Where is God?

A sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 23rd 2016

We read Sirach 35:12-17; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14 : ‘Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector …’

Where is God in this parable?

The story that Jesus tells of the Pharisee and the tax collector tells us a lot about ourselves, about human nature; about how we relate to one another and what we think our place might be in the grand scheme of things.

But where is God in this parable?

There is no father figure, no master, no king. There is no good place to stand in this parable.

It is difficult to read this aloud in an election season and not to hear the voices of politicians speaking for the poor Pharisee. Jesus told the parable to hold up a mirror to those who were getting a little over-inflated, and disparaging others in the process; it’s all too familiar.

But we might want to be careful. If we are to identify the Pharisee with one or another public figure, or even with someone we know personally, then are we not in danger of creating another pedestal for ourselves, of praying, “I thank God that I am not like that Pharisee”?

The danger of standing in the place of the Pharisee is that we never know we’re doing it. It is impossible to practice self-righteousness and self-examination in the same breath.

We do not, either, want to stand in the place of the tax collector, bearing his burden of shame. It is a horrible position to find oneself in, unable to raise one’s head. There are times when, whether I want to or not, I list in my head and my heart all the occasions, the times and the places and the people to whom I have been a horrible human being. It is a wretched litany, too painful to repeat. It makes it hard, so hard, to turn and to face my Maker and my Redeemer, to accept that I am not only forgiven but even called, even to this place, to this time. It strains my credibility; I feel as though God must have missed something, one of those humanitarian disasters. Lord, have mercy.

One of my mentors rails over those who continue to list their faults and their forgiven sins even after they have confessed and been absolved, confessing the same sins over and over again. That is not any more healthy nor helpful than standing in the place of the Pharisee. The prayer of the tax collector is not, after all, unanswered, nor is it hopeless. God does have mercy.

“Lift up your hearts,” we pray. “We lift them to the Lord.” And God knows how tender our little hearts are; God will not break them.

I think perhaps this is where Paul comes into his own.

Paul was a Pharisee. He was the most self-righteous Pharisee imaginable. He held the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death. He was so proud in his conceit, so sure of his own worth, that he left no room in his heart for Jesus.

Except that Jesus, from the moment of his birth, has been making room for himself where there was no room to be had.

After his conversion, Paul described himself as the worst sinner, the epitome of all tax collectors and sinners; and yet he knew God’s mercy. He travelled far and wide to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and here, towards the end of his life, he writes as one satisfied with his labours, and pleased with what he has done in the name of the Lord. Is he back to being a boastful Pharisee?

Paul knows his place as one who has done his worst and yet received mercy. From his experience of Jesus of Nazareth, from his encounter with the Risen Christ, with the Son of the Father, the God he has known all of his days; from what he knows of the Gospel Paul is sure and certain that even a sinner such as he will stand before the throne of God and lift up his head and his heart, see God finally face to face.

He is not too proud to confess his need of Christ crucified; he is not ashamed to be forgiven his past. He is faithful.

Where is God in this parable?

God is the one who hears the prayers of the humble, and of the haughty. God receives our prayers, our praise, our pitiful complaints. God is the one holding up a mirror to us through our own prayers, so that we hear ourselves, echoing in the heart of God. God challenges the complacent and comforts the humble. God scatters the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, and lifts up the lowly. God is merciful.

Where is God in the parable? It is God, in the person of Jesus Christ, who meets us in the midst of our own story. It is Jesus Christ, the Word of God, who writes our story, and reads it back to us, inviting us to meet him within it. Amen.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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