Sermon Pentecost 23 October 23, 2016
Sirach 35:12-17 Psalm 84:1-6 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 Luke 18:9-14
May these words and our thoughts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
As Christians we believe in the Resurrection – thank God ! Atheists believe in nothing. Agnostics don’t know what to believe. And many religions believe in reincarnation that is a belief that we get multiple chances, in life after life, to get the purpose of Life right, without necessarily believing in a god. So if you were a good person in your last life, you will be reincarnated to a better life in the next. And the opposite is also believed – a bad person gets a worse life. Some believe we are reincarnated as animals. So I will speculate that if you were a beautiful person you might come back as something beautiful, like a butterfly. If you were aggressive you might come back as a tiger. If you thought you were head and shoulders above others you might be a giraffe. If you were ponderous, made a lot of noise and were clumsy and strong you could be an elephant. What kind of a person would one have previously been to become a tortoise ?
Consider the tortoise. The first thing a tortoise does when it wakes up in the morning is put its feet out of bed, then lifts that bed if it wants to get breakfast or go anywhere. Wherever it goes it’s got this huge weight on its back, its shell, which is built onto its body, always protecting it from danger and always a burden. What kind of person would a tortoise have been if reincarnation was real ? Could it have been someone surrounded by a hard shell, perhaps with a harsh tongue, always ready to lash out and belittle others, or a person with a physically bullying manner who withdraws as soon as someone else stands up to them, someone who won’t listen to others never accepting that others could actually be right about something to which he previously took as his creed, having a hard impenetrable shell of beliefs and emotions. I would take a guess and say that the tortoise was a Pharisee in its previous life. Look at the way the Pharisee refers to the tax collector – he is definitely a tortoise.
Of course it’s easy to call a Pharisee a tortoise, or others. It’s easy. But are we tortoise-like in our present lives ? We actually have no fear of coming back as one but do we have fixed ideas about what is right, even if there is a legitimate objection to what we believe. Do we puff-ourselves-up ? Are we afraid to show emotions ? The answer to all of them is ‘yes’ at one time or another – and that’s a pity !
By contrast Jesus’ ministry was based on compassion. Compassion for others, we should take a leaf from His Book when we dispute with young people and the crazy ideas of youth. Perhaps they are not so crazy, remember we had those ideas too ! And a leaf from the Book when we don’t understand adults who behave differently or even badly or people who don’t share our views. Maybe we are a bit like the Pharisee having built up around us for our own protection, rules, or a way of life, that keeps us from understanding or being compassionate to others.
Another question. You know the old question that if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a noise ? Well I will ask you a related question. If the way of writing numbers or counting them or multiplying or dividing them had not been invented would mathematics still exist ? Or as Wisdom is a thing humans use to make decisions, if there were no humans would Wisdom still exist ? I think the answer to all three is ‘yes’ there are eternal truths that have nothing to do with us. Wisdom is a very interesting case. Our first reading was from the Wisdom of Sirach. What is said doesn’t rely on us but we would be crazy to ignore Wisdom, just as much as mathematics and that falling tree.
So what does Wisdom tell us ? It tells us to be generous, first of all to God, and the natural consequence of that is to be generous to others, to show compassion, like Jesus. Don’t be like the Pharisee then, thinking he is so much better than others, he is not, we are not. Those who run counter to the norms of society deserve a hearing, understanding and compassion because we owe it to them, and from time to time we need compassion too. In an intolerant world compassion is a vital need. If we had settled everything on our own need to survive, which mainly defines itself in economic terms and dominance by the strongest, then we would still have rampant slavery, the death penalty, no justice, no democracy and no social safety nets.
So now let’s consider the Tax Collector. He seems to be a very humble man. I suspect he cannot stop himself from doing what he is doing out of fear most likely. He is between a rock and a hard place living in fear between the fury of God and the contempt of his fellow man. But Jesus shows him what God is really like. Jesus understands his plight, He has compassion for him. Jesus doesn’t ask for the man to amend his ways, that will come later, He is just satisfied that the Tax Collector knows what he really is and that is what puts him right with God. The Pharisee it seems will never reach a true understanding of himself because he is burdened by a shell of behaviours and beliefs, a protective armour, that prevents him from seeing inside his true self.
There is an old Jewish custom to rush to prayer and to go slowly home because confession is always urgently needed and having done so time to ponder on it is next. So what animal would the Tax Collector be ? Perhaps a Sloth you know the jungle creature that hangs upside down in trees and hardly moves. The Tax Collector has got things upside down in his life but he is moving slowly to Salvation. For us Salvation is very simple. Have faith in God, read again closely St. Paul’s words to Timothy today about his faith and then confess our sins, which may mean breaking open the shell that protects us from the real world and the World of Faith. Living within our armour gives us a false sense of security, because it is security built upon us. Throw it away ! The only security we really have comes from God. Paul says “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom” and God will do precisely that. Thanks be to God. Amen.