Admitting our sin, openly and honestly: a sermon on Luke 18:9-14

14188523_1260289087335740_7885670721171133113_oBy the Rev. Anna Doherty

Someone once said to me, “The moment you start putting people into categories, you will find

God standing on the other side.”

Which is to say, that the moment when we start differentiating between who is in, and who is out, particularly when it comes to sin and the nature of righteousness…

we will find God standing alongside of the sinner.

And the reason for this, of course, is that we all, every one of us, are broken.

We all are sinners, no matter who we are.

And that’s as true for each of us, as it is also true for other people.

Such that God stands alongside of all us, alongside of those who are broken, and seeks to bring all of God’s people to wholeness.

The thing about Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector in the Temple, is that we actually have no idea about the tax collector’s intentions.

I believe that the tax collector’s repentance and desire for mercy is real—why come to the Temple if not out of a genuine desire for mercy?

But does he leave the Temple changed?

I want to believe that the tax collector leaves the Temple, and ceases participating in the exploitative tax system of the Roman empire…

…but maybe he has a family to feed, and the best he can do is acknowledge his need for mercy, if not his actual capacity to change what he does for a living.

Which points us to the complicated nature of sin, as people of faith.

As well as to the multi-layered way in which God forgives and stands alongside of God’s people.

See our sin, as well as everyone else’s, is both personal and communal.

We, as sinners, do personal harm to ourselves and to others.

We can be selfish, thoughtless, and arrogant, and sometimes even more intentionally malicious, setting ourselves up as better than others.

We act, oftentimes, as self-absorbed and self-congratulatory as the Pharisee in today’s parable.

Sin is, and is often understood to be a personal act of wrongdoing, and the follow up to that, as people of faith, is individual repentance.

We admit that we have done wrong, we apologize, we hold ourselves accountable for our individual actions, and we ask God for forgiveness.

That is what sin is, and simultaneously, that how we acknowledge ourselves as sinners as people of faith, and how we repent, and ask for God’s mercy.

That’s why we say a confession of sin during worship today.

But there’s another category to our sin, that goes beyond just individual guilt and forgiveness.

And that is the understanding of sin as collective systems of oppression that we all participate in.

We can try to be the best people we can be, but we are still trapped in oppressive, evil, sinful, systems that keep us from living more fully as the people God calls us to be.

Systemic sins like the sin of sexism, or racism.

Or other oppressive systems like the exploitation of workers at home and abroad, environmental degradation, or our taxes being used to fund things we might morally disagree with, like wars.

Karl Rahner, the famous Catholic theologian, talks about our being caught in a web of sin, a web that is not solely of our own making, but that we are nonetheless trapped in.

Rahner uses the example of going to the store, buying, and eating a banana.

And, unintentionally, in the act of simply feeding ourselves and enjoying one of the fruits of God’s creation…

…we might have unintentionally supported unfair or low paying labor practices, the exploitation of fruit workers,

or we might have harmed the environment, through the use of the fossil fuels needed to ship us our fruit, or bad growing practices…

You get the idea.

We participate in wider, shared communal sins, a web of sin, even as we commit individual acts of wrongdoing.

And how on earth, you might ask, do we repent of this kind of sin?

As much as we can acknowledge and hold ourselves accountable and repent of the sins we knowingly and intentionally commit…

how do we repent of the sins that we are collectively a part of?

Sins that are no less real for all that they are not entirely of our own making?

We are still participants in these sins, but what does repentance and a return to righteousness look like?

What does it mean for God to have mercy on us for all the ways we sin, both personal and communal?

And that’s where today’s parable is especially helpful.

Because regardless whether or not the tax collector continues to collect taxes, if nothing else, he, at the very least, admits that he has sinned.

The tax collector admits what he has done, rather than solely seeing himself as righteous.

Despite the fact that the Pharisee has done everything that is righteous, according to the standards of his day…

he observes devotional rituals, he attends worship, he tithes to the church…

The Pharisee, even in his own prayers to God, sees only himself, his own righteousness.

He doesn’t or can’t see, his sin, let alone admit it and bring it before God.

That’s why, I would venture to say, today’s gospel provides the interesting detail about the fact that the Pharisee stands all by himself in the midst of the Temple.

Despite the Temple being a crowded, busy communal space, a space meant for all of God’s people to reckon with themselves before God…

that’s not what the Pharisee does.

He doesn’t see himself as a sinner, not individually and certainly not communally.

We actually do this all the time, when we don’t wish to be associated with “those people.”

In the moments when we see ourselves as more righteous, whether it is where we choose to sit in the school cafeteria or in the pews of church.

Whenever we separate ourselves from others because of our own perceived righteousness, then it is, at its heart, a failure to acknowledge our own sin.

Whereas the tax collector, admits openly and honestly his sin.

We don’t know if he is acknowledging his individual sins or his collective ones, but we do know that he admits his need for God’s mercy, before God…

…and he does so in the Temple space, acknowledging the shared nature of all of our sins, as God’s people.

Now, the truth is, the Pharisee has entered the Temple as a righteous man and yes, he still leaves it as a righteous man.

And, as we’ve speculated earlier, we don’t fully know what the tax collector does after this moment;

does he still collect taxes for the empire, taxes that oppress the poor and benefit the violent Roman regime, or not?

But we do know, according to Jesus’ parable, that the tax collector returns to his home justified,

which means in other words, that he has been accounted righteous by the Holy One of Israel.

The only way we know of that this man returns home justified…

is that the tax collector acknowledges his sin, and recognizes the degree to which he is dependent on God’s mercy.

And that is, it seems, the first, and most important step, in our forgiveness and restoration to wholeness as a person of God.

To simply admit that we have sinned, intentionally or unintentionally, and that we all have sinned, both personally and communally.

In this time of increasing divisions in the life of our nation,

…when we want to put people and ourselves into categories of who is righteous and who is unrighteous, who is in and who is out….

And we when see writ large on the national stage some of the many systemic sins of our society:

racism, sexism, and other sins that draw us further from God and one another…

And when we see, perhaps, in our own individual lives, our own sins of arrogance, selfishness, or misplaced pride…

It would seem, if we follow the example of today’s parable, that first and foremost, we need to stand together as people of faith…

…stand in the presence of God and one another, and admit that we have sinned.

We have sinned both individually and collectively and we are deeply, deeply sorry for it.

We acknowledge all together our need for God’s mercy and grace.

And with that, we are on the road to receiving the mercy of God, and being more fully the people God has called us to be.

I truly do believe that it is that simple, and yes, also that difficult.

That’s why, as people of faith, we confess our sins together; We do not walk this road alone.

We stand alongside each other, and God stands alongside of us.

And together we admit our need for God’s mercy, while simultaneously receiving it.