The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Today’s parable probably spawned this story. I usually don’t do this, but I am. Please forgive me. A priest and a deacon are praying before the altar. The priest prays, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The deacon prays, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” A noise behind them catches their attention. They turn to see the parish janitor kneeling in a pew, beating his chest, praying, “Lord be merciful to me, a sinner.” The priest turns to the deacon and snarls, “Now look who thinks he’s a sinner.”
In Jesus’ story a Pharisee and a tax collector happen on each other at church. In case God hasn’t noticed, the Pharisee lets the Lord know how good he is. His prayer is true. He’s not like thieves, rogues, adulterers, or, as he opens an eye and glances back, “or even like him,” the tax collector. In fact, this guy exceeds God’s requirements. He fasts twice a week and tithes his income and his bonus –before taxes. He keeps the Law and then some. So, yes, he’s better than others, and grateful God makes him that way.
Away from others, standing in the back of the room, the tax collector prays. He can’t raise his head, for the burden of shame and remorse he bears. He’s built his wealth on the backs of his own people. He knows who he is. Others know what a low-life he is. He knows God knows. He pleads: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” His prayer also is true. He needs lots of mercy.
Two people come to church for worship. One sits near the front. He’s respected. He’s been a member there all his life, as were his parents. His family sits beside him each Sunday. He’s taught Bible classes, taken youth on mission trips; he tithes, and has chaired about every committee around there. He has quite a religious pedigree. He’s glad when someone points it out and he doesn’t have to.
The other person sits on the back pew. Her parents weren’t interested in church and never took her. She doesn’t know what’s going on in worship, or really why she’s there. She’s searching. She’s recently lost her job. She’s going through a divorce. Her kids are out of control. She’s a mess. No one asks her why she’s there, let alone invites her to coffee hour. She desperately hopes to connect to God and be forgiven for whatever she’s done wrong. She wants to find hope and purpose for her life. She’s looking for a break, for divine mercy, but doesn’t know how to find it or even what to call it. Maybe the church will be the place to find what she needs.
The service that day ends. The long-time member thinks, “Those hymns were awful. That sermon put me to sleep. I’ve heard all this before. Get me out of here.” During the service, he fiddles with his bulletin, looks around to see who’s missing – thinks about the football game on TV later. At communion, he gets antsy. He’s got places to be, and why sing all the verses of that dreadful Recessional Hymn? Each Sunday his body is dutifully present for worship, and his mind is somewhere else.
The woman sits alone. Her worship has been different. She has her private thoughts, too: “Should I even be here?” But something happened for her today. She came hoping to hear some good news, so she listens to the scripture, the music, and the sermon intently. She reads a confession and hears words of forgiveness pronounced. She goes to the rail as if she belongs. She was in no hurry to get up. She believes what she’s been told – that Jesus invites her, and meets her here, loves and forgives her as she receives bread and drinks from the cup. She goes back to her seat with tears in her eyes. She has a peace in her heart now. She’s wanted some good news. Now she’s experienced it, and she quietly weeps with joy.
One goes home having received God’s judgment – given God’s love and forgiveness, because she asked. That’s how God wishes to judge us all – with love, seeing us as God makes us. She goes home justified. The other person goes home bored, disconnected, but proud to have done his duty. He judges and justifies himself. He’s had a pretty good day at church – after all, he went. They go home with different experiences. Which one is in right relationship with God? Are we rightly related to God? That depends on where we start.
Those who start at the top need a sinner or two in sight to look down on and help them feel better, relieve their inner anxiety they aren’t enough. Others start at the bottom, well aware of what no one else needs to point out. They focus on God, praying God will be merciful. They are grateful, not because God makes them better than others, but that such divine love is given for them, and for everyone. The sooner we recognize our brokenness – that we are less different than alike – we all have the same need, the sooner God can love and heal us. Before God, it’s not our goodness or accomplishments that matter. It’s what God does. The tax collector looks to God, not making excuses – or justifying himself. The Pharisee inside us all shows himself when we justify ourselves by demeaning others. That may be why Jesus reminds us, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I was trying to merge on to I-43 recently. A car wouldn’t let me in. I sped up, so did he. I was running out of merging lane. I slowed down and so did he. Finally, I pulled in behind him – thought about passing and giving the jerk the old Hawaiian high sign. I didn’t. I wish I could say a God moment stopped me. I can’t. I was wearing this darn collar, a dead give-away for what I do and who my boss is. I immediately thought, “Have I ever been inadvertently inconsiderate? Have I accidently irritated someone?” So I thumped my chest and quickly prayed, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” That was my God moment.
Just look around. See each other as God does, believing the best, offering love, grace, and encouragement – rejoicing in others. We do that as we look through God’s eyes, not ours. God can’t pour a thing into a heart that’s so full of itself. Good news – God is merciful just for asking. And the tax collector, who finds mercy, may also find the grace to pray for even more mercy: “God give some of us mercy we can’t yet ask for.”