October 6, 2019
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith,” only to be told by Jesus in so many words that they already have within them all the faith they need if they could just learn to use it. Jesus’ reference to a mustard seed faith cast my memory back to a movie made years ago starring Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep called “Defending Your Life.” The premise was that once you died, you didn’t go to hell or to Heaven, but to a place called Judgment City. There you were given an opportunity to defend your life on earth. If you were successful, you moved on to Heaven. If you failed, you didn’t go to hell, but were sent back to earth to work on whatever caused you to fail. The ultimate goal being to continue to get smarter while on earth so you could successfully defend your life on your next visit to Judgment City and be allowed to move on to Heaven.
The part of the movie that contained for me a link to today’s mustard seed Gospel remark by Jesus came early in the movie when Albert Brooks’ defender was explaining to him the purpose of Judgment City. His defender for the trial that would soon take place was played by the late actor Rip Torn, whose movie name was Mr. Diamond. During the explanation, Mr. Diamond reveals that he uses 48% of his brain; and he then asks Albert Brooks how much of his brain he thinks he might be using. Brooks replies, “I don’t know . . . 47%?” This sends Mr. Diamond into a fit of laughter; and when he recovers, he tells Brooks that, like most people on earth, he is using only about 3% of his brain, and that most humans use only 3-5% of their brains. Dumbfounded, Brooks replies, “You mean no one on earth uses more than 5% of their brain?” Mr. Diamond, shaking his head, replies that “When you start using more than 5% of your brain, you don’t really want to be on earth; believe me.”
It was Mr. Diamond’s closing words in this scene that really struck me in connecting it to our Gospel story today: “Because they use only 3-5% of their brains,” explained Diamond, “people on earth spend most of their time dealing with fear; that’s what little brains do.”
All we need do is substitute “faith” for “brains,” and I think we get a pretty good idea of what Jesus is trying to get across to His apostles. The lesson rings true for all of us today, who consider ourselves to be apostles. Listen to how it comes out when we juxtapose the words: “Because you are using only a tiny portion of the faith God has already put within you, you go around paralyzed by fear, crying out to God to increase your faith.” Except that unlike the movie, Jesus is telling us that we don’t need to increase our faith from Albert Brooks’ 3% to Mr. Diamond’s 48%. To God, it’s more a case of quality than quantity.
All the faith we will ever need is already within us; we just need to trust it and tap into it; and we could move mountains. So it is that we don’t need a greater quantity, but a firmer and truer quality of faith. Much like one’s unused brain power, God has placed within each of us at our Baptism the potential for unlimited faith; the key word here being potential. Because faith, that mysterious and intangible gift from our creator God, turns out to be a very high-maintenance gift.
And please, don’t get me wrong; like grace, faith is a free gift; but it must never be allowed to remain inert. It must be tried, and it must be tested in the crucible of our lives in the world in order to grow and to then remain vital and viable. Think back to those days of plain old charcoal before the advent of pre-soaked coals that flame up instantly once a match is applied, allowing you just to walk away until they’re ready for you to “throw your shrimp on the barbie.” I can still remember as a Boy Scout building fires with those old coals or wood for cooking or just for a campfire to sit around and sing songs. You needed to tend those coals or kindling: fanning them, blowing on them, maybe moving things around a bit until you had a glowing BBQ or a roaring campfire.
I’m pretty sure that BBQing wasn’t on Paul’s mind when he wrote his second letter to Timothy; but keeping in mind what I’ve said about the reservoir of faith that’s already inside of us and how it must be tended, tried, and tested, let us hear again his words from a translation much closer to the original New Testament Greek:
“I am reminded of the sincere faith in you, which first dwelt in your grandmother, Lois, and in your mother, Eunice; and I am assured that it is also in you. Hence I remind you to fan the flame of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands, for God did not give a spirit of fearfulness to us, but a gift of power and love and self-control.”
The potential for faith lies within each of us—it came with and through the waters of Baptism. It came with the seal of the Holy Spirit, through the crosses traced on our foreheads—a cross invisible to the world, but a cross that is ever visible to God: God’s bar-code, if you will, that is with us until we draw our final breath on earth. In between those two events, our Baptism and our death, when we stand before God to have our lives on earth measured, we first learn as disciples and, once we are ready, we are sent as apostles where our faith is then tested during our lifetimes in the crucible of life.
I would remind you all here today of the words from our confirmation service where we are “sent to perform the services set before us.” In one sense, what we see in today’s Gospel amounts to a confirmation for these disciples, now turned apostles; school was out; Jesus was about to send them into the world—and they were frightened; hence their plea to “Increase our faith. Jesus, please, if we’re expected now to take this show on the road. We’re scared; we need a serious booster shot of faith. And while we know that patience is a virtue; we need that booster shot . . . and we need it now!”
And the answer they receive from Jesus hasn’t changed from the answer we would receive today. All the faith we will ever need is already inside of us—waiting only to be activated and used. So it was with the Apostles then; so it is with us today.
This reservoir of faith lies within each one of us, waiting only to be activated when we respond without fear to the challenges put before us on the apostles’ road. And while the faith lying within all of us who are baptized is all we will ever need—we need to use it by not allowing fear to rule our lives, causing our faith to atrophy. God knows very well just what we are capable of doing, and God will never put before us any challenge or ask of us any sacrifice that we are not capable of doing or making.
We will have opportunities to test our faith right up until the time we leave this earth for the last time and face our creator God. We will all have opportunities in the very near future to exercise our faith by making pledges of support that will allow St. Luke’s to continue the good works it is doing in this community. Only God will know if our pledges of financial support represent for each of us a true sacrifice—a sacrifice borne of a faith that comes not from a place of caution and fear, but one that shows God we trust His promises that He will never fail to meet our true needs.
I can guarantee you that as we go through life we will continue to arrive at places where we are called to make decisions based upon faith or based upon fear. I tend to think of them as crossroads; forks in the road, if you will. I think it was Yogi Berra who once said, “If you come upon a fork in the road, take it.” I tend to think that God looks upon such times as a test of the faith within us. Fear, which is often the voice of the great Tempter, will seek to steer us down the road that appears the safest; the road that places upon us the fewest demands and sacrifices—especially if those sacrifices and demands are coming from our communities of faith. Such are the times that try our souls; such are the times that test our faith. God alone knows whether the choices we make at those crossroads are faith driven or fear driven.
When we do arrive at those crossroads, and we will; 20th century theologian Paul Tillich offers these words of encouragement:
“Faith means being grasped by a power that is greater than we are. A power that shakes us, that turns us, a power that transforms and heals us. Surrender to this power of faith.”
October 13, 2019
“ . . . that is my Gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.”
In his second letter to his young friend Timothy, Paul once again finds himself chained up in a Roman prison. Unless you have actually experienced being behind bars in a prison, chained or not, you can’t possibly imagine just how grim and frightening it can be, grappling with the reality that you are not free to leave and that your freedom is in someone else’s hands. I’ve been behind bars twice in my life—the second time, voluntarily; the first time, not so much. I was a junior in college at San Diego State; and I was just two months shy of my 21st birthday, when I could legally have gone to the Billiard Den, a favorite campus hang-out, to shoot pool while enjoying a cold beer. Of course I just couldn’t wait two months, and so I obtained a fake I.D. from a fraternity brother and went to the Billiard Den on 4th of July weekend. I’d just gotten a haircut and probably looked to be about 16 years old. While that presented no problem at all for the bartender at the Billiard Den, it proved to be a big problem for the two undercover vice squad officers of the San Diego Police Department. I was arrested, cuffed, put in the back of their squad car, and taken to the San Diego jail where I was booked, photographed, and put into a holding cell with about a dozen other men. The bad thing about holding cells is that everyone arrested goes there first; so you have young and scared-stiff people like me, charged with underage drinking, rubbing elbows with adults charged with anything from drunk driving to armed robbery, to murder. We’ve all heard the saying that “There are no atheists in fox holes,” but after my college experience and a second later in life prison experience I will share with you, I can almost guarantee that there are very few atheists in prisons. My mom bailed me out after the six longest hours of my young life and I paid a fine; and never again in my life did I ever entertain the notion of breaking any law—aside from a few speeding tickets.
My second experience with being behind bars, like Paul in today’s second lesson, came as a priest in San Diego. There was and still is a very large and active ministry called “Kairos,” where a priest would accompany a group of 20 or so volunteers to go inside Donovan State Prison, a maximum security facility, to bring both cookies and Jesus Christ to the inmates. It made that San Diego jail’s holding cell look like a child’s nursery: Large steel doors clanging shut behind us, armed guards with automatic weapons looking down from guard towers, and high fences topped with coils of razor-sharp wires. I was never so happy as when we finally left that place, although I treasure to this day the hours spent talking with inmates serving time for everything from breaking and entering to 1st degree murder—and bringing the light of Christ into lives which had taken some very wrong turns. However, looking back on those two “Behind Bars” experiences—as a frightened 20-year-old and as a parish priest—I’ve discovered that one need not be physically incarcerated--be it in a local jail or a state or federal prison—to feel imprisoned.
Outside prison walls millions of people everyday wake up to face a life in which they are bound—not by iron links, stone walls, or by steel bars; but bound nevertheless by links of despair, walls of hatred and prejudice, and by other invisible forces that confine them, keeping them from growing freely into the persons God would have them be.
In my own life and in counseling dozens of church members over the years, I’ve discovered that the emotion responsible for building many, many of those self-constructed prisons is fear. Fear about the future being at the top of the list: What will I do with my life? What will I do once I graduate? How will I earn a living, support a family? What about once the kids leave home? And retirement?
Before we know it, we have built around ourselves a prison of fear, a self-made prison which keeps us from breaking free into the future God is trying to reveal to us. But for all of us who call ourselves Christians, there is a very simple way to remove fear from our lives . . . forever! And that is to wake up every day reminding ourselves that absolutely nothing on this earth is worthy of our fear. God’s admonition to “Fear not” is sprinkled throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, the last book. In fact, the Bible tells us in many different ways that the emotion of fear—that great builder of self-imposed prisons without bars or walls—should be reserved for God and God alone and must never be wasted on people or things of this earth. Just to be clear, fear of the Lord does not mean to be afraid of God, in the same way we are afraid of bullies as children or bullying bosses as adults. Rather, it is a reverential awe of God, a reverence for God’s power and glory, along with a proper respectt for God’s wrath and anger.
Instead of building prisons around us, fear of the Lord brings with it many blessings. Today’s Psalm reminds us in verse 10 that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” In Proverbs we find that fear of the Lord leads to life, rest, peace, and contentment, as well as providing for us security and a place of safety. If we need some help in staving off the bad habit of fearing things earthly, the 1st Letter of the Apostle John assures us that “Perfect love casts out all fear.” Paul gives testimony to this truth in today’s epistle. Despite being chained in a real prison while he writes this letter to Timothy, it rings out with the vitality of a free man. His body was chained, but his spirit was free. “The word of God is not chained,” writes Paul with joy and self-assurance; and yet how many today who are not locked in actual prisons are nevertheless living lives of quiet desperation, imprisoned by fear, by guilt, by a lack of trust in God to set them free?
True freedom, including freedom from fear, is a matter of the soul, not of the body. Whether it’s Paul in chains writing to Timothy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing from the hell of a Nazi death camp, or Martin Luther King Jr. writing “A Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Word of God set free their souls which, in the end, is all that really matters. While we may not share their experience of being in physical captivity, Paul’s letter to Timothy suggests two ways through which we can experience the freeing of our imprisoned spirits: Through remembering and through trusting.
Early 20th century Syrian poet and painter, Kahlil Gibran, wrote that, “Remembrance is a form of meeting.” We meet here on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist, from a Greek word which means Thanksgiving. An integral part of the service is to remember what God has done for us through the reading of scripture and to then remember what Jesus did for us through His birth, death, and resurrection.
“Whenever you eat of my body or drink of my blood, do this,” says Jesus, “in remembrance of me.” As we “do this” each Sunday, as we remember and then celebrate Christ in our daily lives, stones roll away, bars of our own creation swing open, shackles of doubt and fear fall away, and our eyes are opened to see the dawn of the liberated life that awaits us. Remember Jesus Christ! One of the lepers remembered to go back and to thank Jesus, while the other nine quickly ran away, no doubt fearful they could run afoul of the Pharisees for seeking help from Jesus.
While the nine were physically healed of their leprosy, the Samaritan who showed no fear and came back to thank Jesus received a much greater gift. “Your faith,” Jesus tells him, “has made you well.”---or, translating “well” from the New Testament Greek: “Your faith has saved you.” Remembrance, for the Samaritan leper, and overcoming his fear brought him salvation. In addition to remembering, the second way that Paul tells Timothy that we experience the freeing of our imprisoned spirits is through trusting. Tomorrow we celebrate a person who overcame not only personal fears, but a generational fear by trusting in the destiny of his name to make a discovery which changed the world. Christopher Columbus, whose first name Christopher means “Christ-bearer,” trusted in Christ and did not fear the future. His uniqueness wasn’t simply in the belief that land could be reached by sailing west, as Aristotle had suggested that nearly three centuries before Christopher. Columbus, however, trusted his beliefs enough to overcome his fears and to test them out.
Even in the face of repeated disappointments, he was not imprisoned by the past or by fear, but was freed by his faith to risk the future. Sadly, by 1500, Columbus’s fortunes had changed; and he was imprisoned and sent back to Spain in chains. But his spirit, like Paul’s, was not shackled; and at life’s end, Columbus’s last reported words at his death on Ascension Day in 1506 bore witness to his namesake: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
As you sit here this morning, ask yourself, ”What imprisons me and what limits my freedom to be the person God would have me be?” Stone walls may not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage; but guilt and fear of the future are among the most devastating chains that bind us today. And yet, like Paul, we too are people of God’s Word. God’s Word can never be chained, and God has placed the key in our hands.
Remember Jesus Christ.
Trust in Jesus Christ.
And, like the Samaritan leper, thank Jesus; cast off chains of worry and fear.
And then go your way and be saved!
October 20, 2019
For the past four months or so, ever since Jesus “turned His face toward Jerusalem,” He’s been taking His disciples on a journey of spiritual formation; and all of us have been along for the ride. There’s been many a winding turn on this journey, and not just through geographical territories and among people considered unfriendly, even unclean by many Jews of the day—but we’ve also been taken into the dark recesses of the human heart and the moral minefield of the human soul. There have been times when, along with the disciples, we’ve found ourselves staggered, even shocked and frightened by the challenge and the demands of discipleship and wearied by the journey. But Jesus continues to encourage His disciples with words of wisdom which have withstood the test of time. Two weeks ago, focusing on the mustard seed, the tiniest seed on earth, Jesus spoke of the importance of a genuine faith, without which true and effective discipleship is impossible. Last Sunday, in the story of the ten lepers, Jesus taught us the importance of giving thanks to God for His saving power and His presence in our daily lives; and today, in the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus affirms the necessity of constant prayer and the importance of never giving up or losing heart. The story of this widow who refused to give up is echoed in the story of Jacob, who refused to quit, wrestling all night with God’s angel until he received the blessing he desired. The two “P” traits—of Perseverance and Persistence—are traits greatly to be admired in this goal-oriented age, where the roadsides of life are littered with those who gave in, gave up, and never reached or fulfilled God’s purpose and plan for their lives. History, however, affords us many examples of perseverance, like that of our Gospel’s widow, which paid off--people who refused to take “No” for an answer.
In 1902 the Poetry Editor of the Atlantic Monthly returned a sheaf of poems to a 28-year-old aspiring poet with this curt note: “Our magazine has no room for your ‘vigorous verse’!” That young poet’s name was Robert Frost, and he “Rejected the rejection.” In 1905 the University of Bern turned down a Ph.D. dissertation as being “irrelevant and fanciful.” The young physics student who wrote the dissertation, Albert Einstein, “Rejected the rejection.” Finally, in 1894, the Rhetoric Professor at the Harrow Prep School in England wrote on the report card of a 16-year-old student that he had demonstrated a “Conspicuous lack of success.” That student, revealed later to the world as Winston Churchill, “Rejected the rejection.” Our 30th President, Calvin Coolidge, once said that, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
While Coolidge’s words are undeniably true, as Christians we must add to them these words of promise from our Baptismal Covenant, which follow every promise that we make when we receive that sacrament: “I will, with God’s help.” Because while perseverance and persistence are traits to be admired, the perseverance in prayer, modeled by our widow in today’s Gospel, is of an entirely different sort.
Because while Frost, Einstein, Churchill, and countless others succeeded by being self-reliant, secure in their own strengths and abilities, perseverance in prayer requires a shift in one’s base of security—a shift from self to God, as self-will must give way to allow us to embrace the divine will, the discerned will of God in our lives. To persevere in prayer is to trust in God, who has promised us that those who do entrust themselves to Him by choosing to use their free will to submit themselves to God’s divine will, will never be ignored or abandoned.
However, those who persist in prayer with the goal and the expectation that they will eventually get what they want by wearing God down, will soon find their expectations shattered. Because prayer, even persistent prayer, is not about bending God’s will to our wants or to our perceived needs. Prayer is not and has never been about changing God, but about changing us that we might be able to accept the justice of God’s divine will. Or, to borrow from the title of a very old classic TV show, the goal of prayer is for us to finally discover that, when it comes to what’s best for our lives, “Father knows best.” Notice, the unjust judge never says he will pervert or subvert justice; only that he will grant her justice. And so it is, that while her perseverance has won for her that day in court—it comes with no guarantee that things will finally turn out the way she wants them to; she is promised justice, and nothing more. So it is, says Jesus, that if the widow’s relentless persistence finally wins her a day in court from this Godless, uncaring judge, how much easier will it be for us to get a speedy audience from our loving, caring God? A God who has promised that all of our prayers lifted up to Him in faith will be responded to.
But God’s promise comes to us with an important caveat. If our idea of perseverance in prayer consists of going to God with our version of “Let’s Make a Deal. Lord, if you’ll just do this for me, I’ll do this for you!” You know how it goes, because if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve all been guilty of it in some form or another. “Lord, if I can just get this promotion; win this contest; close this deal . . . I’ll be in church every Sunday!” If that’s your idea of perseverance in prayer, you may find yourselves ending up like the man on trial for murder who approached a juror offering him a large sum of money if he would hold out for a verdict of manslaughter. The juror took the bribe; and, sure enough, the man was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in prison. After paying the juror he bribed, he said, “Did you have a hard time holding out for manslaughter?” “ You bet I did,” he reported. “At the beginning, all the other jurors wanted to bring in a verdict of “Not Guilty.”
Father knows best.
God cannot be bribed. While it’s perfectly fine with God if in our persistent prayers we come to Him with our own agenda, the question is not whether our agenda is acceptable to God, since all prayers are answered; the real question is that when we approach God in prayer, are we prepared to accept what “Father feels is best for us, at that point in our lives”? Are we prepared, in other words, for the answer to be “No,
Not yet,” or “This, my child, is how I choose to answer your prayer”?
Before we decide to approach God in prayer, we might do well to consider putting a hold on our persistent knocking while we take a spiritual inventory of just how far we are willing to go in turning our lives over to God; how far we are willing to go in accepting the divine will when we intone, probably without really thinking, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven” Because in those ten words, we are surrendering our free will to the will of God every Sunday!
The question has never been whether God will respond to us, since God always does. The real question, the critical question, if you will, is if we will be faithful, consistent, and persevering once God’s answer has been revealed, and it’s not what we were expecting. This theme of perseverance, the kind revealed by our Gospel widow, echoes through the Gospel; and it holds true whether we are a widow, a teacher, a parent . . . fill in your blanks. It has to do with maintaining honesty and integrity in our personal lives, in business, or on the global stage in promoting ideas and agendas of disarmament and world peace—matters of critical importance in the troubled times we find ourselves in today. How often do we hear leaders saying things like, “We will persevere until justice is achieved.” But ultimately this must be God’s justice and not simply our vengeance; otherwise we will have become our worst enemy.
When success or justice seems far off, it takes courage, such as was demonstrated by the poor widow in the parable who continued to persevere until she achieved justice. But the slow rule of success, like the slow growth of the mustard seed, does not mean that God doesn’t care, or that God isn’t listening. Today’s lessons give to all of us the assurance that God is always listening and of God’s ultimate justice—in our lives, in our nation, and in the world.
Let us take a moment in prayer.
Gracious and loving God, how often we seek to escape your presence and your judgment by seeking out our selfish ends, and yet how inevitably we find ourselves brought back to that place where we encounter you in the sometimes lonely struggle of our lives. Help us, Lord, to take those wounds inflicted on us and use them for your glory, for the good of others, and for our own good, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
October 27, 2019
Thirty years ago British author Ken Follett, probably best-known for his WWII spy thriller, Eye of the Needle, published an epic book of historical fiction titled Pillars of the Earth. The plot of the book revolves around the building of a magnificent cathedral in the fictional medieval English town of Kingsbridge in the 12th century. I must warn you that it is not a novel for the faint of heart as it pulls no punches in portraying the brutality of life in the 12th century–especially for the peasants and other members of the lower classes.
As you all know by now, I am an avid reader, especially of tomes like Pillars, which weighs in at over 1,000 pages. Other things I am a big fan of are opening lines, such as, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” from A Tale of Two Cities or “Call me Ishmael,” from Moby Dick. While not so well-known, Pillars of the Earth has a wicked opening line, eight words which absolutely seized me, compelling me to plunge right into the story: “The small boys came early to the hanging.” I can recall reading that opening sentence while standing in a Barnes & Noble in San Diego, closing the book and heading for my car, almost forgetting to pay for it first! And yet, while there is no shortage of hangings and other far more brutal deaths and other scenes in Pillars, the great unifying theme of the novel is the actual building of the magnificent cathedral over a period of some forty-plus years. The principal character is one Tom Builder, because, as we know, surnames in those days often reflected one’s profession. When it came to building something like a cathedral, it’s not as if Tom was able to start with a set of blueprints. One of the great attractions of Pillars is that the reader is able to go with Tom Builder on an arduous journey of seeing this magnificent structure rise, largely through a process of trial and error—mostly errors in the early stages. And so it is that one of the unifying themes of this great novel that continues throughout the over 1,000 pages is humility, which is also prominent in today’s Gospel account of the proud Pharisee and the humble tax collector. Humility is all about experiencing our failures; acknowledging that they are our failures; and then, with God’s help, rolling up our sleeves, going back to the drawing table, and learning from those failures. Without humility, the Kingsbridge Cathedral would not have been built. While the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy are not portrayed very well, to put it mildly, in Pillars, the novel ultimately becomes a testimony to the power of God to work with us through our failures until we achieve our goals, so long as we acknowledge those failures, remain humble, and keep God’s vision ever before us.
In yet another literary work of non-fiction, involving a real cathedral, the late Dorothy Sayers, in The Zeal of Thy House, tells of a stonemason working on an intricate carving for the chancel of Canterbury Cathedral, a place that Terri and I were blessed to be able to visit during a sabbatical some years ago. The unfortunate stonemason allows his tool to slip, and it spoils the entire great piece of stone assigned to him. Instead of firing the poor fellow for his mistake, the architect chooses instead to forgive him, and designs a new and different figure which has its own part to play in the ensemble of the cathedral; and then allows the blundering stonemason to complete the new design in all its glory. “And so,” concludes Sayers, “the cunning craftsman, God, works with each of us.”
“The cunning craftsman, God.”
Thinking of the many, many blunders in building the fictional cathedral in Pillars of the Earth, and of the many failings in our own lives, this phrase used by Dorothy Sayers really struck me: “The cunning craftsman, God.”
To our ears today, the word cunning could easily carry with it a bit of negative connotation; yet, in its pure form, it falls into an extended family of words, rubbing elbows with “skill, wisdom, and ability.” It reassures us that our creator, the God of all creation, the master builder, takes our failed efforts, our missed marks, our shameful deeds, and our sinful lives; and out of His divine resourcefulness, saves the day by creating something entirely new, something worthy and wonderful. In other words, something that still has usefulness; still has beauty in God’s divine plan for all creation.
And yet, while this intervention, this make-over, if you will, by God may well be a reassurance we all desperately need at times in our lives, it also happens to be something we can never presume. Because before the “Cunning craftsman, God,” can even come into our lives, picking up and rearranging the pieces of our failed efforts, something is first required of us. Just what that something is and what it is not are modeled for us in the two characters in today’s Gospel: the Pharisee and the tax collector.
I won’t insult your intelligence by asking you which of these two characters appears to be inviting God into his life to pick up the pieces and bring about renewal; but really, when was the last time we saw a Pharisee emerge as the hero of any story that came from the mouth of Jesus? It also seems clear from the fact that he’s thanking God that he wasn’t like the tax collector who was standing right next to him—that this Pharisee had obviously missed that sensitivity training workshop. While he was apparently very devout in his religious duties and generously supported the temple budget, don’t we find that his prayer has somewhat of a hollow ring, and is utterly lacking in any compassion? I mean, all we hear him doing is boasting of his good works, giving no indication that there was any need, or even any room for God to even pick up any pieces or to make any changes. This Pharisee seems to want nothing from God, except an ear to hear of his many great accomplishments.
Staying with our metaphor, it seems our Pharisee sees himself as a finished cathedral, magnificent in its splendor, soaring high above the rest of humanity—including our humble tax collector—to serve as a living inspiration to something those below him might aspire to—but would, of course, never achieve. His behavior calls to mind one of many stories about one of my favorite historical figures—Winston Churchill. Sitting with a close friend as a very prideful politician strode by, Churchill turned to his friend and remarked, “There but for the grace of God, goes God.”
By contrast, the tax collector sees himself not as a finished cathedral, but rather as a work-in-progress, as a sinner seeking only God’s mercy as he opens wide to God the doors of his unfinished soul, beckoning to God, that cunning craftsman, to “Enter, pick up the pieces, and finish the work you have started.”
Like the clumsy stonemason in Dorothy Sayers’s play, our tax collector saw that he had spoiled the stone assigned to him and that his life had been gouged and disfigured by his own poor workmanship. Unlike our proud Pharisee, who came only to boast, the tax collector had come to the temple simply to confess to God, aware that he had no one to blame but himself for the state of his life. He came knowing that he needed to turn to someone greater than himself in order to turn things around—a phrase which means, literally, to repent. And so it is that we see the divine architect upon hearing the man’s honest confession, stooping down to aid and to redeem this repentant sinner. Said Jesus, “I tell you this man went down to his home justified,”--made right with God. The unfortunate stonemason had his chisel and to each of us, God has given the tools of our faith, one of which is the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
Through this spiritual food, through our common prayers and our confession, in which we model the posture and behavior of our tax collector, that cunning craftsman, God, seeks to help each of us, according to our need. He helps us to refashion, to remold, and to renew those things in our lives which have been defaced: unfinished commitments, opportunities neglected, things done and left undone. Before God, each one of us stands here this morning, like the tax collector, both humble and hopeful. This is all God asks.
Because if we seek exaltation, forgiveness and, ultimately, salvation from God, this is where we must start—here in God’s house. But starting here will mean nothing if we leave here and reenter the world with the same mindset of our prideful Pharisee who had no room for God in the cathedral of his soul. I had a professor in law school, the late Roger Traynor, who also served as the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, who coined a phrase he used to describe individuals like our proud Pharisee. I’ve never forgotten it. “Such persons,” said Justice Traynor, “exhibited to the world a supercilious affectation of superior virtue.” Such an attitude slams the door on God’s ever entering our lives, ever working in our lives, and of our ever accomplishing anything in the world that God has entrusted to our care, using the tools He has given us. It is a very good world that God created, as He tells us in Genesis. But, if we’re being honest, it is not a very beautiful world that we wake up to each morning: Wars, hunger, discrimination and prejudice, hatred, an ever-growing homeless population, and a disturbing indifference toward supporting public education and social programs.
Again, if we’re being honest with ourselves—as individuals, as a church, and as a nation—it’s very hard to deny that, more frequently than we care to admit, like the stonemason in Dorothy Sayers’s play, we too have allowed the tools to slip from our collective hands and have hurt more than we have helped the cause.
The Sacrament of Holy Communion speaks of forgiveness, of the grace of God, of the love of Christ, and of the newness of life that comes because we are humble enough to admit our failures, to learn from them, and—with God’s help—to go about the business of transforming the world around us into a cathedral that will be well-pleasing to God
May we return to our homes and to our tasks today, justified, remembering Christ’s words that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” To help keep us grounded firmly each day in the attitude of our humble tax collector, I offer to you all this morning a simple prayer, which you will also be able to find on our website and FB page:
“Dear God, so far today I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped or lost my temper. I haven’t been greedy, selfish or over-indulgent, and I haven’t judged anyone. And, while I’m really happy about that, Lord, in just a few minutes, I’m going to get out of bed; and then I’m really going to need a lot of help; so, God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”