SERMON 23 OCTOBER 2016
Sometimes what we hear in the Bible seems quite straightforward. We have just heard Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple. So, fine, we understand: “All, who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” That’s it, isn’t it? We can all sing another hymn or two, pray, give our offerings, be blessed and go home. However, I know just two weeks ago I made a comment about sometimes reading the passage set down in the lectionary and wondering how on earth to disentangle what is being said. But maybe there is also a danger that some things can seem deceptively simple. So we are not going home just yet!
You are probably all very well aware by now of Luke’s theme of the great reversal. It is set out at the beginning in the Magnificat, the song of Mary in Chapter 1 when she is told she will have a son. Here is a version of that: “Sing out my soul, sing for the holiness of God; who has delighted in a woman, lifted up the poor, satisfied the hungry, given voice to the silent, grounded the oppressor, blessed the full-bellied with emptiness, and with the gift of tears those who have never wept; who has desired the darkness of the womb and inhabited our flesh. Sing of the longing of God. Sing out my soul.”
Sing of the longing of God. Surely Jesus carried that longing within himself as he met all kinds of people, poured out love on the loveless, peace of mind on the tormented and showed the hopeless that there is indeed hope, all within God’s grace. I wonder if there is a risk if we see Jesus only like this. Sure, he spent a lot of time the “sinners”, those like the tax collectors, who colluded with the Roman occupiers, often abused their power and got wealthy at the expense of others. Sinners are those who are seen as breaking the Jewish Law. They are also with the ones who struggle most. As we are told in Luke 5:32, he says “I have come to call not the righteous but the sinners to repentance”. But that leaves us categorizing people as the Pharisee did. “I thank you God that I am not like that”. We know that that attitude is not right either. Did you notice that Jesus does not actually criticise the Pharisee in this parable. Nor does he commend the tax collector. He paints a picture of the one who is confident in his righteousness and who is very verbose about it. His prayer is not just wordy, 27 words in fact, but is full of statements about himself. And his description of himself is of someone who has indeed been doing the right thing. The tax collector utters only 7 words as he cries out to God. His only comment about himself is that he is a sinner. Only he goes home justified before God. What is the song of God’s longing for these two people?
It’s easy to see that Jesus wants his hearers to know that what God longs for is not a focus on self, accompanied by a self-justifying list of good deeds, but a focus on God. And, as much for the other man, surely Jesus wants there to be a focus not on sinfulness and failure, but an understanding that God is close to those who know their emptiness and need. Neither of these two sees themselves the way God sees them. When I say that, we run the risk of putting ourselves back again into thinking of God as the all-seeing One who is always judging us, mostly unfavourably. That attitude is our own one that we project onto God. Let’s hold in our hearts that phrase about the song of God’s longing for people.
We began this service singing “Come as you are, that’s how I want you.” Do you know how much courage it takes to really do that? I expect you do, because, for me anyway, it pulls me back to that vulnerability we reflected on a couple of weeks ago. Human as we are, we all carry within us this complex thing about judgement; a feeling that others are probably judging us and our fear that the weaknesses we know about in ourselves will become apparent. We don’t match up. To a certain extent we all put on a mask, present an image of ourselves, just as probably many of us think about things like “What shall I wear so I look nice when I to go to church today; to meet with this person, to go to a particular place?” Or maybe I am just talking about myself. But that’s just part of our being human and it’s, off course, all superficial. “Come as you are…” The song of God’s longing.
That longing, I believe, is not about us becoming more, better, greater. Maybe it is actually about the reverse of that, about becoming less, about being really human. The word “human”, as you may well know, comes from the same root as the word “humus”, which means “earth”. This is where the name Adam comes from too. We can’t get much more basic than that. I read this a few days ago: “When C.G. Jung was an old man, one of his students read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progess, and he asked Jung, “What has your pilgrimage really been?” Jung answered: “In my case Pilgrims’ Progress consisted of my having to climb down a thousand ladders until I could reach out my hand to the little clod of earth that I am.” Don’t let’s hear that as meaning that our human lives as worth nothing much. It is more about understanding that we don’t acquire any more worth by accumulating more. Meister Eckhart, that 17th century Dominican I have quoted before, said that in essence, the spiritual life has more to do with subtraction than addition. I don’t know about you, but to me there seems to be a fundamental truth in that, even though it is so counter-cultural. But it carries within it an understanding of grace. Grace, and the song of God’s longing for us to discover our real selves.
The art of subtraction is relevant in all kinds of ways because it asks us to strip away some of the ways in which we regard others as well as ourselves. Last Monday I was trying to “simplify” and was going through masses of papers and throwing a lot away. I came across a story about a young priest who was sent for his first placement as an assistant in an inner city parish. Not long after he started he was walking through the graveyard that surrounded the church and came across a disreputable looking man who was tucking into some food and muttering to himself. The young priest went up to him and told him that it was disrespectful to behave that like there and he should move off. The man shambled off, still muttering. When the young curate had his meeting with his supervising priest, he told him about this man. The priest said “Oh yes, we know him well. Apparently he was once a lawyer, but he was in a terrible accident and lost his memory. It has never come back. He doesn’t know who he is, where he came from or anything. He never speaks. He just mutters to himself.” So the young man got used to seeing this ragged, homeless character. Later on, as he was about to finish his year in the parish, he went into the church to pray. There he saw the man, kneeling on a pew, his hands raised, muttering. The young man quietly sat down on the pew near him and after a while said to him: “I am about to go away. Would you give me a blessing?” The man paused and then said “The sympathy of God.” Those were the only words anyone ever heard him speak.
The song of God’s longing. The down to earth nature of what is real. The subtraction that is suggested to us.
There is a strange beauty about all of this. It comes, I think, from glimpsing the things that are close to our hearts, close to love, and so, close to God. Subtraction is not simply about taking away, it is about clearing our vision and our hearing. Then it is about understanding what it is that Jesus calls us to: not just sacrifice but also the richness of God’s grace. Here’s another anecdote: At a public sale, an auctioneer picked up an old violin and called for a bid. He was offered a dollar, then two, and finally, after a long wait, a man said “Three dollars”. Then a grey-haired old man stepped up from the rear of the crowd, picked up the old violin, dusted it off, tightened the strings, picked up the bow and began to play a melody, pure and sweet. The bidding began anew. Finally that old violin sold for $3,000. The people cheered. Some cried. What was it that changed the price of this old violin? It was the touch of the master’s hand.
The song of God’s longing is for the real and beautiful truth of everything to be discovered. Age, physical struggles, the lines of wear and tear, the loss of much that seems appealing – these have no effect on the way in which God sees and regards us. The pretences and defences we put in place to conceal our vulnerabilities and to give us confidence, these are transparent in the sight of God. We are not required to put them in place in order to join in God’s song of love or to be part of the music that swells in us as we rediscover God’s grace. As Jesus addressed his parable to those who were confident of their own righteousness, he was inviting them to look away from themselves and gaze more at the light of God’s goodness, without which we all go astray. The Pharisee symbolises not just one group but all of us who see someone standing at a distance because they are different, and look down on them. There was no understanding that maybe this tax collector might have something to offer exactly because he knew how much he was dependent on God’s grace. But, just as much, Jesus called to those who felt stuck in the darkness their failure and barely existent self-esteem, to understand that God saw them differently, valued them differently and longed for them to go on their way in God’s peace. In this parable, there was no possibility of relationship between the two men. They were separated by more than social circumstance. The song of God’s love is for relationship, not just with God’s self, but with each other; to know that we are all formed of the same stuff, whatever our situation.
Is this parable not a call for movement in both directions, away from our pride, our prejudice – in whatever direction that prejudice may lie – as we remember that God sees us all with love and with longing?
As I was writing this I was also listening for a while, courtesy of Youtube, to a talk given by Jean Vanier to the House of Lords in London. For 60 years he has been living in houses with people with intellectual and physical disabilities. He started these L’ Arche communities which now exist all around the world. In each place, able-bodied and people with special needs learn to live together, to minister to each other, to be blessed by each other. He talks about the central need in our societies for us to meet each other. He told the story of a woman from a L’Arche house here in Sydney who regularly saw a drug addict in the park. One day he was clearly very ill, indeed dying. She held him in her arms. What he said to her before he died was “You always wanted to change me but you never met me”.
The Pharisee never met the tax collector in the story. He would have seen no need to, confident, as he was, that he was doing all the right things. He looked down on him. Probably the tax collector would not have wanted to meet him either. He would have felt a failure alongside him, unworthy. Such differences are around us still and have been, in every time and place. I think the parable reminds us that, in the light of God’s grace and compassion, we can discover how to subtract the things that overload our sense of self. We can accept that we are invited to come as we are, because that is enough – “enough” that means just the right amount in the sight of God. Maybe the meaning of God’s song is that we should be caught up in the music of longing and meet with our real selves, with each other, and all with God’s love. That is what leads to transformation.