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The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

D. G. Phillips

Holy Communion

West Dublin, Cherry Hill, Broad Cove, Crousetown   August 19 AD 2007

1 Cor 15:1f    St. Luke 18:9f

 His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain.

 

We are in Trinity season seeking the Kingdom of heaven. 

 

And because Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of heaven is within us, we have turned and begun that journey by looking inwardly.  We have seen first our own thoughts – the passions that arise in our souls which distract us from seeing God.  Our passions distract us by keeping our focus on outward things – worldly ends – and when we look there we are no longer looking inwardly.

 

But Jesus would have us continue in that search for God – by directing our desire rightly to the love of God and our neighbour.

 

Last week, in the Gospel, Jesus came into Jerusalem and to the Temple, he cried out, It is written,, My house is to be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.  Those inward inspirations of the Holy Spirit – God speaking to us inwardly – are either hidden by the noise of our own thoughts, or are not recognized as the inspirations of God and stolen by us to build up our pride or vanity.  We were reminded that it is by prayer that our minds can be quieted down from all these distracting thoughts, to begin to hear Jesus teaching daily inwardly, in the temple of our hearts. 

 

This morning we are given further counsel and warnings regarding this inward turn and the spiritual disciplines that Christ commends for us – prayer, fasting, almsgiving.

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In the Gospel we are presented with two men – the one a Pharisee – a man who was a religious authority, the other a publican.

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this Publican.  I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.  And the Publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

Let’s remember what prayer is – the directing of our desire, our love, towards God – in praise, in adoration, in supplication, in intercession.  It is a movement inward and upward. 

 

The Pharisee, who has been practicing the spiritual disciplines that are commended by our Lord – fasting – to counter gluttony and lust; almsgiving – to counter avarice and wrath; and prayer to purify the thoughts of the heart – has taken pride in what he thought were his achievements.  Vanity of vanities – all has become vanity – every one that exalteth himself shall be abased. 

 

The Pharisee brings himself low on the spiritual journey, he is no longer entering inwardly in his search for God.  He is brought low by reason of his return to concern over outward things – how he is doing in the spiritual life in relation to other people.

 

But the publican is justified, and Jesus says, will be exalted, that is, will continue in the spiritual ascent, because he would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner – he is humbling himself before God.

 

Why is this man spiritually healthy?

The publican’s concern in prayer is a strict honesty before God.

 

Humility is what happens in the soul when one looks at God – or when one looks honestly at oneself in the light of the truth.

 

But someone said to me recently – there are lots of people going around feeling wretched about themselves and carrying a whole burden of guilt – why should the Church make them feel worse with all of this language in the Prayer Book about – being miserable sinners, unworthy to eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.  Surely a better way is to encourage them to have them look at themselves in the mirror and say – you know, you’re not so bad, in fact, you’re pretty good. 

 

But surely this is the counsel of the Pharisee…

 

The motivation of the person saying this was compassion – but Jesus seems to be suggesting that the resolution of feelings of wretchedness, of being burdened with guilt – is not to turn away from it, but to face it head on and confess it that one might return to one’s house justified – being unburdened, being comforted.

 

How do we continue in this inward journey towards God, seeing our inner wretchedness, without being discouraged, or without avoiding this most necessary confrontation with the truth about ourselves before we would see God?

 

It is surely to undertake this journey, holding always before our eyes, the Cross. 

St. Paul puts it so beautifully: BRETHREN, I declare unto you the Gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.  For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures. 

 

So we confront our wretchedness, not hiding it or turning away from it, but fully acknowledging it in the light of the mercy of God shown us in the sacrifice of Christ. 

 

The Prayer Book prayers assume that we are all continuing in this journey inwardly.  And that the prayers will make sense to us, because we are continually seeing the truth about ourselves – the Holy Spirit is leading us into all truth.  We are walking humbly, not in a false humility, but truly seeing ever more deeply into our wretchedness, because we are journeying ever more deeply into the heart of God.  And in the light of that glory – which does not oppress us or overwhelm us when known in the light of the Cross – we freely acknowledge our wretchedness and God’s goodness. 

 

Dante, in the Divine Comedy undertakes this journey.  By grace, he must walk all the way through the depths of hell – that is, through the depths of the depravity of his own soul – before he can, by grace, be purified as he climbs up the mountain of purgatory and by grace have his eyes prepared for the vision of God.

 

The wretchedness that we are acknowledging Sunday by Sunday is not old wretchedness of sins we have confessed before because we trust that we have been fully forgiven them.  But it is new wretchedness that we confess here, seen since our last confession in the light of a greater grasp of the beauty and majesty and glory and love of God shown us in Jesus Christ.

 

It is the responsibility of the preacher Sunday by Sunday to help us to see our sin by pointing out the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and perhaps less often by a pointed reflection on our own sin.  But it is not just on Sunday that this should happen.  If we are living honest lives, daily searching for God, we will find ourselves daily reflecting on our actions, our words, our thoughts, and we will come here on Sunday quite aware of our failings, new failings, and able to use easily these humbling words in all honesty. 

The greatest saints would have the most comfort with this sort of language in prayer because they are seeing more clearly than anyone else the greatness of God and the wretchedness of man without God. 

 

Listen to St. Paul - I am the least of the Apostles, that am not worthy to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all; yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.

 

If we find the language of the Prayer Book jarring, it is a moment to consider if we have stopped looking inwardly to find God.

 

The Cross – God’s mercy stretched out plainly for the whole world to see – enables us to penetrate more deeply through the layers of sin which hinder our sight.  It is only as these layers of sin are removed by our trust in Christ’s sacrifice that we will enter the Kingdom of heaven and see the vision of God.

 

O GOD, who declarest thy almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

 

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