10/27/2013 sermon: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA
Text: Luke 18:9-14
23 Pentecost, Proper 25, Year C

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!

Two men went into a bar. One man drank himself blotto—as he did every night, at least every night that he could come up with the money. This night, though, he didn’t get back to his home. Instead, he passed out on the street in front of the bar, face down in his own mess.

The other man didn’t drink anything in the bar. Instead, he went from table to table passing out tracts, urging people to stop drinking.

So I ask you, “Who’s the morally correct person here?” And who is the sinner?

We Episcopalians don’t talk much about morals, do we? We just aren’t big on telling anyone else how to behave. Instead, we figure that if you come to church week after week, God will work on you. God will mold you, shape you, into a person whose actions reflect God.

This does happen. A lot. As we see and hear how God is shaping other people, the people around us in church, we are moved to act, to let the God-talk move us into the God-walk. Sometimes, however, I think we Episcopalians just aren’t direct enough.

Take the fellow I left in the bar, for example. The one going from table to table telling other folks about the evils of drink. Doesn’t his actions somehow offend you? Don’t we judge him, by his actions, to be “not our kind of Christian?” Don’t we judge him to be improper in some way? Who is this person, after all, to be telling people in a bar what to do? Is he God?

We are, in some ways, just too familiar with the Jesus stories. We know that Jesus would have made a parable against this man in the bar. Se we don’t go there, don’t do this talking to strangers in bars about their drinking habits.

In fact, we might even be fooled by Jesus’ lack of any type of condemnation for the tax collector (the despised people of his day) into thinking that getting blotto in bars every night is acceptable behavior. But surely we know better than this? After all, the man is even now passed out in the street in front of the bar. Is this the kind of life that Jesus would have us live?

Of course, these two men in the bar are just another way of telling the story that Jesus told about a righteous man—a self-righteous man—and a tax collector. The righteous man (that is to say, the Pharisee) was assumed by all to be morally correct in all things. The tax collector was assumed to not be morally correct, was assumed to have been gouging the poor to get rich while he was collaborating with the Roman conquerors, the enemy of the Jewish people. Jesus’ story assumes that we know this. What he is focusing our attention on is what happens next.

Our righteous man leaves the bar to go home. He sees the unconscious man lying there in his own mess. Perhaps he steps over him, maybe pulls his coat tight around himself. Maybe he drops a tract for the man to find when he sobers up, and then goes on his way thinking, “I thank God that I am not like other people, like this poor sot, for example.”

OR MAYBE our righteous man leaves the bar and, seeing the other passed out in the street, covers him with his own coat and leaves a tract with a note saying, “I, too, am allergic to alcohol. Here’s my phone number; if you want to get sober call me.”

Attitude matters, doesn’t it?

And maybe the drunk man wakes up and crumples the tract into a ball, cursing the religious do-gooder. OR MAYBE, just maybe, he begins the God-prayer, the one I hope and pray that you each are familiar with, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Put another way, this prayer goes, “I, trusting my own goodness rather than in God’s, have made a stinking mess of my life. I can’t fix the mess I’ve gotten myself into. I give up, God, and trust in you to help me make my life right.”

And maybe the tract man prays the God-prayer, too. His version of this prayer would go something like this, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. I thank you for making my life right. Help me when I stumble. Pick me up when I fall. And help me to never forget that I, too, am only a sinner at heart, albeit one who you have filled with your saving love.”

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