06 August 2005

Homily for Trinity 11 (2005)

St. Augustine nailed it when he wrote: "For while all vices manifest
themselves in wrongdoing, pride lurks also in our good works, seeking to
destroy even them.” Thus the parable our Lord told in today’s Gospel to
“certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous.”

Look at the Pharisee for a moment. The fellow has oodles of good works:
first of all, he is praying in the temple of the Lord. That is a good work;
didn’t the Apostle command “pray without ceasing”? Then he is thanking God
in his prayer. That is a good work, for did not the same Apostle command
“in everything give thanks”? Then he rejoices before God that he is not
living in open and manifest sins of the flesh – he’s no extortioner or
unjust or adulterer! All of which is very good. He rejoices that he fasts
twice each week – fasting is a good work, one which our Lord Himself assumes
all His followers will practice. He showed that when He said: “When you
fast…” And this Pharisee gives a tenth of all he receives to God, for the
support of the temple and the care of the poor. Again, very good works. And
yet, despite all that good, all that striving to fulfill what God commands,
he let pride slip in, and with pride, contempt of others, and thus he blows
the whole thing.

Do you remember the story of the father whose daughter wished to go to an R
rated movie? She told her dad, it really wasn’t so bad. Just a little
gratuitous sex and violence. He told her he’d have to think about it and
then get back to her. That evening there was a plate of brownies sitting on
the table. He told his daughter that yes she could go to the movie,
provided she ate one of those brownies. You see, they were made of mostly
good stuff, and he was sure the dog droppings he stirred into the mix
wouldn’t affect the taste too much!

Pride is like the dog droppings stirred into the brownies of good works! It
ruins them. So despite all the good things that he did, the prideful
Pharisee walked out of the house of prayer without the greatest gift of all;
He left without the mercy of God. He didn’t even think to ask for it!

But consider the publican, the tax-collector. He too comes to God’s house,
but what a different prayer he raises. Standing afar off, unwilling to lift
his eyes to heaven, beating his breast, he says over and over again: “God,
be merciful to me the sinner!” “A broken and contrite heart, O God, these
you will not despise.” Jesus tells us that the publican walked out of the
temple justified. Vindicated by God. That is, he received what he asked
for: divine mercy.

When you come to pray, do you come as the Pharisee or as the Publican? Do
you come to boast or to beg? To celebrate what a terrific person you are or
to confess your sin? To remind God that He owes you or to plead for mercy?

One of the Fathers said: “If I abstain from indulging my foolish desires, I
praise myself vaingloriously. If I succeed in vigilance, I fall into the
snares of conceit and contradiction. If I refrain from eating, I drown in
pride and arrogance. If I am wakeful in prayer, I am vanquished by
irritability and wrath. If I see virtue in someone, I studiously ignore
him… To all appearances I am wise in humility, but in my soul I am haughty.”
(St. Ephraim, A Spiritual Psalter, p. 95)

Ouch. Sound familiar? But that is how a true saint of the church speaks!
He strove to do good works and to live a life that pleased God, and yet the
more he strove, the greater grew his awareness that he was but a poor,
miserable sinner who could live only by the mercy of God. Especially, when
he succeded in outward works, he had to acknowledge the corrupting power of
pride, and beg for mercy. This is always the case, my friends: the closer
you draw to the Holy One, the greater grows your awareness of your sinful
pride. There’s always an unpleasant smell wafting from the brownies, and so
we ask forgiveness even for the good works that we do.

You have come today to God’s house of prayer. The prayers, the hymns, the
readings, the sermon, yes the Eucharist all aim at one goal: to help you
learn to pray aright. They put into your mouth the words of the publican
and teaches you to beg mercy with him: “I, a poor miserable sinner… and I
pray you of your boundless mercy… Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy,
Lord, have mercy… Thou that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy
upon us… Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer… Create in me a clean heart… O
Christ, thou lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy
upon us…” From start to finish the liturgy is the prayer of the Publican,
the prayer of those who know their prideful hearts and seek and beg
forgiveness. Is it the prayer of your heart?

Think of Him who told this parable. He is in every sense the answer to the
publican’s prayer. Jesus is God’s mercy in flesh and blood. And He alone
had the right to say: “I thank thee God, that I am not as other men…” – for
He alone is sinless. And yet He is the exact opposite of pride. From His
humble birth in Bethlehem and his life as an Israeli refugee in Egypt; from
his accepting a sinner’s baptism to mounting the cross of shame, where our
pride nailed Him to a tree and His humility accepted it and so overcame and
destroyed pride. From His humble prayer: “Father, forgive” to His glorious
resurrection when He who abased Himself was exalted by His Father to the
highest place. Through it all, Jesus is the mercy of God!

And He established His Church as the house of mercy, the hospital for
sinners, where His Holy Spirit constantly pours out the oil of divine mercy.
Mercy in the font that washes away sin. Mercy in the absolution that
restores us when we wander. Mercy in His Gospel proclaimed to comfort the
hearts of His sin-weary people with the promise of the resurrection and the
hope of eternal life. Mercy above all at the table where He joins us to His
own divine life in the here and now, forgiving all sins, including our sins
of pride.

If pride lurks in all our good works to destroy even them, humility is what
lurks in all His works. In them all He who is the Divine Mercy comes to us
to deliver us from our foolishness and lift us up to the heights of humility
that we might go with Him to our Father’s house, a people justified. Amen.


William Weedon said...

Huh? Why would I not quote St. Augustine? Surely a towering figure among the holy Fathers! In Bible Class today I even mentioned him as next to St. Paul in influence in the Church's theology. Honest injun!

William Weedon said...

Ah! Gotcha. Yes, St. Augustine's greatness cannot obscure the ambiguous nature of his heritage: blessing over all, but certainly not without difficulties.

Over all, though, I appreciate him a great deal and do not at all like it when hyper-Eastern zealots speak of him as the "original sin" of the West!

Anonymous said...

I heard the sermon on Issue Etc.
Do you mind if I post it on a website I am making as an example of Christ centered cross focused preaching??

William Weedon said...

Dear Jon,

You'd be more than welcome. Although I think the homily posted earlier in the week (that I preached a couple years ago) is actually a better one.

His peace to you!

Anonymous said...

Dear Pastor Weedon:
The pharisee and the tax collector is one of my favorite sermon subjects, so I am biased to it.
My Pastor preached on this a few months ago and linked to the pharisee to Matthew 7:21.
This quote from his sermon has stuck in my head (I quote loosely) "Jesus doesn't know the pharisee because when He sees us He sees sinners and when we talk about the good we have done, He doesn't know who we are. Now, when the tax collector says "Lord have mercy on me the sinner" Jesus says - yeah, I know you, I know what you've done and out of my mercy I died for the forgiveness of your sins."

Kind of the same idea in your homily, only with brownies.