NOTES FOR A MORE COHERENT SERMON
11:00 AM., Sunday, September 4, 2011
St. Andrew’s Old Catholic Church
Meeting Room, 138 Pears Ave. (Toronto)
1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11
Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. Therefore whether it were I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.
GOSPEL OF THE DAY:
Luke 18: 9 – 14
And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. ‘ I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. “
SERMON PROPER BEGINS
Comparing ourselves to others is an all too human trait. Whether based on envy, wanting to have the type of car a neighbour has, or based on pride, thinking we are better than our neighbour because of the style we put on, much of our identity and therefore the way we relate to God and to one another, is based on our judgements of others.
In today’s Gospel we are reminded that our relationship with God starts with our understanding of ourselves, not our neighbour. It is not through our public expressions of faith that we come closest to God but in our private acknowledgement that without an active relationship with God, without God’s help, we are less that we can be.
We can not strengthen our relationship with God by criticizing others. We strengthen our relationship with God by acknowledging our own weaknesses and reaching out to God with humility and hope to gain the strength to transform our lives.
Paul recognized the difficulty in being humble—throughout his epistles he makes a real effort to transform attention from himself to God. Some of this was lingering guilt from his time as a major persecutor of Christians. It is hard not to be humbled by what we have done to harm others, especially if they find a way to truly forgive us. Some of this was likely due to his early education as a student of Gamaliel, a student of Hillel. He would have learned about love of God and love of one’s neighbour as being key to a faithful life; you do not look down on in judgement those you love. When one has experienced miracles it is hard not to feel exalted; Paul gave witness to what he had experienced, but acknowledged he wasn’t the only one who had seen the risen Christ and that the community of Christ was where Christ was acknowledged. It was the content of what Paul said that was important, not him. Looking up to Paul made no sense to him —the community of believers was made up of people just like him and the important thing was the universal message of Christ’s love for us, not the specific qualities of the messenger. The community was made up of flawed people like Paul who shared in the vision of being a part of a transformed, loving and compassionate community made possible because of the coming of God among us.
This community was in its earliest formation when Jesus told the story we hear in today’s gospel. It was important to many to be seen as living a good life, a faithful life in which the common rituals enforced community. Then, like now, being seen acting in a good way fed one’s ego and became more important than the content of one’s character or the way one acted when not in the public eye. Being seen as following the proper forms of worship and praying the proper prayers lead to higher status and the temptation to look down on others. Where loving God was to “Act in such a manner that God will be beloved by all His creatures” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Commandment)
and to worship God was to seek justice and wellbeing for all, (AMOS 5: 21 – 24: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!) public piety and the structure of worship had became paramount. Individuals who tried hard in their daily life to be good but didn’t live up to their own expectations, seemed to be of less value that those whose daily lives were less public, who were seen more in the places of worship than in the difficult places of normal life.
Today’s gospel suggests that acknowledging one’s failures and asking help to do better in the future is closer to the true essence of prayer than
living a sheltered life and following established rituals. Looking down on others is shown as a clear barrier towards one’s prayers being made real; looking closely at one’s own weaknesses is shown as a way of making one’s prayers come to fruition.
We know that worship isn’t confined to a given time and place; that all we do in life can be seen as the way we worship. (Isaiah 58:6: Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?). Worship is more than ritual—it is the way we interact with all within creation. Prayer itself is more than the words we utter, it includes the actions we do and the attitudes we hold. We may utter the right words, but if we cause harm to those who share in creation our words lose meaning. If we claim to love God but show contempt towards others, our claim is meaningless. If we try to treat others with respect and dignity, but don’t know the right words to say in the house of worship we will have spoken eloquently.
Paul was a humble person who found himself in a very public role; the focus of his ministry was to direct attention towards the divine presence. The gospel encourages us to take a similar approach, particularly in our efforts to draw nearer to God. Trying to raise our own status on the backs of our sisters and brothers pushes us away from God; trying to come to an understanding of our own failings is the first step towards a new life that brings us closer to God and to all the make up the divine kingdom.
Humbleness isn’t self hatred or self denial; it is a state of honesty and awareness, a movement towards grace. To be humble is not to deny one’s talents or knowledge, but rather to not deny others’ talents or knowledge; it is to see that one is an equal and valued part of a community rather than seeing oneself as greater than the others around you. Paul was not a doormat, but did not exalt himself above the others he shared the life of the early church with.
We move through life with various statuses and titles thrust upon us, many loaded with social status—husband, wife, child, teacher, priest, painter, president, secretary. While there might be expectations based on these titles, as people of faith such titles are not justifications for division or egotism. Words describe our relationships or indicate our responsibilities; they do not govern our attitudes towards God, ourselves or one another. Both the epistle and gospel we heard today remind us that we are all equal in the eyes of God, equally flawed and equally beloved and equally called to build up the shalom kingdom. Being called to be humble isn’t a call to self-abasement; it is a call for action.