Oct. 27, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Oct 27, 2019 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25C)

October 27, 2019

We honor All Hallows Eve today, knowing our All Saints’ celebration comes next Sunday; two times we look to put the light of God and the darkness of evil in perspective, honoring those who have gone before us into Christ’s light. Some see Halloween as a harmless bit of secular costume and candy fun. Others believe it a satanic holiday they’d like to abolish. Neither extreme quite gets it right, and our Anglican tradition of ‘via media,’ or through the middle, serves us well! All Hallows’ Eve is a time to celebrate and point to the Light that shines in the darkness of the world. It has its oldest roots in the ancient pagan Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”), when the Celts of Ireland, Britain, and northern France celebrated the end of harvest and the beginning of their new year on November 1. They believed that on the last night of the year (then October 31), the spirits of the dead would haunt the living, so they would leave food and wine on their doorsteps to appease and ward off spirits. If they had to leave the house, they would wear masks to fool the ghouls. In the ninth century Pope Gregory IV moved the “All Saints Day” feast from May 13 to November 1. The word “hallow” means holy or hallowed, and since vigils were commonly held the night before high church feast days, it was natural that the eve of All Saints Day was known as All Hallows’ Eve, or as the Scots pronounced it, Hallowe’en.

As much fun as costumes and candy are, we take note of underlying spiritual realities; those that make us glow with joy, and some we are deathly afraid of. In times of spiritual darkness or fear, or even daily decisions and work, the sort of righteousness self-proclaimed by the Pharisee does not equip or sustain us, rather it is the heartfelt prayerfulness of that of the tax collector who shows the way, whose justification in God’s sight assures us and comforts us with the reminder of the light in our darkness. “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” He’s trying to reach people who mistakenly trust in themselves more than God, who trust their own position or accomplishments as the barometer by which to measure and judge others. The Pharisee isn’t being particularly ‘bad’ here, he is describing accurately that he has done those things the law says are right and proper, he is glad to be better off than most. We notice one prays with confident righteousness while the other sounds humble, almost desperate.

We sometimes use ‘righteous’ and ‘justified’ interchangeably, so to be clear in this parable being righteous is about your obeying the law and fulfilling expectations by which you or your culture measures you. In his case he’d be the guy who not only knows what Torah says but also does it – perhaps with scrupulous (and here rather public) adherence. The problem is he does so to be seen as one in ‘right’ relationship with the God of Israel. Being justified in God is different – it is less something you can list or check off, and more about a living relationship with God, what God does in you. It means God has called to you in some way, and you respond, warts and all, in humble unpretentious presence. The rest of the world may not notice, but God does – in that relationship with God one walks in the Light.  It is marked more by God’s power working in us than by us proclaiming our own.

Now, someone counted over 700 rules in scripture (some contradict others), so even if we take the law very seriously, righteousness through diligent observance of that law is pretty well impossible. So, the Pharisee counts off doing the big ones and decides ‘well at least I’m doing better than them!’ That’s the other point of the parable; measuring ourselves by those standards tends to lead us judgmental self-bolstering. Instead of helping us walk with God it leads us to denigrate others, like the Pharisee’s judgement distances him from God and from his neighbor. How easily righteousness becomes self-righteousness!

To be justified, however, does not depend on acting or looking perfect. It was never up to us to choose to be created and beloved of God, and yet we are. We are all God’s creation and we don’t get to presume to judge anyone as more created than another, or as if we know the mind of God. I spoke with a parent recently making the impossibly difficult choice that she couldn’t ‘save’ her adult son from the self-defeating choices he makes. It doesn’t mean he is any less her beloved son, only that she cannot force him to want or pursue what she hopes can be true for him. Truly, isn’t this us in God’s eyes? I see God’s way with us and God’s love for us modeled in her parenting! We don’t love because someone is perfect or because they do what we want, nor does it mean that we ‘fix’ them. They don’t love us because we are perfect or always lovable, or because we never let them down. The inextricability of love and forgiveness is what sustains relationships, and we do well to know the same is true for God as is for us.

If only we could put the good works of the Pharisee and the humility of the tax collector into one person! Be the best of both? Absolutely. Perhaps the temptation/challenge is that when we are confident in our own righteousness, we may have a hard time understanding why we need to be justified. Who, me? Surely you see I’m righteous already, thank you very much. Most of us strive for right behavior, to do well in responsibilities regarding family, giving, work, faith, civic activities and more. That’s all great, and yet important as these all are, our value does not depend upon these accomplishments, nor is our worth before God dependent on them. Even when we oversleep a morning meeting, yell at our kids, let our spouse down, or just have an awful day, we are still loved by God unconditionally, so much that Christ Jesus came to all of us. It is by this being so loved that we are able and moved to do all those other good and righteous things, not because it’ll make us worthy or deserving of God’s love, but because we already have it — and this is how we live our faith.

When we see others without judgement as beloved of God, (even those we can’t imagine loving ourselves), then we are living the authenticity of that tax collector who prays so wholeheartedly to God. Our justification in God frees us to live without the insecurity of trying to prove ourselves righteous. We might wonder what good that does, given how our world expects us to earn a living, have happy families and ‘get ahead’ in all we do. Here’s the thing though, people we think are so much better off are also looking at others that way. People see you and wish they could be where you are. It’s an illusion, this idea of the self-made powerhouse who has it all and needs for nothing! Even billionaires and saints experience grief and burdens, illness and pain. We are all vulnerable to those experiences we’d rather protect ourselves from. The sorrow of sitting in these pews at the funeral of the one you love most knows no bias for power, education, or success. Yet what is also true is that from these same seats sharing in the baptismal vows of those we call sisters and brothers in Christ is a joy like none other. That God knows us, hears us, and wants us near is beyond any price, promotion, or income scale, whether you live in your car or in a mansion. We are beloved —ourselves maybe undeservedly, God-self unreservedly.

Can this truth guide more of what we do? Yes, and it is what people here at St. Michael’s are ‘wired for’ somehow! It’s why during this season of asking you to think about what financial support you’ll pledge for St. Michael’s in 2020 we have heard such tremendous My St. Michael’s Stories, and why you have not heard righteous expectations about money, or stump speeches on what a person pledges. We are generously inspired by each other’s lives, we focus on the heart of our faith and what enlivens our spirit, not what a duty giving is, or that scripture says we are to tithe 10 percent of our income. That’s a great thing to do, but more importantly, whether it’s 10%, or ten dollars a year, we do it in the spirit of the humble tax collector, being prayerfully aware of our need for God, not proclaiming how we need God not at all.

Two went to the temple to pray. One returned claiming righteousness – perhaps admirably so — but the other returned justified by God, and in joyful witness to that, all we can do is give thanks and praise to our Lord.

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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