October 27, 2019, the Rev. Canon Richard Tombaugh
Sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Richard Tombaugh
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (track 2 readings)
Today’s Gospel is about God’s love. It is easy to talk about God’s love, but we struggle all the time to understand the reality of God’s love. This is because we use our experiences of human love as the jumping off point for our understanding of God’s love. We do know human love is less than perfect. We know, all too well, that the well of human love can run dry. And we project our small human experiences of finite love onto God. And the result is we think we must be worthy of love, including God’s, and we embrace the attendant heresy: God’s only got so much love to give. We sometimes live as if we might hear the following breaking news bulletin: Sources report that the price of God’s love has gone up five dollars a barrel due to high demand and short supply. A break in the pipeline and problems in offshore drilling for God’s love means that further shortages and price hikes are in store. People are urged to decrease their consumption and look for substitutes for God’s love. Current practices of being conduits of God’s love and lavishing it on others, including children, the weak, the vulnerable, and the poor must be stopped immediately.
Rather than thinking of God as God is known in our scripture and our liturgy and our faith tradition, as the source of all love, unquenchable, unstoppable, self-giving love, with oceans full of love to give, we think of God’s love meted out in teaspoons full, eyedroppers full, and we need to qualify, even compete, to get some of it. So when we hear today’s parable, of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we all too easily hear this interpretation: A Self-Righteous Pharisee says his prayers in the temple. He is prideful and self-congratulatory. A Tax collector also says his prayers, but, unlike the Pharisee, he is humble. God hears the prayers of the humble tax collector, and does not listen to the self-righteous Pharisee. The moral of the story is: be humble like the Tax Collector. The Tax Collector has discovered the secret–he has found the way to win approval in the eyes of God: humility! Be like the Tax Collector and you too will be able to say, Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!
And there’s the trap that betrays this way of interpreting the story. This is not a parable about winning God’s love. This is not a story about substituting for one bad way to try to get God to listen to you–being selfrighteousness–with a good way God likes, humility. Rather, it’s a story in which two seemingly unlike characters stand before God and are really very much the same. They both need God’s love and forgiveness. They are both loved and forgiven by God. The difference is that one is open to receiving that abundant love and one is not. The Pharisee’s prayer is more of a progress report: Dear God, just wanted you to know, I’m doing quite well thank you. I give more than I need to; I’m keeping the commandments; I’m well-regarded in the community. This is Pharisee signing off. The Pharisee asks nothing of God, and goes home with nothing.
On the other hand, there is the tax collector, a despicable fellow, a traitor to his community, making money off his neighbors to support the occupying Roman forces. For some reason, who knows why, this tax collector comes into the temple knowing he needs God’s love and mercy. He has done nothing to earn God’s love. He is not deserving of it. He just needs it, and asks for it. And he goes home aware of the abundant love flowing down on both himself and the Pharisee. But where the tax collector has opened up his heart and allowed God’s love and mercy to wash over him. The Pharisee has put up an umbrella of self-fulfillment, has cloaked himself in a bubble of self-sufficiency, and all of the love of God that rains down on the righteous and unrighteous alike, just runs right off him.
This is a parable about God’s abundant love for us, and about whether we’re going to take off our raincoats and dance around in the rain, or whether we’re going to try to keep ourselves dry and distant and unaffected. God’s love is lavish. If there is one word to take home today it is the word lavish, a word derived from an Old French word which means a torrent of rain. God’s love is like a torrent of rain – extravagantly abundant, more than enough. I think “lavish” is right up there with the word “Welcome” that defines us here at St. Paul’s.
The response to God’s lavish love is to accept it, relish it, treasure it and find as many ways as we can to give it away, in order to live out the image of God stamped on every one of us, the image of a God of abundant love. We are to open our hands and hearts and stand in the stream of God’s love and to use every means at our disposal to share this love with others. In church, we call this good stewardship. In church, we practice accepting that love by greeting one another in the peace of the Lord. We practice accepting that love by gathering at God’s table saying, we need this food. We practice giving that love by praying for people, some of whom we don’t even know, but that they may know themselves to be bathed in the river of God’s delight. We practice giving that love by making our offerings of ourselves through our money, our talents, our gifts. We practice giving that love by going forth from this place rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, to love and serve the Lord.
The Love that moves the sun and the stars, the Love that creates, sustains, and redeems the cosmos, is always uttering its eternal “Yes” to our question “Do you love me?” The only thing we need to do is open ourselves to that love. All self-flattery and self-importance and selfrighteousness ends in futility. When we stop reciting our resumes in the temple, the incarnate love of God meets us and embraces us, saying, I know your pain, my beloved, and I forgive your sins. I know your emptiness and I will fill it and I will fill you with my Love.