Hearts Set Afire for God

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay
Today - Proper 25C (22nd Sunday after Pentecost)

The nature of our prayer came to my mind this week as I was reading the short prayer of the tax collector in today’s gospel: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”[1] The normal prayer stance of the early Jewish church was with arms outstretched toward the heavens ["orans"], but this tax collector, so ashamed by his sins, could not even bear to look up to heaven and is instead, beating his breast. In stark contrast to this short, impassioned plea to God, is the prayer of the Pharisee who offers thanks to God: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”[2] At first glance, we might be tempted to assume that fasting and tithing are not the kinds of activities which interest God, but this reading would be to miss an important point.

The praying Pharisee is not being criticized by Jesus for his spiritual practices. In fact, fasting and tithing – the two practices the Pharisee lifts up in his prayer and the prayer itself – are all practices that the early Jews believed were central to faithful observance – central to what it meant to be righteous - and Jesus, in this parable, is critical of neither.[3] In fact, the Episcopal Church has similar practices, certain patterns of behavior that we consider to be part of faithful or righteous living. The clearest example comes from our Lenten observance which is ushered in Ash Wednesday with the following words: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”[4] So, it is not the type of spiritual practices in which the Pharisee engages that trouble Jesus and make the Pharisee the target of this particular parable.

But instead it is the first portion of the Pharisee’s prayer that Jesus raises up as problematic: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Even the description of the Pharisee points to the issue: “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying.”[5] The Pharisee has assumed that his position sets him apart from all others – from those sinners over there – and elevates him to a place of superiority. New Testament scholar, Alan Culpepper, writes,

“The Pharisee asks nothing of God. He presumes, rather, that he is not a sinner and that his fasting and tithing are ample evidence of his piety. The Pharisee gives no evidence of either humility or contrition before God. . . . Those who trust in their own righteousness will regard others with contempt, and those who regard others with contempt cannot bring themselves to rely on God’s grace.”[6]
In short, the spiritual practices the Pharisee is following – prayer, tithing, and fasting – have become meaningless because they are no longer rooted in a life of relationship to God and others.

I sometimes wonder if the same thing happens to us. We are particularly at risk because of the words of our prayer books. It is easy when we are repeating words written on a page or words long ago memorized to become so comfortable that we lose focus, we stop paying attention. We risk forgetting about our complete and utter reliance on the gracious God of our faith. For all that we are and all that we have come first from God. And when we lose sight of our dependence on God, we run the risk of cutting ourselves off from God’s grace – not because God withdraws this grace, but because we have withdrawn ourselves and are no longer receptive to the grace that is before us.

This week, I was reading a collection of essays on prayer and came across this Hasidic parable in an essay by the Jewish spiritual storyteller Yitzhak Buxbaum:

“There was once a king who so loved music that he directed his musicians to play for him each morning. The musicians came to the palace and performed, not only to obey the king’s command, but also because they loved and respected the king and valued their chance to be in his presence. So every morning they played for the king with enthusiasm and delight. For many years all went well. The musicians enjoyed playing each morning for the king, and the king enjoyed listening to their music.

When, at last, the musicians died, their sons sought to take their places. But, alas, they had neither mastered the musical art of their fathers nor had they kept their instruments in proper condition. Worse still, the sons did not love the king as did their fathers. They just blindly followed their fathers’ custom of arriving each morning at the palace to perform. But the harsh sounds of their music were so offensive to the king’s ear that after a time he ceased listening.

Then, several of the young musicians developed a renewed love and reverence for the king, however pale compared to the love and reverence of their fathers, and they realized that the king had stopped listening to their uninspired music. Although they wanted to perform to honor the king, the small group recognized that their inadequate skills made them unworthy to play before him.

So they set about the difficult task of relearning the forgotten art that should have been their inheritance from their fathers. Every day, before coming to the king, they spent time tuning their instruments. Upon entering the palace concert room and hearing the racket of the other musicians, they sought out an obscure corner for themselves where they could play undisturbed. They also remained long after the other musicians had departed, so that they might improve their skill. And in their homes they continued to practice and to struggle with their instruments as best they could.

The king was aware of their efforts and was pleased, for even though they did not play with the same talents as their fathers, still they strove, to the best of their abilities, to once more bring pleasure and joy to the king. Thus was their music received by the king with favor.”[7]

In the parable, the music, when disconnected from the relationship with the king, becomes only so much noise bringing pleasure to neither the musicians nor the king. It was only when this connection, this relationship, began to be restored that the music began once again to be a delight to player and king alike.

Our churches spend a great deal of time considering what prayers we should say, what words we should change and what words should remain the same. We worry a lot about what kind of music will bring people into the doors of our churches. And those of you who have spoken with me about these matters, know that I believe these things are very important. However, unless and until our relationship with God and with one another is on the right path, no words and no music will ever be able to open our hearts and minds to the magnificent grace of God.

At the top of your bulletin each week, I have been including a prayer for your use before worship and I hope each of you has had a chance to see it there and perhaps to pray it on occasion.

“O Almighty God, who pourest/who pours out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and of supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to thee/you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship thee/you in spirit and in truth”[8]

Kindled affections – hearts set afire for God. That is the prayer of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner! And, with our arms stretched out toward heaven, let it be our prayer as well “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.

[1] Luke 18:13b.
[2] Luke 18:11b.
[3] Michael Joseph Brown, Bridgette D. Young, and Shively T. J. Smith, “I'm Better Than You! - 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 25, Year C” Out in Scripture accessed online on October 27, 2007.
[4] BCP, 265.
[5] Luke 18:11a.
[6] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. IX (Luke / John), (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1995), 342, 343.
[7] “The Parable of the King’s Orchestra,” in Yitzhak Buxbaum, “Praying for Real: Hasidic Teachings,” The Power of Prayer, edited by Dale Salwak, (New York: MJF Books, 1998), 188-9.
[8] BCP, 833.