You, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name.
Anyone who has spent time in a 12-step program knows that the path of recovery is signed with slogans and pithy pieces of advice, most of which would be good words for any of us to live by. One day at a time. Easy does it. Live and let live. Don’t quit five minutes before the miracle. And my personal favorite: don’t compare someone else’s outsides to your insides. Or, simply, identify, don’t compare. In other words, don’t assume that because someone you see at an AA meeting looks older than you, or younger, or poorer, or more successful, or healthier, or more beaten down by addiction than you, that you are any more or less in need of healing and hope than that person. And vice versa. The truth behind those little sayings is that every one of us, regardless of our particular struggle or lack thereof, longs to be loved by God. Each of us longs to know that we are loved, and to know that we have a place in God’s creation. This is true whether that longing takes us to a twelve-step group or a spiritual director or a mental hospital or a church.
Today’s gospel is about someone who is doing a lot of comparing, rather than identifying. We tend to read this story as being about a bad person and a good person, but, like the rest of life, it’s not that simple.
Pharisees were not bad people. In fact, one could argue that they were particularly good. They were incredibly faithful to their tradition, and deeply steeped in Hebrew Scripture. They held a liberal interpretation of scripture and, rather like the Benedictine reformers in the middle ages, strived to make Jewish spiritual practices available to everyone, not just religious professionals.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were not considered good, humble people by anyone. They were partners with the Romans, whom everyone hated, and were associated with corruption and greed. Jesus did not hang around them because they were poor and defenseless but because everyone else hated them. They were paid by the Romans to collect taxes at a set rate, but given permission to collect any amount of tax they wanted, by any means they had, and keep the difference between the going rate and whatever they were able to extort. The tax collector in today’s gospel wasn’t kidding when he said “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” The very nature of their work made them spiritually wretched.
I recently had a conversation with someone about the word “wretch,” and how some people are uncomfortable using that word to describe themselves. As in, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Do you ever feel like a wretch? Or have you ever had a day in which everything was just wretched? I have days like that, days when I forget important tasks, or yell at my kid, or make bad choices around things like food or caffeine or time. Do you have days like that?
If we are uncomfortable with our own wretchedness, then we spend a lot of emotional and spiritual energy comparing ourselves to people who we think might be more or less wretched than us, defending ourselves against the knowledge of our own wretchedness. Which is too bad, because it is in that knowledge, in that coming face-to-face with our inner wretch, that God intervenes.
This is why we have stories about tax collectors who are despised and rejected, experiencing the grace of God.
But what about the Pharisee? Pharisees were vulnerable to getting caught up in their own goodness, in their own capacity to follow the rules exactly as written and never to deviate. Clergy, while not always meticulous in the way that Pharisees were, are also particularly vulnerable to getting caught up in our own goodness, in part because there are still people out there who expect us to be better people than anyone else. No one expects us to swear or park illegally or ever feel jealous or selfish or angry. We get caught up in expectations, our own and others,’ that make us want to hide our vulnerabilities, our flaws, and our wretchedness from the people all around us, from ourselves, and from God. I’m not the only one who does this, right? When we do this, we miss out on God’s grace. This isn’t just a pitfall of being a clergy person. I think it’s a pitfall of being human and longing for God.
There is a wonderful song from the Church of the Beloved in Seattle, called “Given.” We sang it last week at the Worship Lab. Part of the refrain is “our gift is not what we can do but who we are.”
We do not become a gift to God and to the world after we get our act together—we are a gift now. That is why in this week’s gospel we don’t get a story about the tax collector’s change in behavior. (Come back next week.) The tax collector doesn’t even say anything to promise repentance or restitution, and yet still he goes home justified, made right with God.
Every Sunday, when we say the prayer of confession, we are living as the spiritual descendents of the tax collector. Every time we say “most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you, in thought, word, and deed,” we are sharing our wretchedness and opening ourselves up to God’s grace. We say it together, out loud, week after week because wretchedness is an equal opportunity experience, and God’s grace, God’s extravagant love, comes to each of us, all of us.
So, what do we do with all this grace? What is the connection between this parable and being agents of God’s mission of healing and reconciliation and transformation in the world?
I recently heard someone say that as a response to today’s gospel we should all have bumper stickers on our cars that say: “God loves you, so stop being a jerk.”
That’s part of it.
And there are other ways to live in God’s grace. One is to come to the table, to share in broken bread as a sign of Christ’s broken body and our own brokenness, and as a promise of the redemption of the whole world. I like to think of church as a training ground for God’s agents. Our training starts at this table and continues in our fellowship and in how we live our lives when we leave this place. How will we love the wretches like us?
O Lord, you are in the midst of us and we are called by your name.