St. Paul’s – Proper 25 – October 23, 2022
We began this series of sermons with the argument that a church is not a building or a group or a community ofbelief, or a society of moral excellence. It may have a building and people, and beliefs in a moral vision, but at its core, a church is a mission. A Mission of Mercy. Both declaring God’s mercy and embodying mercy in our lives and our neighborhoods. And that kind of mission requires faith that is courage boldness, chutzpah. It often takes the form of Praise. Of finding the good and praising it. And it also takes the form of justice of finding the broken, the unfair, the unhealthy and repairing it. The church isMercy, Faith, praise and justice. but what does all this look like on the ground in practice.
Let’s start with a human being. A mature, radiant, kind, human being.
Picture someone, who in your opinion, fits this description. Someone you know and love and admire. Someone you’d nominate for the Oscar for best human. You know, maybe not the best, but one of the best. Who comes to your mind? I’m willing to bet that that person most of the time acts with compassion and grace. They don’t tend to hold grudges. They often look out for others, lending a hand. But they are merciful, right? And by the same token, I’m willing to bet they’re often courageous. It might be a quiet kind of courage: poised, grounded. Or it might be an adventurous kind of courage. Willing to take a wise risk… to do what needs to be done in order to do the right thing. I bet the person’s pretty positive to…at least a lot of the time. Finding the good and praising it. Quick to give credit to others and to appreciate the world around them at the same time. This person probably sees pretty clearly that the world stands in need of some significant renovation. That there are plenty of broken places and broken hearts that need mending, repair, justice.
When I was growing up, Papa Art once gave me a quote on a slip of paper that I ended up putting on my mirror in my bedroom. A few lines from the Beloved writer E.B. White . The author of Charlotte’s Web and a wonderful essayist. Here’s the quote. If the world were merely seductive that would be easy, if it were merelchallenging, that would be no problem. But I rise in the morning, torn between a desire to improve or save the world and a desire to enjoy or savor the World. This makes it hard to plan the day.
My guess is that person you’re thinking of, your nominee for best human, does a relatively decent job of planning the day. Striking a graceful balance between improving the world and enjoying the world…. saving and savoring. And when it comes right down to it, that’s what the church looks like and practices. From this angle, the question really isn’t what is the church as much as what is the church for. And the answer is saving and savoring. And more to the point, what the church is for is helping… to create and support and empower people. Like the person you’re imagining. Merciful, courageous, appreciative and just little by little saving and savoring the world. And not just individuals. Communities too. Whole neighborhoods that have these qualities. But how do you do that? Well for one, no one can do it alone. We need company. We need fellow travelers….companions along the way to help us plan the day.
Pope Francis pictures, the church as a kind of field hospital where we take care of each other as companions. Others, have pictured the church as a kind of school where we students learn alongside each other as companions. Here’s a third image. The Apostle Paul in the Epistle today borrowed terms from the world of athletics to describe a Christian life as a life of training….Of developing muscles, spiritual muscles, strength, and flexibility. And so we can also think of the church as a kind of gymnasium where we train and grow as companions. And so whether we imagine the church as a field Hospital, a school, a gymnasium or indeed, all three, the mission of the church is a group exercise. We need support…we need advice…we need critique…we need models…we need encouragement….and inspiration, sparring partners, challenges, collaborators. We need friends. And so the church because of its mission takes the form of a group gathering in a home. Or if it gets too big for a home in a building. It gathers more than a a few times a year. If you really want to heal or learn or get into shape, the gathering needs to be regular and frequent. This stuff isn’t easy, right? Improving and enjoying, saving and savoring. It makes it hard to plan the day and those gatherings.
Well at their best, they’re designed and organized accordingly…. worship should circle around the church’s mission of mercy. That could mean actually purveying mercy. Many churches, are connected with or even run ministries like RGBM who we partner with….welcoming immigrants. It can also mean supporting other organizations nearby who are doing the purveying. Lifting up those organizations like the Marfa Food Pantry and praising them. And at the same time, it can also mean learning about how to become more merciful in our daily lives in our homes and families and in all our relationships. This kind of merciful work requires, courage, faith, a kind of boldness as Jesus typically defines it. And so churches, church services and meetings are properly devoted to building up our bravery, even our audacity. Identifying what’s holding us back. Helping us take the next daring step with imagination and chutzpah. Not recklessness of course, but also not complacency or timid half-measures. And here again, we need companions to help us know the difference. To help us decide when to turn it up a notch and when to reel it in a bit. That is what I experience with our Bishop’s Committee
Or to shift the metaphor. It’s almost like a huddle on a playing field. The team gathers, that’s true but not for the sake of gathering. But rather for the sake of being sent out onto the field. After the Huddle, to play the game, to action, to get involved, to be merciful, and courageous, and appreciative. And in the Huddle, we ask each other, how can we bring more of God’s mercy into the world? What issues of justice are alive in our neighborhood? And how can we effectively engage what good work is already happening? And how can we lift it up and praise it? Where do we need to be more courageous, more inventive, more bold.
And by the way, this is where the Bible comes in as a central instrument for helping us wrestle with these key questions. The Bible is a means not an end. A library of stories and songs and wisdom around which the church huddle’s and reflects and learns and strengthens and grows for the sake of being sent out into the field. That’s the ideal. It doesn’t always happen. And sometimes it does. And even when it doesn’t it could. God knows we all have room for improvement. In fact in each of these key areas, Mercy, Faith, Praise and Justice, there are constantly ways to improve and also serious pitfalls to watch out for.
In this mornings gospel, one of Jesus’s most famous Parables on this subject features, a Pharisee and a tax collector. So we can be sure to catch Jesus. meaning here, let’s translate Pharisee into a 21st century Christian context by calling him the Reverend. So in the parable, the Reverend enters a church and prays a prayer of thanksgiving but it’s a grotesque parody of gratitude ostensibly thanking God. But actually pointing toward his own alleged virtue and religious diligence. He spots the tax collector on the other side of the church. And prays. Oh God, I thank you that I am not like this tax collector.
Indeed as the Reverend understands himself, he is an excellent upstanding citizen. He needs nothing and so he arrogantly thanks God for his perfect self-sufficiency, his piety, his righteousness.
And the tax collector, he does the opposite. He stands far off. Not even daring to look up to heaven. Jesus says his prayer is God, be merciful to me a sinner. And yet he is the one Jesus declares who is justified or approved of in the Divine Court. Jesus sums up the situation this way: for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Now, on one hand, this is Jesus clearly underscoring the importance of humility in human life and so in the church’s life as well. And there’s also a hidden trap here. The experience of reading the parable helps to dramatize it. The temptation is to read the parable in a way that leaves us looking down on the reverend even to the point of having contempt for him. Oh, look at this guy, how arrogant he is. How self-congratulatory. Not like us. I mean, we’re with Jesus. We’re with the tax collector over here asking God for mercy. And when we do, we’re in good shape. I mean it’s right there in the passage. Look at what Jesus says: All who humble themselves will be exalted. So that’s us right? Humble-exalted. Oh God. I thank you that I am not like this guy.
You see the Trap even our best efforts to avoid self-congratulation and contempt can themselves so easily, so easily become occasions of self congratulation and contempt. Praising ourselves for our humility, and having contempt for those who aren’t quite so humble, as we are, It turns out that being merciful, genuinely merciful as a mode of kindness and not of patronizing pride is hard.
It turns out that being faithful, genuinely faithful as a mode of courage, and not of conceit is hard. It turns out that praising the good and repairing the broken without at the same time, becoming self righteous and holier-than-thou is hard. The traps are everywhere. And so we need the Spirits help and the help of her companions, and our neighbors to get better at these things over time. We need partners to keep us honest…to help us see our blind spots. We need models and guardrails and key ideas that can help us avoid counterproductive forms of counterfeit Mercy.
For example, we can learn from the tax collector in this famous Parable that in truth, we depend on God as the source of every good gift, including mercy. So that if and when we find ourselves embodying Mercy, becoming the church, acting with kindness and care, we can rightly interpret, not as an opportunity for pride, but as an opportunity for humble gratitude to God who gracefully provides us this Mercy. The very Mercy we’re embodying In this sense, the mission of the church is itself a gift of Grace, given over and over and over again. And a gift, of course, can only be received, not with entitlement, but with humility. A word that comes from the same root as the word human. For this Good work to become more human, more humane, more merciful and courageous, more appreciative and just, to save and to savor, to improve and enjoy…., we need the church to be a supportive challenging action-oriented, workshop, for people who long to be more merciful and brave, more loving and faithful. All for the sake of creation, the whole neighborhood. That’s why we take time to huddle up each week for worship….gathering and singing and praying. Asking for God’s mercy like so many tax collectors and listening again to Jesus who tells us another story about the people we were born to be. And then sends us out to become those people. Little by little… A field Hospital. A school. A gymnasium. A workshop….Human and Humane. By the grace of God, the grace filled Church helping each and every one of us to plan the day.