The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
27 October 2013
Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-2
Psalm 84 1-6
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
I have often found the wisdom of pop-psychology frustrating—mostly because so much of it turns out to be true to a greater or lesser extent. Much of pop-psychology and New Age thinking resonate on some level with the Process Theology that influences me so greatly. The emphasis on Love, freedom. interconnection, relationship, and the idea that we are all on a journey, “part of the process,” as the 90s British band Morcheeba put it, all have significant history and meaning in the Christian context beyond the well worn self-help truisms.
That last notion, that we are making our life’s pilgrimage through time and space is, like the others, an image that resonates with the witness of Scripture, the traditions of the Church, and our experience of being faithful people in the world. Being human is, by definition, being imperfect, being not God. Each and every one of us is flawed, incomplete, moving along on our life’s journey. Not one of us is a finished product. None of us has it just right. The original sin was seeking to be like gods, listening to the serpent and thinking that by eating the apple, doing that one thing, following this path or that one, that we will make ourselves perfect like God, be finished, arrive. When we choose to seek the path of divinisation rather than the path of perfecting our humanity, we are making the same mistake as Adam and Eve.
Perfecting our humanity means living into that quality that makes us most human: our capacity to Love—which is the gift God gave us so we can be in his image and likeness. This gift is even more precious as we have that capacity for Love in and through all our imperfections. We are called to be at one with God in Love, at one in purpose and direction with God, follow the lure of Love as best we can in and through our human limitations. We are called, in fact, to acknowledge those limitations and imperfections at the same time as recognise that we are loved, have access to Love, and can share in that Love. We are called to have the courage—the “wholeheartedness,” as social scientist Brené Brown styles it—to be open to Love, to make ourselves vulnerable to others, offer ourselves as we are, not as we might like to be, so we can best make our life’s journey with a sense of self-knowledge and authenticity.
If we think we have it all figured out, like our old friend Henry Wilcox in Howard’s End, then we find ourselves isolated and unable to make connections with others, unable to really and truly partake in the life of the Love that resides at the centre of the cosmos. When we think we have it all figured out we close ourselves off from the possibilities that relationship with others offers us, and it makes growth and change difficult, and conversation with others impossible.
Today’s Gospel speaks directly to these issues and shows us that there is nothing trite or faddish about self-knowledge, authenticity, vulnerability, and openness to connection. “Two men went up into the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector,” Jesus tells his friends. Immediately the two men stand in stark contrast. For polite society, we know who our hero ought to be. The Pharisee is the religious man, the one who has taken the observance of the law into his household, who is considered an upholder of high moral and religious standards. The tax collector, on the other hand, is a Jew who has thrown his lot in with the Romans and makes his living at the expense of ordinary Judeans. But listen to each man. Which one is truly self-aware and authentic? Which one understands that he is on a journey and which one thinks he has arrived? Which one is open to change and which one thinks he is a finished product?
The Pharisee prays, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.” At least he begins with thanksgiving, but it goes down hill quickly from there. Like Henry Wilcox from Howard's End, he certainly thinks he is special, he sets himself apart and clearly thinks he is better than other people, even better than a fellow suppliant praying with him in the same place at the same time. He is happy with his current pattern of life. His fasting and giving are just right and just enough. He thinks he is all set. He has got it all figured out. Does he really see himself, though? Is he being authentic to his best self? Is he really living into the fulness of relationship with God and his neighbours?
The tax collector, on the other hand, modestly offers a single prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Perhaps we could congratulate the Pharisee for having a positive sense of self and suggest that the tax collector should have a better self image, but this is not quite the point. The tax collector, in fact, has a highly realistic understanding of who he is and what he does. Rather than say, “thank you, God, for making me so great,” he seems to be saying, “God, change me, move me, love me.” The tax collector’s prayer is open acknowledgement of his imperfections and limitations; and yet what his prayer truly expresses is his desire to be enveloped in the life of God that seems to be calling out to him.
Jesus put it this way, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Once again, I do not suspect that Jesus is saying we need to have a poor opinion of ourselves, that we need to see ourselves as unworthy, or be ashamed of who we are. Quite the opposite, the tax collector needed a sense of his worthiness, his own sense of access to the God of Love for him to have gone into the Temple in the first place and offer his prayer to God. Knowing himself, he desires to move ahead on his life’s pilgrimage and seek reconciliation, seek the very Love of God. I am not really sure what the Pharisee is seeking. He thinks he has arrived, he sees no journey before him. This is his pride.
As I have said before, true humility is having a sense of loving our-self as we are right now. It is having a sense of our-self as being on a journey, as being part of a process, a process that is not complete. It is being open to the change and growth that new relationships bring. It is being open to others and what they can offer us. It is allowing ourselves to be changed by our encounter with others and with creation and grow into something new. It is a willingness to let ourselves be vulnerable and open to love.
The tax collector has made himself supremely vulnerable in admitting he needs, as does each of us, God’s mercy, love, and assistance. He is opening himself up to change and growth. He is truly humble. The Pharisee is held back by his pride. He is not open to anything other than the reassurance that he is wonderful. He goes to God for a pat on the back, not to be cracked open and turned into Love’s vulnerable, flawed, human agent. I was talking with a friend the other day about how so many people have no idea that they have problems, flaws, things they need to work on in their lives, how they think they have it all figured out. This is our Pharisee’s problem. He is blind to the value of humility. He has no idea how disconnected he is, how far he is from reconciliation with God in Love. Our tax collector is, as it were, “working on his stuff” and this is what we are supposed to do.
We are called to a life of humble authenticity, a life lived in full self-awareness of our strengths and limitations, an understanding of who we are today and what we ought to be working on as we move ahead on our life’s journey to live more fully in relationship with God and our neighbours. We are called to acknowledge our very humanity. We are not called to be perfect right now, rather we are called to have open eyes and open hearts, have the courage to see ourselves honestly and know that despite whatever flaws we may have that we are still beloved children of God making our life’s pilgrimage.
We should be happy that we are a community of tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners, which is to say a community of complex, flawed, beloved humans who possess an infinite capacity for growth as we move along our journey towards the perfection of our humanity, our atonement with God’s loving purpose, with God in Love. We are not perfect now, we all have our problems, the things in life we have to work on and yet this does not diminish either our potential to receive or give love. We can only pray that the Pharisee, that those like him and Henry Wilcox, will break through the fortress of certitude with which they have surrounded themselves and open themselves up to the possibilities that a life of true humility offers; that they will see that there is further for them to travel and that there are companions—like the tax collector and you and me—along the road. The tax collector, like those of us who with confidence and vulnerability recognise our faults, has before him all the possibilities that God’s love offers on that journey of our life, the journey upon which we are all travelling.
Indeed each of us has the power to use the freedom God has given us to choose the path of humanity, the path of vulnerability, connection, and love. God invites us on this path, Love is luring us to follow in the Way. It is our choice and we have a community here that holds and supports us in this decision. Let us walk in this way together.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Saint James of Jerusalem, 23 October 2013
© 2013 Andrew Charles Blume