Thursday, October 28, 2010

Down on Our Knees

Pentecost 22, October 24, 2010
16-18, Luke 18:9-14

A week and a half ago the world watched with awe as thirty-three Chilean miners were rescued one-by-one by a little caged capsule that looked remarkably like a suspended egg. The images caught on camera were iconic.

One man jumped around in glee and led the onlookers in a Chilean cheer. One playfully balanced a soccer ball on his foot. One dropped down to his knees and began to pray. The world took a collective breath and watched in silence as the man prayed. Even the reporters stopped talking and the silence allowed us at home to pray with him.

The praying miner’s picture was in the New York Times the next morning and you can see this surreal moment frozen in time. Mario Gómez, bent in prayer, with the empty egg cage swinging behind him. The onlookers bow their heads and appear to pray with him. A few of the workers sneak a look at Gómez with big grins on their faces.

It was a beautiful sight. Seasoned reporters were speechless and had tears streaming from their eyes. Mario Gómez was the oldest of the miners and was suffering from pneumonia. The day of the rescue operation he had begun to hear loud explosions in the shafts surrounding him, and feared another cave-in was imminent. He began to have panic attacks, growing more certain that the rescue operation had come too late.

There is no telling what was in his mind when he opened the door of the rescue pod, but we saw that he was unable to get off of his knees without help. His wife rushed over to him and lifted him up to meet her embrace.

I’d like to use this moment to help us understand what is important about today’s Gospel reading. Something momentous happens to one of the men in the parable. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector – a story we’ve heard so many times before we think we know what it’s telling us:

“Don’t be full of pride like the Pharisee, and gloat over your own accomplishments. But be humble and prayerful, like the tax collector. Beat your breast for good measure. And then you will go home justified by God.”

But we know from experience that nothing Jesus teaches, especially in his parables, makes sense at face value. If we think we know the lesson then it is not doing its job.

The parable works by poking and prodding us to change our habits. Everything Jesus teaches, especially in his parables, is designed to make us squirm uncomfortably and recognize that we have a lot of work to do.

We must look deeper into this little parable to see what is so important that Jesus has to teach this same lesson throughout Luke’s Gospel. Keep your focus on the tax collector. He is the one whose example we are to follow and whose words mimic those of Jesus and his followers.

The tax collector cries out, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He knows that the money he collects from the poor goes directly into the hands of the oppressor. In order to feed his family he must break Jewish law. He is caught in a no-win situation. Be merciful to me!

In the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches, “[You must] be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)

From Mary’s Magnificat we hear: “And [God’s] mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. “(Luke 1:50)

From the Song of Zechariah: “And you, Child, through the tender mercy of our God…will give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, [and will] guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79)

From the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" The answer? "The one who showed mercy on him." And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise. (Luke 10:36-37)

Our mercy is to match God’s mercy. We receive mercy, so we must give mercy.

Shortly after this Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus passes a blind beggar who cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Told sternly to be quiet, the beggar cries even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38, 39)

The blind man who is reduced to begging is able to see the Son of God for who he really is. Jesus rewards him by giving him his sight and declaring that his faith has saved him.

Lord be merciful to me, a sinner!

We are to understand from all of these stories that God desires to give us tender and abiding mercy, but first we must yearn for that undeserved mercy as if it is the only thing worth living for.

The God of Luke’s Gospel is a God of mercy, who comes to his people to set them free from oppression, poverty, blindness, illness, and death. If you think you are doing just fine and are self-sufficient, you have no need of this merciful God.

The Pharisee is a parody of the God-fearing Jews, just as he is a parody of the 21st Century Christian who knows she is on the winning side. And I’m not talking about Christine O’Donnell.

The Pharisee says his prayers. We say our prayers. He fasts and tithes. We fast and tithe. He goes to the temple. We go to church. He pays his taxes and sends his children to school. He is a righteous man just as we are righteous.

But Jesus doesn’t come to save the righteous. So how can we be saved if we can’t get down on our knees once in a while and admit that we mess up? It’s really not a very politically correct thing to do. But is exactly what Jesus asks us to do… again and again.

It is the theme of the Lord’s Prayer. Give us this day our daily bread, we pray, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. We beg for mercy as we promise to give back mercy. God forgives. We forgive. It is the breath of God that wants to breathe in us.

It could be a daily practice or a moment-by-moment attitude of prayer.
Lord be merciful to me, a sinner! These words are an ancient breath prayer. A prayer short enough to say in one exhalation. If we learn nothing else about the Gospel we can be assured that we have the main idea with this one prayer.

And how does it interpret itself within us? Well, let’s see, I forgot an appointment with a friend. I forgot to thank my mom for the card she sent me. I didn’t give God the credit for the beautiful day we had yesterday. I forgot to be grateful!

Lord be merciful to me, a sinner! We all mess up. We can learn to have an attitude of humility. But it takes practice and perseverance.

People in 12-Step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, are asked to “take a searching and fearless moral inventory” of themselves and then admit to God, and another human being, the exact nature of their wrongs.
Only then do they ask God, humbly, to remove their shortcomings.

Alcoholics know, as few others do, what it means to be completely unable to stop a behavior which is killing them and ending all their relationships.

Remarkably, it is through this practice of confessing their faults that so many alcoholics achieve sobriety. They take the focus off of themselves and focus intently on the God who can save them.

Lord be merciful to me, a sinner!

Our own Episcopal liturgy emphasizes the tax collector from today’s parable. Listen to this excerpt from our Rite One Eucharistic prayer:

“And although we are unworthy through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses, through Jesus Christ our Lord…”

Priests are taught to mimic the tax collector’s beating of the breast as they say these words, in order to remind the people of the Parable of the Tax Collector.

The intent of this Eucharistic prayer is to accept our responsibility as frail human beings. What do we really have to offer to a God who gives us a gift as eternal as Jesus? What can we give to a God who gives us everything we need?

It is certainly not a recitation of our merits (not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses.) All God wants of us is to see us as we really are – every bump, pimple and faux pas.

As we open our hands to receive the bread and the wine we are opening our hands in a gesture of helplessness. Like hungry baby birds we admit how frail we are and we seek to be filled with the abiding grace of God.

“Show me who you really are,” says God, “and I will love you with tender and abiding mercy. Your faith in me will save you. But you need to get the clutter out of the way. Admit how frail you are, and then you will crave only mercy.”

God knows, this is not something the human race is very good at. Jesus told this parable to those who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt. (Luke 18:9)

That could be our congress. But we are the ones sitting here and struggling with this story, so we need to keep the focus on ourselves. We can save congress for another day. What should we take home with us from this parable?

I know that when I catch myself sounding arrogant, or bragging about my own accomplishments, (like the Pharisee) I can always find a trace of fear. I boost up my struggling sense of self-esteem by listing my accomplishments. It’s childish and silly, but I do it all the time. I brag because I am afraid that I am not good enough.

It was in the convent that I really learned how to catch these moments and let them rise up to the surface so I could take a good look at them. Convent life is good for that. I hated what I found. It made me feel small and petty and immature.

It became the most difficult task of all just to sit and feel the remorse and embarrassment of blowing my own horn and not to try to fix it or make it go away.

This was brand new behavior. I had never practiced feeling healthy remorse for anything I’d ever done. I grew up in a family where shame was used to punish. Healthy remorse was not a skill I possessed.

What allowed me to sit and feel the remorse of saying something stupid and self-centered was the conviction that a loving God desired a freer life for me. The more I could practice admitting my own shortcomings the more
I was ready to receive the grace that was offered to me. This was not toxic shame, but honest remorse.

God wants us to grow into the image that is reserved for only us. We can’t become free if we don’t see the bars that imprison us. The message we take away from the parable today is this: there is always an attitude of the Pharisee lurking about our happy-go-lucky face we shine on the world.

Find your inner Pharisee and drop him down on his knees. Let him feel a touch of remorse and then share the Good News with him. Christ came to set us all free (including our inner Pharisee) and to prepare us for the tender mercy of God.

Mario Gómez had nothing to offer his God. He was a skinny shell of his former self. Ravaged by starvation for the first seventeen days after the cave-in, the miners were allowed to eat only liquid diets until their bodies slowly remembered how to absorb nutrients again.

When people are in life-threatening situations they begin to exhibit certain predictable behaviors. You see your life flash before your eyes. You see how inevitable death is for everyone. And you vibrantly appreciate what life has given to you up to this moment.

With months spent in the damp, hot darkness of the desert subfloor, the miners had time to reflect on their lives. Their desire to come back to their lives someday in the future forced them to cherish the things they had taken for granted before the ground gave way.

We could all sense their awe and gratitude as they were set free from their underground grave. They were born again and we yearn to feel the same release. We are hard-wired to be born again. But we can’t get there without an attitude of complete surrender to God’s mercy. It takes practice. But I thnk we can accept the challenge.

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