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St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Amarillo, TX

"Great Expectations," a sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

In today’s parable from the Gospel of Luke we meet two men who seek an encounter with the living God. Both men, one a Pharisee & the other a Tax Collector, are eager for this encounter. But one man goes home with change & blessing, and the other man goes home in the same shape he came.

The Pharisee & Tax Collector go up to the Jerusalem Temple — they go to this grand house of worship, because it was a kind of home-base for God on earth —
a place where God was especially near…especially close…keenly present.
A place, therefore, which nurtured great hope for a meaningful encounter with God.

These two men couldn’t be more different in how they pray, could they?

As the Pharisee prays, he offers his life of daily faithfulness to God.
“I am not a thief, a rogue, an adulterer, or a loathed tax collector.
I fast twice a week. I give to you a tenth of my income.”

The Pharisee is a righteous man. As a Pharisee, his life of faith is motivated by the desire to live as closely to the Torah as he can…live as closely to God’s instructions for a good life, as he can, every single day.
Pharisees were dedicated to making Temple spirituality — the kind of spirituality & worship that was special because God was so close — Pharisees deeply desired for this Temple spirituality to be available in a democratic way, available to all believers in routine daily life at home, on the job, with friends & family.

And yet…as Jesus tells us this Pharisee’s prayer - his offering to God - his prayer begins to feel like a sort of checklist, a checklist of righteousness.
I am not a thief - CHECK. I am not a rogue - CHECK. I am not an adulterer - CHECK. I fast twice a week - CHECK. I give a tenth of my income to the house of God - CHECK.

What can be wrong with this list? Absolutely nothing!
This is the admirable checklist of a good & faithful man.

The rub - the friction - the challenge arises in that his checklist is the main thing — perhaps the only thing — the Pharisee brings to God in this encounter. The checklist is all about the Pharisee’s faithfulness - all about his own work toward righteousness. It’s good work. It’s important work. It’s work that God desires & blesses.

But a checklist on its own is so clean & tidy — cut & dried — black & white.
Life with God is not often so clean & tidy. Think about the Biblical record - think back only to last week’s story from Genesis of Jacob wrestling all night with God, of Jacob crying out and demanding, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me!”
Life with God is richly messy, varied, and complex. And the blessings — the grace — are as abundant as the mess & complexity.
The Pharisee in this parable seems unaware that God wants for him so much more.

The Tax Collector also goes to the Temple seeking an encounter with the living God.
He has no checklist of righteousness to offer.
He is caught up in a miserable job for an oppressive government. In order to eke out a living — in order not to be destitute — he must regularly resort to a form of extortion — taking a cut for himself so he can both pay his boss the Chief Tax Collector and still feed his family.

The Tax Collector feels so miserable, surely at least in part because of his awful work, that he stands far off from the Temple — he may be at the outer gates, or he may be so shy about approaching God’s house that he can only see the magnificent earthly home of God off in the distance.

In an act of profound grief, he beats his breast & howls his prayer to God, “Be merciful to me, a sinner.” Be merciful to me, a sinner.

Having no checklist of righteousness to offer God,
the Tax Collector can offer only what he has — gaping need, raw anguish, intense longing for compassion from the Lord.

Jesus tells us that of these two men— the one who offers his faithful checklist of righteousness and the sinner who can offer only a cry for mercy— it is the Tax Collector, the sinner who goes home justified by God.

What does it mean to be justified by God?
It means to become more aligned with God, much like the pages of this manuscript … the pages of your bulletin … and the pages of the Prayer Book are all lined up on the left - the technical term for this alignment is Left-justified.

Similarly, a God-justified person has a faith aligned with God. A faith in synch with God. A faith that sings in harmony with God. A life that reverberates & resounds with God’s love & mercy, God’s forgiveness & compassion, God’s clear-sighted hope & enduring joy.

Justified faith may often begin with a list or include a checklist, but it does not end there.

Don’t we all need a checklist of sorts, to keep us less misaligned & more aligned - more justified with God? On our lists are things like saying prayers as the day begins & ends; coming together as the body of Christ to worship & to praise; giving charitably as we can.

Life with God is more than simply checking off such deeds of righteousness, then laying down that paper list to engage the pressing issues of any given day.

The Tax Collector is at a point in his life where he understands this. Perhaps because he has no checklist of righteous acts, he cannot get stuck there. He cannot confuse his own goodness with the goodness of God, which is always, always seeking more for & more from each of us.

The Tax Collector is aware that he is out of sync, out of alignment … and that only God’s compassionate mercy can get him lined up, straightened-up again.

Most of us are a mixture of Pharisee diligence & Tax Collector need.

As a good & righteous person, rejoice in your goodness, give thanks for your checklist, but don’t stop there. Come to the living God with renewed thirst and anticipation for change & blessing.

Allow God to work in, through & beyond your checklist… allow God to breathe & move through you each & every day so that your faith becomes ever more alive, lifting up off the black & white page of things done… soaring with an ease in a God-justified faith that is, in all aspects of life— sacred as well as secular, confident & compassionate, generous & forgiving, and energized by clear-eyed hope.

Perhaps there are days or seasons that you have not much to offer God beyond howling need, whether such need springs from anxiety & fear, anguish & grief, anger & frustration, or stark longing.

May your gaping need be accompanied by the recognition of the often very unexpected & surprising ways God’s compassion & mercy are manifest. Remember that Jacob walked away from his wrestling match with God, with both a limp and a new name, along with abundant blessing.

Come to God with an eager expectation of encountering the living God, who can heal your deepest needs & make your life of faith come alive & soar. May we sing with the Psalmist today’s words of confident expectation:

Happy are the people whose strength is in you!
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.
We who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs,
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
We will climb from height to height,
and the God of gods will reveal himself and abide closely with us forever.

AMEN.

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