Sunday, October 24, 2010

Two Men Went up to Pray

Deep thanks to all of you who have supported me (with jokes, prayers, and counsel) while I prepared today's sermon. I promised to post it here, and so I shall.

Here's an aside: I went surfing through Google Images, seeking an image that conveyed the image I have of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the temple to pray. But not one of them fit the mental image I have. (The one I used above was the least bad.) Too bad I have zero artistic ability! I'd love to see what Doug/Counterlight would do with this story.

For better or worse ... here's the sermon.
Mind you, I have no theological education. I'm no priest. I just read the lessons, study the commentaries, and see what the Spirit seems to be saying to me and my parish at this moment in time.
Many of you supported me during the time I was wrestling with this sermon. I hope some of you may appreciate this little offering.

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22nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25, Year C)
Grace Episcopal Church, Jefferson City, MO
October 24, 2010 - Lisa Fox

The Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Jeremiah 14: 7-10, 19-22
Psalm 84: 1-6
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18: 9-14: Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

The season after Pentecost is also called “ordinary time” in the church. We spend roughly half the year (from Advent through Eastertide) focusing on Jesus’ life, nature, and ministry. After Pentecost, we turn to the life, nature, and ministry of the church. We focus on our “ordinary” life as and in the church: who we are called to be, and what we are called to do.

In last week’s Gospel, we learned that we are “to pray always and not lose heart,” and Jesus illustrated that point with the story about that persistent widow who finally got justice from a judge who didn’t care about God or people. We heard about the importance of persistent prayer.

Today’s lesson from Luke immediately follows the one we heard last week. In it, Jesus tells of a Pharisee and tax collector who went up to the temple to pray. In it, he teaches us how we are to pray, and we hear about the peril of presumptuous or self-righteous prayer.

Our lesson opens with a bang: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

I don’t know about you, but that opening makes me squirm a bit. I recognize that I have sometimes been – perhaps too often been – one of those who “trusted that I was righteous and regarded others with contempt.” I suspect I’m not alone in this. We church people try so hard to be faithful, but it’s easy to fall into the sin of self-righteousness.

Perhaps that accounts for the findings of a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. It found that many youth and young adults are turned off by church because “they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental.” [Note 1] Ouch! That’s a hard pill to swallow.

So we’d better listen closely to the story Jesus told “to [those] who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

First, let’s set the scene: To whom did Jesus tell this story?

We might like to think Jesus used this story to berate the Pharisees, for they seem to be the “whipping boys” in many Gospel stories. But the text doesn’t support that. No, he was still talking with the whole motley crew to whom he told the story we heard last week. His audience included his disciples, along with many others: men and women, Gentiles and Jews, "saints" and "sinners." He was speaking to all the people who had gathered around him – extending from his closest friends to his sharpest critics.

Second, let’s look at the characters in the story.

It’s a simple story with only two characters. From all we have read in the Gospel of Luke, we are set up to recognize these two characters – to think we know all about the self-righteous Pharisee and the wicked tax collector.

Nowadays, we tend to use the term “Pharisee” as a pejorative term for a person who is judgmental, self-righteous, “holier than thou.”

But that’s not who the Pharisees were at first. When they emerged from the scholarly class some centuries before Jesus’ birth, they were progressive reformers! Unlike the ruling Sadducees, they argued for recognizing the gifts of people outside the priestly caste, and urged study of written sources and oral tradition beyond the Torah. The Sadducees were the fundamentalists who held power, while the reformist Pharisees worked to open the teachings to a wider group.

By Jesus’ time, the Pharisees had become powerful insiders of the Jewish establishment. They remained devout and passionate about their faith. But something had changed. Their teachings had morphed into an elaborate system of laws and an obsession with “purity.” They had built a wall around the Torah, excluding all other interpretations and all other people.

So who was the tax collector – that stereotypical emblem of The Sinner? Tax collectors worked for the Roman occupiers and were generally despised by the Jewish people. Most tax collectors didn’t just collect the prescribed tax for the Roman Empire; they collected more than was owed, and pocketed that extra money for themselves. The Jewish people hated the tax collectors, both for their complicity with the Romans and for their routine thieving.

But Jesus didn’t hate tax collectors. He called one of them (Levi) to be his disciple. When Jesus attended a banquet with Levi and other tax collectors, the Pharisees were scandalized that he called the outcasts, the despised. He built his movement from the castoffs of society.

Now let’s look at the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

The Pharisee was “standing by himself.” He prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

This is this a prayer?? Seems to me the Pharisee is reciting his résumé to God. His only gratitude seems to be that he isn’t like other people.

The tax collector, too, was “standing far off.”

Notice that both men stand apart from the gathered community – one from fear of contamination, the other from his sense of unworthiness. Sadly, by standing apart, they also physically distance themselves from the center of the temple, where the “holy of holy” resides, where God was understood to be present. What a tragedy for both of them!

When the tax collector prayed, he wouldn’t even look up to heaven (as was typical for Jews at prayer). He just beat upon his chest, saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

The tax collector’s prayer is stark in its honesty and spare in its simplicity. Can’t you just hear the voice of a soul that longs for God? This social and religious outcast longs for union with God, for God’s acceptance and love. But his sense of sinfulness and unworthiness leaves him nearly wordless.

But that’s ok. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “Prayer is not an asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” [Note 2]

Throughout Scripture we hear stories that prove God loves “broken people”: outcasts … the sick … the weak.

As I read the tax collector’s prayer, an echo of scripture came to me, and I found it [Psalm 51:17]:

“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
This is reportedly part of David’s prayer, when he was confronted by the prophet Nathan, after David “took” Bathsheba and arranged to have her husband Uriah killed.

The tax collector is one of those “broken and contrite” ones who dare not even look up to God … who can only pray: “Be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The Pharisee asks nothing of God, while the tax collector boasts nothing before God. The Pharisee compares himself to the tax collector, but the tax collector seems to compare himself only to God.

So we shouldn’t be surprised to hear Jesus say this about the tax collector: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." That is, the tax collector went down from the temple in a right relationship with God. God heard the words of his heart, just as he hears ours.

But why wasn’t the Pharisee justified after his prayer? Does his lack of humility or his confidence in his own virtue exclude him from God’s grace? Does the fact that he proudly separated himself from others signal that he has separated himself from God as well? The parable leaves us with those dangling questions.

Where has your imagination focused while pondering this story? What judgments have you made?

Did you catch yourself favorably comparing yourself to that nasty ol’ Pharisee? I did. That’s how I’ve read this story my whole life.
Don’t we tend to look upon that Pharisee and say to ourselves, “Thank God I am not like him!”?
But isn’t that exactly what the Pharisee did, when he looked at the tax collector? Lord, have mercy!

That’s an important lesson for us. We are just as vulnerable to pride before God and contempt of our fellow creatures as the Pharisee was. We sin when we choose to separate ourselves in various ways … from God … from the community of faith … and from the world outside these red doors.

Dear people of Grace, as you’ve pondered these Scriptures with me, have you identified that Pharisee within yourself? Have you heard the cry of the tax collector in yourself?

The Pharisee in us is trying hard to keep the rules, drawing sharp distinctions in the letter of law. She is trying to stay away from all that she thinks is unclean. Whether from fear or judgmentalism, he is standing aloof from people inside and beyond this church. But the Pharisee in each of us earnestly wants God’s favor.

The tax collector in us thinks she’s such a miserable sinner she cannot hope to be loved by God. He thinks he can’t even approach God. She believes she’s not “good enough” to offer service here at Grace. He believes he doesn’t have anything of value to offer in service to this faith community or the world.

What’s the Gospel saying to Grace Church?

Both the Pharisee and the tax collector are here within our walls, and both are standing outside our doors. Both are keeping themselves separate, but God wants to bring them all within the community of faith. Some are just staying away. Some are here, but standing aloof. When I read the Gospel, I wondered why the people in the temple didn’t take the Pharisee and the tax collector by the hand, saying, “Move up higher … Come a little closer, friend.”

It’s our job to do that …by opening our doors and hearts, offering hope to the hopeless, showing acceptance, extending forgiveness, encouraging one another, welcoming the use of people’s many and diverse gifts. In a word, we need to love the Pharisee and the tax collector as Christ loves us.

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Image from here: [NB: Image is ca. 260 x 408]
1. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life:
2. Young India, 23 Sept. 1926
In my preparation for this sermon, I relied mostly on these published sources:
New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke
* New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: “Pharisees” article
New Oxford Annotated Bible
Some of their words may appear here verbatim, but no plagiarism is intended. I simply lost track – through the several drafts of this sermon – of which words were mine and which came from those very fine sources.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Pause for Sermon Writing

Thanks for all your comments. Unfortunately, I won't be able to write "Lightning Strikes: Act Two" until at least Sunday p.m. I am the preacher this Sunday, and all my thinking and writing energy has to go into that sermon. (Especially since I've had a day of yucky illness today. Dang it!)

The lectionary for Sunday is a doozie. You can find the collect and readings here. Our parish is using Track 2, so it's Jeremiah (not Sirach) and Psalm 84. The Gospel is a rich one: the Pharisee and the tax collector go up to pray. Marvelous fodder for contemplation and preaching ... if only I'm up to the task.

At the moment,this is pretty much how I'm feeling.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lightning Strikes

A Comedy – Act One

I had a business trip to Madison, Wisconsin, which should have been October 6-8. I went in my own car. Some of you know that I had been dreading this trip – did not want to do it.

On Saturday before the trip, I took my car in to my regular mechanic, asking them to do an oil change and all the regular maintenance, plus – as I put it to them – “Check it all out so that I don’t end up stranded in a cornfield somewhere.”

I loved the trip up into Wisconsin. This was new terrain to me, and it was lovely! As is my wont, I charted a course that eschewed interstate highways. I enjoyed cruising along state and federal highways.

The session ended on Friday at 3:30, and I hit the road … expecting I could be home by midnight. After all, it only took me 7 hours to get to Madison in daylight. I figured I could make it home in a little longer … considering that some of the trip would be in nighttime. I was yearning to get home … to my own bed and to my own kitty cats.

In southeast Iowa, I stopped for what I expected would be my one and only pit stop. Then back onto the highway. Cruising at 70 mph.

All of a sudden, my car hiccupped and died. Lost all power. Died. One minute I was cruising along. The next minute, I hit the “hazard” lights as I guided the car into the slow lane, then onto the shoulder ‘til the car coasted to a stop on the side of the road.

Oh shit! Major revision to my plans.

It was about 6:00 p.m. I wasn’t worried. It was a beautiful day, and I was sure the car would come back to life.

But the car did not come back to life. I tried re-starting it periodically, to no avail. Fortunately, I had my AAA card at hand. Around 6:30 p.m., I gave up and called AAA, and they were marvelous.

The AAA service rep understood my situation. It was late on a Friday night, I was stranded in Iowa, and I wanted to get home. She kept me on the phone a long time while she did wonderful stuff. First, she found a tow truck. Second, she found a repair shop that was going to be open on Saturday – no mean feat! Third, she found me a motel just ¼ mile away from the auto repair shop. I was then and remain impressed at what AAA did for me.

Unfortunately, AAA cannot force the tow truck to show up. The truck was supposed to show up by 7:30 p.m. That would not have been bad. That would have left me stuck on the side of the road for less than an hour. In fact, the tow service left me stuck on the side of the road for 2½ hours.

I don’t remember quite how the next couple of hours passed. The tow service called, telling me it would be “a little” later. AAA called, asking whether the truck had arrived. And back and forth. Every time the AAA person called, learning that the tow truck still had not arrived, she was more and more livid. Forty-five minutes turned into an hour … then 90 minutes … then two hours. But I was just laughing. I remember one time when the AAA rep called, and she was spitting bullets, but I was just laughing, and she asked how I could be so relaxed! I said something like, “I’m stuck on the side of the road. My car is dead. What can I do but laugh?”

Fortunately, I had a good audiobook in the car, and I was able to relax and listen to that book on CD. Thank God the battery kept working!

Eventually … 2½ hours after I called AAA … the tow truck arrived. The driver was a great guy. He loaded up my car. And we set off for the repair shop 80 miles away. I rode in the truck with him, with my dead car following behind on the flatbed. He dropped my car at Deery Brothers repair shop (in Burlington) 80 miles away from my breakdown site … and he took me to the motel ¼ mile away from the repair shop … which AAA had found.

I was grateful after all that, as I dragged my weary carcass into the motel at midnight. But the other side of my brain was mindful that I should have been home at that hour … if not for the automotive breakdown.

Of course, when I left my car at Deery Bros. and left my note, I left a rather plaintive plea that they help me get on the way home to Missouri on Saturday. But I knew I had no standing.

To my surprise, a Deery Bros. service rep called me at 8:00 the next morning. They had already pulled the car into the service bay, wanted more info from me. By 9 a.m., they called again with a diagnosis and estimate. They needed to replace the fuel pump and fuel filter, and recommended cleaning the fuel injectors “as long as they were in the neighborhood.” I said “yes” to all of it. They said they should be finished by 1pm. In fact, they called me at noon, already finished! Needless to say, I was delighted. I cannot say enough about the Deery Bros. staff!

Shortly after noon, their van arrived at my motel. The driver took me to the Deery Bros. dealership, where my car was sitting in the front of the service bay. He kinda shrieked: “It hasn’t been washed!” and he passed that message along to my service guy. They asked my permission to take a few more minutes to wash the car, and – of course – I agreed.

Minutes later, they brought my car to me … repaired, resurrected, and washed. It made it safely home.

I am grateful to AAA for arranging the whole thing. I am deeply grateful for the Deery Bros. staff for doing the repairs on a Saturday and taking such care of me.

Because, of course, there was another sequence going on in my mind. I expected that Deery Bros. would not fix the car, and that I would have to rent a car to get home … and then make another 600 mile round trip to get my car.

The trip home wasn’t what I thought it would be. But, thanks to AAA and Deery Brothers, it wasn’t as awful as it might have been. I am deeply grateful for those who help us folks who are stranded by the side of dark roads. I am fortunate.

I recognize that I’m telling the story bravely. I was brave when the car first died and the sun was out. When darkness fell and vehicles were whizzing by my car, my courage flagged. And when the car got dropped at Deery Brothers, I felt utterly powerless. I am deeply grateful that all worked well.

So it took me 7 hours to get to Madison, and 26 hours to get home. But I am grateful for those who helped me get home.

“It Gets Better”

I was amazed and moved by the video of Councilman Joel Burns’s October 12 remarks at the Fort Worth City Council meeting, broadcast in its full 12+ minutes on one of the national news channels. His words and the images he showed struck me deeply. I watched and listened, and I didn’t move a muscle. I just wept quietly, and felt deep gratitude for Councilman Burns’ courage in making that statement – and especially that he would make that statement in a place like Fort Worth, which isn’t exactly a hotbed of liberalism and tolerance. Since that video has gone viral, I expect most of you have seen it. He talks passionately about the kids who are gay – or who are perceived to be gay – and who have recently committed suicide as a result of the agony they experience.

If you haven’t already seen it, watch it here:

or click on the URL here

He told his story “for the young people who might be holding that gun tonight … or the rope … or the pill bottle.” He continues: “You need to know that the story doesn’t end …. There is so, so, so much more.” He assured them: “It gets better.”

I expect most of you know the statistics. Gay/lesbian kids have a horrific rate of suicide. The Bible-thumpers might want us to believe that high rate of suicide is a further sign of the “disordered nature” of gay/lesbian people. But I know better. And I think you do, too.

Back on September 16. I posted the piece I called “Confessions of a Junior High Idiot,” about an event in my own life during junior high school. Back in those days … now so long ago … I flirted with the idea of suicide, feeling I was utterly alone … feeling I was the only person Of That Sort. I thank God for the forces kept me clinging to life.

Friday night, NPR did a follow-up interview with Councilman Burns. You can listen to the 5-minute interview here or read the transcript here. He reported that he had received about 12,000 e-mails and hundreds of phone messages in the 24 hours after his statement – most of them in gratitude for his witness, and some from kids who were even then contemplating suicide … but who heard his words and drew back.

“It gets better.” That’s one of the simplest and most powerful things he said. For a kid who hears nothing but derision or damnation … at school … in church … maybe at home .. it may look like there is no hope. Despair may seem to be the only “logical” conclusion.

I want to add my own voice to Councilman Burns’. It does get better!

I suspect the days of public school are probably the harshest and most miserable that most of us ever face. Kids are cruel. And the more insecure they are, the more they taunt and abuse the kids who are perceived as “different” in whatever way – whether because some kid doesn’t dress “right” or some kid seems “gay” or whatever. But in my own life, I found it got easier in college … then a bit easier in graduate school … then much easier when I got into the workplace with professional colleagues in Atlanta. I was lucky in that.

But I fear it doesn’t get so much easier for a kid who lives in a hate-mongering environment and who stays in that community, perhaps moving into a blue-collar job … especially if the kid lives in the kind of place (geographically and socio-economically) where I grew up.

I wish I could agree with the Councilman that “it gets better” for all the kids as they move into adulthood. But I doubt that’s true. Every now and then, some of my high school classmates find me on Facebook and send me “friend” requests. I receive them all with anxiety. Each one of those requests sends me back to remembering what a cliqueish, racist, homophobic, classist little town I grew up in, in my little town of 5,000 people. Each time, I am tempted to respond to those casual “friend requests” with a little retort along the lines of “If you actually want to ‘friend’ the happily lesbian, liberal, inclusive, Christian, Episcopalian person I have become, then feel free to do so. If you’re still mired in the racist, classist, heterosexist, narrow-minded world in which I grew up, then forget it, for we have nothing to say to each other.” But I don’t actually say that. I generally “friend” them. And then I watch and listen for a while. Generally, I find that my old classmates are living in that small town and still mired in those same “isms” that nearly killed me, and I quietly unfriend them. They haven’t moved. They haven’t grown. They haven't changed. Even in their 50s, they hold the same views that nearly killed me in my teens. … And so I shake off the dust from my sandals and move on.

So while I generally agree with Councilman Burns that “It gets better,” I suspect that – for a great many gay/lesbian young people – it only gets better if we move out of the place that abused us. For me, that meant leaving my hometown, going 600 miles away to Dallas for college, Nashville for graduate school, then Atlanta for my first professional job.

This reminds me of what African Americans did after segregation “officially” ended. A great many left the Deep South, moving north to cities like Chicago and Detroit. They moved because it didn’t get better in the backward, small towns in which they were raised – no matter what they laws said.

I grew up in a small southern town that was – and, I believe, still is – horribly benighted, bigoted, narrow-minded, backward, and … dare I say it? … hateful. Genes being what they are, I am certain that some kids are still being born and growing up in that town who are gay/lesbian. I would like to assure those kids that “It gets better.” But I cannot give them that assurance without adding “… if you move away.” Every now and than, I have fantasies of going back there to deliver an "It gets better message." But I know I would not be welcome there.

I am grateful for Councilman Burns. But I groan when I think of the many places where it does not get better ... still does not better ... even after all these decades.


From the time of Scotty’s death until now, I have had little energy for this blog. I've posted a few items with little commentary. I had to spend time in grief. In some ways, I am still there, grieving the loss of my big orange boy.

And then work had me in travel status for much time.

Tonight, the dam has opened, and I am writing again. I have no idea how much longer it will remain open.

This "grief thing" is rather unpredictable.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

On the Road

In the past couple of weeks, many of you – if you’ve e-mailed me directly – have received an “auto-reply.” That’s because I’ve been “on the road” for most of this time, due to business travel. I don’t post that information in advance, because it would seem imprudent to let people know when I am going to be away from home. But I have had business trips to Wisconsin and within Missouri that have kept me too much away from home and away from Internet/e-mail access. That schedule is about to slow down.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Kirkepiscatoid's Litany

I was grieved by the news of Tyler Clementi's suicide, after he was “outed” in a most humiliating way by his roommate and a “friend” at Rutgers. My heart groans for that young man. It reminds me of Lee Davenport, Alan Cheney, and others I have known who killed themselves rather than confronting the hatred they would have faced as gay people.

I was reminded of the story I told a while back. I talked there of my resilience. But, God knows, there were times when I contemplated suicide. Thank God my brazenness and “sheer cussedness” triumphed.

My friend KirkE has offered a litany for those who succumbed. I commend her Litany for Children Who Have Died from Bullying to you. She has a true gift for liturgy.