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. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
think that the Pharisee gets a bad rap in today’s story. We are quick to heap our scorn upon him and his haughty words. In art, he is often depicted as the sort of person you wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time around. A sneer adorns his face and an aura of mean-spiritedness seems to surround him.
Yes, that is how we like to think of him, but I bet that he was actually a nice guy. After all, we know he was an upstanding citizen. He worked hard to live up to the rules and expectations of the world around him. I bet he cared for his family and was a good husband and a good father, raising his children to be good and God-fearing individuals.
I mean, he even tithed! I don’t just say that because we are starting our fall stewardship campaign today. I say it because it shows that he was committed to his faith, he was committed to his community. Most of all, he was committed to being a good person.
At the same time, we are quick to make the tax collector out to be a saint. The good Protestant within all of us is eager to hear in his words an expression of repentance. We easily imagine a man who has seen the error of his ways and are more than happy to believe that after this episode, he goes home and completely changes his life. Perhaps he opens an orphanage. Or maybe he gives away all his possessions to the poor and devotes his life to poverty and prayer. You know, the sort of thing we love to share on Facebook.
But the story doesn’t say any of that. That’s all stuff we bring to the story. They are all things we want to be true. But the text is ambiguous. All it says is that the man stood in the back of the temple, in a posture of shame, and cried out for God’s mercy.
It is equally possible that this man cried out in shame knowing that tomorrow he would go right back to work as a tax collector. Maybe he cried out knowing that he would not change his ways, could not change his ways. After all, he too had a family to feed, and who here among us is in a position where we could drop our job overnight and be okay? And if he did, who would hire a former tax collector? Everyone knew that they were crooked and could not be trusted!
It seems just as likely, perhaps more likely, that the tax collector stood in the back of the temple filled with the shame that comes with knowing the depth of his own brokenness as well as the fact that he would not or could not change.
Though we are quick to cast them as good or bad characters, the truth is more nuanced. The danger of trying to simplify is that we lose sight of how we ourselves fit into the story. For the Pharisee was not a bad man. In fact, he was probably quite a good man. And the tax collector was not a saint; there is a reason they were despised in their communities. Nor is there any reason to believe that he was suddenly going to change his ways.
But what is important is not the goodness or the brokenness of the Pharisee or the tax collector. What distinguishes them is that the Pharisee believes that his goodness is his alone. He believes that his righteousness is self-made. In his mind, God gets no credit. The Pharisee sees no need for God’s mercy.
The tax collector, though, is painfully aware of his brokenness. He aches with the knowledge that he has no capacity to change. The tax collector knows that his only hope is in God’s mercy.
The difference between the two is that for one, there is no room for God’s grace. For the other, there is only room for God’s grace. One had no need for God. The other desperately needed God.
Today we mark the end of our anniversary celebrations. 225 years is something to be proud of! Our parish has survived many transitions, weathered many storms (sometimes literally), and still we are here. That means that it wasn’t just one group of people who found something worthwhile in this parish. It means that generations of people have found something here that is worthy of their time, their energy, and their support.
It was not popularity, it was not that this is the cool church to go to, for popularity is a fickle beast. It was not special programs or a certain kind of music, for those things start and stop, changing with the tastes of each generation. And it was not the clergy, for we come and go, and this place has had so many priests through the years that we’ve lost count.
What has allowed St. Stephen’s to endure for these past 225 years is a shared sense, individually and communally, of our need for God.
We need God in our lives. Sometimes we are acutely aware of that need, like the tax collector, and we come here seeking God. We come here seeking assurance of God’s mercy. Other times we begin to forget, like the Pharisee, how much we need God, and we come here to be reminded. We come here to remember all that God has done for us.
We need God because we are all broken, in many varied ways. That is what it means to be human: to be flawed, to fall short of the mark. We need God because God alone can heal us. God alone can make us whole. God alone can transform us into a new people.
That’s not all, though. St. Stephen’s has endured all these years not just because we need God in our lives individually, but also because we believe we need God in the life of this community. For generations, we have believed that East Haddam, indeed all our neighboring communities along the Connecticut River, need God. We continue to exist because those who came before us believed that we can be the agents for our community of the same healing the same wholeness, and the same transformation that we have first received.
The question we must answer for ourselves, just as has been done in every generation before us, is whether St. Stephen’s helps us to fill our need for God. Does St. Stephen’s help us to re-connect with our need for God. Does St. Stephen’s help to meet the need for God felt so deeply in our town and in our world?
For generations, the answer to those questions has been yes. For generations, faithful people, like you and like me, have supported this community in the ways that they could: through service, through prayer, and through financial support.
If we find ourselves answering yes to those same questions, then we too are called to support this community. We are called to support it, not out of obligation or guilt. We are called to support it out of thanksgiving for what we have already received from God. We are called to support it so that St. Stephen’s may continue to be a house of prayer, a place of healing, and a point of connection to our need for God, for generations to come.
Preached by Adam Yates