Thursday, October 28, 2004

Proper 25C sermon

Here is the text of a sermon preached on October 24th, 2004, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in St. Joseph Michigan. The texts were for Proper 25, year C, and I focused on Luke 18:9-14.

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May the words of my mouth and the meditations our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Today we heard Jesus tell a parable that involved a Pharisee. Usually when we hear about Pharisees, we have a pretty good idea of the sort of person we’re talking about: smug, superior, self-satisfied, condescending to others. If Hollywood needed to cast a Pharisee, I think Tim Curry’s phone would be ringing in fairly short order: he’s done a good job playing Cardinals and other aggravating ecclesiastics in movies over the years. And certainly the parable that Jesus tells in today’s reading only seems to reinforce this idea.

But friends, lend me your ears, for I come not to bury the Pharisee but to praise him, for there is more to him than is found in our stereotype. To the original hearers of this story, the reversal of the Pharisee and tax collector would have been surprising if not downright scandalous. In plain terms, the Pharisee was the good guy. He was honest, just, faithful, industrious, the sort of fellow you would be glad to have your daughter bring home. Moreover, since fasting was a sign of repentance, and he fasted twice a week, this chap took his faith seriously. And he was generous, too: giving a tithe in ancient Israel was the way that those with land took care of those who didn’t. As a Pharisee, he would have known the joys of sharing meals with like-minded people, yearning for the deliverance of Israel; he would have relished spending time with his brother Pharisees searching the Torah for practical wisdom. In short, this was an upstanding fellow.

He was good, and he knew it. And therein begins the problem.
Continue reading Proper 25C sermonReveling in his goodness – which was real – he became self-righteous. And self-righteousness has a way of twisting and disfiguring the soul just as much as theft and violence and infidelity and betrayal. Through his smugness, he was able to dismiss another person easily, to write him off as wicked and beyond hope: “Thank you God that I am not like others.” The text even emphasizes that the Pharisee stood off by himself, as if separating himself from the other. In the end, his self-righteousness got in the way of its cure, for he cut himself off from tax collector and his humble self-abandon to the mercy of God: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” In short, the Pharisee was satisfied with contempt, rather than communion.

Right now we are living in very polarized, contentious times, when nerves are scraped raw and the phrase “civil disagreement” seems an oxymoron.

It seems that nearly everything in our nation is co-opted to one partisan purpose or another. With the practice of “narrowcasting” in radio and on television, broadcasting to special interest groups of one stripe or another, and with the growth of the internet, where any cause can establish a presence and create a mailing list, we have seen the rise of what media consultants call “echo chambers.” An echo chamber is a group of like-minded people with common interests who reinforce each other’s beliefs and practices. In these echo chambers, thoughts and ideas go uncontested, unquestioned, as the group talks to itself, preaching only to the faithful. Stories and anecdotes are shared which paint others in unflattering light. Gradually, those who might disagree come to be seen as dangerous, as outsiders, perhaps as the lunatic fringe.

We see this particularly in the realm of national politics as the Presidential election draws near. Regardless of who wins, it promises to be rancorous and controversial. It seems no quarter is free from it, whether left or right, Republican or Democrat. The rancor and self-righteousness of the rhetoric today, I think, risks scarring our souls, cutting us off from others who might be the means of our healing. As a nation, I fear that – out of anxiety or whatever – we are close to settling for the safe haven of contempt, rather than the wide open waters of communion.

Certainly we in the church are not free from this, either. There is a long tradition of partisan wrangling within the church, and when I say “long”, I mean almost two millennia. Of course, just because a tradition is long doesn’t mean that it’s right, or that it does us much credit. But since the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire last fall, it seems the rhetoric and wrangling has reached a fevered pitch.

In light of all this, the Eames commission was convened with representatives from around the church to address the issue of communion within Anglicanism. Last week, the commission issued its final report. There are some on various sides of the issues who are dissatisfied with the document. But on the whole it seems to me, as the website Anglicans Online put it, “brilliant classic via media.”

This is not to say that it offers final solutions on the topic at hand, much less that it fulfilled the press’s dire predictions of imperious punishment and dismissal. But in classic Anglican fashion, it attempts to chart a way forward together.

It has struck me this week that one of the wondrous and taxing things about being Anglican is that in the absence of a pope, or international canon law, or an authoritative, univocal interpretation of scripture, we have little more than keeping in conversation with our sisters and brothers around the world and across the theological spectrum here at home. This is the way we discern the call of God – together. Apart from this, we are impoverished. We need this, for we all are continually moving into uncharted territory. And in doing so, we are constantly trying to draw new and more accurate maps of where we are and where we have been, and trying to get the lay of the land of where we are going.

Each segment of the communion loves the church and the gospel, cares deeply about them. We each have our own visions for how the church can flourish. The values and visions of each group can be wildly at variance at times, certainly, but that’s because we are dealing with contested questions.

Living with and debating contested questions is the nature of moving into uncharted territory. On the topics of the proper role of gay and lesbian people in the church, alternative episcopal oversight, baptism before communion, lay presidency at the eucharist, proper language for God, the value of the gospel for non-Christians, or any number of other issues, most of us have well-considered, deeply held positions. They are all contested questions, and will continue to be, perhaps until we arrive at more interesting ones. The dilemma that faces us is how will we live with one another in the meantime, and what sort of sign of God’s grace in Jesus Christ will we be to those around us? I believe the answer is communion, not contempt.

Brothers and sisters, this is in no way a brief against passionately held convictions. But I think we would do well to disavow portrayals of those with whom we disagree which seem to be only two-dimensional cutouts, or that wear black cowboy hats, or that otherwise seem too easily to reinforce our stereotypes of them; portrayals which, like the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like others, too easily reinforce our own righteousness.

Friends, it is my deep and heartfelt prayer for us in the nation, but especially in the church, that we will choose communion over contempt, for I am convinced that that is the only true way forward. Being in communion with others is messy; it’s uncomfortable; it’s an awful lot of work; at times, it can even move us to rage or despair. But can we really afford to cut ourselves off from the other, to stand by ourselves, to risk being so self-satisfied that we fail to join our voices to the chorus, begun by that tax collector so long ago, saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Amen.

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Blogger Howlin' Hobbit said...

Very nice, Jason!

However, not being an Episcopalian (or Anglican of any stripe) I have *no* idea what "Proper 25" nor "year C" mean. Could you enlighten me, please?

Friday, October 29, 2004 7:48:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Howlin' Hobbit: I'm really glad you liked it.
The lectionary (the list of readings from Scripture for Sundays) is on a three-year cycle, years A, B, and C. The 'propers' for a service are the Bible readings and prayers which are assigned for that service (and presumably, which the sermon will acknowledge in one way or another). Some propers will be listed as "Easter 3" or "Christmas 1", which are the third Sunday of Easter season, and the first Sunday of Christmas season, respectively. Sundays during other times of the year don't have such formal names, but only a number. (I could explain just why this is, but I suspect you were looking for a briefer answer.) So, then, this is the set of readings which are assigned for proper 25, in the year C, which fell on October 24th this year. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, and some other Protestant churches talk about their readings in the same way (in fact, we all use pretty much the same readings). I suppose the quickest answer to your question is that it is jargon, and maybe I should come up with snazzier titles when I'm blogging!

Saturday, October 30, 2004 6:46:00 PM  

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