October 23, 2016 – The 23th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25C
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
How far away from us is God’s kingdom? Is it a question of distance best approximated in lightyears, miles, yards, or feet? Or is it an issue of time to be measured in millennia, centuries, decades, or years? Is the kingdom close enough for us to see it? Is it as far away as a dream? Is it right here among us yet always beyond our grasp? Jesus came to bring God’s kingdom here on earth, but some days it feels like that kingdom is slipping further and further away. What is it that keeps us from fully living into God’s kingdom? What stands in the way of God’s dream—the dream Jesus came to make a reality? Well, in the words of Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Kelly’s phrase is a perfect summary of the human condition, and it comes from a parody of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry’s braggadocious report to General William Henry Harrison after his decisive naval victory at the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. Perry wrote, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours,” implying a lopsided defeat of the British. Of course, sometimes our greatest accomplishment becomes our heaviest liability. Perry was decorated as a war hero, but that recognition seems to have gone to his head. After that, his cockiness got him into trouble, and, within a year, he was court-marshalled for slapping another officer in a skirmish. So quarrelsome was Perry that he was challenged to a pistol duel on two separate occasions. Finally, unwilling to step down from a fight, he insisted on brining formal charges against an old rival—another decorated war hero—and the Secretary of the Navy and President James Madison wanted to keep the controversy under wraps, so they sent Perry on a diplomatic mission to South America, where he contracted yellow fever and died. We have met the enemy, and, more often than not, he is us.
Today’s gospel lesson is an invitation to recognize that the only distance between us and the kingdom of God is us. “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” To whom do you think he’s speaking? Not us, right? Surely he’s not talking about us. Well, maybe half of that is directed at us. Sure, from time to time, we might be guilty of trusting in ourselves that we are righteous, but we would never hold others in contempt, right? At least not like that Pharisee. We’re better than that. We might grumble about the IRS, but we don’t look down at tax collectors the way that self-righteous prig did. If anything, we’re more like the tax collector. After all, Episcopalians love to brag about how they aren’t Baptists and how their minister will offer them a hardy “Hello!” in the liquor store. In fact, we’re so proud of our willingness to accept sinners of all stripes that the only people we hold in contempt are self-righteous Pharisees who think they’re better than everyone else. At least we’re not like them.
Let me tell you a story. In a small town, a woman whom everyone loved died. She had been the sixth-grade teacher in the town’s only school for as long as anyone could remember. Everyone who had grown up in that place had experienced the firm but loving guidance that she had offered hundreds of children over the years. When news of her death spread throughout the town, everyone was moved and made plans to go and pay his or her respects. Even the crazy town drunk, whom everyone held with a mixture of pity and disgust, wanted to go to the funeral. On the afternoon of the service, he walked up to the front of the funeral home but stopped short of the door. He wasn’t sure whether he could do it. Other than to stick his hand out and beg for change, he had avoided interactions with people for decades, but this teacher had meant the world to him. Back then, he was an awkward boy with a difficult home-life, and she was the last person he could remember who had taken the time to really care about him. Ever since the sixth grade, his life had spiraled steadily downward toward the lonely, hard existence he now inhabited. He knew what he had to do. So he steeled himself and walked in.
As soon as he stumbled into the parlor, one of the funeral directors placed a firm hand on his shoulder and grabbed him at the elbow with his other hand and said, “Why don’t you come this way with me? I think you’ll be more comfortable in another room,” leading him back toward the door he had just come through. Quietly and without looking the funeral director in the eye, the man whispered, “I’m sorry, sir. I know I’m not much to look at, but I loved that teacher, and she loved me, and all I want to do is say goodbye.” As the ragged, smelly, homeless man was taken from the room, two women standing in the line of visitors exchanged a knowing glance. One leaned in and whispered to the other in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Thank goodness that is taken care of. I can’t believe he would do that—walk in here as if he belonged in line with the rest of us.” Her companion nodded in agreement. “It’s a shame, really. I suppose that could happen to anyone, but I thank God that it’s not me.”
Standing over in the corner watching the two women carry on was a man in a dark, well-tailored suit. Without saying a word, he shook his head and thought to himself, “What self-righteous hypocrites! They think that they’re so much better than everyone else. I thank God that I’m not a presumptuous Pharisee like them.”
You see, in Jesus’ parable, there are really three people involved: the tax collector, the Pharisee, and the person who hears the story. And that’s us. How do we feel when we hear this parable about a humble sinner and a self-righteous Pharisee? Isn’t our instinct to distance ourselves from the arrogance of the religious zealot and stare admirably at the penitent sinner? But Jesus didn’t tell this parable to a bunch of people who sympathized with the tax collector. He told it to some people who trusted in their own righteousness and regarded others with contempt. Isn’t he talking to us after all? Aren’t we guilty as charged?
Whether we stare with contempt at the tax collector or look at the Pharisee with condemnation, we are guilty of the same offense—trusting in our own righteousness and doubting the righteousness of others. The truth of the gospel is that none of us is righteous on his own. Jesus came and lived and died and rose again so that the whole world could be right with God. For all of us, therefore, being right with God is a gift that we are given and not something that we have earned. God gives us that gift not because of how holy we are or how humble we are but simply because God loves us, and he loves all of us exactly the same whether we are humble or hypocritical, sinful or saintly.
The only thing that gets in the way of our participation in that gift of righteousness is us—our ego, our pride, our self-centeredness. When you know that God has chosen you as his beloved son or daughter—when you know that Jesus’ blood was shed for believers like you—it’s easy to stand off in the corner and look at sinners and hypocrites with disdain. “Thank God I’m not like them,” we pray. But every inch, every foot, every yard that we put in between ourselves and those other people who need God’s love just as much as we do is a mile we put between ourselves and God’s kingdom. We cannot know God’s forgiving, redeeming, saving love if we deny that love to anyone else. That means our prayer must be the opposite of that of the Pharisee. We must pray, “I thank you God that I am just like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, tax collectors, hypocrites, and self-righteous prigs.” If we can’t see that we need God’s mercy just as much as they do, then we’re the one who is lost. Who is it that you have the hardest time believing that God loves as much as he loves you? Whoever it is, until you can stand before God and identify completely with that person, you cannot know the fullness of God’s love.
May God himself give us the grace to see our own need for his righteousness as fully as we see that need in others.