Sermon Archives

Sunday, October 23, 2016
The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25, Year C)
The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

A few years ago, Anne Lamott wrote this book on prayer,  “Help. Thanks. Wow.”  The little book is filled with Anne Lamott-esque descriptions of her own prayer life that makes you laugh out loud and weep in too-close-for-comfort familiarity. Take this one passage, on the chapter for Help, as her cat is dying from lymphoma:

When I pray, I pray for alot of things.  I ask for health and happiness for my friends, and for their children…I pray for our leaders to act in the common good, or at least the common slightly better.  I pray that aid and comfort be rushed to people after catastrophes…  It is also okay to ask that my cat have an easy death.  Some of my friends’ kids are broken and the kids’ parents are living in that, and other friends’ marriages are broken and every family I love has serious problems involving someone’s health or finances. 

But we can be big in prayer, and trust that God won’t mind if we pray about the cat and [my grandson’s] tender heart.  Is God going to say, “Sorry we don’t have enough for the cat”? I don’t think so.

I know even as I pray for help that there will be tremendous compassion, mercy, generosity, companionship, and laughter from other people in the world and from friends, doctors, nurses, hospice people.  I also know that life can be devastating and it’s still okay to be [mad at] at God: Mercy, schmercy. 

I can picture God saying, “Okay, hon. I’ll be here when you’re done with your list.” Then He goes back to knitting new forests or helping less pissy people until I hit rock bottom.  And when I finally do, there may be hope.

There is freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin, because when you’re still in the state of trying to fix the unfixable, everything bad is engaged: the chatter of your mind, the tension of your physiology, all the trunks and wheel-ons you carry from the past.  It’s exhausting, crazy-making.

Help.  Help us walk through this. Help us come through.  It is the first great prayer.[1]

Prayer.  The topic of the gospel text today, extending from last week’s prayer parable of the persistent widow.  One theologian characterized these complementary parables as, “the promise of persistent prayer” and the “peril of presumptuous prayer.” [2]

Jesus told the parable to “some who (1) trusted in themselves and [who] (2) regarded others with contempt.” Although it seems that Jesus speaks to the Pharisees directly, the gospel writer cleverly “vague-ified” the audience.  Why is this important? Because probably, Jesus knew then (as we know now) that disciples and believers were just as vulnerable to pride and self-righteousness as the Pharisees.  This way, people who didn’t recognize their own tendency to play the role of a Pharisee might have assumed that Jesus was talking about someone else, but at the end, the hearers on that day had to confront their inner Pharisee – the one in their own hearts.

Jesus offered this not-so-subtle parable to crack open hearts and to teach about the oh-so-subtle paradoxical nature of Grace. Jesus left open the way for hearers to learn how grace is always available, yet can only be received by those who have learned open-handed empathy.  Just as the nature of mercy and forgiveness can only be received by those who are merciful and forgiving.  Grace, mercy, forgiveness are always available, particularly when, as Anne Lamott says, when we hit bottom and become willing to receive these gifts.

This parable itself is not subtle. But if we see the Pharisee and the Tax Collector only as the clip art characters we know from previous sermons, we miss what makes each unique and we minimize the power of the reversal.

See, in those days, Pharisees tended to hold a liberal understanding of Scripture.  The aim of their Law was to make it possible for everyone to observe Torah.  Kind of like the religious orders of today, like of monks, or nuns, who demonstrate how to be pious. Pharisees might have been like our beloved SSJE monks, who offer daily inspiring quotes for better living into Jesus’ commands to love God and to love one another as he loved us.

Tax Collectors, on the other hand, were not just commonly despised IRS agents who collected what was due. Tax Collectors collaborated with the Roman imperial government and took advantage of their role, extracting more than was due and pocketing the difference.  Tax collectors were not known for being humble in any way – they were seen to be cheaters: dishonest manipulators.

Now the reversal of the parable can begin to unfold in the position and prayer of each.

The Pharisee’s position is that of “standing by himself,” separated from others, to maintain his purity.   The Pharisee’s prayer, also, is “standing by himself,” totally concerning himself.  While he does thank God, the substance of the prayer is found in the repetition of “I”… I thank you that I am not like others. I fast … I tithe …  His prayer asks nothing of God; why would he? it is all about him. So it would have surprised the original hearers to imagine the beloved and respected Pharisee to pride himself with his ample piety, expressing no humility or contrition.

The Tax Collector’s position is that of “standing far off,” holding a relative safe distance from others. The Tax Collector’s prayer, also, is far different.  He does not look up to heaven, the common prayer posture of the day, but he looks down. He beat his breast, the common prayer gesture of contrition. He boasts of nothing.  He asks for help, so this would have stunned the hearers to imagine the hated Tax Collector asking for help.

Jesus unveils the powerful reversal in the final lines, describing how the one called “holy” by society walked away from the temple, “wrapped up in his grandiose self righteousness” – while the one reviled by the good church folks went home, justified in the sight of God.[3] Is it too obvious to state that the Tax Collector hit bottom and the Pharisee hit a personal high?  I think it is.

My sisters and brothers, being a disciple is a balancing act.  While we open our hearts to love, by caring for the poor, serving at Crossroads, having civil conversations with those whom we disagree, visiting someone in hospital, teaching children to read, engaging in citizenship by supporting fair and just legislation … while we open our hearts and our hands to serve God’s beloved community, we can let go of the outcome and trust in God’s grace to get it done.

Achievements have a place – but not in the center of our relationship with the “God of the cross and the Friend of the poor.”  As we open our hearts to love, we can pray for God to Help. That is the first great prayer.

Today’s parable is not subtle, and it’s not simple.  It’s about God’s grace – the paradoxical way that it is always available, always abundant, always accessible.  And it is offered through empathy for others – and for ourselves.

May we, this day, open our hands and hearts to receive the freedom of grace and love that is extravagantly offered through the One who died for us and rose to set us free.  May we, this day, set our hope on God, for it is God who does all this!


[1] Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers,  (New York, Riverhead Books, 2012) p. 13-15

[2] Peter Rhea Jones, The Teaching of the Parables (Nashville; Broadman, 1982) p. 198 as referenced in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: Luke 18:9-14, p. 340. note 194

[3] Laura Sugg, Feasting On The Word: Pastoral Perspective, p. 214