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Pentecost 23 Proper 25C RCL October 27, 2013

Joel 2: 23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14
In our first reading, from the prophet Joel, there has been a plague of locusts. The crops have been destroyed. People have been hungry. But now, a change is happening. There is going to be rain; the crops will flourish again. There will be enough to eat after a time of great hardship. And there will be a spiritual renewal. God will pour out God’s spirit on all people. These beautiful words of Joel remind us that even in the most challenging times and situations, God is always present to help us. In the darkest hours, the light of Christ shines. There is always hope.
In our epistle, Paul is writing to his beloved assistant, Timothy. Paul is nearing the end of his life and ministry. He is in prison. He is undergoing trials. But he writes. “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race.” And he encourages Timothy and us to do our own ministries with the same faithfulness which Paul has shown.
In our gospel, Jesus is telling a parable to certain people—people who “trust in themselves that they are righteous and regard others with contempt.” Pharisees were highly respected as religious leaders in Jesus’ time. The Pharisee thanks God that he “is not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers.” Apparently, he feels that he is a cut above these people. In fact, he thanks God that he is not like the tax collector. He fasts, he tithes.
The tax collector is a hated man. He collects taxes for the oppressor, the Roman Empire. The tax collector stands far away from the respected Pharisee. He does not look up. He doesn’t look at others around him. His prayer is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
The prayer of the Pharisee is an expression of self-congratulation. He fasts and tithes. Maybe the tax collector tithes twice as much as the Pharisee, We will never know. The Pharisee makes a lot of assumptions about the tax collector. The tax collector is focussed only on himself and God. He is making no assumptions about others. He is making no comparisons with others.
He has true humility. Humility comes from the root word humus—good, fertile earth open and ready for the planting of God’s word and spirit. The tax collector knows that he falls short. He knows that he needs God. That’s what humility is all about. We know that we need God’s help. We don’t try to do it alone. We ask for God’s help on a daily basis. When we start on something, we ask God’s help before we begin. This means that we are sustained by God’s grace as we work.
And we continue to ask for God’s grace and guidance every step of the way. If we veer off track or fall short, we ask God’s help to get back on course.
This parable is about humility, and it is also about prayer. When we pray, we are called to take time to be with God just as we are, without any pretense, without putting on any airs. God created us, and God knows us intimately. And we must always remember that God loves us.
Yes, we are not perfect, Yes, we have faults and flaws. God knows all that, yet God loves us more than we can ever begin to imagine.
In prayer, we go to God just as we are and we encounter God just as God is. We are frail and fallible human beings. God is the source of all life and love, the One who has brought the worlds and us into being.
When we think of it in these proportions, it is quite easy to be right size, as 12 step programs say. We really have no reason to be arrogant and every reason to be humble.
Also, this parable tells us that there is no room for comparison in prayer. Each of us is a unique human being beloved of God, and each of us has our own unique journey. As someone has said, “Comparisons are odious.” They are also destructive. It does not help us spiritually if we compare ourselves with others, either making ourselves feel superior, as the Pharisee, or making ourselves feel inferior. Each of us is on our own journey with and toward God. Each of is called to be open to God’s help and guidance. The Pharisee was so arrogant he felt he had no need for God’s help, so he didn’t ask for it. As Charles Cousar says, the Pharisee is “engaging in a narcissistic soliloquy, in which he talks mainly to himself.” The tax collector, on the other hand, is actually beating his breast. Cousar says , “…breast-beating is a traditional gesture of women in the Middle East, and is practiced by men only when in deep anguish.” Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year C, Page 574.)
Perhaps at that very moment, the tax collector was thinking deeply about the moral implications of his work and was contemplating finding new employment.
In prayer, we try to be as real as possible, and we talk with God as honestly as we can, and we ask God to guide us and then we listen to what God is telling us. God may speak to us through people we trust, or through the scriptures, or as that still small voice of conscience within us. God can speak to us in many ways.
It is always a good idea to seek guidance from someone like a spiritual guide or someone we know who is seasoned in the life of prayer. The Pharisee was a closed system. The only one he was paying attention to was himself. Living the life of prayer means being open to guidance from others who have wisdom to share.
Charles Cousar notes that in the past two Sundays, we have had three examples of people who pray. He writes, “First, there is the widow who hounds the unjust judge until she is granted justice. She reminds us to persevere in prayer and not become quickly discouraged. Then there is the Pharisee, who rehearses his virtues and downgrades others not measuring up to his standard of piety. He warns us about our presumptuousness in the presence of God. Finally, there is the tax collector, whose position is simple (note no long list of failures): ‘God, be merciful to me.’ He personifies the one essential prerequisite for praying—an honest recognition of our place before the justice and mercy of God.” (Cousar, p. 575.)
May we persevere in prayer. May we fight the good fight. May we run the race to the vest of our ability with God’s help. May we trust in God with all our hearts. May we seek and do God’s will. Amen.
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