Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A foundation for authentic spiritual life: last Sunday's sermon

This sermon will also appear on the Cathedral website but it has been asked that it also appear here ...

First Reading: Joel 2:23-32
Second Reading: 2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14

Preached at Choral Eucharist 30 Ordinary Sunday 27/10/2013

In the pewsheet for this morning you have as usual, printed in full, each of the readings we have just heard. Now I am confident that each of these readings speaks to our attitude toward God and ourselves (i.e. is about our relatedness, our connectedness, our wholeness) but I find myself asking how the very familiar anecdote that constitutes our gospel reading (the moral lesson concerning the religious behaviour of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector) ‘connects’ with the readings from Joel and 2 Timothy.

We don’t have a reliable date for Joel and his circumstances but it seems that the prophet speaks to a people trapped in moral lethargy; they seem to have lost hope and vision; they lament the past.  In some of the most eloquent and poetical passages of the scriptures he rouses them to hope for restoration of what has been lost and to look to a future in which they will see that God has acted.

There is a wonderful phrase: Joel hears God say ‘I will restore the years that the locust has eaten’.  That is not a bad description of how we may feel when we look back over the years and wonder perhaps why things went wrong for us, why did so and so die or fall gravely ill; why all that period of fear, worry and depression – we all have known ‘years that the locust has eaten’ – and times, it may be, when we have lost faith and hope.  This morning if we feel some resonance, any sense of recognition – then Joel speaks to us, to all who lament the past, who are short on hope, lethargic – depressed - if you like.  To us, Joel says – wait and see – God will restore ‘the years that the locust has eaten’.

Written about 5 or 6 hundred years later, we listen to a fragment from Paul’s second letter to Timothy.  We hear the words of an older man, someone exhausted by struggle, disputation and privation; someone who has lived his life under the cross.  He remembers the loneliness and the hardship of his calling.  The voice we hear speaking is of someone who knows what a called life is like; the gritty reality of a life that can leave you drained while everyone else seems free to get on with their lives; and yet running along within this there is also Paul’s strong sense that in the weakness, the tiredness, the sense of being abandoned, Christ is always present and active.

The line that both rends the heart and warms it is:
6As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
The idea of Paul as being a libation – a sacrificial offering – his life being poured out onto the sand of the arena, the place of testing, as so many martyrs blood was spilled – is the heart-holding image that we can take from this letter this morning.  In this one passage Paul’s letter invites us to consider how we see ourselves and God: do we live under the cross? 

By contrast with the sheer reality of Paul’s experience, our gospel reading offers us a moral anecdote with cardboard cut-out figures – they represent attitudes rather than real people.  My hunch here is that Jesus is setting out the foundation of any authentic spiritual life.

So, if we read this gospel anecdote against the Joel and Paul passages we can start to ask some questions.  For instance, does the Pharisee persona strike you as someone who is drained by living a sacrificial life?  Does he strike you as someone troubled by ‘the years the locust has eaten’?  I think not!

What concerns me about the Pharisee’s condition is that he comes across as someone with ‘smooth surfaces’ – he appears untroubled by doubt, want or misfortune.  He seems to inhabit a world where his place is assured, he is convinced of his righteousness and that the good opinion he has of himself is shared by others and by God.  He seems to possess no inner awareness, no discernment – and even more tragic is that he acts as if God is equally lacking in discernment and does not see through him.

By contrast the Tax Collector represents the unacceptable edge of Jewish society: he is an agent of the Roman authorities and his social and ethical status is utterly compromised.  He is a man ‘on the edge’. He is not a man of smooth surfaces, but of broken surfaces – and he knows it.

I suggest that he strikes us as a man who just might know something of ‘years that the locust has eaten’; know something of shame and loss; something of poor choices and a life not well lived; something of loneliness, uncertainty and vulnerability. He offers no defences or excuses; no rationalizations or special pleas; instead just a broken recognition of his condition.  God can work with someone like that.

Who do we recognise in ourselves: Pharisee or tax collector?  Who comes in us to the sacrament this morning?
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