The Rev. Patrick Blaney
Slideshow image

It is wonderful to be with you again as you celebrate a life of stewardship and discipleship with Jesus. I believe that you are a congregation that worships and learns together and that encourages each other to grow in faith and love.

It was exciting to learn that one of the readings appointed for today is the reading from Luke. I want to focus my remarks on this source this morning. The Luke reading has a bit of a sting to it doesn’t it? Jesus’ response to the tax collector probably surprises some of us.

Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were seen as the lowest form of life. They colluded with the occupying force - the Romans. They collected far more tax than was required by the Romans and then lined their own pockets.  And when the locals objected, they would use the Roman army to coerce the money out of their own countrymen! Indeed, you couldn’t have met a nastier set of people.

In contrast to the tax collector, the Pharisee was seen as the pillar of respectability in Jewish Society – after all he was very religious. He was what we would consider to be a good man. He pointed to three things that he thought made him a cut above the others.

Firstly he kept the 10 commandments. He said:  “I thank God that I am not like other men- robbers, evildoers and adulterers or even like this tax collector. Secondly he fasted twice a week – probably on Monday and Thursday. Such a fast usually consisted of living that day on bread and water. And the third thing that would have been considered highly in Jewish society, was that he tithed. Look at what he said: “I fast twice a week and I give a tenth of all I get.” In other words he gave 10% or more of his earnings to church.

Surely this man had everything going for him.  Shouldn’t God be honoured to have this man on his side? But look at the attitude of the Pharisee - it was so self-centred - that unholy Trinity of “I, myself and me.” So what made the tax collector more acceptable to God than the Pharisee. Clearly it was the tax collector’s attitude.

He does three things that are acceptable to God, when he prayed. He realised his inadequacies – symbolised by the fact that he “stood at a distance”. He didn’t come smugly into the presence of God but realised his unworthiness. He showed that he was ashamed of himself – by the fact that he didn’t feel worthy enough to “look up to heaven”. He was full of remorse for what he had done – symbolised by the fact that he “beat his breast and said: God have mercy on me, a sinner”.

Recently I’ve been reading a book by David Brooks called “The Road to Character” that I think helps understand this passage. In his best-selling book, Brooks is updating a 1965 essay by American Rabbi and philosopher Joseph Soloveitchik, who distinguished between Adam I and Adam II.

Brooks’ contemporary version of this question is: “Do you live for your resume or for your eulogy?” Adam I is the builder, creator user, starter – someone who is narcissistic in that they want recognition for their achievements. Adam I lives for the resume. Adam II, wants to embody certain moral qualities, to have a serene inner character, not only to do good but to be good. Adam II, lives for the eulogy.

To live, and to be, is to transcend the truth and have an inner coherence of soul. Adam II wants to obey a calling, and serve the world. Adam I asks how things work; Adam II asks why things exist and what ultimately we’re here for.

When I think about the Pharisee, he is clearly Adam I. He is living for his resume. He is concerned with himself and how he will be regarded. Being very self-congratulatory, he wants us to know how good he is: he follow the commandments; he fasts; and he tithes. He is going through the motions of discipleship and it is Jesus who remarks that the Pharisee has no humility.

Our Adam II is the tax collector. We see that he knows he is a sinner; he is imperfect; but, he wants to change that. He wants to strengthen his moral character; he wants to be remembered in his eulogy as an upstanding, contributing member of the community.

Brooks says we live in a culture that nurtures Adam I. We are taught to be assertive and master skills, to broadcast our likeability. We strive to get more likes; to get more followers; to consume more. So how do we be more like Adam II – how do we get our lives more in balance? How do we nourish our Adam II heart, and mind, and spirit? Is there a way to learn to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? Brooks offers some solutions to develop our hearts. First there is love, for a person, for our God. If we love unconditionally, we learn to be humble because we know that we no longer have control of ourselves – the centre of ourselves is outside of us.

Those of us who have suffered will know Brooks’ second solution. Suffering forms us as we learn our lack of control over our lives. It also calls us to deep introspection and equips us with a moral calling. We build character when we have deep internal struggles. The tax collector was struggling, trying to be better; he was seeking forgiveness. He was trying to become a disciple. Brooks’ third solution is obedience. We respond to a call from outside ourselves. We find a cause, a passion, a desire to serve others. We hear God calling us to obey and serve.

We learn to accept what God’s shares with us. We’re not struggling like Adam I, working and sweating to receive recognition from our peers. No, the spiritual side of our nature stands against the whole ethos of self-cultivation; which is the resume side of our world – the ethos of scrambling, working, climbing. Brooks’ gives the example of the journalist and activist, Dorothy Day, who brimmed with gratefulness after the birth of her child; acceptance energizes the accepted. Eulogy people “want to honor the people who gave them that gift, and they want to pass on the gift that they didn’t deserve”, Brooks writes.

God spoke to the fourteenth-century mystic Catherine of Siena, saying, “I did not intend my creatures to make themselves servants and slaves to the world’s pleasures – that is an Adam I-like posture. They owe their first love to me. Everything else they should love and possess, as I told you, not as if they owned it but as something lent them.”

No such transfer of ownership occurs. God has created all that is, and God continues to own all that is. Everything we have still belongs to God. We are given the privilege and responsibility to care for that which belongs to our heavenly Father. That is more like Adam II.

For disciples, does that mean all we have to do is to believe in Jesus? We heard in the 2nd Timothy reading today a form of acceptance – as Paul waits to be united with God. He even prays for those who have not supported him. For Paul, the term belief means more. In Paul’s society, belief in someone, meant that you followed their way of life. If you believed in Socrates, it meant you lived your life according to Socrates’ principles. Belief in those days meant something more than it means today. For Paul and for James, believing in Jesus would change your lifestyle. James sums it up very well in his letter when he says: “In the same way, faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead.” But someone will say: "You have faith, I have deeds". Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by what I do.”

The Christian faith is, I would suggest to you, more than assent to an “intellectual proposition about God”. It is a way of life – a change of lifestyle – a shifting from the resume lifestyle to the eulogy lifestyle. We no longer live for ourselves. Look at what St. Paul said about his Christian life: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20) If Christ lives in me, I can no longer go on living my life selfishly. Paul becomes like Adam II.

I want to turn now to the question of how this shift in our way of living can affect our parish communities. For many, stewardship has the reputation of being about “paying the bills”. Some see the church as a kind of club. The membership needs to kept up so our professionals can do their work. It is a very institutionally-based focus: members pay the bills and fund the internal ministry by the priest, and the goal is to live in a way that doesn’t disappoint any of the members. I find it a bit shocking, really.

Charles Lane in his superb book, “Ask Thank Tell” writes that “When it comes time to talk about financial support for the congregation's ministry, too often next year's budget is paraded before the congregation, and people are asked to increase their giving so that the budget can go up. This is membership giving, not discipleship giving.” Discipleship and stewardship is not about “paying the bills.” There is an enormous difference! It is really about how you handle your relationship with God. Your stewardship team probably has a mission statement similar to that written by Lane that is “to help God’s people grow in their relationship with Jesus through the use of the time, talents, and finances God has entrusted to them.” We hear echoes of God’s conversation with Catherine of Siena, don’t we?

As a disciple, our primary relationship is with God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit; not the institution. As disciples, we are working on our Adam II side. We live out our relationship, learning to accept God’s direction; and, we are nurtured in our faith in the parish where we belong. As a disciple, we do the ministry in partnership with the clergy and other disciples. We learn to respond to God’s generous sharing of resources with which we have been entrusted.

When we focus on the giver's need to give, we will also help people ask the right question. Don't ask the membership question, "How much does the church need?" Rather, ask the discipleship question, "How is God calling me to respond to God's presence in my life? When we focus on the giver's need to give, we will inevitably use the language of discipleship, not the language of membership. Lane continues: "Rather than taking credit for my wealth, my wealth ought to cause me to ponder why God has chosen to so bless me. Rather than focusing my life on amassing wealth that dramatically exceeds my needs, I ought to focus my life on using the wealth that God has entrusted to me to help those who have less."

Michael Foss has identified six traits of discipleship that I commend to you. Begin with daily prayer and daily scripture reading. Come to church every week to be nurtured in your discipleship. Learn to be generous in giving and as Jesus did, serve others. Lastly, share your faith with those who are lost.

As we live into our eulogistic selves, we grow ever more humble, hearing the words of Jesus: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Let us pray: God beyond our knowing, we make you into an idol to serve our own needs. Teach us the power of generosity that interrupts the logic of scarcity with the extravagant self-giving of divine love. Humble our arrogance by the strangeness of your coming and the wonder of your mercy; through Jesus Christ, the friend of Pharisees and tax collectors. Amen.

By Glen Mitchell