Sunday, October 24, 2010

Good new for failed Pharisess

J. Barry Vaughn. October 24, 2010.

I want to tell you a story, or rather, I want to retell one of Jesus’ stories. Jesus lived in a world of villages, an agrarian, rural world, and this is reflected in most of his parables. He tells us of the sower whose seed fell among rocks and weeds, as well as nourishing soil; he tells us of the wealthy farmer who built more storehouses but was poor in the things of the spirit; and he tells us of the fishermen whose nets are bursting with fish of every kind. But the parable in today’s gospel reading concerns two persons who were both more urban and also somewhat less universal than the figures in most of Jesus’ parables. They are a Pharisee and a tax collector.

The two could not have been more different. One was a success and the other was a failure. But which was the success and which was the failure? That is the question that makes the story interesting. The Pharisee is a moral success--the Publican is a moral failure. However, although the Pharisee was a moral success, he was a religious failure, and the Publican, although a moral failure, was a religious success.

Now let’s not stereotype the Pharisees. They were a renewal movement within first century Judaism. Their goal was to make it easier to observe the commandments of the Torah. And they were no more or less likely than anyone else to be hypocritical. Frankly, hypocrisy is a temptation common to all religions. Several years ago, a Harvard professor greeted my friend Peter Gomes before Easter and said, “Well, Dr. Gomes, I expect that you’ll be celebrating Easter in Memorial Church with all those hypocrites.” Peter replied, “That’s right, Professor. Why don’t you join us? There’s always room for one more!”

So the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable stands for me, for you, for any of us who forget that it is we who need God and not God who needs us. In place of the word “Pharisee,” we might use the word “priest” or “bishop” or “theologian” . . . you fill in the blank. The Pharisee in Jesus' story reminds me of the great but less than modest Sir Winston Churchill of whom it was said: "There but for the grace of God ... goes God".

So much for the Pharisee, now who was the tax collector. He was in the employ of the Romans and collected taxes for them. In other words, he worked for the foreign rulers who occupied Palestine. He made his living by extorting money. He was a collaborator and a crook. But although the tax collector was a moral failure, he was a religious success. The tax collector in Jesus’ parable stands for the alcoholic who has finally admitted that he is an alcoholic. He stands for the unwed mother who is struggling to give her children a better life and more opportunities than she could ever hope for herself. He is the person who has come to the end of his rope and has let go -- acknowledging his failure and casting himself into the hands of a loving God.

But there is not as much difference between these two characters as may seem: the tax collector is a failed Pharisee. The tax collector is the one who has realized that he cannot climb up to God on a ladder of accomplishments. When we realize that God is not impressed by our degrees or bank accounts or impressive job titles, that we cannot draw near to God by piling success upon success, we are tempted to despair. But when in the dark nights of our soul we say, "God have mercy upon us", God draws near to us.

A useful technique of Bible study and meditation is to put ourselves in the Biblical event about which we are reading. Unfortunately I like to flatter myself. I imagine myself going to the manger with the wise men, although in reality I probably would have stayed home rather than risk the long and difficult journey. I imagine myself remaining awake with Jesus in Gethsemane, although I know that I would certainly have snoozed with the other disciples. And I like to think that I would have risen early with Mary Magdalene on Easter, although I hate etting up early, so why I think I would have behaved differently on the first Easter, I don't know.

If you were to put yourself into the reading from Luke's Gospel, which character would you be? The Pharisee or the tax collector? Where would we put ourselves? You don't have to tell me; you don't have to tell anybody.

We would like to think that we would be the penitent tax collector rather than the proud Pharisee. But would we? It's all too easy to come before God with a list of our accomplishments. It's hard, desperately hard, to come before God with a catalog of our moral failures.

I want to tell you a story about a failed Pharisee. I have a friend named Bartle. He's not a real person; he's a character in a novel, but I feel as though I know him. Bartle was a priest of the Church of England who experienced a divorce and now is carrying on an affair with a young, Jewish woman. Bartle's life is a mess. He has failed at everything he has ever attempted. Bartle's one remaining link to the church is his annual confession at Christmas.

The story begins as Bartle sits in the back of a dingy old church near London's King's Cross Station. The portion of the psalter assigned for that day includes the phrase, "'I will walk in my house with a perfect heart. I will take no wicked thing in hand; I hate the sins of unfaithfulness: there shall no such cleave unto me....", but Bartle could think of nothing but the ways he had been unfaithful to everything important to him: unfaithful to the priesthood and, above all, unfaithful to God. He hated going to confession but felt that his life would fall apart if he abandoned this last bit of spiritual discipline. What was the point of confessing his sins, Bartle wondered? God's law was "an impossible counsel of perfection". Then, as he was tempted toward the absolute sin of despair, another text occurred to him: "'My strength is made perfect in weakness.' These words, for Bartle, were the first stage of a journey leading up to the only Love who was fully good and true".

'Lord God,' said Bartle in his inmost soul, 'My priesthood is a gift which, like all your other gifts, I have wasted and squandered and spoilt. But, even now, let my very imperfection be itself priestly. I know nothing of you. My attempts to follow you have all failed, again and again and again.... [But] even now, as I promise to do better, I know that I have nothing to look forward to but failure and more failure. But it is to you that I come, dear Physician of life. I no longer dare to ask to be perfect, even as you are perfect. I dare only to kneel in your presence in all my muddle and impurity and doubt and offer these things to you. Muddle, impurity and doubt is all that I have to offer you, O holy child of Bethlehem. O friend of sinners, O helpless child, this is my offering to you.'

When he came out of the church into the dark, dewy evening... Bartle felt the world transfigured.

(from Love Unknown by A.N. Wilson, pp. 151-155.)

Note one more thing about today’s prable – its location. It takes place in a house of prayer, a temple. Like the Pharisee and the tax collector, we find ourselves in a place of prayer. The question for us is, Have we come up to the Temple to brag about our accomplishments or to acknowledge our failures?

This morning we will solemnly and corporately confess our sins: "We have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone." And then I will affirm that God forgives you and forgives me.

Now Episcopalians maintain (rightly) that it is not necessary to confess our sins to a priest We usually say that the proper time and place for the confession of sins is the quiet of our own homes or in the moments before worship. But I must admit to you that my own spiritual discipline is defective. I do not do a serious moral and spiritual inventory of myself often enough. And as for the moments before worship, when I am not leading worship, I am more likely to spend that time in idle conversation than I am in self-reflection or careful consideration of my neighbors' needs. So, I believe that we need public prayers of confession on a regular basis. And we especially need them when we come up to the temple to pray so that we can remind ourselves that we are on the side of the Publican, not the Pharisee.

Here in this temple today, we are all failed Pharisees. Like the Pharisee, we offer God our success. The bad news is our success or our accomplishments are not enough. The good news is that God accepts us as we are; God wants our failures, too.

There are great talents and gifts in this congregation. Among us and our families and friends there is wealth and accomplishment beyond the dreams of most persons on the earth. But I know that I personally struggle with a sense of failure. No matter how much I accomplish, it never seems to be enough. And I don't believe that I am the only one who feels that way.

Offer thanks to God for jobs and homes, for spouses and children, for degrees and honors. But then look beyond the accomplishments at the failures, for they are there, too, and offer them to God.

Today's Gospel reading invites us to offer God our moral failures. Offer God the alienation that has come between you and your spouse. Offer God the destructive behavior that has you in its grip. Offer God the hopelessness, verging on despair that makes you wonder whether or not to get out of bed in the morning. Ultimately, each of us, like Bartle, must come to God on our knees and pray the prayer that Bartle prayed: "...dear Physician of life. I no longer dare to ask to be perfect, even as you are perfect. I dare only to kneel in your presence in all my muddle and impurity and doubt and offer these things to you. Muddle, impurity and doubt is all that I have to offer you, O holy child of Bethlehem. O friend of sinners, O helpless child, this is my offering to you."

There is muddle and impurity and doubt in my life and in the life of each person here. For to say that we are muddled and impure and doubting is simply to say that we are human. And when we recognize that that is the way things are and in this life always will be, we are tempted to despair but instead we should offer it to God, for God is in the business of taking "muddle and impurity and doubt" and replacing them with forgiveness and healing. After all, God took a Cross, the cruellest instrument of judicial murder ever devised, and turned it into the instrument of our redemption and the sign of eternal hope.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wrestling with God

The film The Last Station deals with the last few months of the life of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. Late in his life Tolstoy had a powerful religious experience. He came to believe that he should practice a form of radical obedience to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and so he became a pacifist. He also began to give away his wealth, and he was a very wealthy man. Tolstoy was not only a successful novelist; he was also an aristocrat who owned valuable estates. The only problem was that his wife Sofia did not share Tolstoy’s religious views. The film depicts their relationship as contentious and stormy but also deeply loving. One moment they are yelling and cursing at each other and the next they are holding each other and calling each other silly, endearing names.

I suspect that is the way it is with a lot of our most important relationships. Whether it is a parent, a sibling, a child, or a friend, our closest relationships are often the stormiest. Someone once said that it is easy for our parents to push our buttons because they installed them.

The story of Jacob in Genesis is a great example of this truth. He was a man who was involved in a series of stormy relationships, and the storms were usually of his own making. Jacob’s character was a mixture of weakness and strength. While still in the womb, Jacob struggled with his brother Esau. God explained the struggle to Rebecca by telling her that “two nations” were in her womb. “The one shall be stronger than the other and the older shall serve the younger.”

Genesis says that Jacob came into the world holding on to the heel of his brother Esau. Thus, he was given the name “Jacob” which is usually defined as the “supplanter” but another way to translate the Hebrew name Jacob is the “deceiver.” From the beginning to the end of his life, Jacob would catch the heel of others to hold them back so he could get ahead, to trip them up so he could get the advantage.

The author of Genesis compares Jacob and Esau, telling us that Jacob was a homebody and Esau was an outdoorsman and hunter. But Jacob appears to be intellectually stronger than Esau. Catching Esau at a weak moment when he is famished, Jacob drives a hard bargain, forcing Esau to relinquish his blessing in return for a bowl of food. But when Jacob disguises himself as Esau and goes into their nearly blind father Isaac, lying to him in order to receive the laying on of Isaac’s hands that actually confers the blessing, Jacob appears to be morally and spiritually weak.

The tables are turned on Jacob when he works for his uncle Laban. Jacob the deceiver becomes Jacob the deceived when Laban tricks him into marrying his older and less attractive daughter Leah, then makes him work seven more years to marry his younger and prettier daughter Rachel whom Jacob really desires.

So what are we to make of this story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious stranger through the night until day breaks? I believe this story tells us something profoundly true about ourselves.

First, we are told that Jacob is alone. It is often when we are alone that significant people enter our lives. There is something about solitude that opens us up. When a relationship ends, whether through divorce or the death of a loved one or when someone simply walks away, we feel dead, we feel that we will never love again. And then someone new comes into our life. We live again. We love again. And we live and love in new and unexpected ways, ways we did not know we could live and love.

Alternatively, in the solitude that follows the end of a relationship we may discover ourselves anew, we may find new and undiscovered aspects of ourselves.

Secondly, note that it was dark when the stranger wrestled with Jacob. Often it is when we are in deepest darkness that new insights come to us. The darkness may be actual night when we simply cannot sleep. It may be the darkness of doubt and uncertainty. When the old certainties flee away, we may learn that we can live with uncertainty and doubt.

Thirdly, the mysterious stranger dislocates Jacob’s hip so that he is permanently marked and forever after walks with a limp. We must not think that we will be as good as new when a relationship ends, when a loved one dies, when we lose our job, when we can no longer believe in the old certainties. Things are never the way they were, the way they used to be. Things are always different. We are always different. We do not come to the end of our lives without collecting a few scars along the way, but the scars can be a source of strength. They can open us up to new love, new life. They can open us up to God, to each other, and to new parts of ourselves.

Former U.S. senator and cabinet member Max Cleland lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam. His autobiography is entitled “Strong at the broken places.” Our broken places can be our greatest sources of strength.

Novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder once wrote, “In love’s army only the wounded may serve.” Do not let your wounds make you bitter; let them open you up. Look around you at your fellow soldiers in love’s army. Each of them bears some wound as proudly as a Congressional medal of honor.

Finally, Jacob received a new name. “You shall no longer be called Jacob the Deceiver but Israel – the one who has wrestled with God and prevailed.” We are not only named at birth or at baptism, and it is not only our parents who name us. We are always being named or perhaps we are always discovering what our names are.

One of C.S. Lewis’ least known and most unusual books is Till We Have Faces. The title comes from an enigmatic quotation: “How can we see the gods until we have faces?” Each of us has a face we show to the world. The problem is that the face we show to the world may not be our real face, our real self. We may not even know what our true face is. Life is a process of discovering what our real face is, what our real name is, who we really are.

We learn our real self, our real face, our real name through struggle. We learn who we are in those solitary moments when we must fall back on our own resources, when God comes to us in both struggle and loving embrace. We learn who we are in the darkness when the familiar certainties have fled. We learn who we are when life has beaten us up and left us bruised and bloody. We learn who we are when the mysterious voice speaks out of the silence, the solitude, the darkness and tells us that we are no longer the person we thought we were, when the voice speaks the new name that we never heard before but which we immediately know to be right the first time we hear it.

I want to conclude with a story you may have heard me tell before. An eminent rabbi died and came to the gates of heaven. He walked confidently up to the angel who maintains the book of life and said, “I am Rabbi So and so, please let me enter.” The angel said, “I’m sorry but you’ll to wait until I call your name.” So the rabbi waited and waited and waited as people he knew or complete strangers entered. He waited as the great and the unknown entered ahead of him. He waited as great saints and even great sinners entered the kingdom of God. Finally, the angel stopped calling names and closed the book. Tearfully, the rabbi said, “You never called my name!” The angel replied, “Ah, but I did. The problem is, you do not know your name.” Life is a process of learning who we are, what our real name is. And we only learn our names, our identities if we struggle alone, through the darkness with the One who knows us and calls us by name.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Seek the welfare of the city

Someone once asked humorist Will Rogers if he belonged to an organized political party, and he replied, “No, I’m a Democrat.” Think about that for a moment. Right now, I think it applies to both political parties.

I like to paraphrase Will Rogers’ joke and tell people that I don’t belong to an organized religion; I’m an Episcopalian.

We have all heard that one should never discuss politics or religion in polite company. People tend to have strong, even passionate, opinions about both subjects, and a discussion of either topic is likely to generate more heat than light.

But as a religious leader people often want to discuss religion with me. I don’t mind; I think it’s a little ridiculous not to talk about the subjects that interest us and which touch on the deepest concerns of our hearts.

People often tell me that they believe that organized religion is pernicious, and they even say that it has done and is doing more harm than any other institution. They cite the conflicts in northern Ireland, the middle east and elsewhere.

Let’s just look objectively at that idea. There’s a good deal of support for the idea that religion does more harm than good. Religion appears to be at the heart of many dangerous conflicts. Religious differences are part of the reason for the hostility and suspicion that divides Hindu India from Muslim Pakistan. There is even less reason for the differences that divide Protestant Northern Ireland from the Catholic Republic of Ireland. How can two groups that both profess the Christian faith be so bitterly divided? And then there’s the Middle East. As humorist Tom Lehrer said in his song “National Brotherhood Week,” “Oh, the Catholics hate the Protestants and the Protestants hate the Catholics and the Hindus hate the Muslims and everybody hates the Jews…”

In our own country, we seem to be in the midst of wave of anti-Islamic feeling, but if we want to encourage Muslims to reject extremism, we have to reach out to our Muslim neighbors with understanding.

Let’s take a closer look at the accusation that religion spawns hatred, misunderstanding and violence. There’s some justification for this idea. The Roman empire systematically persecuted Jews and Christians who would not offer sacrifices in the temples of the gods who were believed to uphold the Roman state. Christians, then, returned the favor when Constantine converted to the Christian faith in the 4th century. In the Middle Ages Jews cowered in their homes in fear on Good Friday because Christians often rioted through Jewish neighborhoods beating and even killing Jews on the day of Christ’s crucifixion.

Muslims conquered the Middle East and Northern Africa by force in the 7th and 8th centuries. Jews and Christians were free to practice their religion in many Muslim countries but were treated as second class citizens.

During the crusades, Christians indiscriminately slaughtered Jews, Muslims, and even eastern Orthodox Christians in their campaign to reassert Christian rule over the Holy Land. And we won’t even go into the Inquisition…

So far, so bad. Now, let’s look at the evil done by explicitly secularist and atheist regimes. If we total up those killed just in the 20th c. by the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, we reach a conservative estimate of 50 million. That greatly exceeds the number of those killed in wars of religion in the last 2000 years by a factor of 2 or even 3.

The word "religion" is derived from two Latin words that mean to "re-connect". That's the true purpose of religion: to united, not divide... to join, not to

Religion has given us schools and hospitals, teachers and doctors. Mother Teresa was motivated by her love of God to serve the poorest of the poor; Gandhi’s campaign to achieve Indian independence was profoundly spiritual; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., never deviated from his commitment to non-violent resistance because of his deep faith in God; the Catholic teachers I met in Bangladesh provide education for hundreds of children, most of them not Catholic but Muslim; and we could go on and on.

In today’s Old Testament reading the prophet Jeremiah writes a remarkable letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Jeremiah could have told the exiles to resist, to do everything in their power to sabotage the Babylonian regime. But instead Jeremiah told them to “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

I believe that Jeremiah’s words sum up the purpose of religion. Even though we believe that this world is not permanent, that our eternal destiny is in a world to come, that in some sense we are exiles here, we, too, should bend every effort to work for the well-being of this world, to plant gardens, to build schools and hospitals, to care for the sick, lift up the fallen, nurture children, befriend the friendless, and to make this world as much like heaven as possible.