The Adventurous Lectionary – The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 27, 2019
Joel 2:22-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
God have mercy! This is the beginning and end of the spiritual journey. The tax collector’s prayer alerts us to the dynamic interdependence of life and our constant need of grace. There are no self-made persons. No one can make on her or his own. Our righteousness is not fully the result of our own efforts but is part of the graceful interdependence of life. While we are agents in relationship with God, God is the ultimate source of our agency, creativity, and achievement.
The Pharisee is to be congratulated and not castigated. Without people like him, society would flounder. His success, righteousness, and civic duty insure the proper functioning of the social order. The problem is his attitude. He trusts in his own righteousness and his self-congratulatory righteousness becomes a barrier between him and other people and him and God. The Pharisee is a good person in terms of his place in society, but his sense of his personal goodness prevents him from experiencing the interconnectedness of life. He can claim “I did this on my own,” “I’m a job creator,” or “I’m a successful businessman,” but what is lacking is his realization that his success is the product of the efforts of others as well as his own. His goodness, in his own mind, is laced with judgement of lesser mortals, sinners like the nearby tax collector. This attitude of independence – of moral superiority – can infect nations as well as individuals.
In contrast, the tax collector recognizes that he is an outsider and that despite his financial well-being, he doesn’t belong in polite society. In the words of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, he is certain as he looks at his life that “I’m not ok.” He’s standing in the need of prayer and only the grace of God can restore him to wholeness. His prayer for mercy is not an admission of his unworthiness but of his imperfection. Again, in the words of Kubler-Ross, “I’m not ok and you’re not ok. But it’s ok!” Recognizing our need for grace – our complete dependence on God and the efforts of others – inspires us to claim our role as part of a world of interdependence, indeed agents of healing and transformation, where fallibility doesn’t disqualify us from vocation or meaning.
The Pharisee’s mistake was his failure to confess his common humanity. We are all in this together. A plaque on a Paris hospital once read, “We are the dying taking care of the dying.” Our mortality levels the playing field and so does our need for others. Even our ethical goodness is tenuous: good people go astray and fall off the path. In the spirit of twelve step groups, our goodness and resolve is worked out one day at a time, or perhaps more realistically one moment at a time. “I am not like those sinners over there,” the Pharisee judges, full of his own goodness. But, in reality, he is like them. Caught up in the web of relatedness, our goodness depends on factors outside ourselves and not just our propriety. We are all standing in the need of prayer, as the gospel hymn asserts.The tax collector’s prayer may inspire focus on the traditional Jesus Prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” This can be done with a time of chanting or silent meditation focusing on the Jesus prayer.
The reading from Joel invites everyone to claim their vocation as a mystic – open to God’s inspiration and able to share God’s wisdom with others. No one is exempt from God’s showers of blessing. No one is left out, including those we perceive as outsiders. Moreover, the scope of salvation is universal: all who call upon the name of God are saved, and that includes both Pharisees and tax collectors.
Mystical experience, from the perspective of Joel, emerges from divine restoration. The nation will be restored, the years of the locusts will yield to abundance. No longer will there be a famine on hearing God’s world, it will be available to all.
Psalm 65 proclaims God’s abundance revealed in human life and the natural order. God, who satisfies the human heart and forgives the sinner, also clothes the world in beauty and abundance. The non-human world abounds, providing a home for humankind. Utterly dependent on God’s bounty, our calling is to give thanks, accept God’s blessings, and claim our kinship with all creation.
The author of 2 Timothy, writing in the spirit of the apostle Paul, speaks of running and now completing the race, fighting the fight, and keeping the faith. He has fulfilled his vocation; she has done what God called him to do. Yet, this is not a matter of self-congratulation but an affirmation that our gifts emerge from God’s gentle providence which richly and powerfully supports our spiritual journeys. Paul’s self-affirmation is grounded in his God-affirmation. God stood by him and gave him strength. His creativity, persistence, and wisdom are not self-made but emerge from his response to God’s call. We can do nothing without the grace of interdependence; but with God’s grace we can do all things – we can fulfill our calling as God’s companions in enjoying and healing this good earth.
The adventurous preacher proclaims the graceful interdependence of life, grounded in God’s healing presence. Interdependence means that we cannot achieve anything apart from grace, and the interplay of divine call and human response. We are all the children of providence. What we have is a gift. What we will become is our gift to the world. In our solidarity with all creation, we embrace our common humanity, and go beyond binary understandings of sinner and righteous and unsaved and saved. We are all standing in the need of prayer. Our strength is in our faithful creativity, born of our receptivity to God’s grace and inspiration.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA and a professor in theology, spirituality, and ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC. He is the author of forty books including “Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians,” “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,” and “Jonah: When God Changes.”