It isn’t often that I get a hymn stuck in my head…usually it’s a song from the 80s or a commercial jingle that gets stuck in there.
But as I was reading over the lessons for this morning, the hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” crept its way in. If you want, follow along in your hymnal (#469). The first verse reads:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior;
There is healing in his blood.
This hymn tells us a lot about the nature of God. It tells us that God’s mercy and justice is bigger than we can imagine. It tells us that everyone is welcome…even the sinner. And this is good news indeed! It means that we all have a chance at redemption and salvation. It means that God’s love and forgiveness is something to be thankful for, and it’s something we can trust in.
In this morning’s Gospel (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, and how they understand themselves before God, and God’s response to their prayers.
Who are these characters?
The Pharisee is among the religious elite. He is most likely wealthy, educated, and well respected in his community. His prayer to God isn’t so much about his relationship to God, but more about how he understands himself—thank God he is not “one of those people”—the thieves, the rogues, the adulterers, and the tax collector…in other words, the people who are not well respected, the ritually unclean, the cheats and the traitors. And then he goes on to justify himself before God with all his good works of fasting and tithing.
A modern version of the Pharisee’s prayer might be something like:
Thank God I am not a like other people; my neighbor who cheats on his wife, my friend who is of a different political persuasion, or the homeless person at the bridge. I am here every Sunday morning, I participate in every committee I can, and I bet I pledge more than anyone else in church.
Who is being served by this prayer? Not God. The person offering this prayer, or the Pharisee in the case of Luke’s gospel story, is serving himself, proving his worth before God.
Then there’s the tax collector. In the ancient world, tax collectors were as bad a lepers. They were Jews who worked for the Roman government. They were outcasts in the Jewish community because they were seen as traitors, and they were outcasts in the Roman world because they were Jewish. They lived and worked in a no-win situation. His prayer to God is simple “God be merciful to me, I am a sinner”.
A modern version of the tax collector’s prayer might be something like:
God I am trying, but come up short. Have mercy on me.
We don’t like to talk about sin…it’s something that those “other” Christians talk about. But if we understand sin as our shortcomings before God, the mistakes that we make and never learn from, or our inability or unwillingness to follow, love and trust God completely, then our sin isn’t so much about individual actions (or inactions), but rather our relationship with God.
And that’s what Jesus is getting at with this parable. What is our relationship with God? Are we already perfect and righteous? Or are we constantly turning to God for help, guidance and forgiveness?
When we step away from our self-perceptions—that we are perfect, that we have the most or best stuff, and that we are better than or more worthy than someone else, then what’s left behind is who God deeply wants to be in relationship with. God wants us to be who we really are, deep down, without all the “thank God I’m not like other people” stuff, and offer that version of ourselves up for love, mercy and forgiveness.
That’s why Jesus tells those who are gathered around and listening: for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
It’s not necessarily that God prefers the tax collector over the Pharisee…it’s that God sees the true heart of the person offering up prayer and responds in kind.
And that’s the good news of this gospel lesson. We have an opportunity to step out of self-righteousness and “look at how great I am” perceptions and just BE before God. And in the wideness of God’s mercy, in God’s justice and welcome, there is grace. Amen.
When I worked at St. Margaret’s, one of the other priests put a sign on my office door that read “Prays well with others”. I’m not telling you this because I’m particularly “good” at prayer. In fact, I think I’m rather terrible at it.
Before going off to seminary, I imagined that my life as a priest would be filled with moments of quiet meditation, opportunities to sit in contemplation, and that I would devoutly observe the Daily Office. But the truth is, most of my day is filled up with pretty routine stuff…pastoral visits, administrative work, emails, phone calls, and meetings. And of course there’s the grocery shopping, dishes, laundry and litter box to attend to. Not unlike most of your days I’d be willing to bet. And by bedtime, I realize I haven’t had that moment of quiet meditation and contemplation; I haven’t even cracked open the Prayer Book. This used to really bum me out. I used to get really frustrated by it and think “what kind of priest am I…I never pray!” And since I had confessed my short-coming to my colleague at St. Margaret’s, I knew that his little sign was a bit of a jab. In retrospect, I now think of it as a bit of encouragement.
On one of my trips to Bend for a diocesan meeting, I ate dinner at a place called “Common Table”. The dinner was lovely and the wait staff was wonderful. Because Common Table provided meals for the homeless in the community, they tried to keep their expenses low, so the wait staff was all volunteer. We had a wonderful woman serving our table, and I noticed on the underside of her forearm a phrase in Latin “laudate est ora”. I asked her what this meant, and she said “my work is my prayer”.
When Jesus and his disciples are gathered together, he is always teaching them. He teaches them about healing, faith, gratitude and forgiveness. And he also teaches them about prayer. In this morning’s gospel (Luke 18:1-8), Jesus reminds the disciples to pray always and to not lose heart. He isn’t necessarily telling them to read their prayer books, or recite certain psalms, but he is telling them to be persistent in their prayer and not give up…the road ahead, the road of discipleship is not an easy one. Do not be distracted, stay focused, pray and do not lose heart.
And then he tells a parable that calls to mind issues of trust, justice and deliverance, judgment and faith, and persistence and resistance. Now all of these are wonderful lessons worth exploring, so I’m going to save some of them for future sermons and focus on persistence and resistance.
In this parable, we have two main characters—the widow who is persistent in demanding justice and the judge who is resistant to her pleas for help.
Can we, for just a moment, imagine God in the role of the widow? Can we imagine a God who is persistent in offering to us love, grace and forgiveness? Can we imagine a God who is persistent in desiring to be in a deep and loving relationship with us?
If God is the widow, then who is the judge? If we’re honest with ourselves, we find that sometimes it’s us. Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in our own “stuff”—our anxieties, fears, and even routine daily living—that we can’t hear God’s persistent pleas to us.
And that’s what prayer is about. It’s about taking a moment and listening. It’s about our ability to stop being resistant to a God who loves us, and paying attention.
While it is traditional to celebrate St. Francis on Oct 4, we had some scheduling conflicts. Oh well. So we’re celebrating him today. (I prayed about it and it’s ok.)
Before Francis became a “saint”, he was a wealthy young man in Italy. His father was a silk merchant and his mother was a noblewoman from France. During his youth he was fascinated by troubadours who sang songs of love and chivalry. He also joined a military campaign, but upon receiving a vision, he returned home. When Francis got home, he became more contemplative and took a pilgrimage to Rome. He had stopped being resistant to God’s persistent gift of love.
When Francis came home from Rome, he took to begging in the streets in front of the church. There again, he had a vision; this time of Jesus asking him to repair the church. Francis thought Jesus was being literal and meant the church he was sitting in front of. So he sold some of his father’s cloth and gave the money to the priest to repair the church.
When Francis’ father heard about this, he was outraged! So, during legal proceedings, in front of everyone, Francis took off his fine clothes and vowed to leave his father’s house. He spent months as a beggar, and then went to live in the countryside repenting for his earlier ways. He spent the rest of his life repairing churches, preaching in the streets, and eventually founding orders of religious men and women who preached, served as missionaries, and did works of charity. One of Francis’ most important teachings was that people should be able to pray to God in their own language.
Once Francis had stopped being resistant to God’s calling to discipleship, he became persistent in his prayer. For Francis, just like those early friends and followers of Jesus, discipleship was hard. It meant traveling, working alongside lepers and other outsiders, and sharing the Good News of God. And while Francis may have taken time out of his day to sit quietly and meditate, I have a feeling he would have agreed with the waitress from Common Table—my work is my prayer.
I believe prayer is not a passive activity. Yes, it can be those moments of quiet reflection, but I also believe that any time we are working towards realizing the Kingdom in our midst, anytime we are bringing about justice in an unjust world, anytime we are persistently offering love to one another, we are praying. Praying is active. To pray means to be in conversation and relationship with the Spirit of God. To pray is to be receptive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
And so I thought I would share with you one of my favorite prayers attributed to St. Francis, that reminds me that all that I do in my daily life and work, when done with God in mind, is prayer:
Most High, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me true faith, certain hope and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, Lord, that I may carry out Your holy and true command. Amen.
When I was a little girl and first heard the parable of the mustard seed, I can remember my Sunday school teacher pinching her thumb and forefinger together until there was almost no space between them and saying “this is how big a mustard seed is…make sure you have at least this much faith if you want to be a good Christian”. At the time I remember thinking “wow…that’s it? That’s so small? I only need to be that good?” Obviously, I didn’t get the point of the story. And the other day as I thought about that experience I somehow heard it laden with guilt. Somehow I heard my teacher telling me “shame on you for not having even this much faith”. So I needed to check that out a bit and it turns out my memory wasn’t that far off. Turns out this has been told for years as a “shame on you” story. As I rummaged through older commentaries and sermons, it turns out that preachers and Sunday school teachers have been telling this story with the perspective of an annoyed, exhausted Jesus basically saying “get it together, fellas…if you had even this small amount of faith, you could perform miracles”. And by telling it this way, by presenting Jesus in this light, it makes the disciples—and us—feel bad that we’re not faithful enough.
What does it mean to be “faithful enough”? How can we measure that? Is it based on the amount we put on our pledge card? Is it based on the amount of our time and talent that we give to projects of the church? Is it based on the number of home visits we make to those who are sick or homebound? Is it based on the number of meetings we attend to plan for our future? Somehow, I’m just not sure that’s what Jesus had in mind.
And that moves us into the second part of today’s gospel lesson…the part that is even less appealing and more challenging than the parable of the mustard seed.
Let’s look at it again:
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
Ok, so on first reading, it might make us scratch our heads, decide to ignore it, or even get angry. It’s exactly this servant and master kind of teaching that has been used for generations to subjugate women and minorities and justify slavery, so it would be easy to say “well, we’ve moved beyond this kind of stuff…let’s just ignore it…it’s not important anymore”. And yes, we could. But I think that we owe it to ourselves in our journey of faith formation to wrestle with complicated scripture and try to find the “good news” in it. Otherwise, we get a very slanted perspective of what it means to be faithful.
At first glance, Jesus is telling his disciples that service in the Kingdom is about doing what you’re told, even when you’re tired, and expecting no thanks in return. Furthermore, the disciples should even think of themselves as “worthless slaves”. Well, I have to say that if that’s the way I’m supposed to understand faithfulness, then I fail. I just can’t think of myself as a “worthless slave”. Nowhere does Jesus call the disciples “worthless slaves”…in fact, he calls them friends. So what’s this all about?
From a historical perspective, this language of master and servant makes perfect sense, and would not have seemed shocking to its original audience. Some scholars have written that Jesus was speaking to people who would have understood the relationship between master and servant as one of mutual accountability and expectations. As Kimberly Long explained, “The master expects the servants to perform their duties, and the servants, in turn, expect that when their work is done, they will receive nourishment and rest and protection.”
Honestly, I needed to sit with this a minute when I first read it. It is an understanding of discipleship that I have never really considered. And it suddenly occurred to me that I was still thinking in those elementary terms of the mustard seed…if I had this teeny tiny amount of faith, I was being a good Christian. It was a simple understanding of discipleship that didn’t really require anything of me…in fact, the expectations were pretty minimal!
But let’s look at this gospel lesson again, and actually back up a couple of verses.
In the verses that precede our gospel for today Jesus gives his disciples some lessons about discipleship that are ultimately about being responsible for one another. So his friends are starting to understand that being a disciple is a lot harder than just following Jesus around, listening to his teachings, and witnessing healings. Being a disciple is about being willing to be a servant…it’s about being willing to be responsible to God and one another not so that we’re considered “good”, or to earn ponies and saunas in heaven (which has always been my default for doing good), but because God has given us abundant life.
When the disciples ask to have their faith increased, they ask out of fear of not having enough. They ask because the responsibilities of discipleship are bigger than they can imagine. If we’re willing to be honest with ourselves, I bet we’ve also asked to have our faith increased. How many of us have tried to bargain when a loved one has been ill, asking God for more faith? How many of us feel hopeless and despondent with the long-term prospects of the government shutdown, wishing that we had more faith in one another? How many of us feel scared about our finances and just wish we could be more faithful and trusting in God to take care of all of our needs? Whatever the reason, we all wish for our faith to be increased. And imagining a Sunday school teacher shaking her head like an annoyed Jesus doesn’t help our feelings of shame, guilt or inadequacy.
So what if we imagined that as the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, Jesus looks at them with love in his eyes? What if he looked at them with kindness and said, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could work miracles. And you have that faith inside you already. God has given it to you abundantly. Now take care of one another, take care of those who are on the margins of society; be with those who are in desperate need of faith and healing. And do it without asking anything in return.” This Jesus, this kind, loving Jesus is the same who tells the hemorrhaging woman her faith has made her well, who touches the leper and gives life to the centurion’s daughter. This Jesus is the same who washes the feet of his friends.
So I invite you to consider the mustard seed and know that, through the abundant love and grace of God, you have enough faith to be the disciples you are called to be.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.