Sunday, October 27, 2013

People are Complicated. God is Simple.

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 27, 2013

Year C, Proper24: The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

People are Complicated. God is Simple.
            I received an email this week from the Bishop’s Office asking me to schedule a phone conversation with Bishop Beckwith to talk about our upcoming Celebration of New Ministry here at St. Paul’s.
            Like many of you, I’ve already been thinking about – and planning - our celebration. But that email certainly focused my attention! Our celebration on November 9 is getting close!
            And, as I’ve said before, I really hope that this will be our celebration, not just a service and party to celebrate my installation as rector of St. Paul’s. I want this to be an opportunity for us to look back on what this wonderful church has meant to us and so many others, to rejoice in all that has been accomplished with God’s help, and to look ahead at the exciting - beyond our wildest dreams - future that God has in store for us.
            I’ve been trying to include as many different people as possible to have roles in the service. And, Gail and I have been planning music that we hope will be most meaningful for us.
            In terms of music, I did make one special request.
            I’ve invited our parishioner Dennis Doran to sing “A Simple Song” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Some of you St. Paul’s old-timers may remember him singing it here a few times years ago. It’s one of my favorite pieces of music and I love the way Dennis sings it. So, I’m really glad that Dennis has agreed to sing it for us on November 9.
            Unfortunately for Sue, that piece has been in my head and, as she can tell you, I’ve been humming it and sort-of singing it, for the past couple of weeks. I’ll spare you my singing but here are the words:
            “Sing God a simple song.
            Make it up as you go along.
            Sing like you like to sing.
            God loves all simple things.
            For God is the simplest of all.”
            God is the simplest of all.
            I’m guessing we don’t usually think of God as simple – and certainly not the simplest of all. And yet, when you stop and think about it – when we reflect on God as revealed in and through Jesus – we realize that God really is simple – God really is the simplest of all.
            God is pure love.
            God is pure love poured out on us – poured into us – if only we open our eyes and ears and minds. God is pure love poured out on us – poured into us – if only we open our hearts.
            God is the simplest of all.
            But, you and I, we’re not simple at all.
            This will probably sound pretty obvious, but people are complicated. In fact, we’re so complicated that we probably don’t even really know just how complicated we are!
            We carry around lots of heavy baggage: regrets about the past, wondering about roads not taken, and opportunities that passed us by. We are burdened by feelings of insecurity – of just not being good enough, of not being worthy or not being lovable. We are burdened by disappointments - by hopes and dreams that just didn’t work out – by love and affection that were not returned to us. We are wounded by hurts inflicted by people we loved and trusted. We are wounded by hurts that were self-inflicted.
            People are complicated. God is simple.
            We carry around lots of baggage: we compete with each other, measuring ourselves against others, trying to get ahead of the other guy or gal, so that others will look at us and see “success” – so they’ll see someone who has made it – they’ll see someone who is living the dream. We have all sorts of agendas that complicate our relationships with other people – we look down on others – we use people – how can this person help me get what I want – we reduce people into things - all the while never considering or remembering that others have their own hopes and dreams just like we do.
            People are complicated. God is simple.
            Probably no one has ever described just how complicated we are better than St. Paul in his letter to the Romans where he writes,
            “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.”
            People are complicated. God is simple.
            Today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke picks up right where we left off last week. You may remember we heard the Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge. Through that parable, Jesus teaches us to be spiritually persistent – to keep praying – to keep gathering together here even when - especially when - we don’t feel like it.
            Now, today, Jesus offers another parable on prayer.
            In his introduction, Luke tips us off on the parable’s meaning. He writes, “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.”
            Which raises the question, just how could we ever think we can be righteous and treat others with contempt?
            Anyway. People are complicated.
            The parable contrasts the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
            The Pharisee – someone who everybody would have recognized as a very religious person – somehow still feels the need to show off to God. He thanks God that he’s not like these sinners and then he rattles off all of his religious practices.
            Now, I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that there’s a lot going on with this Pharisee. I can understand showing to other people how good and faithful he is. I bet we’ve all encountered people like that – people who want to impress us with how holy they are, how much they give, how much they do for others…
            I get that. But, to do that while praying? Boasting to God? Showing off to God –the One who sees all and knows all? Weird.
            People are complicated.
            And then there’s the tax collector – a person who in that time and place no one would ever consider holy. And, obviously, he doesn’t think of himself as good or holy.
            He stands far off with his eyes lowered. He beats his breast and he cries out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
            Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “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.”
            Now, I don’t know how many of us exalt ourselves either with others or in our prayer. If we do, Jesus’ message is clear.
            But, today’s gospel lesson also reminds us that, although we are complicated, our prayer doesn’t have to be – shouldn’t be – complicated.
            When we pray to God who is pure love, we can put down our heavy baggage, our regrets, our insecurities and our disappointments.
            When we pray to God who is pure love, we can hand over our heavy baggage, our competition, our desire to get what we want, our agendas.
            The great Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila once said, The closer one approaches to God, the simpler one becomes.”
            People are complicated – we’re complicated - but God is simple, so let’s sing God a simple song. Let’s make it up as we go along. Let’s sing like we like to sing. God loves all simple things.
            For God is the simplest of all.
            For God is the simplest of all.