Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘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.’
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 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.”
I can honestly say that I have never prayed the Pharisee’s prayer in church. But I must confess that it is my typical litany as I stand in a checkout line - especially at Wal-Mart. I pass the time there by sizing up all the people ahead of me and making a mental list of their faults: weight, hair, make-up, clothing, body language, use of the English language... I suspect you know the drill. In my better moments I spend the time in prayer asking God to grant me the gift of seeing those around me as God sees them. Far more than being a better way to endure the wait, I need to be transformed in a way that appreciates the beauty and dignity of every human being; for each of us is created in the image of God and I find that my humanity diminishes whenever I diminish the humanity of another person. My heart, when filled with self-righteous contemptuousness, is not a pretty sight nor is it a suitable dwelling place for the Spirit of the holy and loving God.
I think St. Augustine knew what it was to have a heart like mine. Well after his conversion to Christianity he wrote this about his life-long struggle to know God’s love for all people:
I came to You too late, Oh Beauty, so ancient and so new. Yes, I came to love You too late. What did I know? You were inside me, and I was out of my body and mind looking for You. I drove like an ugly madman against the beautiful things and beings You made.
Denise Levertov, one of my favorite contemporary poets, wrote this in response to what we just heard:
Augustine said his soul
was a house so cramped
God could barely squeeze in.
Knock down the mean partitions,
he prayed, so You may enter!
Raise the oppressive ceiling!
I like her image of a contemptuous heart being like a cramped room; walls closing in on one another and a ceiling so low you must stoop or squat in order to move around. That kind of a room is no place you would want to be for long. It is not the image of what we hope our Christ-filled hearts will be like. And it is not how the Agitator God will leave us.
Augustine continues his story with this:
You were inside me, but I was not inside You… You called to me, cried to me; You broke the bowl of my deafness, You uncovered my beams and threw them at me; You rejected my blindness; You blew a fragrant wind on me, and I sucked in my breath and wanted You; I tasted You and now I want You as I want food and water; You touched me, and I have been burning ever since to have Your peace.
Here is what Levertov wrote regarding Augustine’s soul:
It’s clear desire
fulfilled itself in the asking, revealing prayer’s
dynamic action, that scoops out channels
like water on stone, or builds like layers
of grainy sediment steadily
forming sandstone. The walls, with each thought,
each feeling, each word he set down,
expanded, unnoticed; the roof
rose, and the skylight opened.
I love that image of prayer being like water running over stone, which, in time, scoops out channels in our soul; places where transformation happens, but perhaps happens slowly, unnoticed. Yet in time, the low roof on our hearts begins to rise and a skylight is opened, allowing God’s love to shine into those places inside us that once were dark.
For me, the check-out line is as good a place as anywhere to start the process. Can I allow the other to become more in my mind and my heart and my soul than a label like white trash, welfare mom, old lady, redneck, fat slob, or tax collector. It is a fundamental question: does God love just me – the wonderful me I imagine myself to be – or does God love all that God has made and called good? And if God loves all, how can I begin to allow that love to shine in my closed, cramped, dark heart? If I start in the check-out line and then move to rush hour traffic and then extend it to coworkers, fellow parishioners, neighbors, and family members… well, eventually (to shift the metaphor) channels will be carved in the solid stone of my hard heart through which a love from beyond can freely flow.
Some twenty years ago, The Rev. Carolyn Crawford told a story in a sermon that was so moving it was picked up by newspapers across the country. It was Christmas time and Crawford decided to go to a local Nordstrom’s store to do some shopping. Then as now, Nordstrom’s is a high-end retailer that prides itself on customer service. The store presented an elegant environment with beautiful decorations and Christmas carols played by a man in tuxedo at a grand piano. The store conveyed all the sights, sounds, and aromas of the season for its well-heeled cliental.
As Crawford browsed she noticed a woman in ragged clothes pushing an old shopping cart filled with tattered possessions. Figuring this bag lady would soon be escorted from the store by security guards, Crawford decided to follow at a distance and observe. The disheveled figure wandered from one department to another and surprisingly no one asked her to leave.
Eventually the woman made her way to the very expensive “Special Occasions” department where a stylishly-dressed saleswoman greeted her. They discussed the latest styles, colors, and fabrics that one might look for in a dress for a gala event. After searching through evening dresses in her size, the homeless customer chose about a half dozen to try on and the attentive saleswoman assisted her to the dressing rooms. Emerging several times and each time wearing a different dress, the saleswoman helped her evaluate her selections: “A perfect color for you.” “This one really works well with your hair and eyes.” “You look so elegant in that dress.” The bag lady who had shuffled into store was standing upright now, holding her head high with a renewed sense of dignity and worth.
“Can you hold this one for me?” she asked the saleswoman. “Well, of course I can,” was the reply. “And how long would you like to hold it for you?” “Oh, just a few hours,” said the bag lady. “That will not be a problem,” said the saleswoman, who never let on what both of them knew, that the bag lady would not be coming back to buy a dress she could never afford. And yet, with the same dignity and respect that she would show for any of the other wealthy customers, the saleswoman set aside the dress, asked what else she might do to be of service, and thanked the woman for shopping at Nordstrom’s.
After the homeless woman left the store, Crawford approached the saleswoman and asked about the incident. The woman replied, “Here at Nordstom’s, our only goal is to satisfy the customer. My job is always and only to serve and be kind.” And when she told this story to her congregation, Crawford gave her sermon the title “The Gospel according to Nordstom’s.”
Where should you start to live out the Gospel? Where should you pray for the ceiling to be raised on your dark heart? Where should you ask for God’s grace to flow and flow and flow over the hardened stone of your inner world? Well, a good place to start is wherever your thoughts (or maybe even your prayers) go something like this: “Thank God I am not like other people… especially like that person over there.”