Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘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.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
A Catholic priest, a Rabbi, and an Anglican minister were discussing sin, and the Anglican asked, “Tell me, gentlemen, have you ever sinned and broken the laws of your religion?”
“I must admit,” responded the Rabbi, “I was always very very curious about how pork tastes, so once, just once, I stopped at a bar-be-que restaurant when I was on a holiday and ate a pork sandwich. In fact, it was so delicious, I ate four of them, knowing I’d never have the nerve to sin again like that.”
The Catholic joined in, “Well, I had the same curiosity about sex, and that being forbidden, I didn’t know which sex would appeal to me more, so I once, while in seminary, had an affair with a married couple, husband and wife at the same time. I was so overcome with feelings of guilt that I’ve never done anything like that again. Well, what about you, Reverend?”
The Anglican said, “My besetting sin is GOSSIP, and I just can’t wait to tell everybody in town what you guys have said!”
Guilt is a powerful emotion, often used (and abused) by religion. It’s the starting point for my sermon and one of the themes of our Gospel reading. Unfortunately, I have a problem with this morning’s Gospel reading. It doesn’t fit easily into how I want us to see ourselves before God. I’m not one to encourage bowing and scraping and beating our breast. I think guilt is often needlessly piled on us by religion. I believe that God calls us to stand stall, to rejoice that we are a wonderful part of God’s wonderful universe, to celebrate the amazing gift of life.
I think that spirituality that flows from guilt is not healthy. To my mind the truest spirituality must flow from love.
Yet our reading has the poor wretched tax collector bowing his head, beating his breast and repeating ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
[It reminds me of a traditional prayer that I refuse to say. It’s a famous one, and many people’s favourite – it’s called the ‘prayer of humble access’ from the 1662 Prayer Book:
“We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”
This prayer misquotes a bible story where the point it that we were more worthy than the dogs that licked the crumbs, and I see this prayer as an exercise in spiritual masochism – to me the message of Christ is that we are worthy – even the tax collectors and sinners, the prostitutes and demon-possessed are worthy of God’s love. Our service for God springs from love, not from guilt.]
But in our reading the tax collector comes to God wracked by guilt. This approach to God means that the snivelling tax collector leaves the synagogue justified before God, whereas the Pharisee who stands tall is condemned.
I don’t think Jesus is telling us to always be like the tax collector. Jesus is showing us extremes of behaviour and his listeners would have assumed that the Pharisee was pleasing God by his worship, but Jesus is saying, no, even the tax collector, who is aware of his faults is closer to God than the pompous, self-righteous Pharisee.
Tax collectors were collaborators with the invading Roman authorities. They were well-rewarded for exploiting the poor. He was a sinner – that was his genuine approach to God. The Pharisee was a respected pillar of the community, he was also arrogant, and snobbish, and felt superior to those around him – his prayer was an opportunity to show off – and was far from genuine.
When I worked as a prison chaplain approaching God as a sinner in need of repentance and forgiveness was exactly the right approach. Here in Blackheath, I’m sure we all get things wrong from time to time, but the central message most of us need to hear most of the time is about God’s love for us, and his invitation to join in the work of the Kingdom.
In truth, there is no ‘one size fits all’ way to approach God.
I spent the week before last on a course with London Citizens, learning alongside Rabbis, Imams, Priests, Ministers, lay workers, community leaders and trade unionists about community organising. It was clear that there was no one way to live a good life and do good works. Here were Christians, Jews, Muslims, Humanists, and those-who-would-not-be-pinned-down-to-any-ideology wanting to work together to make the world a better place. If I can just be a religious and cultural imperialist and use Christian language to describe their deeds, here were Christians, Jews, Muslims, Humanists, and those-who-would-not-be-pinned-down-to-any-ideology wanting to work together to build the Kingdom of God.
I’ve seen the work of the Kingdom in other places too, closer to home. I have spent some time with the people of St. John’s over the last few weeks as they prepare to advertise for a new Team Rector. Those of us who have been to St. John’s have found it, to be honest, a mixed experience. Their exuberant style of worship, which sometimes includes clapping, dancing and hands raised to God has both delighted and appalled members of our more reserved congregation.
I confess I struggle with the theology of some of the words of the hymns and songs, but I have no problem at all with the clapping, dancing and raising of hands.
The Bible exports us to ‘make a joyful noise to God,’ and clapping our hands is fine by me.
The Bible also describes the posture of prayer as raising our hands to God. That’s why I follow the old tradition of raising my hands during the Eucharistic Prayer. But if, as they do in many more evangelical churches, someone wants to raise their hands to say that they are making the words of the hymn their prayer, a way of saying “I really mean this” – that’s ok with me too.
But I don’t want to just stand up for evangelical worship – there is no ‘one size fits all’ – the Catholic tradition has a lot to offer us too.
Those who cross themselves do so for a variety of reasons, to me it is about saying ‘this ancient story of Jesus and his cross is part of my story too, I place the cross on myself because I have a personal connection to it…’
Genuflecting or kneeling is another traditional poise for worship – although one I would handle with more care.
I believe God calls us to stand up tall, so kneeling isn’t a posture for prayer that comes easily to me.
We have been talking at the worship committee and decided that we need to make it clear that kneeling is not compulsory when it comes to taking communion. You can come up to the altar rail and stand if you prefer.
(The only thing I would say is that you must help guide the chalice if you are standing – because the person giving you the wine can’t see the level when she or he is giving it!)
But there is no ‘one size fits all’ if you want to stand or kneel, cross yourself of raise your hands, clap or sit quietly, that is fine (although it may not work if you clap disputing the prayers and stand up and cross yourselves during the sermon – but hopefully you get my meaning).
In our Gospel reading we see two approaches to God. Standing bold and proud, and kneeling in humility. What matters is not the stance, what matters is that we find an approach to God that is genuine.
Wether you sit or stand or kneel or cross yourself or raise your hand is up to you – but do it because you have chosen it, not because it’s what you have always done it…
I end my sermon with the words from John’s Gospel, often used to introduce Book of Common Prayer Evensong:
God is Spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.