Homily preached by the Reverend Vicki M. Davis, Guest Celebrant & Preacher
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost – October 24, 2010
In last week’s Gospel, Jesus exhorted his inner circle, his disciples, to “Pray always, to not lose heart.” The Gospel we just heard immediately follows, and Jesus invites a closer reflection on how we pray. It begins by, again, making clear whom he is addressing: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” I don’t know about you, but I hear those words, and of course think well, he’s not talking to me. I don’t trust in my own righteousness; I certainly don’t regard others with contempt. I identify far more with the tax collector, standing far off, not even looking up, and begging, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I have learned, however, that feeling like I get it, that the message is clear, that I’m not the one in need of adjustment, is usually a red flag, an invitation to look again. In conjunction with the exhortation to “Pray always”, this parable has nudged me to take a look at two things in particular: How we view God, and how we view ourselves.
First, God: How we address God, approach God, in our prayers says a great deal about our view of God. The Pharisee starts carrying on, elaborating on what he perceives to be his virtues: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Who is he talking to? What is his image, his idea of God, as revealed in his prayer? Clearly he thinks God will be impressed, that somehow his actions will earn him points of some kind, special consideration. It makes me think of a child in a big family with a harsh and often absent father who wants to get his dad’s attention, to earn some nod of approval, by listing all the ways in which he has done “the right thing” hoping to win some affection, some prize that his siblings won’t. He is competing for attention and reward from God, which is a reflection of his conception of God.
Then there is the tax collector, who doesn’t even look up, but beats his breast and says, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” He comes in humility; his prayer reflecting his belief in a God of mercy, who knows him better than he knows himself.
Who do you approach when you pray? What is your conception, your image of the God you address? How do your prayers reflect your belief in God’s presence and disposition toward you – because surely that shapes how you feel, how you frame your prayers and even the substance of your prayers. There are certainly innumerable artistic representations of God, both visual and literary, throughout the centuries, which have served as meditations for prayer. Scripture offers endless options. Who do you pray to? Is it Christ on the cross? Is it the Good Shepherd gently carrying home the one lost sheep? Is it Christ triumphant, resurrected? Who do you imagine is listening to you?
Secondly, how we view ourselves. I teach ethics and character education classes to middle schoolers – and I always begin by stressing the point that the necessary foundation for an ethical life is knowing ourselves, being willing to see and acknowledge who we really are, with all our failings
and shortcomings, as opposed to the idealized self we all wish we could be, the self who always chooses the good, and does the right thing and would never intentionally hurt anyone else. That requires both an ability to be honest with and about ourselves, and a willingness to challenge our own assumptions, the castle of our own sanctity behind which we live.
Few things are harder than seeing ourselves as we really are. We humans have an uncanny capacity to see ourselves and our lives in the best of lights. Not unlike that Pharisee. I was struck by that realization on the train recently. A woman who looked about my age got on at Grand Central and sat down next to me. Usually no one engages in conversation with strangers on the commuter train; however, she was not a regular commuter, and clearly wanted to talk about her excursion to the city that day. So I listened to what she had done, but then grew increasingly uncomfortable as she started to rant about two speeding tickets she had recently received in Connecticut where she lives. She explained the circumstances of her being stopped: The one that stuck in my mind was she was late getting her teen-age daughter and her friends to a Lady Gaga concert in Hartford – a birthday gift to her daughter. She had gotten a little lost, she was unfamiliar with Hartford, and yes, she might have been going a little fast, but certainly not as fast as some, and she was very annoyed that she was pulled over. She tried to explain to the officer why she may have been going a little fast, and how she was really in a hurry to get these girls to the concert, certain he would give her a pass. The officer was not impressed, and wrote out her ticket. The other story, also, she had her very good reasons why she had been perhaps going a little over the speed limit. But the bigger discomfort for me came as she berated the officers who had ticketed her – altogether a few hundred dollars in fines – saying they should be out going after real criminals, arresting people who are causing real harm and damage to society, the “evil” people out there who never seem to get caught. That’s what she pays her tax dollars for – and here they are, ticketing her, a good, law-abiding citizen. I’m sure she did not see the irony in her stories. She had broken a law, twice, twice that she got caught, that is. I heard the Pharisee, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers . . .” . . . evil speeders. She made me wonder how many times, how many ways I do the same thing, blinded by my own sense of righteousness and blithely unaware, setting myself over against “other people.”
Who is it who shows up to pray to God when you pray? Is it that person who tries so hard to do things right, wanting to point out all the ways – a bargaining chip, perhaps, in questioning, “Why is this happening to me?” “What did I do to deserve this?” Or is it that humble, humbled self, looking in a clear mirror – one that hasn’t been photo-shopped to see what we want to see, well aware that, by virtue of our shared humanity in an interconnected global community, diverse and challenged by war, poverty, discrimination, inequality, injustice, we all play our part, we all fall short of who we are called to be, and we are all in need of God’s mercy. We can all be better incarnations of Jesus’ love. The more we persist in prayer, the clearer we become about who it is we are praying to, and who we are. The tax collector shows us the way to begin, as he cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Amen.