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Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Oct 27, 2019

Passage: Luke 18:9-14

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Series: Sermons for Year C (2018-2019)

Detail:

Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (2019)
October 27th, 2019
St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel)

Joel 2:23-32 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18 Luke 18:9-14

You may have noticed that over the past few weeks, there’s been something of a recurring theme in what I’ve been saying from the pulpit. The theme is connection. Most of this theme has revolved around prayer and how prayer keeps us connected with God. And this morning’s Gospel lesson gives us another valuable insight to how we stay connected with God and to one another. 

First, I want us to take a close look at what Jesus says in the parable itself. If you recall, in the parable, it says that the Pharisee was “standing and praying by himself.” If this conjures up an image of the Pharisee standing alone or isolated in the temple, or if you take that description to mean that he was not praying with any appreciation for the community around him, then you get the idea. But another way of reading that same description is to say that the Pharisee was “standing and praying to himself.” Either way, I think it’s important to recognize that we’re being told that the Pharisee is all alone; and that his pretentious prayer is not prayed in and with his community. Ultimately, the Pharisee’s prayer is not even prayed to God.

 The tax collector, on the other hand, is not described as standing alone. He’s “standing far off,” but that’s not the same as standing alone. It’s often a fruitless distraction to wonder about the motivations of characters in a parable, but I have to wonder if it’s because he felt that what he had done had distanced himself from God and from the community. So he stands far off to symbolize the separation he was feeling. 

But it’s worth noting that the tax collector still dared to go to the temple to ask for forgiveness. Even though he felt separated, he still wanted to ask for God’s forgiveness in the temple - in the place where the community gathered to offer its prayers to God - in the hope that he could be restored to a right relationship with God and with his community. 

I think this parable presents us with two pictures of loneliness. The one is loneliness that only leads to more loneliness. The other is loneliness seeking to be restored to community. And the lesson we’re being taught here is that it’s possible to be in a community, to do perfectly all of the things that one is supposed to do in that community, but still never really be a part of that community. And it’s possible to be in a community, to admit when one makes mistakes, and to recognize that in spite of one’s mistakes, it’s still important to belong to the community. 

As that relates to our own life here and now, I wonder how many of us might say that the church is meant to be a community of perfect holiness. Or if we’re not willing to say it, I wonder how many of us secretly think it. I will not deny that our aim as Christians is to become holy, but if the cost of holiness is limiting our fellowship only to those who meet our standards of sanctity, then we will quickly discover that there isn’t any room in the church for people who make mistakes. And if the church is meant only for the perfect, it winds up being a very lonely place. Because all we can do in a perfect church is hide our imperfections, be appalled when we discover that the church is made up of imperfect people, and isolate ourselves further and further. 

[Aside on The Great Divorce.] 

Refusal to acknowledge our own faults and blaming others for what we think is wrong leads only to removing ourselves further away from others until we’re all alone in a miserable universe of our own making. And the process of isolation often begins when we start thinking that others in our community need to live up to our standards or else they deserve to be cut off. 

The alternative is to recognize that, as the saying goes, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” That means that when we come together as a church community, we have to understand that all of us fall short of the mark. All of us are sinners. And not a single person among us is perfect. This means that our life together is bound to be quite messy. Because there will be times when we will screw up and need to ask for forgiveness. There will be times when we have to reassure others that their mistakes haven’t cut them off from the community. There will be times when we will have to deepen our appreciation for God’s grace in preserving the community when things aren’t going the way we think they should. All of this takes humility and a willingness to admit that, on our own, all we can do is walk the path of loneliness.

There’s an ancient story from the Desert monastics in which a community of monks discovers that one of their community members has committed a sin. So they go to the abbot (or community leader) and tell him that this certain monk has committed a sin and should be banished from the community. The abbot agrees to go with the group to confront the wayward monk, but first he fills up a sack with sand, cuts a hole in it, and carries it with him. As they make their way, the abbot says nothing, but the other monks notice that the sand is leaving a trail behind them as they go. When they draw close to the cell of the monk who committed a sin, one of the group asks the abbot why he brought along the bag of sand. And the abbot replies, “I have walked all this way with you with my sins trailing behind me, and yet now I go to expel a brother for his sins.” And the group decided to forgive the brother.  
It might not seem obvious, but in our life together as a church community, we are daily presented with a choice about what kind of community we want to be. We can think ourselves perfect and demand perfection from others, dismissing them if they don’t live up to our expectations, or we can acknowledge our own brokenness and reliance upon God’s grace and be thankful that God’s mercy extends to us and to everyone else. So be the church that prays the prayer of the tax collector. And God have mercy on all of us sinners.