A Sermon by Revd Catherine Duce
Readings for this Service: Luke 18 9-14
The exhibition of Anthony Gormley’s life work at the Royal Academy of Arts is a must-see. Never could I have imagined that a pile of steel slabs could portray human emotion in such an evocative way. In one room a dozen or so human beings cry out for our attention. Have you ever seen shame? Have you ever seen timidity? It’s there. As I walk around these lonely steel figures, I find myself wanting to reach out and comfort them. It was as if they were craving something unsettlingly familiar to my own human experience. Steel slabs masterfully crafted, were touching upon a very human reality: our shy, sheepish, seemingly perpetual search for meaningful relationships.
The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector in our gospel today is a story of two people looking for relationship, as they stood in the Temple to pray.
The Pharisee stands apart, ‘by himself’, seeking relationship with God alone. He is a devout man; a man of prayer. His confidence comes from keeping rules; indeed, exceeding the rules expected of him. There was no need for him to keep regular fasting. Likewise, he tithed beyond the requirements of the law. Looking upwards only to God, the Pharisee’s prayer was one of thanksgiving. He stood tall, pleased with his own abilities to exceed the law. This strong vertical relationship with God was his hope for salvation.
The tax-collector, on the other hand, draws near to God with an overwhelming, gut-wrenching awareness of his own mistreatment of others. Beating his breast with contrition, this man knew his need for God. He looked upwards to God for relationship, but he knew in his heart of hearts, that this was about to expose his outward, disordered relationships with others. Here was no saint. And there’s no suggestion his lifestyle changed as a result. But in this man’s confession, a deep yearning is unveiled for restored, merciful, loving relationships.
Perhaps where the Pharisee’s attitude lets him down was in his distain towards others. “I thank you God that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” This attitude blinds him. It isolates him. It denies others fullness of life and dignity before God.
A few years ago I remember being mesmerised by the music of the refugee choir Woven Gold from the Helen Bamber Foundation. They were singing the song ‘I am more. I am more than a survivor’. With an energy, and a zeal that swept listeners to their feet, I was astonished by the way this global group of torture victims could transform adversity into music that captured people’s hearts: “All that was beaten, has not beaten me. All that was taken has not taken me”.
Through the pain, sweat and toil of sharing their most intimate stories. Through a courageous stepping forward from a place of isolation and shame to a place of encounter and friendship, these choir members showed the strength of the human spirit to triumph over adversity. In this way relationships began to be healed and restored in the group.
The Pharisee, however, through his divisive attitude, denies such restoration and healing of others – and God sniffs this out. The tax collector, in contrast, is acutely aware that he himself was being welcomed by a God, someone who least deserved or expected to receive it; thereby exposing the extravagant generosity of God.
What we are touching upon here is another story, the greatest story in human history: and that is of the power of Christ’s death on a cross and Christ’s resurrection, to transform lives.
Let’s take a moment to think about the cross.
I invite you to take a look at the East Window.
I invite you to focus for a moment on the vertical and horizontal reach of the cross – and how it speaks to you today.
The cross stands tall in the face of its own imprisonment and adversity.
Rooted in tradition, anchoring us, and yet reaching high and beyond us to a God who waits patiently for our attention. Merciful. Compassionate. This cross is like a ladder to God. To relationship. I wonder how this cross reaches out to you this day? I am reminded of the words of Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
The cross also reaches wide. Do you feel its embrace? Like a hug. The vast global reach of the cross breaks through our shame and isolation, our anxiety and uncertainty. It encompasses every nation, every ethnicity, every individual, with the unseen chain of God’s love. This embrace mirrors a God who dined with tax collectors and restored the dignity of sinners. I wonder how this cross speaks to you of Christ’s companionship and presence?
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast (Psl. 139)
Yet the vertical and horizontal nature of the cross is not the end of the story.
Let’s take a moment to think about resurrection.
Christianity finds its fulfilment in Christ’s resurrection. The tax collector knew about the cross. His confession showed us this. His humility before God and his restoration of relationships with others found favour with God. The tax collector tasted resurrection and was thereby, justified before God.
The Pharisee, however, did not understand the extravagant generosity of God. He failed to capture God’s radical vision of reconciling all people to God’s self. With no cross, there was no resurrection for this Pharisee. He remained alone and isolated.
As human beings I am convinced that we are made in the image of God to be cross shaped for a purpose. Our bodies are cross shaped to communicate resurrection to the world. Isolation is not the final path. Instead, we can help others find restoration, wholeness and peace in our relationships with each other and with God. This is possible through a healthy vertical relationship with God, alongside healthy, dignified horizontal relationships that heal; this place is called the Kingdom.
We carry the marks of the cross and resurrection wherever we go, despite the messiness of our lives. We reach up to God in trust and prayer, and reach out our arms to a world crying out for connection. So may we carry in our bodies a truth that transcends our own circumstances; a truth that is as contagious as song. We are more than just ourselves. We exist in relationship.
I give the last word to the refugee choir Woven Gold who taught me so much about resurrection hope: Let’s talk about no borders, Let’s sing about no borders, We are all human, And this is our world.