Sermon preached on Luke 18:9-14 at St Albans Church, Bristol
As I was reading this weeks Gospel passage, I found my thoughts wandering back to when I was a child. My mum would have a box filled with postcards, ready to be written and send in case of a last minute occassion. She would often buy multipacks and this one was themed “Spiritual Wisdoms” It had cards with pictures of buddhas, temples and lilies alongside quotes from several religions. There was one card that spent quite a long time in that box.
It had a picture of a church interior and the text talked about a wealthy member of the congregation coming into the church, dropping to their knees and beating their chest proclaiming: “I am nothing God, I am nothing.” The Archdeacon saw that and was very impressed, fell to his knees, and started beating his chest as well; saying “I am nothing God, I am nothing.” Next the cleaner joins them, similarly falling to his knees, beating his chest saying: “I am nothing God, I am nothing.” The Archdeacon taps the wealthy congregation member on the shoulder, gestures to the cleaner and scofs, “he really IS nothing!”
This paints a very vivid image, and as a child I interpreted the mockery as a joke, so I laughed at the cleaner, not fully grasping the message. Now however, I am wondering what one would do with such a card. Do you send it or attach it to a gift? What message would I convey to the person that receives this? What does it say about me if I would send this to anyone?
Jesus tells our parable today to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and who regarded others with contempt. Like the Pharisee in the parable, like the Archdeacon on the card. But how do you know whether you are self-righteous? It is easy to recognise in someone else, we are after all very prone to compare ourselves to others and loudly proclaim someone’s faults to raise ourselves up. Like the Pharisee, who is looking up and bragging about the good he is doing for his God, whilst the tax collector looks down, asking for forgiveness.
Both men are said to be praying. And I remember in preparation for my confirmation, one of my friends asking “what is prayer, how do you do that? Do you just talk into the air?” In Matthew chapter 6 verse 6 and 8, Jesus says: ‘6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. ... 8 ..., for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.’
Prayer is conversation, prayer is not simply listing the things you want from God, it is also a time in which you give. You give your full attention, you offer yourself as you are, like the tax collector, humbly, truely, honestly. We can tell God what we do in His name, we can say that we give away a tenth of our income like the Pharisee did. But, God already knows. He knows what lives in our hearts and minds, He knows our intent when we say those things. We don’t need to boast or try to impress Him.
Prayer provides a safe space in God’s loving gaze, where he invites us to be still, to be vulnerable, where we can safely let our walls down, and relax. This might be one of the few moments in our current society where we can do that. In that space we won’t be judged, we are not being compared, instead we are loved and accepted by a Father who created us in His perfect image. And I would like to invite you to think about that for a second. How often do you find yourself in a space like that? Once a day? Once a week? Once a month?
What would happen if you would offer yourself up to God and say, here I am. As I am.
Something that helps me in finding that space is, a thing called the Daily Examen, by Ignatius of Loyola. A type of prayer in which you reflect on the day you had, both through your own, and through God's eyes. What felt good about today, what are my thoughts drawn to? Which moments were harder, and why? What did I feel, or experience? Can I find God’s presence in those moments? Do I want to give thanks, ask for forgiveness, or ask for help? The beautiful thing about this, is that there are no right and wrong answers, God won’t judge, and therefore neither should you judge yourself.
Then, you turn your gaze to tomorrow, what do you expect and anticipate. Where do you want God to be present? God help me to be more patient, more loving, not only with others but also with myself. My request is an invitation to go about the day with God, to enter the world strengthened in his presence whilst trying to be the best version of myself.
And that is also where the answer lies to the question I asked earlier. How do we know if we are self-righteous, how do we know we are not? When we are able to turn our gaze from ourselves, and look outwards, when we take the time to be still and humble ourselves before God, when we dare to ask him for help, we enter a space where we can grow, learn, give and receive. And that already is more than the Pharisee and the Archdeacon were showing themselves capable of. And I like to think that we all strive to be good people. Everyone in this city, in this country, in this world. We might not speak the same language, believe in the same things, for all I know they might not believe in a God, but I want to naively trust that we do all have something in common. That we all want to do what is right, striving to be good people. And we need to find something that helps guide us on that journey.
Now, we as Christians have wonderful tools for that. Look around, we gather here on Sunday morning and spend this time together, guided by the scriptures, creeds and eucharist. We meet together over coffee and tea later and reflect in community, striving to follow in Christ’s footsteps. And when we go out, for groceries, for work, for our day to day life, we are strengthened by God’s presence. Whether we are aware of it or not. Yet with those Christian values, also comes responsibility. To love one another, to not judge, to realize there is no need to boast, but rather to try and create a safe and loving space where we are, to uplift those around us, to listen and understand differences. The responsibility to try and recognise God’s presence in the world. And I hope and pray, that someone will recognise God through something that I might do or say when I go about my business, humbly, justified and in the presence of God.