Sermon Archives

Sunday, October 23, 2016
The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25, Year C)
The Reverend Andrew Van Culin, Rector
What is Your Orientation?

A Sermon preached in Saint Michael’s Episcopal Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As Episcopalians, I am well aware of our great love for evangelism and so I am certain we all picked up on the great theme of evangelism with this morning’s Gospel!  Here in this brief passage, Jesus let’s us in a little “evangelism secret” -- when given the opportunity to proclaim our faith, to a friend, a co-worker, even a humble stranger about us, self-righteous faith is not very effective!  Standing in front of others, pointing out all the good things you have done, that you tithe and fast does not draw others to you or to God!

Now, in all seriousness, while this passage isn’t actually about evangelism in the modern sense, it is all about the faith we proclaim.  Here as Jesus presents this parable depicting a Pharisee and a tax collector, Jesus lays out for us a simple contrast in faith – we might even argue that he present here the contrast of faith – a contrast that presents the underlying and fundamental differences of faith that exist not only in Christianity, but all religious community and, in fact, all of humankind.

Now, before I proceed, we must first ask ourselves, what we mean by faith.  Some of us, of course, may immediately think of the creeds or some other form of confessional statement that summarizes our beliefs about God and humanity.  But that is not what’s at stake here.  In fact, it appears that both the Pharisee and the tax collector in Jesus parable are Jews, faithful Jews we might even say (though the Pharisee would clearly disagree!). 

Therefore, the question of faith that Jesus presents is not a contrast between religious doctrines or creeds, on these they likely agree.  As faithful Jews, they would similarly assert that there is but one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the creator of the heavens above and the waters below, and all that lives and breathes in all of creation.  Similarly, they likely share a core belief in their mutual redemption from bondage through the Exodus and that they, as circumcised Jewish men, are among the Chosen People of God.

No, the contrast in faith that Jesus presents isn’t one of doctrine or creed, but of orientation. 

What is the orientation of their lives? 

Here, despite the likely proclaiming a similar, if not identical, faith, these two men couldn’t be further apart. 

Let’s look at the Pharisee for a moment: 

Standing by himself in the temple, 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.’

It couldn’t begin more starkly.  Coming into the temple, in all actuality, a place regularly filled with activity, this Pharisee stands alone.  In spite of overwhelming teaching to the contrary, in spite of the fact that all of Israel is God’s chosen people, this man’s faith has separated him from others.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop at separation and continues to disregard and even to contempt. 

More remarkable, however, than his orientation to others in the sphere of his life is his orientation to God.  Here he has come to the temple, presumably to offer prayers and sacrifices to God, and yet all we hear is self-adoration.  He stands before the throne of the Almighty and proclaims his own righteousness, as if his tithe and weekly fast are what make him one with God.  We can’t help but note that, for the Pharisee of Jesus’ parable, the source of his righteousness and unity with God is the Pharisee himself.  He has done it.  He has lived the faithful life; God’s responsibility is merely to reward his righteousness.

For the Pharisee, righteousness is something earned.

Of course, the faith, the orientation of the tax collector couldn’t be more opposed.

Notice first his position.  Unlike the Pharisee who is “standing by himself” the tax collector is “standing far off.”  Whereas the Pharisee’s faith isolates him from others while placing himself on par with God (he is righteous, is he not?), the tax collector positions himself on the fringe of the space, realizing that he can neither approach nor look up to the glory of God. 

Whereas the Pharisee sees righteous as something to be earned, the tax collector understands righteousness as a gift to be received.  And so his orientation is fundamentally different.  He does not stand proudly proclaiming his deeds with the expectation that he will be rewarded, he humbly stands back in the hopes of receiving a gift that can only be freely given by a loving a merciful God.

Now, none of this is to say that the actions of our life are insignificant or don’t matter.  On the contrary, they matter greatly!  There is no condemnation in this story of the Pharisees’ life – he, we must assumed, has lived a righteous life.  He is not a thief, a rogue, or an adulterer and he gives a tenth of all his income (that is, he “tithes”) and he fasts – all of that is to be commended and none of that is challenged or condemned by Jesus.  In fact, in other places Jesus affirms that way of the cross entails all of this and more. 

The question Jesus is raising in this parable is not, “what does the faithful life look life?” –

  • Love the lord thy God with all thy heart, and soul, and mind, and love thy neighbor as thyself.
  • Love one another as I have loved you.
  • Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
  • Give unto Caesar what is Caesars, and give unto God what is God’s.

All of these and more get to the heart of Christian living.

What’s at stake today, isn’t what the faithful life looks like – rather, its all about why we live faithfully to begin with.  Have we gathered here this morning, have we pledged and served this past year, all in the hopes of claiming a holy reward from God?  Or have we come again with humility and gratitude to hear God’s love poured out upon us and to receive again God’s mercy proclaimed for us?  Have we come again to sing our song of adoration and praise to the Almighty, and to offer ourselves again to his service in the world?

Faith is not simply our creed.  It is our orientation.  Is God responding to us?  Or are we responding to God?