Sunday, October 23, 2016

23 Pentecost

October 23, 2016

Luke 18.9-14

+ So, this past week there was a photo going around of our two presidential candidates at the Alfred E. Smith Foundation Dinner on Thursday night. It showed Hillary Clinton on one side and Donald Trump on the other, engaged in an obviously very heated conversation. And in between was the host of the dinner, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York,  Timothy Cardinal Dolan, looking very… overwhelmed.

The caption to the photo was

“the life of a priest, right here.”

And it’s true. Oftentimes, that is exactly what it feels like to be a priest.  Let me tell you! Yup, not always glamour and fancy clothes!

That photo reminds me of situations priests sometimes find themselves in. Some of you probably have been in similar situations in your own lives.

For example, sometimes people come to me as a priest and, because they have some issue with another parishioner, they want me to go to that other person and deal with the situation on their behalf. THEY don’t want to confront the person. But they seem to think it’s somehow the priest’s job to confront that person for them. And the priest finds her or himself very much in a position like Cardinal Dolan in that photo.  Stuck right in the middle.

To be clear, it is not the priest’s job to be THAT PERSON. One of the things I have been very proactive about in my ministry is avoiding that ugly situation of triangulation.  Triangulation, as you can guess, is one of the quickest “clergy killers” out there.  

Actually, I luckily, have not really had to deal with triangulation much here at St. Stephen’s. One of the great aspects of St. Stephen’s has been the self-reliance of the parishioners. But, in other congregations I’ve served, let me tell you, they do attempt to resort to triangulation quite often. And…I hear many fellow clergy share stories in which they have found themselves trapped in the middle of those situations.

In the past, when I have found myself being nudged into such a situation, I finally have had to ask a question.  I, of course, tell the person: you need to talk to this person if you have an issue with them.  You’re talking to them will probably be much more successful than my talking to them on your behalf.

But, if that doesn’t work—and it usually doesn’t work—I ask those people: “have you tried praying for them?” And I’m not saying, praying for them to change, for them to be more like what you expect them to be. Have you just prayed for them, as they are? Because when we do that, we find that maybe nothing in that other person changes—ultimately we can’t control how other people act or do things—but rather we are the ones who change. We are the ones who find ourselves changing our attitude about that person, or seeing that person from another perspective.

However it works, prayer like this can be disconcerting and frightening.  Let me tell you. I have done it.

I’ll be honest: I have had issues with people who do not meet my own personal expectations. But I do find that as I pray for them, as I struggle before God about them, sometimes nothing in that other person changes. (God also does not allow God’s self to be triangulated) But I often find myself changing my attitude about them, even when I don’t want to.

Prayer, often, is the key. But not controlling prayer.  Rather, prayer that allows us to surrender to God’s will.

That’s essentially what’s happening in today’s Gospel reading. The Pharisee is not praying for any change in himself. He arrogantly brags to God about how wonderful and great he is in comparison to others.   The tax collector however, prays that wonderful, pure prayer

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

It’s not eloquent. It’s not fancy. But it’s honest. And it cuts right to heart of it all.  

Now, you’ve often hear me mention the so-called Jesus Prayer, that ancient prayer of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

It’s a prayer I have held very, very dear for so long. And it is a prayer that had never let me down once. It, of course, is an echo of the prayer we hear today in our Gospel reading.

Another similar prayer is one we find in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of Anglicanism:

Jesu, mercy.

Prayers for mercy are probably one of the purest and most honest prayers we can make.  And what I love even more about this parable is the fact that the prayer of the Pharisee isn’t even necessarily a bad prayer in and of itself.  I mean, there’s an honesty in it as well.

The Pharisee is the religious one, after all.  He is the one who is doing right according to organized religion.   He is doing what Pharisees do; he is doing the “right” thing; he is filling his prayer with thanksgiving to God.   We should all thank God for all the good things God grants us. The problem arises in the fact that the prayer is so horribly self-righteous and self-indulgent that it manages to cancel out the rightness of the prayer.  The arrogance of the prayer essentially renders it null and void.  

The tax collector’s prayer however is so pure.  It is simple and straight-to-the-point. This is the kind of prayer Jesus again and again holds up as an ideal form of prayer.  But what gives it its punch is that is a prayer of absolute humility. And humility is the key here.  It gives the prayer just that extra touch.   There is no doubt in our minds as we hear this parable that God hears—and grants—this prayer, even though it is being prayed by someone considered to be the exact opposite of the Pharisee.

Whereas the Pharisee is the religious one, the righteous one, the tax collector, handling all that pagan unclean money of the conquerors, is unclean.  He is an outcast.  Humility really is the key. And it is one of the things, speaking only for myself here, that I am sometimes lacking in my own spiritual life.

But, humility is important.  It is essential to us as followers of Jesus.

St. Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite saint, once said, “Humility, humility. In this way we let our Lord conquer, so that he hears our prayer.”

I think we’re all a bit guilty of lacking humility in our own lives, certainly in our spiritual lives and in being self-righteous when it comes to sin.  We all occasionally find ourselves wishing we could control and correct the shortcomings and failures of others.  

Certainly, in this political season, we watch with almost gleeful joy when politicians are mess up at debates, or we rage at them.

“Why can’t they say what I want to hear?” I often find myself saying.

Or when a person fails miserably, or is caught in a scandal,  find myself saying: “Thank God it’s them and not me.”

Which is terrible of me! And maybe that’s also an honest prayer to make.  Because what we also say in that prayer is that we, too, are capable of being just that  guilty.

We all have a shadow side.  And maybe that’s what we’re seeing in those people we want to correct.  There’s no way around the fact that we do have shadow sides.  But the fact is, the only sins we’re responsible for ultimately—the only people who can ultimately control—are our own sins—not the sins of others. We can’t pay the price of other’s sins—only Jesus can and has done that—nor should we delight in the failings or shortcomings of others.

I remember reading a saying once by an Eastern Orthodox saint, Barsanufios.  He said, “He who recognizes his own stench in his nose cannot recognize any other smell even if he stands on a pile of dead bodies.”

Yes, it’s a disgusting image, but it strikes home.  All we can do as Christians, sometimes, is humble ourselves. Again and again.  Sometimes all we can do is let God deal with a situation, or a person who drives us crazy.

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Jesu, mercy!

We must learn to overlook what others are doing sometimes.  Doing so, exhausts me.  And so I don’t know why I would want to deal with other’s issues if my own issues exhaust me.

There are too many self-righteous Christians in the world.   We know them.  They frustrate us.   And they irritate us.   We don’t need anymore.

What we need are more humble, contrite Christians.   We need to be Christians who don’t see anyone as inferior to us—as charity cases to whom we can share our wealth and privileges and whom we wish to control and make just like us.

Rather, to paraphrase the great St. Therese of Lisieux: we should sit down with sinners, not as their benefactors but as the “most wretched of them all.”

That is true humility.  In our own eyes, if we carry true humility within us, if we are our own stiffest and most objective judges, then we know that we are the most wretched of them all and that we are in no place to condemn others. In dealing with others, we have no other options than just simply to love those people—fully and completely, even when they drive us crazy.

 Sin or no sin, we must simply love them and hate our own sins.   That is what it means to be a true follower of Jesus.  It is essential if we are going to truly love those we are called by Jesus to love and it is essential to our sense of honesty before God.

So, let us steer clear of such self-righteousness. But, in being humble, let us also not beat ourselves up and be self-deprecating. Rather, let us work to overcome our own shortcomings and rise above them.  Let us look at others with pure eyes—with eyes of love.  Let us not see the shortcomings and failures of others, but let us see the light and love of God permeating through them, no matter who they are.  And with this perception, let us realize that all of us who have been humbled will be lifted up by God and exalted in ways so wonderful we cannot even begin to fathom them in this moment.


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