Friday, October 26, 2007

Sermon for Sunday, October 28, 2007

Proper 25, Year C. Jer. 14:(1-6)7-10,19-22, Ps. 84, 2 Tim. 4:6-8,16-18, Luke 18: 9-14.

Several years ago, there was a popular movie starring Jim Carrey called “Truman.” He played a fellow living in a world entirely created as a stage set for his life, a life that had been documented from the moment of his birth as a television show. The place where he lived was a lovely bit of suburbia, populated by pretty people who all behaved nicely towards one another. The sun always shone, except for brief, charming showers that perked up the grass and the flowers. No one was ugly, or sad, or cruel. It was all façade. Truman was oblivious to the role he was playing, oblivious to the incompleteness of his life.

I am thinking about Truman and his make-believe world as I imagine what’s going on in the head of the Pharisee as he prays. Think about what he says: “Thanks, God. Notice that I do all the right things, I follow the rules. I’m not a bad person like some others around here.” This is a man who cares about how the world sees him and about how God sees him. He follows the rules. He looks good to the world around him, because he does what he’s supposed to do.

The theologian Jurgen Moltmann points out a very interesting thing about the Pharisee’s prayer. The Pharisee says what he does, and who he isn’t like, but he doesn’t talk about who he is. He leaves an empty hole in his conversation with God. The conversation seems to be about appearances, about the pretty façade, and not about who he is.

So we look inside this praying Pharisee’s head. Perhaps he has doubts about himself, and that’s why he doesn’t talk about what is in his heart and soul. He just talks about what he does and who he isn’t like. He’s concerned about maintaining that perfect exterior, like the perfect town and the shiny people in Truman’s world. He never gets to the heart of who he is, and what that means to him and to God.

The tax collector gives us a very different perspective. Before we even hear a word from him, we know something about him. He is standing far off, not willing to even lift up his eyes to heaven. These are postures of servitude and unworthiness. Before the words of his prayer are spoken, his body tells his belief. He speaks: 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'

This is not a man who proclaims his perfection, this is one who admits his imperfection. He is willing to show God exactly who he is, the core of himself, imperfect as it is, and ask for God’s help.

Let’s take a peek inside the tax collector’s head. We know he knows what the Pharisee thinks about him, because everyone knows the rules about what’s clean and unclean. He knows he’s a sinner. He’s willing to show that to God in his prayer. “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” He’s willing to strip away the façade and talk directly to God, not boasting, not pretending he follows the rules, but saying, “Here I am. I’m a mess. I need Your help. Please help me in Your mercy.”

And what of the words and the world of this story? This is a bold parable, because Jesus is talking about Pharisees, directly to the Pharisees. The first verse says it: Jesus was speaking “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt”. Those “some who trusted in themselves” is an interesting phrase, because it can also be translated as “some who had persuaded themselves.” Perhaps they had a few doubts. Perhaps they had to persuade themselves to believe that they were righteous. I mentioned the possibility that the Pharisee had doubts before, because I suspect that we all have doubts about how good we really are, and that’s bound to affect our praying.

We’ve talked before, too, about how parables are countercultural. They turn the world upside down. This one is no different. When we talk about a tax collector, we’re not talking about your friendly neighbor who happens to work for the IRS. In this time, in this world, we’re talking traitor. Tax collectors in Jesus’ time were quislings, tools of the Roman Empire. They collected tax money for the Roman emperor and took a cut for themselves as their pay. They were viewed as unclean in every sense of the word. So in this parable, when Jesus talks about the tax collector as being righteous, he’s making an extraordinarily shocking statement…and he’s saying it right to the faces of the so-called good guys, the Pharisees, who were sparkling clean and who followed all the rules. The Pharisees were all about the rules, not because they were bad people, but because they thought that was enough.

It’s not.

It’s not in life, and it’s not in prayer.

So the issue here is how we pray. When we come to God in prayer, are we willing to show God more than the façade, the Thomas Kincaid sofa-sized picture we can paint of ourselves? It’s easy to hide behind the false front. It’s easy to excuse our imperfect words and our imperfect actions, thinking they’re better than nothing. I do it all the time. Each time I just pat my grieving friend on the back and move quickly away, rather than having that deep conversation about her pain, it’s an incomplete and imperfect prayer. Each time I walk quickly past the begging homeless person in Farragut Square because he scares me, it’s an incomplete and imperfect prayer. Each time I talk to God about how unfair it is that a colleague seems to get a free ride, not recognizing the second chances I’ve been given, it’s an incomplete and imperfect prayer. It’s an easy place to go as a Christian, because we usually are halfway there. We just don’t bring it all the way home, in life or in prayer. We hide the imperfection. We hide the incompleteness, because we want God to think that we’re wonderful, and to love us for the good things we do and not notice our failures.

But here’s the truly beautiful thing: God loves us no matter what.

Even more beautiful, God knows us completely.

I wonder if we sometimes don’t construct those prayers that are lists of all the good things we do because we’re afraid God will see the little uglinesses behind the good things. Am I feeling guilty about the nasty thing I said about a co-worker? Don’t talk about that; pray about how I went to church on Sunday. Am I feeling a bit ashamed of how I padded the expense account, just a little bit? Don’t talk about that; pray about the check I wrote for the charity. When I don’t bring my full self to God in prayer, the prayer is hollow. Unless I ask for God to help me with the things I need to work on, instead of simply saying I’m fine, I miss the opportunity to ask for God’s mercy and grace.

Perhaps it’s that we, too, doubt. We, too, need to persuade ourselves. We’re afraid God won’t like what He sees when we bring all of ourselves, the good, the bad, the ugly, to Him in prayer. But He knows us completely, and He loves us no matter what. If we bring it to Him in a full and honest way, He will help us to grow into a more perfect expression of God’s love.

So what happened to Truman, living in that perfect world that was all façade and little reality? Behind the scenes was a platoon of real people who manipulated this world to make it look pretty and sweet, to provide the perfect backdrop for this man called Truman, the unwitting star of the show. The real people weren’t so pretty or sweet. The center of the Truman Show was often venal, and harsh, and manipulative. But Truman, despite being coddled in that lovely make-believe place, began to see the seams of it, and struggled to break through to reality, with all its imperfections and difficulties. Ultimately, he did break through, and he embraced his own humanity and the imperfections of the world around him. The façade was torn. The rain fell. The truth bloomed, and it was a healing moment for a betrayed soul.
Our lives are complicated, and they are often neither perfect nor pretty. But unless we bring the whole of our lives, the whole of who we are, to God in prayer, the truth will not bloom, and we will not be healed. We are called to trust in God’s love and mercy, and to know that we will be made whole.


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