Trinity XIX

It is hard to find something as universally loathed as paying taxes. We just don’t like doing it. We know we have to pay them, but we would prefer not to do so. At its root, celebrations of the Harvest have their roots in taxation. They were a way to thank God for the good things of creation, but also to thank the tribe of Levi which had no ancestral land, as their inheritance was the Lord their God. 

That’s all well and good, we should be grateful to God, and we should demonstrate it openly. Saying, ‘thank you’ to God is important, just like saying, ‘please’, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I love you’. We communicate with God because we have a relationship with Him. We recognise that everything comes from Him as gift, and so we hope that our service is pleasing to the Lord, we don’t earn our justification through our works, but we are grateful.

This morning’s Gospel presents us with two very different figures: a Pharisee, a member of a religious élite and a tax-collector, one of the most loathed people in the Roman World. He was a traitor who had sold out, he had bought the right to collect taxes on behalf of the occupying power, the Romans. He would recoup the cost by charging a premium, on top of the taxes. He extorted his costs from people who had no choice but to pay him, and that’s how life was. No one likes to pay taxes, but when you know that the tax-collector is charging you more than you should be paying, you despise him even more. It isn’t fair, but the rights to collect taxes were auctioned off to the highest bidder, who was expected to recoup their costs. 

The Pharisee is a member of the religious élite, a student of the law, the power behind the synagogues, someone who keeps the Letter of the Law. Jesus himself was much more like a Pharisee than a tax collector. Jesus was educated and articulate about the scriptures. He, too, added his own oral interpretation to the laws that were written. The apostle Paul was a Pharisee. Are we Pharisees? What does Jesus want us to see of ourselves in this parable? If we return to the text, we’ll see that Luke tells us that Jesus directed this parable at ‘some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others’. I’m ok. I’m a fine upstanding member of the community. I’m not like this or that person who has done something wrong. Each an every one of us does this. We want to find someone to look down on, to say I’m better than them. Well, here’s a home truth, WE ARE NOT! Because in God’s eyes, we are all sinners, we all fall short, and it doesn’t matter by how much. 

So, this story, though it may at first seem straight-forward, quickly raises many questions. The text obviously indicates that the behaviour of the tax collector is preferred over the behaviour of the Pharisee. That much is clear. But the question is: why? Why, exactly, is the one right and the other wrong? Is this a story about prayer and how we should pray? Is the Pharisee wrong in thanking God for what he considers the blessings in his life? Is he wrong to be glad that he is not a thief or an adulterer? Often when we characterize this story, we think of the Pharisee as standing in the centre of the room, trying to draw attention to himself, praying loudly. Based on those assumptions, we criticize the Pharisee for his showiness, his pride, his big ego. But the text only shows that he was standing by himself, praying, and that the tax collector was standing far off, praying as well. What is it that is misguided in the Pharisee? What is it that the tax collector has struck on? 

Nothing that the Pharisee says or does is in itself wrong. But where he goes off-course is in thinking that his list of righteous acts will earn him God’s favour. But he is wrong in two important ways: First, he is wrong because he acts as if without his list of good deeds he is not good enough to receive God’s grace. And secondly, he is wrong because he acts as if he is so great as to by his own actions make himself worthy of God’s grace. This Pharisee seems to get the picture wrong from both angles. And I think we might be able relate to this. We often feel like we don’t really deserve or aren’t truly worthy of God’s love, as though we need to earn it. On the other hand, our actions, and our attitudes about our actions sometimes suggest that we become too full of pride about how good we are, or at least about how much better we’re doing than some others of whom we know! We begin to act as though we just have to do enough good things and we’ll be fine, as if we have a quota of righteous acts to fulfil before God will be forced to let us in on the grace deal.

In truth, it’s the tax collector, standing far off, beating his breast, who’s got it right. He cries, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This is enough — not too little: this tax collector admits his sin and his need for God. And not too much: this man doesn’t make any claims about himself, try to puff himself up, try to act as though he could possibly manage without God. 

Can we do the same? We forget that none of us are worthy of God’s grace — as the letter to the Romans tells us, ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ But we also forget that none of us are excluded from God’s grace, unworthy though we are. And that means for the Pharisee and the tax collector, that our good deeds, and our ever-present sinful behaviour — neither of these privilege us or exclude us — or privilege or exclude our neighbours — from God’s grace. God asks us to live faithfully — not as a test to see if we deserve grace, but as a path of discipleship that will give us deeper satisfaction in our relationship with God.

The Eucharist, Christ’s gift of Himself to us, is not a reward which we earn, bur neither is it to be treated lightly, ignored, or downplayed. It is the most precious thing which we have. Far more precious than the silver or gold that we use to contain it. Because it is Jesus Christ, who gives Himself to us, so that He can transform us, so that we can grow together in love, more and more into His image and likeness. Christ comes to preach the Good News of the Kingdom, to call people to repent, to turn away from their sins. He heals the sick, the blind, the lame. He raises the dead to life. This is God’s love for us. What can we give God? Our love and our thanks. Have mercy upon us sinners, and help us to live faithfully so that we might sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

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Trinity 18

What’s the point of it all? It’s a question people ask, and thankfully the church has an answer. Humanity exists to love God and serve him in this life, and to enjoy Him in the next. We are made for worship. Nothing else matters: work, family, friends. They’re not bad in themselves, but compared to our relationship with God, they are secondary. Worshipping God is a way of saying that God is the most important thing in our lives. We love God more than our family, our friends, even ourselves. It’s radical and counter-cultural, because it says that our immortal soul matters more than wealth, or power, or prestige. What we are doing is the most important thing we can ever do. It’s what we are made for. To worship God.

In the first reading this morning from Exodus we see what prayer can achieve. Our life is a battle, just like that fought between Israel and the Amalekites. And we can conquer in spiritual matters by keeping our arms raised in prayer, and helping others by supporting them. The church is a community where we help each other, where we bear each other’s burdens. We pray for ourselves and others, and we are prayed for, so that all around the world, every moment of every day, we are surrounded and upheld by Christians praying for us, not to change God’s mind, but to change us.

It is something which Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy shows us is something we need to learn, to believe, and to continue doing. Prayer isn’t grand, it’s a bit of a slog, it takes a lifetime. It has to be taught, it is what preaching is for. Teaching the faith, and telling people who Jesus is (the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary) and what He does (preaches repentance, the forgiveness of sins, dies on the Cross, and rises again). It is easy to pervert this into a message which makes few demands upon us, that says, “yes, you’re all fine, you don’t need to do anything”. Christianity makes demands of us. We have to do certain things, which we might prefer not to do, and not do things we might rather like to do. We all need to reminded about this regularly, to help us stay on track. This also helps us to pray well together. 

In this morning’s Gospel Jesus teaches us ‘to pray and not lose heart’ (Lk 18:1) It is important advice. Especially when times are difficult. He teaches us with a parable. There is an unjust judge. He’s corrupt, and he’s fed up, so he gives in, for a quiet life, with the result that the widow receives what is right. God can indeed use many things The point is that the widow is persistent: she keeps on, so that he has to listen to her in the end. So likewise Christian prayer should be unceasing. The widow’s prayers turn wickedness and injustice into mercy and justice. Likewise our prayers do not change God, but instead they change us. That’s the point of prayer not to change God’s mind, but to change us, into what God wants us to be. Persistent prayer can, and will change us. It is how saints are made: through prayer. It takes WORK, but it is wonderful, and worth it. 

The parable reminds us that God hears prayer. He may not always answer it in a way we might like. Sometimes God says no, or not yet, which we might not want to hear. It teaches us patience and wisdom, and even if we suffer, we grow through it. Our growth in holiness can be painful and difficult. In the first reading from Exodus, Moses is clearly tired, he has to be held up by Aaron and Hur. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he is not advising something popular, but something unpopular, that people will not want to hear. 

The Gospel ends with the question (v. 8): ‘Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ It’s an important question. If we look at statistics, then people in this country are becoming less religious. Fewer people have faith. There are many reasons for this, and this is not the place to explore them. Solutions are likewise not simple, or straightforward. We can do many things, but we need to make sure that our own faith is strong and attractive, and be prepared to bear witness to it, regardless of the cost. Our faith can only be attractive when it is REAL. This is what will encourage people to follow our example, and come to know and love Jesus Christ. Only in this way can real living faith be transferred so then when Christ comes, as He surely will, He will find faith on earth. So let us trust Christ, knowing that His promises are true, that He feeds us with His Body and Blood in the Eucharist to give us life in Him. Let us love the one who loves us, who gave His life for us, to take away our sins, to heal us and restore us. And healed and restored by Him, let us bear witness to Him, so that the world may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

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A thought from S. Teresa of Avila

Beware, daughters, of a certain kind of humility suggested by the devil which is accompanied by great anxiety about the gravity of our sins.

He disturbs souls in many ways by this means, until at last he stops them from receiving Holy Communion and from private prayer by doubts as to whether they are in a fit state for it, and such thoughts as: ‘Am I worthy of it? Am I in a good disposition?I am unfit to live in a religious community. ‘

Thus Christians are hindered from prayer, and when they communicate, the time during which they ought to be obtaining graces is spent in wondering whether they are well prepared or no.

Everything such a person says seems to her on the verge of evil, and all her actions appear fruitless, however good they are in themselves. She becomes discouraged and unable to do any good, for what is right in others she fancies is wrong in herself.

When you are in this state, turn your mind so far as you can from your misery and fix it on the mercy of God, his love for us, and all that He suffered for our sake.

The Way of Perfection 39:1, 3

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Homily for Trinity XVII

It can be very easy to look around the church and find bickering and quarrelling. People argue, they argue about words, and what they mean. It is an easy thing to do, and especially in matters of faith, where emotion runs deep. It matters. But it isn’t just a modern problem. It runs through the history of the church, and goes right back to our epistle this morning. From the earliest days of the church people have argued, and we need to be mindful of Paul’s words to Timothy: ‘Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers’ (IITim2:14). Paul writes these words from a prison cell. He is about to be tried for preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. He encourages Timothy to be steadfast in the face of persecution, to endure. What really matters is ‘rightly handling the word of truth’ (v.15) not selling people short, or telling them that everything is going to be ok, and you don’t have to do anything. It isn’t. To be a Christian is to face persecution, especially from those who twist Scripture to suit their own ends, not to warn people where they are going wrong, but instead to lull them into a false sense of security, which leads to destruction. 

So what do we do? Firstly we don’t panic. All is not lost. To follow Christ is to risk being uncomfortable. It is to be in places where one would rather not be, but to trust God, and to live generously. In our first reading this morning from the Second Book of Kings we see Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army. He has been afflicted with leprosy, and he hears that there is a prophet in Samaria who can cure him. He writes to the King of Israel, to ask for the prophet to heal him. The King of Israel thinks that it is a trick, an excuse for the Syrians to start a war against Israel. The prophet Elisha reassures the king, and asks for Naaman to be sent to him. Elisha tells Naaman to wash seven times in the River Jordan. Naaman can’t believe his ears. He’s angry. This isn’t what healing is all about, it is far too simple, too easy. The point isn’t about having to do something difficult, but letting God do something wonderful. But eventually Naaman listens, and is obedient, and is healed. He goes back to Elisha to say that ‘Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel’(v.17) Naaman is grateful, and comes to believe in God. The mention of washing in the Jordan reminds us of Baptism, how we were washed clean from sin, and given new life in Christ Jesus, sharing His Death and Resurrection, a sign of God’s generous love towards us. 

In this morning’s Gospel Jesus is in border country. He’s somewhere uncomfortable, heading towards Jerusalem, towards His Passion and Death. Ten lepers see Him, and cry, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us’. Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to a priest, to prove that they are now clean, no longer outcasts. Jesus complies with the law of Moses in Leviticus. The law commands them to sacrifice in order to be healed. Christ heals them, so that God might be glorified.

One of them returns to say, ‘Thank you’. The leper thanks God, and falls at Jesus’ feet. He shows gratitude. We wouldn’t want to live in a world where no-one said, ‘Thank you’. It would be rude. People would be selfish. They would expect things. Thanksgiving is the heart of prayer, it’s why we celebrate Harvest in Autumn. We thank each other, but most importantly we thank God for what He has done for us. Thanksgiving goes hand in hand with faith, what we believe, where we put our trust. 

As Christians we thank God for many things, but first and foremost for what He has done in His Son, Jesus Christ, who died for us. It’s why we celebrate the Eucharist, because Jesus told us to, and so that we might be fed with His Body and Blood. Not because we have earned it, not because we deserve it, but so that we, like the lepers in Gospel, might be healed by Jesus. It is medicine for our sick souls, not a gold star or a prize for the righteous. Christ gives himself for us not because we are worthy, but so that we might BECOME worthy through Him. Salvation is God’s work not ours, as Naaman and the lepers show us. God in Christ saves us and heals us. He dies for us, and rises again so that we might share His Risen life. This is true generosity. And we can receive God’s healing love here and now. We can prepare to be transformed into His likeness, by His body and Blood, which cures not only lepers, but our sin-sick souls. So let us be thankful to God, for all that he has done for us, giving us His Son, to bring about healing, to show mercy, to strengthen our faith. And may we follow Christ, and walk His Way of the Cross, enduring whatever sufferings come our way, with the assurance of faith. May we know that Christ will never abandon us. His words are true. His promise is faithful: ‘if we endure, we will also reign with Him …. if we are faithless, He remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself’ (IITim 2: 12-13) Let us follow where Christ has gone before, confident in His promises, nourished with His Body and Blood, from the shadows and images of this world, into the light of His Truth, who is the Truth, the Way, and the Life. Let us proclaim that truth to the world so that it may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

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Homily for Trinity XVI

Being a Christian can be hard and difficult at times. It can be very easy to feel as though we are experiencing something of the vision of the prophet Habakkuk in this morning’s first reading. The best advice comes from St Augustine, who said the following words to his people over sixteen hundred years ago: ‘“You all say, ‘The times are troubled, the times are hard, the times are wretched.’ Live good lives and you will change the times. By living good lives you will change the times and have nothing to grumble about.”’ (Sermo 311.8). It can be easy to see bad things happening, but not realise is ours to be the change we want to see. For ‘the righteous shall live by his faith’ (Hab 2:4). If we want to live in a word filled with love, kindness and generosity, then it is up to us to do something about it. 

In Luke’s Gospel this morning the apostles ask for the Lord to increase their faith. He does this firstly after His Resurrection, and secondly with the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Likewise our growth in faith is a gradual process: it takes time, a lifetime in fact. It happens by the grace of God. We may long for something instant, but God’s ways are not our ways. Faith is like a mustard seed, it starts small, but in time can grow into something large. How does it happen? The parable which Jesus tells gives us the answer: through service. Not the most glamorous of answers, certainly, and that’s the point. All we can say is, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ (Lk 17:10). We are not worthy: God makes us worthy, through His Son, who dies for us and fils us with His love. The work of the Gospel is at one level up to us, the Body of Christ, His Church. We have to live our faith out in our lives (as fine words butter no parsnips). Christianity is a way of life, a way mocked and scorned by the world around us, written off as irrelevant, and yet close to the God who loves us and saves us.

We should not be afraid as God has given us ‘a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.’ (2Tim1: 7) Self-control is not exactly the most glamorous of things, but it is crucial if we want to grow in faith. Through it we grow in virtue by the grace of God. It goes hand in hand with the service envisaged by the Gospel passage this morning. We imitate the example of the saints, we ‘follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.’ (2Tim 1:13-14) By imitation of virtuous examples our characters are formed. We become what we imitate, and most of all we imitate Christ, who gave himself for us, and who comes to us this morning under the outward forms of bread and wine to feed us with Himself, so that we might become what He is. So that we might be transformed, more and more into His likeness, to live out our faith in the world, and share our faith with others so that they might come to believe and sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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