When I graduated from seminary, my children were 16, 11 and 7. And for a preacher mom with three kids and one shower, getting everyone to church in a presentable fashion depended on having a plan. On Saturday night, I would do the mental math. “We need to be at church at such and such a time tomorrow. If we all need showers, who should I wake first? How many minutes will that child take to get ready? Can I make it easier by telling someone to hit the shower tonight?” This doesn’t even take into account being sure everyone had clothes ready to wear. Pastor friends would marvel that we could do it, week after week. But we did. All three kids woke up, and whoever needed a shower got one, and if they were not fabulously or fashionably dressed, at least they were clean, and if they carried their breakfasts in the car, at least they were fed.
Somehow on all those Sundays we managed to succeed in getting to God’s house.
I’m not really sure what they thought at the time about going to church. Mostly I think they were glad I was no longer in school. They seemed pretty sure that a working mom would be more available than a studying mom. I don’t know if that was right, but it was on their list of things to check off, along with getting a dog. At the top of my list was all of us in church together, every week, and we were consistent. I believe regular attendance in worship is one of those habits that is easier to keep than to reconstruct, and if you’ve ever had a significant gap in your church attendance, you’ll know what I mean.
In my childhood church we filled out a check-off sheet in Sunday School every week. First, it made note you were there! Then you had a list of things to check along the way, which included:
Bible read daily.
I think I was in 8th grade when I first had to fill out my own check-off list. After six years living in the Washington DC suburbs, my family had returned to Portsmouth, Virginia, and I was back at the Baptist church. The Sunday School check-off sheet, something that looked a bit like our fellowship pads, was handed around, and I watched the girl next to me dutifully check off all the items.
Bible read daily. Seriously? Did she really?
Offering brought. She was clearly a better Sunday School girl than I was.
But these are habits, practices we choose, and what was really going on is that her mother knew about the check-off list, and mine, after an absence of many years, did not.
The Pharisee in our gospel lesson reminds us of the number of things on the first century check-off sheet, the things a person needed to *do* to be in right relationship, maybe not so much with God, but with the rules of the Temple and the faith community.
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.' (Luke 18:11-12, NRSV)
Fast twice a week? Check.
Tithe a tenth of all income? Check.
Come to the Temple to pray? Check.
The Pharisee felt pretty sure he knew the way to get to God’s house, and the way to be welcomed there. His prayer announces his behaviors, his habits, the things he can check off the list, and he seems pretty sure that is all enough.
It would be so easy if righteousness could be boiled down to things so simple and uncomplicated, two or three rules to follow.
Now listen to Jesus, who goes on to say,
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." (Luke 18:13-14, NRSV)
So there’s something more to it than the check-off sheet. There must be something more to getting to God’s house.
The psalm speaks of God’s house in a different way, not as the physical Temple or our own church, but as a dwelling place beyond all earthly imagining. We are in the land of metaphor, even the land of the metaphysical, the place beyond us. Can we get there by checking things off a list?
I don’t think so.
Jesus is speaking to people, Luke tells us, “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Jesus wanted them to know that the check-off sheet was not enough; following rules about diet and even giving the amount demanded as a tithe would not make a complete relationship with God.
I have a confession to make that follows up on last week’s confession. I told you I sometimes hesitate to have the conversation with God that prayer demands. I think it’s in part because of one of the other characteristics of my childhood faith. I grew up in a world of circle prayers, and I don’t like to pray alone. It feels lonely.
On the other hand, I love to pray with other people. I love to pray with my friends. I love to pray with you here in worship, and when I come to your houses, or if I visit you in the hospital. The communal act feels more real to me.
Now, I know good and well my way is not the only way to pray. There are people who write their prayers or draw and paint their prayers, people who walk their prayers, and people who love the silence of meditation. For some people being in nature and feeling God in the trees or the ocean feels like a prayer.
In some churches, the power of prayer is in its repetition, week after month after year after generation. In other churches, the power of prayer is expressed in trying to never do it the same way twice.
The important thing is not the form, but the intention. The important thing is intending to connect with God.
Let’s think about the tax collector. Luke loves to talk about tax collectors. They were a great example of people who were on the outs with the faith community. The Roman government occupied Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, and the residents were forced to use money with Caesar’s face on it and to pay taxes with that money. Instead of doing their own dirty work, the Romans used local people as tax collectors, and those men were viewed as collaborators with the invading army.
Imagine North Yarmouth occupied by an invading army from Freeport. Imagine how we would feel about paying a tax in coins that said LL Bean. Imagine how we would feel when the Bean army hired North Yarmouth people to collect those taxes.
Would we be inclined to ask them to join us in a booth at Stone’s? Would we be eager to sit beside them at the Apple Festival?
Would we let them into church at all?
The tax collector was on the outside, a traitor to all things that mattered, a servant of people who did not believe in the same God.
He stood far off, for he was not welcome.
He would not look up to heaven, because he was ashamed.
He beat his breast, something only women would do, and only at a time of deep grief and loss, because he felt like a widow, torn away from her life and her home.
But he prayed his prayer. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And Jesus assures us that his humility exalted him.
He brought himself low—humbled himself—and because of that God lifted him—exalted him.
For those of us my age and beyond, who grew up before the age of self-esteem, these words have a different sound than they do in our culture today. To be humbled now may sound too much like being humiliated, and to be exalted may sound too much like being put above other people. But humility is still a good word, even if its more modern equivalent makes us uncomfortable.
Well, it makes me uncomfortable.
The tax collector humbled himself by telling the truth of his inner situation. That kind of confession and humility is the ultimate in vulnerability. When we pray that way, we lay ourselves open to God.
Now, believe me, God already knows. We don’t have a secret so awful that it can be kept from God. So this is not about catching God up on our schedule of events.
The tax collector did something different. He admitted he felt farther away from God than he had ever been, and by doing it, he finally got to God’s house, which is not an actual house at all. It’s not the Temple in Jerusalem, not a specific place. He got to God’s house, the place where we are welcomed and reassured, forgiven and loved.
God’s house is not in any specific location, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find it right here, in our own church. It doesn’t matter what we’re wearing when we get here, or even if we’ve washed our hair. Even the sparrow will find a home, and the swallow will find a nest. We get to God’s house, the lovely dwelling place, when we open ourselves to God. Happy are all those who live in God’s house. Amen.