re going to see Chris. You have to be good when we get there, because Chris only likes girls who behave all the time.” Who is this Chris? Santa Claus? But who knows, what if it’s true? Maybe Chris does only like children who behave all the time.

We do know human love is less than perfect. We know, all too well, that the well of human love can run dry. And we project our small human experiences of finite love onto God. And the result is we think we must be worthy of love, including God’s, and this attendant heresy: God’s only got so much love to give. We sometimes live as if we might hear the following breaking news bulletin: Sources report that the price of God’s love has gone up five dollars a barrel due to high demand and short supply. A break in the pipeline and problems in offshore drilling for God’s love means that further shortages and price hikes are in store. People are urged to decrease their consumption and look for substitutes for God’s love. Current practices of being conduits of God’s love and lavishing it on others, including children, the weak, the vulnerable, and the poor must be stopped immediately.

Rather than thinking of God as God is known in our scripture and our liturgy and our faith tradition, as the source of all love, unquenchable, unstoppable, self-giving love, with oceans full of love to give, we think of God’s love meted out in teaspoons full, eyedroppers full, and we need to qualify, even compete, to get some of it.

So when we hear today’s parable, of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we all too easily hear this interpretation: A Self-Righteous Pharisee says his prayers in the temple. He is prideful and self-congratulatory. A Tax collector also says his prayers, but, unlike the Pharisee, he is humble. God hears the prayers of the humble tax collector, and does not listen to the self-righteous Pharisee. The moral of the story is: be humble like the Tax Collector. The Tax Collector has discovered the secret–he has found the way to win approval in the eyes of God: humility! Be like the Tax Collector and you too will be able to say, Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!

And there’s the trap that betrays this way of interpreting the story. This is not a parable about winning God’s love. This is not a story about substituting one bad way to try to get God to listen to you–being self-righteousness–with a way God likes, humility.

Rather, it’s a story in which two seemingly unlike characters stand before God and are really very much the same. They both need God’s love and forgiveness. They are both loved and forgiven by God. The difference is that one is open to receiving that abundant love and one is not. The Pharisee’s prayer is more of a progress report: Dear God, just wanted you to know, I’m doing quite well thank you. I give more than I need to; I’m keeping the commandments; I’m well-regarded in the community. This is Pharisee signing off. The Pharisee asks nothing of God, and goes home with nothing.

On the other hand, there is the tax collector, a despicable fellow, a traitor to his community, making money off his neighbors to support the occupying Roman forces. For some reason, who knows why, this tax collector comes into the temple knowing he needs God’s love and mercy. He has done nothing to earn God’s love. He is not deserving of it. He just needs it, and asks for it. And he goes home aware of the abundant love flowing down on both himself and the Pharisee. But where the tax collector has opened up his heart and allowed God’s love and mercy to wash over him, the Pharisee has put up an umbrella of self-fulfillment, has cloaked himself in a bubble of self-sufficiency, and all of the love of God rains down on the righteous and unrighteous alike, just runs right off him.

This is a parable about God’s abundant love for us, and about whether we’re going to take off our raincoats and dance around in the rain, or whether we’re going to try to keep ourselves dry and distant and unaffected.

The response to God’s lavish love is to accept it, relish it, treasure it and find as many ways as we can to give it away, to live out the image of God stamped on every one of us, the image of a God of abundant love, to open our hands and hearts and stand in the stream of God’s love and to use every means at our disposal to share this love with others. In church, we call this good stewardship.

In church, we practice accepting that love by greeting one another in the peace of the Lord. We practice accepting that love by gathering at God’s table saying, we need this food. We practice giving that love by praying for people, some of whom we don’t even know, but that they may know themselves to be bathed in the river of God’s delight. We practice giving that love by making our offerings of ourselves through our money, our talents, our gifts. We practice giving that love by going forth from this place rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, to love and serve the Lord.

The Love that moves the sun and the stars, the Love that creates, sustains, and redeems the cosmos, is always uttering its eternal “Yes” to our question “Do you love me?” The only thing we need to do is open ourselves to that love. All self-flattery and self-importance and self-righteousness ends in futility. When we stop reciting our resumes in the temple, the incarnate love of God meets us and embraces us, saying, I know your pain, my beloved, and I forgive your sins. I know your emptiness and I will fill it and I will fill you with my Love. Amen.

Written by The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter. Richter serves as Rector of St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. She holds a PhD in New Testament from Marquette University and is the author of Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew. With her husband, the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano, she is co-author of Love in Flesh and Bone: Exploring the Christmas Mystery, and A Man, A Woman, a Word of Love.  

[i] Jacqueline Syrup Bergan and S. Marie Schwan, Freedom: A Guide to Prayer (Winona, Minn.: St. Mary’s Press, 1988), 12.

Download the sermon for Proper 25(C).

Are we like the Righteous Man?, 23 Pentecost, Proper 25 (C) – 2013

October 27, 2013

Joel 2:23-32 and Psalm 65 (or Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 and Psalm 84:1-6); 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

In the gospel we have just heard, Jesus tells a shocking story. Perhaps you didn’t experience the shock? Part of the problem is that many of us have heard the parables so often since we were children that we know what’s coming: It’s like watching a movie for the tenth time.

Another part of the problem is that we only vaguely get the shocking bits. Indeed, they often go straight over our heads. Yes, we know, or think we know, that the Pharisee was probably like one of those people we may know, who are so proud of their own rectitude and morality that they have no compassion for anyone who doesn’t live up to their standards. It’s easy to be completely lacking in sympathy for this Righteous person. After all, we are tolerant, accepting, open people. We hope our parishes are welcoming places, open to all who join us or want to join us. We can feel secure in disliking this person who lists the sins of others, is sure he’s God’s particular friend and has God’s approval, a person of good values.

We can also approve of the penitence of the Publican, who bewails his faults, dares not even to assume the customary attitude of prayer, standing with arms extended, but who crouches on the ground and begs God for mercy. Our approval comes easily because we don’t know what a “low life” the Publican is. To understand just what a crook the Publican is, we have to remember who the tax gatherers were in Jesus’ day.

Tax collectors worked for the hated Romans, who were not only unclean gentiles, but oppressors, those who had conquered the Jewish state and ruled it with sometimes savage enthusiasm. Jewish tax collectors were the equivalent of those who collaborated with the Nazis, or the Soviets in occupied Europe during World War II, or Christians in Rwanda who stood by or participated in the massacre of their fellow citizens.

A tax gatherer was given an area and told to raise a certain sum of money. How he did this wasn’t an issue; how much he pocketed for himself didn’t matter as long as the Romans got the money they wanted. Probably no one was hated as much as a tax gatherer, not even a self-righteous Pharisee who looked down on those who didn’t meet his standards.

So when Jesus approves of the Publican, the tax-gatherer, one can imagine the shock that went through his hearers. It would be as if he’d singled out someone who has ruined people with a Ponzi scheme, and now enters our church and professes repentance in the company of those defrauded. If we are to be polled, we’ll vote to approve of a self-righteous but upright person over a swindler and a crook.

To tell the truth, we, too, can sound like the Righteous Man who thanks God that he is not like other people. How often do we blame the poor, saying that they are feckless, irresponsible and culpable in their own poverty because they haven’t bettered themselves or taken advantage of the American Dream? We don’t want to be taxed to pay for their health care, housing, feeding. Why should we share that which we’ve worked hard for with those we regard to be lazy and unworthy? To justify our lack of “faith, hope and charity,” we trot out examples of people who really want to live off others, and blame all poor people for the indolence of a few.

Worse still, we feel that God owes us his attention to our needs, that we deserve his love and grace because we are better than others and keep, or think we keep, God’s laws. We trot out “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” quite easily.

“Forgive us our debts,” that which we owe God and owe others implies that there is something to forgive, that we do fall short. Of course we do.

This morning, here in the presence of God, we feel secure because we believe that God is ever loving, ever forgiving, always ready to restore us. We are right. Jesus offered himself for us, placed himself between “our sins and their reward” in an act of self-sacrificial love.

We come before God today not secure in our own righteousness, but as the old prayer puts it, “in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”

God approves of the wretched tax gatherer over the Righteous Man, because the tax gatherer admits his faults. We show our own penitence not just by making our confession together, but by our willingness to forgive and love those who are in need.

Without God’s love, our love isn’t up to that task. With God’s love, we can love even those who repel us.

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

Merciful God, Pentecost 22, Proper 25 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Joel 2:23-32 and Psalm 65 (Track 2 OT: Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22) (Track 2 psalm: Psalm 84:1-6); 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

In the early years of our country, one Southern family stood out in offering leadership to a fledgling nation. Most renowned among the first families of Virginia, the Lees were wealthy, capable, intelligent, and dedicated patriots.

Using the legend of this family and what some consider a bit of overexposure, lyricist Sherman Edwards crafted a clever song for his Broadway musical “1776.” In a classic scene, John Adams asks fellow Continental Congress member Richard Henry Lee to help the cause for independence. He challenges the Virginia representative to get his colony’s House of Burgesses to pass a resolution calling for independence from England. In the course of their conversation, Adams prays, “God help us.”

Lee replies confidently, “He will John. He will.” Then, as if to prove his statement, Lee launches into a delightful song that includes this wonderful stanza:

They say that God in heaven is everybody’s God,
I’ll admit that God in heaven is everybody’s God,
But I tell you, John, with pride, God leans,
A little on the side of the Lees, the Lees of old Virginia!

This humorous song rings true because it is so natural to think that since we are faithful, we must be special, and that God must be on our side. It’s a good example of what Jesus was getting at when he told the parable in today’s gospel reading.

The Pharisee in today’s parable was basically a good guy – a member of what might be considered one of the first families of the faith. But like Lee in the play, he lost sight of his place in God’s world. He knew that thanking God was a good way to pray, but he allowed his prayer to degenerate into prideful boasting.

And he forgot about the need for repentance. As a human being, he had a dark side, but he tried to hide it. He made the mistake of choosing to look on his good side. He attempted to boost himself by comparing his good qualities with what he perceived as the negative attributes of others. He set himself up as the judge of his behavior over against the actions of others.

We can imagine the details of his thought process, because we are tempted to engage in the same delusion:

I may have told a white lie, but I thank God I don’t cheat on my income tax.
I may be a thief, but I thank God I’m not a murderer.
I may have turned aside when the poor family asked me for help, but I thank God I’m not responsible for the starvation in Africa.
I may hold back on my pledge, but I thank God I’m not one of those reprobates who never gives.
I may not get to church as often as I might, but I thank God I belong to a church.
I may not study the Bible as much as I should, but I thank God I’m not an atheist.

These examples may be a little over the top, but Jesus was using the self-aggrandizing statements by the Pharisee in comparison with the prayer by the truly faithful man who asked simply, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Jesus makes it clear that it is dangerous to compare our relative goodness, whether real or imagined, with that of others. This is because such moral manipulation drives a wedge between us and God. It is especially tragic in its use of religion as a divisive element between us and our brothers and sisters. Such action works against us all by inevitably separating rather than unifying the human family.

Sometimes we can get into trouble even if we use the standard of today’s gospel, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” as a way to compare ourselves to others. For example, Rabbi Joshua Davidson tells a wonderful old story from the Jewish faith that illustrates the danger:

A rabbi decides to model repentance for his congregation. Humbly he beseeches the Almighty for forgiveness, and he beats his breast proclaiming, “Before You, God, I am nothing. I am nothing.”
The cantor sees him and joins in: “I am nothing. I am nothing,” she cries.
The temple president, sensing that he too must get in on the act, now comes up. “I am nothing. I am nothing,” he sobs.
In the silence that follows, the rabbi turns to the cantor and whispers, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”

In truth, our measure is not one of comparison with others but rather against the values of the gospel, against the Ten Commandments, against the summary of the Law. How well do we compare with these standards? In doing so, we can stand to our full height, whatever it may be.

But then we take the test of the truest measure. How high do we stand when comparing ourselves against the final, and only, model of our faith – Jesus himself? The ultimate comparison can only be between ourselves and God’s perfect desires for us. Of course, such a test leads us to only one conclusion. We fail, and can only offer the tax collector’s prayer: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Only in this way can we move forward in the right kind of humility, asking for forgiveness after darkness invades us, the darkness that we have given into through our sin. Such repentance can renew us as we listen to Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We will become humbled, cut down to size, and this will lead us to the exhalation that comes from a life in Christ.

Standing in the knowledge of our need for God’s forgiveness and love, we can become not only the prayerful people Jesus calls us to be, but we can also act in the faith that despite our sin, God will empower us as children. We can pray, finally, “Lord use us sinners to do your work. Use us as instruments of your peace and grace and love and active concern for your children, our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Written by the Rev. Ken Kesselus
The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Do you love me?, Pentecost 22, Proper 25 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Joel 2:23-32 or Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; Psalm 65 or 84:1-7; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Every person who is born into this world, who lives and learns and grows, who works and worships and plays, who grays and grows old and dies, has one fundamental question that underlies his or her whole life: “Do you love me?”

We are created for connection: connection with others, connection with the universe, and connection with God. Being hardwired for relationship, we seek communion and reconciliation with all people, with the cosmos, and with God. This desire is the search for love. All of human life is a quest for love.

Unfortunately, the fundamental question “Do you love me?” is soon transformed by genetics, by socialization, by original sin, by whatever, into a different question, “Am I worthy of being loved?” or even more tragically, “What can I do to be worthy of your love?”

With these distorted questions the unfortunate soul soon seizes upon answers provided by family or society or even the church: I will be famous, I will be rich, I will be powerful, I will be elected, I will be esteemed, I will be ordained. In the process, we manage to convince ourselves that we will be happy if we achieve these goals, and by happy we mean that we will be loved.

The funny and sad thing is that humans continue to persist in these delusions even after experience repeatedly has shown them to be false. Maybe the next promotion or the next home or the next prize will bring true happiness. Throughout our lives, we continue to make the same mistake of trying to find in the finite and limited things of the world the response that is found only in the true object of our desire. Tragically we make idols of our strength, our money, our fame, and our power. Perhaps most tragically we make idols of our religion. We latch on to the things that should be pointing us to God and make them into idols.

In our gospel lesson for today, we hear the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. In the form of a parable, Jesus presents the central theological conviction of God’s justification of sinners and the ultimate futility of self-righteousness. Two men, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, go up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stands by himself and he really is quite impressive.

Although centuries of Christian interpretation have led us to think of Pharisees as the bad guys, this is not fair. They are often presented as Jesus’ opponents in the gospels, but we need to remember that they were society’s good people. They were dependable, honest, upright, good neighbors, contributors to the community. Quite frankly, they were the type of folks we would all like to have as members of our parishes. The Pharisee is a man at home in the temple. He says his prayers. He gives more than he has to. Although the tithe on income was standard, he tithes on everything he has, and many people would have benefited from his generosity.

He stands in the correct posture for prayer in the temple, arms raised and head lifted. But – and this is a big but – in his prayer, he has nothing to ask of God. He’s basically giving God a progress report. As far as he can tell, he’s got it all under control, and he’s happy about it: “God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, unrighteous folks, adulterers, or even like that tax collector over there.”

Meanwhile, standing off at a distance, is the tax collector. He has got nothing to show for himself, and he knows it. He earned his living by working for a foreign government collecting taxes from his own people. For years he has collected high taxes from his Jewish neighbors to give to the Roman government. He gives the Romans their flat rate on every head, and makes his money by charging an excess and keeping it for himself. Basically, he is a crook, a traitor, and a lowlife. He is guilty and he knows it.

He keeps his head lowered as he comes into the temple. We don’t know why his guilt has got the better of him today, but there he is in the temple, full of remorse, beating his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” He doesn’t even promise to shape up. All he does is ask for God’s mercy.

The surprise ending of the story is that the Pharisee, who gives a wonderful performance in the temple, goes home empty. He came asking nothing of God and he goes home getting nothing from God. The tax collector, despicable fellow that he is, shows up empty handed asking for God’s mercy, and goes home justified, that is, in right relationship with God.

We may hear this parable as a lesson on humility: don’t be proud like the Pharisee; go home and be humble like the tax collector. And just like that, we fall into a trap. We take a parable about God’s amazing, unconditional grace and acceptance, and turn it into a story about how we can earn or merit God’s love. We’ve got the answer now. If we can just be humble like the tax collector and not be puffed up with pride like the Pharisee, then God will accept us and love us. We may even find ourselves praying, “God, I thank thee that I am not like the Pharisee.”

The trap here is that we ask the wrong question of this parable. It’s that distorted question “What can I do to be worthy of your love?”

The Pharisee in the parable asks this question, and he thinks he has the answer in his religious observance. He fasts, he prays, he tithes, he lives an upright life. The tragedy and the irony is that in the very act of demonstrating that he is worthy of love, he is cutting himself off from his neighbors and from God. The tragedy and the irony of trying to make ourselves worthy of love through our supposed virtues, even the virtue of humility, is that we end up casting a sideward glance at others and measuring ourselves against them. If I need to earn God’s love, then I will have to be better than the other guy. In the fire of God’s love even our supposed virtues need to be burned away.

But if we ask the right question, the question “Do you love me?” then the parable gives us an answer. To the question “Do you love me?” God replies resoundingly and forever “Yes.”

The tax collector’s humility was not a virtue that earns him God’s love and acceptance. The tax collector’s humility is a posture of openness in which he is able to receive God’s love. Ultimately, the Pharisee and the tax collector are the same. They both need God’s love. The difference is that the Pharisee doesn’t know it and the tax collector does. The tax collector goes up to the temple with nothing to show for himself. His hands and his heart are empty and he knows it, and therefore he has room to experience the gospel and the good news that there is nothing we need to do, nothing we can do, to earn the grace and love of God.

The love that moves the sun and the other stars, the love that creates, sustains, and redeems the cosmos, is always uttering its eternal “Yes” to our question “Do you love me?”

The only thing we need to do is open ourselves to that love and return it. Everything else is a veil before our eyes, thrown up by our culture, our career, and our churches. All self-flattery and self-importance and self-righteousness ends in futility. When we stop reciting our resumes in the temple, the incarnate love of God meets us and embraces us, saying I know your pain, my beloved, and I forgive your sins. I know your emptiness, and I will fill it and I will fill you with my melting love.

Written by the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano
The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore, MD. He received a Ph.D. in Theology from Marquette University in Milwaukee WI.