Sunday, October 24, 2010

Emptiness and Mercy

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
October 24, 2010

Year C, Proper 25: The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Emptiness and Mercy

In our Old Testament lesson today we heard a passage from the Prophet Joel. We don’t know much about him. The best guess is he lived around the year 400 BC. His book is broken into two parts.

The first part is about a plague of locusts that descended on Israel, devastating the land and leaving emptiness behind. Joel interprets this disaster as a sign of God’s judgment and through Joel God calls the people to return. Joel prophesies that the Day of the Lord is coming – a day of both judgment and blessing.

The second part of the Book of Joel is about God’s overflowing mercy. It’s interesting that Joel never describes God’s people as actually changing their ways. Instead, God’s mercy overflows no matter what. Since it is God’s nature to love and be merciful, that’s what God is and that’s what God does.

All we really need to do is be open enough to accept and receive God’s love and mercy, and allow God’s grace to fill up the emptiness that exists in all of our hearts.

Of course, like Joel, we also can see spiritual significance in the natural world. On Monday and Tuesday I was up at Camp Weed for my first clergy conference here in the Diocese of Florida. It was my first visit to our diocesan camp and conference center. I was impressed by the staff’s hospitality and also by the natural beauty of the place itself.

But, Camp Weed’s most impressive feature is emptiness – the emptiness where there was not so long ago a large lake. Because of drought and our overconsumption of water, the aquifer has dropped and a few years ago the lake dried up.

In its place there is emptiness – a kind of depression in the land where wild grasses and trees have started sprouting up. As many of you know, a major project is in the works to restore the lake – but it will take lots of money, effort and time.

It was depressing to look out at that emptiness. And as I stood there I began to see the spiritual significance of that emptiness. Obviously it’s a powerful sign of how we have abused the earth. But more than that, for me this emptiness also became a sign of the emptiness that exists in our society.

And it became a sign of the sense of emptiness that exists in many of our hearts.

Certainly the economic downturn has contributed to our sense of emptiness along with wars that grind on no matter how many times presidents declare our mission accomplished.

After years of economic decline and the loss of our most precious blood, there is a sense of emptiness in the land and in our hearts.

The ugliness that we see each time we turn on the TV – from inane reality shows to what passes for rational discussion on current events has added to our sense of emptiness. The tragic stories of gay young people driven to suicide by bullying have added to our sense of emptiness.

This depressing election season contributes to our sense of emptiness – commercial after commercial of candidates and their surrogates accusing each other of crimes, lies, and bad intentions, with few offering any realistic solutions to our many very real problems. The general anxiety and anger that has been set loose over the past year is both a symptom and a cause of our society’s sense of emptiness.

There is emptiness in our society. And for many of us there is emptiness in our own hearts.

How many of us feel great anxiety about the future? How many of us worry about what life will be like for us, for our children, for our grandchildren in a country that seems to be getting poorer and meaner by the day?

How many of us feel regret about the past, about our own sins against God and our neighbor; about things done and things left undone? How many of us catch ourselves thinking about the road not taken, wondering about what might have been?

There is emptiness in our society. And for many of us there is emptiness in our own hearts.

And how many of us try to fill our emptiness with what never really satisfies? How many of us try to fill up our homes with stuff? How many of us are not as generous as we really could be? How many of us blame other people for our problems? How many of us are willing to scapegoat the other – the Republicans or the Democrats, the gays, the undocumented immigrant, NPR or FOX News?

How many of us can’t even admit our emptiness to God?

Which brings us to the parable of Jesus we heard today from the Gospel of Luke.

It’s the second of two parables on prayer that are back to back in the Gospel of Luke. Last week we heard the first one, the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. It was a parable meant to encourage us to be persistent in our faith and in our prayer – to ask God for all the good blessings that only God can give.

Today’s parable digs a little deeper. Once again, we have two characters, seemingly from “central casting” - a Pharisee and a tax collector.

They are both familiar characters from the New Testament. The Pharisees nearly always get bad press and are depicted as major opponents of Jesus – and as hypocrites who are obsessed with religious ritual. We don’t know that much about them, but it seems that they were one of many Jewish groups calling people to holiness in their daily lives. They also believed in resurrection and were expecting the Messiah.

Tax collectors were of course among the most despised people in society – and yet they responded to Jesus’ message.

The Pharisee and the tax collector would seem to be very different. But, actually, like many of us, they both suffered from emptiness in their own hearts.

It’s how they deal with their emptiness that sets them apart. The Pharisee isn’t really even praying. He’s there, probably up front where everyone can see how holy he is. Instead of looking to God, he’s busy looking at the poor, far-off tax collector, and congratulating himself on his superiority and piety. In his own mind and so-called prayer he tries to glorify himself, or maybe fool himself. Instead of admitting the emptiness inside his own heart, the Pharisee focuses on his appearance and the weaknesses of others.

Meanwhile, standing far off, the tax collector is so acutely aware of his emptiness that he can’t even look up to heaven. We’re told he’s beating his breast, which among men in the Middle East is a sign of extreme anguish. All he can say is, “God have mercy on me. I am a sinner.”

Jesus tells us that it was the tax collector who was justified, not the Pharisee.

I’d love to have a sequel to this parable. What happened next to these characters?

But, actually, in a way we already know what happens next because we’ve all been the Pharisee.

When we refuse to admit our own emptiness and sinfulness, when we pretend to have it all together, then we stay stuck. When we try to fool ourselves, and other people and even God, then our hearts remain empty.

We know what happens next because we’ve all been the tax collector.

When we admit our emptiness and sinfulness, when we admit that we don’t have it all together, then we make room in our hearts for God’s grace. We make room in our hearts for God’s forgiveness and open ourselves to the fullness of joy.

Last week I saw the emptiness at Camp Weed – emptiness that in time and with a lot of effort will soon be filled with new water.

And if we look around at our messed up society and if look honestly into our own hearts, very often we also find emptiness.

The Good News is that God is always ready offer overflowing mercy, to fill our hearts with forgiveness, grace and joy.

In a few minutes we will say the familiar words of the confession. This time let’s join with the tax collector, let’s admit our emptiness, and in our hearts let’s say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”