Preached October 25, 1998
The story of the Pharisee and the IRS agent only appears every three years as we read the Gospel according to Luke. But when it does appear, it always comes on the Sunday before election day. It would be nice to give the designers of the Lectionary credit for this sardonic twist, but my hunch is the Holy Spirit did it.
The Pharisees as you know are Episcopalians. Educated, well-bred, clever, religiously careful if not scrupulous. Their sins are white-collar if any; their falls from grace fill the bin marked "peccadilloes". They aren't very good at being bad. They are good at figuring out who else has crossed over the line. They run the system, so they get to say where the lines are drawn. Basically they are good people and the fellow in today's story is gooder than most. Ask him, he'll tell you.
In the back corner of the open space in the courtyard of the Temple is a fellow who is equally convinced he is bad. Like the Pharisee he too is right. He is an extortioner. He really is an IRS agent who sets quotas and picks on the little people who cannot fight back, the people with no accountants or lawyers. We have been reading about him all year in 1998.
Both of these people are right. The Good guy really is a good guy and the Bad guy really is a bad guy. The Good guy is proud of his goodness and the Bad guy is ashamed of his badness. They are right about themselves up to a point and this they have in common.
What else they have in common is an absolute inability to deal with God. The Good guy thinks that God is impressed with his religious accomplishments, especially after he goes to church and lists them for anyone to hear. God should be impressed with him, after all, God is his creator. But all God asked of him was to love God and what he ends up doing is something short of that, he has fallen in love with his own religiousness. Nowadays we call it narcissism. God is not waiting around for us to be good enough. God is loving us into relationship with himself. Obviously God is not done with the Pharisee.
On the other hand, the IRS guy has come to terms with his own having fallen short. But like the Good guy he has not reckoned with God either. God is almost done with him. God has brought him to self-awareness and perhaps even repentance. These gifts are bringing the Bad guy into a fabulously intimate relationship with God, and there lies his hope, something he never expected.
There is a Hasidic story which parallels the Gospel in a marvelous way. A rabbi falls into a frenzy of religious passion one day. He rushes up before the ark and falls on his knees, beating his breast and crying: "I'm nobody! I'm nobody."
The Cantor of the synagogue impressed by this example of spiritual humility joins the rabbi on his knees and also prays in a loud voice: "I'm nobody! I'm nobody."
The janitor, watching from the corner, couldn't restrain himself either. He joined the other two on his knees: "I'm nobody! I'm nobody."
At this point the rabbi nudged the cantor and whispered: "Look who thinks he's nobody."
If we have learned anything at all about the holiness of the human spirit and its cognate category, civil rights, it is that if somebody is going to be nobody, it is their own call, they get to say so, not someone else. Holiness supposes that I know who I am adequately enough to define myself, to say who I am, somebody, nobody, anybody.
Which brings us to the issue of the day: Who is going to decide what a marriage covenant is? Some say the Hawai'i State Legislature. This is the answer for the people on our front sidewalk last week, the VOTE YES PEOPLE. Like the Pharisees, I am sure they are mostly really good people. They mean well. Like the Pharisees they have not counted on God, and for the same reason. They are so sure they are right that they are willing to abrogate the Constitution of the State of Hawaii and have the legislature interpret it. They are willing to suspend the right of personal self-definition and define some people as nobodies, people who should not have the rights that all of the rest of us have who were born different.
I think we church people should count on God for the kind of forgiveness and tolerance God showed to the IRS agent and the Pharisee. God allowed narcissism and venality and offered relationship to them both. Curiously the nobody is the one who appropriated God's gift.
I have confessed this before, but I feel called to do it again. The active demonization of Gay and Lesbian people in our state through the media by various kinds of Pharisees has radicalized me. I will continue to do everything I can to find a way for persons of the same gender to enjoy the same civil rights and ecclesiastical blessing that are available to me.
Let me be clear at the end of these remarks. The Episcopal Church in Hawai'i does not solemnize marriages between persons of the same sex. It is explicitly not provided for by the Prayer Book and our Bishop has asked us to be obedient. In the meantime I hope and pray the time will come that some provision for the blessing of committed unions of persons of the same sex will be available through our Church. I think we should not call it marriage, partly because it is inflammatory and leads to all kinds of apples and oranges comparisons.
We all know of persons who live faithful holy lives in partnership with persons of the same sex. They are beloved of God, and the Church needs to find a way to say so.
I would not dream of saying from this pulpit how anyone else should vote. But I think you have figured out that I will vote NO so that I can say a real YES to our sisters and brothers that others would call nobodies.
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