THE HUMILITY OF FAITH
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on 23 October 2022 [Proper 25/C]:
Joel 2:23-342; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
I must admit that I have fallen behind on my autumn chores. The most pressing one is to corral all the fallen leaves and get them to the compost pile. The combination of the rain that we had last week and the emergence of unplanned events has left me with a very colorful carpeting of leaves on my lawn and in my gardens – so much so that the leaves are coming inside the house. Over the years I have devised a system that I refer to as “leaf rodeo”. I use my leaf blower (admittedly not an environmentally friendly device but nonetheless a very helpful tool in terms of my limited time and my body’s well-being). Corralling the leaves into a huge mound along a fence that is just above the compost bin, I then take my lawn mower (another environmentally unfriendly, fossil-fueled tool) and mulch the leaves to reduce their bulk. Then I use my environmentally friendly rake and swoosh the huge amount of shredded organic material into this season’s compost bin, having previously moved last year’s material to an accessible spot for garden replenishment.
I do this work largely because I love what happens to the leaves and the other organic matter we entrust to the compost pile. As any gardener knows, with a little tending the process of decomposition creates “black gold” – new and rich soil, called humus. From fallen leaves whose glory has passed to incredibly beautiful and enriching soil for growing, the composting process applies to much more than garden, lawn, and tree detritus. It’s what life is about both in terms of nature and God. There is a crucial process of transformation for all God’s creation – from old to new.
In this morning’s gospel lesson, we have yet another of Jesus’ parables that implicitly highlight an aspect about the nature of faith. For the four previous weeks, the gospel lesson has quietly raised characteristics about faith. In week one, through the parable of “Dives and Lazarus”, faith was illuminated in terms of awareness. In week two, the disciples cried out to Jesus to “increase our faith!” only to discover that like a muscle, faith must be used in the routine things to be able to handle the big things. In week three, the parable of the “Ten Lepers” raised the issue of faith’s foundation producing gratitude. And last week, week four, we met the widow whose faithful persistence had the capacity to move a hard-hearted judge. In all these parables, Jesus teaches us about faith’s many facets and how our living with these facets can and does make all the difference in our lives with one another and with God.
So, on this fifth week, with the aid of one more parable (the one about the “Tax Man and the Pharisee”), Jesus draws our attention to faith’s involvement with humility. And as with the autumn leaves falling and having the potential to be transformed into rich humus, likewise humility’s expression of faith speaks to the transformation into the new and lasting life we see and share with the Risen One. And because humus and humility share the same Latin root word, I want to speak about this transformation in terms of understanding the faith we seek and share and live.
Engaging with you over the last month with these stories, I have noted that each of Jesus’ parables follows a literary style and format, the key point of which is always to convey what life with God is like; and moreover that the central point of the narrative always comes as a challenging surprise to folks like us. This is to say that the parables of Jesus are not just simple, moral tales about what “good” or “faithful” people do or don’t do. Rather with subtle strength the parables of Jesus speak of what “good” and “faithful” people do or don’t do because of encountering the transforming and stunning truth that God-in-Christ loves us passionately – no matter what. In this love, our lives are changed and enriched.
So it is that the “Publican”, the “Taxman”, and the strict Pharisee are shown praying in the solitude of the Temple. We can tell from the content of each prayer what the issue is. The austere, “blue-stocking” Pharisee’s prayer is about him and how “good”, how unerring his faith life is. In noted comparison, the Taxman can’t even bear to look up to heaven but rather confesses what he knows: that (in the traditional Elizabethan Prayer Book tone) he does not “presume to come to [God’s] Table … trusting in his own righteousness, but in [the Holy One’s] manifold and great mercies.” He knows with deep and painful honesty that he is not “worthy so much as to gather the crumbs under [God’s] Table.” Yet, he also knows – he also has faith – that God is the same Lord “whose property is always to have mercy” – that is, not to give what we deserve –but rather that the great unwashed one may dwell in and with his Maker .
In this personification of the “Prayer of Humble Access”, Jesus announces the great and shocking surprise: namely, that it is this despicable parasite of God’s people, this servant of the Roman oppressor – it is he who goes home “justified” and not the religious, straight-arrow Pharisee.
Humus: The transformation of what is dying or already dead into something that brings new and enriched life. – and all for the asking.
Jesus pronounced the Taxman as “justified”. He certainly wasn’t innocent but justified – justified because at that moment of prayer in the Temple, the wretched Taxman, the Publican, made room for God in his soul. And God did the rest. God’s presence and mercy and love were once again planted in the soil of this fallen leaf’s life. End of Story? No, not at all.
The Taxman was “justified”. God executed God’s justice; and I am sure that once the Pharisee got wind of this that he was livid, most likely crying out: “It’s not fair!” And he is right. It is not fair, but it is just.
We hear a great deal about “justice” nowadays, but rarely it seems do we use this term and our desire for it accurately or clearly. For instance, I am painfully mindful of the Parkland, Florida, shooting trial, (the one where the nineteen-year-old man murdered seventeen people and injured seventeen more, most of whom were high school students. The jury convicted the shooter and sentenced him to life in prison without parole. Many family members of the slaughtered were shocked and outraged by the fact that the death penalty was not given. In pained reaction some spoke of having no justice. Others cried, “What’s the point of having a death penalty, if we don’t use it?”
I don’t know what I would say or do or even feel if I were in those family members’ position. I do know that “justice” needs to be spoken of and offered in its clearest and most faithful sense. “Justice” means “reunion”. The Greek term is dikaiosyne, and it means “reunion”, which indicates that there is an original “union” that has been subsequently ruptured, which in turn needs to be restored to its intended and necessary state.
For followers of Jesus, this is our call to action: That the will of God is Communion (that is, to be in union with the Creator and the Creator’s creation – including all God’s people; that we have “opposed” God’s will, the consequence of which creates a deadly separation (sin), as of a leaf separated from its tree. “Justice”, therefore, is needed. To reunify what has been broken, to breach the gap that separates so there can be new life – humus life, humble life where there is room for God at the center.
Because we believe that God has given us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves – that is, reunion, justice – because in Christ God has given us the grace and the mercy that reunites, we can be in the position to receive new life and thereby be transformed from dry leaf to rich and new soil. We are, therefore, justified in our willingness to receive what God alone gives. But the key issue for our side of this relationship is how deeply do we allow this transformation of our fallen leaves to become God’s humus.
You see, there is no silver bullet to this justification process. God is God – at all times and in all places; but we must give ourselves to the holy makeover, to the justice, to the reunion that God desires. And this is not a “one and done” experience but a constant matter of tending our connection with God.
Did the Taxman turn his life around? Did he become a shining example of resurrection life? We don’t know, and that’s the point. The parable’s story doesn’t say. Just like the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”, we don’t know if that wasteful, bratty, younger son kept sober or not. The fact is that there was a good chance he’d relapse, returning to what he knew best and breaking his father’s heart in the process. Yet, Jesus tells us that God may be broken hearted by our repeated relapsing and our opposition to his will, but the offer for reunion, for justice never wavers. That is what perfect love is all about and what the cross of Christ eternally proclaims.
In Christ’s death and resurrection, we are all “justified”. We are all offered “reunion”, the invitation, and the Way home to new, transformed life. However, the perplexing question is: Why is it so hard for us to take what God offers seriously?
Humus. Humility. Room in us for God. If the leaves could only talk! Amen.
Book of Common Prayer. Holy Eucharist, Rite I, “The Prayer of Humble Access”, page 337.