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A Tale of Two Liturgies (last week’s sermon)

October 30, 2010

Luke 18: 9-14

“I thank you God that I am not like other people…” says the pharisee … “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even this tax-collector”

How many of you heard the prayer of that Pharisee and thought ‘thank God I don’t think like that’

I once did a service for the burial of ashes… I didn’t know the deceased at all. I arrived at the cemetery and did a brief service of committal in front of three small caskets of the ashes of dead family members with other family members gathered around. Afterwards I was told how the Mother had lived a somewhat colourful life and the kids ended up with different fathers, the daughter was a raging alcoholic who died young and the nephew was a child murdered by his father at only 6 months old.

It’s easy to think, “There but for the grace of God go I”. Lord, I thank you that I am not like some people…

Thank God I don’t think like Paul Henry… Thank God I don’t think like those hypocrites who kicked Paul Henry out. Thank God I don’t watch all that rubbish on TV. Thank God I’m not one of those religious snobs who can’t let their hair down a bit, and who think their superior to others. Thank God…

I wonder if you have ever reflected on the practical impossibility of not comparing yourself to others.

As human beings we are social animals… we have our antennae up for our place in relation to others

Those of you who have kids at school will have noticed the change in reports these days. In the new system we are told that Johnny can solve algebra equations, but never how well he can do it in relation to others. We don’t know if he’s top of the class, bottom of the class or average. It just tells us what he’s learnt to do. And as parents we really want to know how Johnny shapes up compared to others. If we’re honest it’s got a lot to do with how good it makes us feel about ourselves when Johnny does well. These things matter. It feels good to have a successful family.

The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth once wrote: When we speak of our virtues we become competitors. When we confess our sins we become brothers [and sisters].

Lord have mercy on me a sinner. The words of the tax-collector resonate deeply with our Christian faith. They are at the heart of our worship. Every Sunday we confess our sin. Lord have mercy on me a sinner. That is our liturgy… do it often enough and you start to really believe it, it gets into your bones and heart. We are sinners. God desires to have mercy.

Compare the liturgy of Christian worship with the liturgy of a School Assembly. Schools don’t believe that children are sinners. They believe they are successful learners, who if praised will succeed. School assemblies celebrate success and encourage competition. You can’t help but develop a competitive ethos if you celebrate success. Humans are social animals nervously looking out for their place in the world. Am I ok? Am I as good as him or her? When we speak of our virtues we become competitors. When we confess our sins we become brothers and sisters.

Can you see the clash of cultures? This idea of praising success is not just in schools, it is very deep in our culture. And one reason we think it’s ok is that we believe that we can have self-esteem quite independently of what others around us think. The culture we live in says that people are basically individuals and we don’t need to be swayed, we don’t need to compare ourselves, we don’t need to be insecure. We can, by the right kind of thinking, put behind us any insecurities we might have and go confidently and independently forward towards a better world.

Have you ever considered how impossible it is not to compare yourself to others? How deeply who you are is bound up with those around you?

The gospel tells us that no man is an island… the wounds of the past continue into the present

What the gospel offers us is not encouragement but grace, not praise for our effort or our good intentions but grace.

When someone tells me they are a failure, they are useless, they have ruined their lives… its very tempting for me to offer encouragement or praise, or false consolation. It’s all right. You’re not all that bad. You can do better.

But that’s not the word I have been given to share. The gospel tells us that yes we are sinners… we do fail, again and again. It’s not ok. It’s a problem. We are caught up in a problem together. Caught up in Jesus Christ, caught up by the Spirit in his life… we can be set free. But that happens when we know we’re not ok, we’re sinners… sinners who receive mercy.

It’s not that I’m better or worse than that tax collector or prostitute over there. I may be. But that ceases to be relevant. All I know is that we’re both sinners delighted and overwhelmed by the liberating mercy of God, who didn’t turn a blind eye to our sin, but suffered its violent consequences, exposed it for what it is… exposed the whole world for what it is, the powers that control it and so on… and gave God’s very self into our chaos to set us free. The whole shebang has been interrupted by God, forever.

By a God who did not stand on status, but emptied himself to take the life of a slave, a nobody, a nobody raised up so that we might share in his freedom… to also empty ourselves out and live.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2010 8:41 am

    Thank you for the sermon. I normally confess my weaknesses fishing for complements.


  1. Here and there … « P e r ∙ C r u c e m ∙ a d ∙ L u c e m

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