God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For three days this past week, I attended the Clergy, Lay Professionals and Spouses Conference at Shrine Mont, our diocesan retreat center, in the beautiful mountains of Virginia. Bishop Susan Goff, in her opening remarks, reminded us of God's unfailing love for each and every one of us. All of us preach that and say that constantly to others, but do we really believe it ourselves? Do we really believe, in the depths of our being, that God loves me totally and completely just the way I am, flaws, sins and all? Do we believe that? Or is there that little voice in the back of our minds that says something like, "I am sure God loves everyone, but I am not so sure about God loving me, with my character flaws and my sins and my desires to do what I shouldn't do. God couldn't possibly love me as I am with all the baggage that I carry around."
Bishop Susan went on to say that we need to somehow get rid of that voice that tells us we are unlovable, that God could not possibly love us. Get rid of that voice and believe that God loves me as much as God loves you. For each of us is God's unique creation, all made in the image of God, for God's delight, from and for God's love.
For some reason, we feel we need to prove that we are worthy of God's love. That is what is happening in our gospel lesson this morning. Two men go to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, who is from the upper class and well educated. He keeps all the laws of Moses, he fasts twice a week, he gives a tenth of his income to the temple. He thanks God that he is not like other people - thieves, rogues, and even this tax collector who is in the temple with him.
This Pharisee is pretty proud of himself that he has done so well, all on his own. He doesn't seem to be aware that he needs God's love and God's forgiveness, as we are all sinners in need of redemption. He doesn't ask God for anything, and when he leaves, he gets nothing from God. He thinks he has only to rely on himself. Check off the boxes - fasting, tithing, keeping all the laws. Why does he need God if all the boxes are checked off? He can move on by himself, thank you very much.
In contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector has also come to the temple to pray. But he knows of his dependence on God alone. Tax collectors were considered low on the social scale and even isolated from others. The Jews hated the taxes that were imposed on them by the ruling Roman government and they hated the tax collectors. Tax collectors had to collect that tax and the unscrupulous ones collected more than was due, and lined their own pockets with the difference. The Romans did not care, as long as they got what they were due.
The tax collector knows that he needs God's love and forgiveness. He knows he is a sinner and he asks for God's mercy and forgiveness. He doesn't need to give God a litany of what he has done right. God already knows that. But he surrenders himself completely to God's mercy in the hope and faith that God will forgive him of his sins.
The difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector is that the tax collector knows he is dependent on God and he needs God's love and mercy. The Pharisee thinks he can do it all on his own. He is an educated man and he knows the laws. That's all he has to do. He doesn't really need God.
The tax collector opens up his heart and allows God's love and mercy to surround and fill him. The Pharisee is filled with his own self-sufficiency and therefore has no room for God's love and mercy. He keeps God at arm's length.
These two men went to the temple to pray, but only one was transformed by his prayers to God. Prayer can lead to transformation - transformation of how we come to know that we are dependent on God alone and not ourselves; transformation of how we live our lives; transformation of who we are as parents or children or siblings or co-workers or bosses. Prayer invites us to that place where we connect with God and can acknowledge our dependence on God alone. Prayer leads us to that place where we can find peace and joy and faith. Prayer draws us to a closer relationship with God that sustains us through the struggles and hardships of life.
How we know God is through relationships - our relationship with God and with those God has brought into our lives. All the knowledge in the world doesn't amount to a hill of beans if we don't have a relationship with God. Relationships take time to grow and develop and deepen, and that means spending time together.
The Pharisee thought he had it all together and was so much better than the tax collector because he was a religious man and a pillar in the community. Little did he know that the tax collector had a much deeper and profound faith than the Pharisee because he acknowledged his dependence on God alone, that he could do nothing by himself.
So who are we in this story? Are we the ones who think we have it all together, that we are doing everything right - just follow the rules and we will be fine? Or are we like the tax collector who knows that he is a sinner and he knows his need for God and is not ashamed to admit it?
I think that the tax collector knew that God loved him in spite of his sins and short comings. I think that is why he was brave enough to come to the temple to pray. He knew God was with him. And he knew that he needed God.
Do we know, deep down in the depths of our being that God loves us, wholly and unconditionally, that we don't have to prove anything to God, that we don't have to remind God of all the good things that we have done? Do we really believe in God's love for each and every one of us who are made in the image of God? If you still have that small, nagging voice in the back of your head that says you are not good enough for God to love you, get rid of it. Don't listen to it. God loves you just as much as God loves everyone else. God's love is total, complete, and all-encompassing. Whether we are Pharisees or tax collectors, God's love is all consuming. Amen.
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