Lord, Have Mercy

A sermon on Proper 25C (Luke 18:9-14)

For a long time, I didn’t get the stories of Flannery O’Connor. I was a surprised when I found out that her stories reflected her religious views. I just thought they were about grotesque and weird people who did grotesque and weird things.

At some point, though, I read her story called Revelation. And I began to see what she was showing through these grotesque and weird people. The main character in Revelation, Mrs. Turpin, pretty much sounds like our Pharisee today.

Mrs. Turpin took her husband Claud to the doctor’s office and while she was there sized up all the people around her. She noticed their shoes, their looks, their status or lack thereof. She was contemptuous of them. She wondered what she would do if Jesus made her choose between being black or white-trash or ugly. She had a lot to say, both out loud and in her own mind, about what was wrong with people who were black or white-trash or ugly. Then she thought about how grateful she was that she was herself, a good woman with a good husband and a farm and some hogs and cattle, a woman who took cold water to the field hands even though she considered them lying idiots. She thanked Jesus for not making her ugly. She thanked Jesus for not making her black. She thanked Jesus for not making her white trash. She got all worked up and burst out with this:

"If it's one thing I am,” … ”It’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, 'Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!' It could have been different!"

And then a girl named Mary Grace (one of the ones Mrs. Turpin thought was ugly) threw a book at her and called her a warthog from hell.

Later, Mrs. Turpin, who was disturbed by the incident with Mary Grace, had a vision. And in that vision she saw a crowd of people rising up to heaven. She saw black people and white trash and lunatics and freaks (her terminology) all clean and happy as they processed and then at the end of the line she saw people like herself and Claud, who were singing on key, but shocked as they realized that their virtues were being burned away. Their virtues hadn’t put them at the head of the line. Yes, they were among the throng. But they were behind all the people Mrs. Turpin held in contempt. The first were last and the last were first. And she went back into her house with the joyful noises of the throng ringing in her ears.

O’Connor often made her characters nearly unbearable to show just how powerful God’s grace really is. Which I’ve come to appreciate. Because if even awful disdainful mean-spirited hypocrites can be transformed, then there’s hope for me, too.

It would be easy to see this parable from Luke as a simple contrast. Don’t be like the Pharisee, who is self-righteous, but be like the tax collector, who is humble.

But wouldn’t that just make us like the Pharisee? Should we thank God we are not like the Pharisee? Pharisees get roughed up in the New Testament, but they loved God and had considerable concern for the practices of their faith. Fasting was a religious practice, as was tithing. And I assure you there’s nothing wrong with prayer or fasting or tithing.

And what about tax collectors? They were the lowest of the low in Jewish society because they colluded with the Romans to collect taxes from Jews. They were notorious for taking more than the amount owed and keeping the extra for themselves. Our tax collector knows what he does is wrong. He hasn’t promised to do better in the future, either. 

And yet the tax collector simply and honestly begged for God’s mercy and received it. Not because he was deserving. He wasn’t deserving. He received mercy because God is merciful. That’s what God does. That’s who God is. God chooses to set aside sin because God loves us and wants us and knows we are bound to fail.

And let us consider the Pharisee and perhaps extend him our compassion, too. It sometimes seems to me - in fact, it has been my experience - that one has to hit the bottom before being able to recognize that God saves us out of love rather than merit; that truth is otherwise obscured by our good fortune. It’s hard to remember that we need saving, to really comprehend that we are going to fail often in our attempts to be loving and generous and faithful when we are surrounded by plenty and success in our busy, happy lives. 

Not only that, but we are often cut off from those who struggle and know little about their lives. From the comfort of our homes and offices and cars with rolled up windows, we can’t appreciate the choices they have to make. We can’t appreciate either their trials or their virtues and so are tempted to see them simply as categories and types with nothing in common with us: The poor. Dropouts. Homeless. Crackheads. Welfare mothers. Irresponsible. Illegal. Lazy. Sponges.

And so this isn’t a simple “be like this but not like that” story. It’s more like Flannery O’Connor. Nobody comes out looking all that good, except for God. Nobody gets life exactly right, although at least the tax collector knows that his only hope is to throw himself on God’s mercy. He trusts that even though he can’t make himself right, God will somehow make him right, even though he is a miserable offender.

That mercy may confuse and even offend us - it certainly did offend people in Jesus' day - but it is the Gospel.

The Pharisee and the tax collector were connected - both children of a merciful God in a world that is filled with strife and often polarized - but from his place of success and comfort, the Pharisee wasn’t able to see that connection between himself and the wretched man in the back of the synagogue. 

He thought he was supposed to be different.

Which showed that he didn’t really know God any better than he knew the tax collector. And why not? Some of us hardly even know ourselves.

We are all in this together, friends. We are all sinners and we are all connected. The world is complicated and sometimes bewildering, at least it is to me. Sometimes I just don’t know what to think or what to do. But this I do know: our God is merciful to all who fail, who are broken, who don’t measure up. When we are busy, happy, and comfortable, that may not make much of an impression, but when the time comes and we are shocked by the revelation how wrong we’ve gotten things, it will be music to our ears.


Bill Bynum said…
Meaningful sermon. I missed the point both of the parable and Flannery O'Conner's story, being grateful that I was not like either the Pharisee or Mrs. Turpin and leaving it at that. One thing from O'Conner's story stuck out for me, though. After her experience with Mary Grace when she's alone, Mrs. Turpin asks "What do you send me a message like that for? How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?". That is, she sees Mary Grace as one of God's messengers! O'Conner's point for me was that I shouldn't try to predict what God's messengers will look like in my life. I just have to be careful not to discard the messages.
Yes, Mary Grace was an interesting character. But I think Mrs. Turpin's question is channeling Martin Luther, who was big on what he called 'simul justus et peccatore' - simultaneously a sinner and a righteous person. She was from hell and yet she was saved and Mary Grace (who was "ugly" and also smart and reading a book on humanism) was an agent for sure. It really is a fantastic story.