Praise is due to you,
O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed,
O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come.
When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.
Happy are those whom you choose and bring near
to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
your holy temple.
By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
By your strength you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.
He also 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.”
Sometimes, when I sit down to write a sermon, I like to practice lectio divina with it. This means, I read it several times, picking out words or phrases or ideas that come to me through it. The act of repition helps us to uncover new things from the sacred text we are reading. It’s a prayer practice for me.
This week, the word I kept pulling out of the gospel passage was the word contempt. There is something that felt very clinical, very sterile about that word, especially as I continued reading the passage. It is said that Jesus “also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt”. The basis of this passage is about community and about prayer. The community is doing what it can to come together, to be the church together. But Jesus notes that this isn’t happening fully, because something is still in the way.
The word contempt is defined as the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn. The hearers of this parable viewed others as less than, based on their own perception of themselves, their own self-righteousness. Jesus has a story to tell, but I think something very important, if not most important, is that first line, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt”.
Jesus makes this statement, and then he tells his parable. He tells of two men, who went to the temple, a place of community. It almost sounds like they could have gone there together, by how we hear it. Once they get to the temple, they both start to pray, but that is where the similarities end. The first guy begins to pray, the Pharisee, and he essentially tells God, thank goodness I have it all figured out, thank goodness I’ve got it all together, unlike those *other* people, like this tax collector praying right next to me. What a blessing, that I am doing as well as I am.
I say this pretty tongue and cheek, but when I think about it, I pray like this sometimes. Wow God, thank you for allowing me to do these awesome things with my life. Thank you for these gifts or for affirming me in this way. It’s not abnormal to do this. It is a pretty human thing to do on occasion.
The problem, is that when we pray like that, our prayers are being stored in our own abilities and our own understanding and our own judgments, rather than God’s.
Around the same time we hear the prayer of the Pharisee, we are led to hear the second of the prayers, coming from the tax collector. Now, the Pharisee had just pretty severely insulted and belittled this tax collector, calling him unworthy and comparing him to a thief. The tax collector could have reciprocated that, calling names back or at least defending himself to God. He didn’t do that.
The tax collector, with all the stigma he had placed on him by others, with all the things people were saying about him, his character, his job, his ethics, he laid at the feet of God, and he cried out to God to have mercy on him.
Prayer, as a practice, is an act of vulnerability, an act of giving up and of laying down and of saying that we are not okay, we are not self-sufficient, we need God’s help, God’s mercy, sometimes. Prayer is a deepening of our connection with God, which in turn is a deepening of our connection with one another. Prayer allows us to rely on God’s grace. It allows us to take what we think we know, and shift the narrative, to see that in reality, we really do need God.
In what ways has even our prayer become too comfortable? In what ways have we been afraid or stuck to be vulnerable with God, because we fear what might come from it?
The beauty of prayer, is that it is about relationship, about needing God for it to be prayer. When we give through our prayers, we are acknowledging that God is a part of our giving. We are acknowledging that we get to have our own ideas and use our gifts and commit to certain things, but we can’t let those get in the way of God at work. We have to let God in to our process of visioning, and we can do that through prayer.
There’s a level of discomfort in that, in being clear to ourselves, that we have a certain ego, a certain hope and ideal, but we are also open to the notion that maybe our own hopes and dreams are not the same right now as the hopes and dreams of God. Prayer is a direct confrontation of those two sets of hopes and dreams, and God leads us to understand how our selves can come into alignment with God. We must offer ourselves with a sense of vulnerability, with a sense of honesty and willingness, for God to be able to reach us in prayer, with the openness of the tax collector.
When I think of God, and our call to let God lead, I think sometimes of a construction zone. Think about a building being built from the ground up, or a house being renovated. It’s likely kind of a mess. And among the mess and the incompleteness and the loose nails and screws, beauty and goodness are present in the progress and the process. Little by little, newness is being revealed to us when we let God build. When we use the term sanctifying grace, this is what we’re talking about.
God is busy making all things new, and sometimes, we need to get out of God’s way, to open up to God at work, and maybe observe a little more and do our own thing a little less.
The Pharisee, in this passage, trusted in his own righteousness, in his own ability and talent and gifts, so much that it was clearly reflected in his prayer to God. Then we look at the tax collector, who prayed very differently. He laid himself at the feet of God, confessing that he did not know it all, that he had messed up, that he was lost.
I think so often, we have the temptation to pray like the Pharisee, thinking we know the prayer that needs to be prayed, based on our own ego, our own sphere of knowing, our own judgments. This parable reminds us that perhaps, we don’t know it all. Perhaps, we need to rely of God more in the ways we offer our gift of prayer.
We learn who we are by the way we pray, and God responds always, reminding us whose we are. Even when we pray with bitterness, self-righteousness, or unfairness, God responds in love. This means that God defies language, our good/bad, our mistakes, our fears, and everything else, to show up in love, to invest in us. Being God’s beloved means we get to pray, to connect with God and share with God those times we have reached our limit, the times we have nothing else to give.
Today, I want you to take a moment and think, why do you pray? Take just a minute or two to yourselves, and try to respond to that question. If you know the answer, great. And if you’re still trying to figure it out, that is completely okay and valid too.
Friends, why do you pray?
This is why I pray. I pray because there is no room in the kindom of God for my agenda. I pray because I know that without God’s help, I would not be half the person or pastor I am today. I pray because this community is too important to me to try and handle it on my own.
This week, I want to encourage you to continue responding to that question: Why do you pray? What is it within you that leads you to kneel at the cross, to offer yourself to God, to say to God that you need God’s help?
Friends, as we leave this place, I want you to know that vulnerability is a strength. May you be reminded that we are urged to pray like the tax collector, with an openness to our own limitations and a knowledge of God’s power. And may you seek understanding through prayer, through fully relying on God’s grace.
Let us pray:
God of life and light, We thank you for teaching us the lessons we need to learn, for urging us to come to you in prayer because we do not have all the answers. Help us remember to listen to you and for you in all we do, for it is through you that we ourselves are made whole. In your awesome name we pray, Amen.