Proper 25C; Luke 18:9-14
My Wednesday Word last week touched on following Jesus as art, not science. I hadn't ever put discipleship into those words before, but the more I think about it, the more I like it.
In science there are rules that need to be followed. Those rules can be examined and challenged and tested, but you need to follow a strict protocol. You just don't make things up willy nilly. Art, however, is something different.
Don't get me wrong, rules are a necessary part of life. All sports are governed by a set of rules. When we leave here to go home, we will all abide by the rules of the road. When I go see my surgeon next month, I will pull out my phone while in the waiting room and I will be confronted with rules for acceptable online behavior before I can surf the web killing time. The Episcopal church has a set of rules we call the Constitution and Canons. Saint John's is governed by a set of rules we call Bylaws. Some rules may seem frivolous while others are more important.
One of those more important rules concerns our volunteers. As we come back from COVID and begin to reopen a variety of activities, volunteers will be required to take the Safe Church classes. These rules will help ensure that our most vulnerable people are protected and safe from abuse and mistreatment.
But sometimes we can get so caught up in the rules that we lose sight of what is really important. The letter of the law doesn't always reflect the spirit of the law. Some of those rules are written, and some develop as traditions over time.
I'm reminded about the story of a priest who had served a congregation for 30-some years, and who was loved, respected, and seen as deeply holy by his parishioners. When he administered Holy Communion he had a practice of reverently touching the aumbry at the end of the Communion rail before he returned to begin the next row of people. Since the aumbry is where the reserved Blessed Sacrament is kept, people saw this as a way he connected with Christ during Communion.
He eventually retired and a new priest was called to serve the congregation. But this priest didn't observe the tradition of her elders and she didn't reverently touch and honor the reserved Sacraments while distributing Communion. A few concerned parishioners approached her about her lack of reverence and respect. She contacted the former rector about this who told her this act was done to discharge static electricity that had built up as he went down the rail, thus avoiding accidentally shocking the first person on the other end.
People got so caught up in this “rule” of touching the aumbry that they lost sight of the beauty of receiving Holy Communion.
When we get caught up in the rules – especially when they are rules which we follow and then use to judge others – we can become like the Pharisee in today's parable.
I thank God I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, tax collectors. He probably didn't steal. He was probably trustworthy. If married, he was faithful. He didn't collaborate with the Romans. All of this made it much easier to elevate himself and condemn others who did those things.
But . . . did he idolize his wealth? Did he always rest on the Sabbath? Did he treat his parents with honor and respect? Was he jealous of his neighbors' possessions? Did he ever mistreat an alien/foreigner? And the list goes on.
We all have a tendency to look at big sins – I don't steal, I don't kill people, I'm faithful to my spouse, whatever – or things we would never do – speeding, cheating on taxes, lying about hours worked – and convince ourselves that we are not like other people, that we are better than them, and we thank God that I am not like them. But are we? Are we really better than them?
Between our own Baptismal Covenant and the Catechism, there are things you and I promise to do. How are you at resisting evil? Do you actively proclaim in word and deed the good news of God in Christ? Do you strive for justice? Do you respect the dignity of EVERY human being? Do you gather in worship every week? Do you work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom? The Exhortation calls us to examine our lives and conduct to perceive where we have offended. Do you do that on a regular basis? Have you arranged for an individual confession? And the list goes on.
These are all things for which we can probably justify why we haven't been consistent. Or that we do more than someone else, so we aren't that bad. I think this is exactly what the Pharisee was doing – “Look at everything I do and how much better I am than those other people.”
Next to the Pharisee was a tax collector. He also has rules he must live by, but when it comes to God he has fallen woefully short, and he knows this. I can imagine him listening to the Pharisee and thinking, “I am all of those things he is not, and for that I repent and ask for God's mercy.”
Here is where I think about art. You, maybe like me, may think art is neat and beautiful. And it is when we think about famous paintings or sculptures or music. Paintings like Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, or Michelangelo's David, or the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
But have you ever seen an artist's studio? It's messy. Paint cans are strewn all over. There's paint on the floor and on the painter's hands, clothes, and maybe hair. Or there are chunks of marble laying around with dust everywhere. Not to mention pieces of a sculpture that went wrong. Do you know it took almost 334 hours in the recording studio to produce Sgt. Pepper?
Art is messy and it takes work. We humans are messy and we take work. Discipleship is messy and it takes work. Following Jesus and discipleship is more than following a set of neat and tidy rules. I think part of following Christ is listening for what speaks to you, how you hear your call, and doing all you can to bring it to fruition.
To paraphrase St. Paul: Not all of us are sculptors, not all of us are painters, not all are musicians. If all were painters, where would the music be?
Discipleship is not always about following a set of rules like the Pharisee tried to do. Discipleship is more like art: often messy and full of mistakes, just like the tax collector acknowledged. Our faith and discipleship shouldn't be a science fair bound by rules and judges. Our faith and discipleship should be more like an art festival with a variety of beautiful projects where we have not only given our best, but acknowledged where we have made mistakes.
In a world full of rules and people shouting, “Look at me,” let us be artists who say, “Here I am.”