Approaching God

fariseo_y_publicanoA sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wilton, CTOctober 27, 2013 ~ Pentecost Proper 25: Year C
Luke 18:9-14

Months ago when I agreed to preach on this Sunday as part of our Fall 2013 Stewardship season I had looked at today’s readings and told myself, easy – these readings really speak to how we respond to God in word and action. Perfect! What if we were all like the Pharisee and tithed as he was expected to do? Certainly our annual financial campaign would produce many more pledges and less anxiety for those who prepare our budget. But the Pharisee is proud in his giving as he approaches God. He doesn’t seem to be called to grow closer to God and neighbor. Isn’t this what stewardship is really about? Ah, that’s the tack I’ll take.

But I’m not as in control of things like I think I am. Perhaps like the Pharisee. My dad, and perhaps God, had something else in mind for me to share with you today. As many of you know, my dad passed away a week ago Friday, having struggled with a number of health issues in recent months. The last two weeks of his life were not pleasant, and my life was filled with frustration with how he was cared for and why his quality of life and dignity had been compromised. But my faith gave me strength; I knew God was with me as well as Cliff, despite the unfairness of it all. I wasn’t alone. Plus I had John and Mary Grace. And the prayers of many of you. Thank you.

Most of you did not know my dad, Clifford Ely. I do know that Chris Perry had the “pleasure” of a few stewardship conversations with him. Thank you, Chris. My parents joined St. Matthew’s about five years ago, after they moved back here from their retirement in Maryland. In his prime he had been an active churchman; he served as the building chair for the construction of what was Grace Episcopal Church in Norwalk. He served on their Vestry and Stewardship Committee for countless years, and as a child I recall many evening finance committee meetings around our family dining room table that went well past my bedtime. He was always focused on money; he was probably the first person I heard say, “time, talent, and treasure” in talking about God. He read the bible literally. He was opinionated, stubborn, and didn’t always understand or agree with today’s church governance and inclusiveness. But he tried.

And did I say he worried about money? He saved all his life and didn’t want to spend it. He wanted to leave something to his heirs. We wanted him to spend – to give, to enjoy seeing how his hard earned money benefited others. But living on social security without a pension makes you hold your wallet close to your chest. His approach to God was in the “doing” – giving his time and talent, giving what he could –in treasure. He treasured his possessions, but in the past few years of his life had to give it all away. Having them meant nothing in comparison to having family and friends – and faith. Although he worried about that too.

His approach to God was probably not one of “being,” although I know he prayed nightly as well as whenever he knew I was hopping on an airplane (which he said was too frequently).

My dad approached God very differently than I do. And he and I had our heated discussions about God, Jesus, life, and the church. We often looked at the world differently.  Despite this, I know each of us is loved, accepted, and embraced by God.

How do you approach God? What is your attitude? Is it any different than how you approach a friend, a co-worker, a stranger, or someone you love?

When do you approach God? Is it a particular time of day? When something happens to you? When you are facing a difficulty? Do you approach God with a particular posture or in a particular place?

In Jesus’ parables we are given underlying truths that push us to look at the world differently. Things are not as they always seem to be and we cannot depend on logical conclusions. Today’s parable of the Pharisee and the Publican instantly shatters our beliefs of who is acceptable to God.

The parable contrasts the smug attitude of those who believe themselves righteous but look down on others, in the form of the Pharisee, with those who are seen as outcasts in a community, in this case a tax collector. Each of them approaches God in a different way.

The Pharisee is a person of elite status, education, and respectability who knows and meticulously follows Mosaic Law. He obeys the dietary laws and religious observances. As a model citizen he regularly went to the temple and offered his prayers. He probably fasted twice a week and donated 10% (a tithe) of his income.

At the opposite end of the social spectrum is the tax collector. In first-century Palestine the responsibility of collecting Roman taxes was usually contracted out to Gentile and Jewish agents who could charge any tax rate they wished, as longs as the government received its due. By keeping the difference, the tax collectors could, and did, become quite wealthy. They were corrupt, and were looked down upon by any devout Jew. Tax collectors were banned from Jewish religious and social life.

So how do these two men approach God? The Pharisee prays devoutly in the temple for all to see. He even feels quite proud and exalted for being such a good guy in the eyes of God and his fellow Jews. What about the tax collector? He stands on the edges, face lowered, beating his breast, begging for mercy.

Which of these characters do you most identify with? I’m embarrassed to say that I resemble the Pharisee a whole lot more than the tax collector. My dad? Well, he wasn’t corrupt and definitely did not have great wealth, but he was one to ask for forgiveness and mercy. I guess he resembles the tax collector. I’m sure he’s laughing about my comparison now.

The Pharisee goes home feeling pretty good about himself. He is as content as ever, as close to God (he thinks), but in reality is as far away from God as he imagined the tax collector to be. Instead, God recognizes the traitor, a parasite, society’s refuse, as one who is good and justified. Humility rules in God’s eyes.

Who is righteous? According to the Rev. Gordon De La Vars (1):

Conforming to God’s will is measured not by a life of manifesting marks of holiness, but by a life of moments in which we ask God to make us holy. And these are moments when we may not expect God to listen. Moments when, in sorrow and bewilderment, in pain and anger, when feeling lost and alone, we wait for answers in the farthest corner of the temple, or even outside it. Moments when our hearts, weighed down by doubts and hurts and sins, are too heavy to bear. Moments when, like the Pharisee, we are not proud of what we’ve done, and when, like the tax collector, we don’t know how to make it right.

But it is precisely in these moments that God finds us, for the outrageous quality of God’s mercy is such that, when we believe ourselves farthest from God, we are actually nearest. When we feel ourselves most empty, we are most filled. When we think ourselves most wretched, we are most loved. For at these times we call on God, not to validate what we’ve done, but to acknowledge our dependence on God alone.

Last Sunday we recognized those who are making a commitment to prepare for the rite of Confirmation. In the Episcopal Church, confirmation is that time when an individual comes before a bishop in the sight of the congregation to reaffirm those baptismal promises, perhaps made for them by parents and godparents when they were young. Over the next few months they will be reflecting upon what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ by studying the scriptures, following in the disciple’s teachings, sharing in the breaking of bread at the Eucharist, seeking to serve Christ in all persons, and respecting the dignity of all persons. They will continue their lifelong journey of growing into the stature of Christ, which at the moment happens to be at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church.

As members of St. Matthew’s, each of us is called to serve as living examples of righteousness and humility. Let us show our children that approaching God at any time and any place is a life of following Christ. As my father would say we should live by Our Bounden Duty, something I needed to memorize before I was confirmed over 45 years ago: “To follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.”

God loves us wherever we are but may not want us to stay there. With God’s help, we can avoid the extremes of self-righteousness and self-deprecation. We can candidly acknowledge all that we are, while trusting in God’s grace to strengthen us and help us to grow. As we give to our congregation, and pray about what our financial pledge for 2014 may be, may God deliver us from our anxieties and, in turn, give us new life. Amen. (2)

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Clifford Seth Ely, Jr.
February 24, 1924 – October 18, 2013
There’s nothing like a good hot dog on a Sunday evening.

(1.) Gordon J. De La Vars, “Standing Outside – Invited In” Preaching Through the Year of Luke: Sermons That Work IX (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 2000), 80.

(2.) Adapted from Dr. Joseph D. Thompson “Flourish in Faith: Proper 25” Stewardship Narrative Series (The Episcopal Stewardship Network, 2013).

Image: Hermanoleon Clipart

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