Sermon from October 24, 2010
(Pentecost 22 – Year C)
Luke 18: 9-14
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas
When I was in elementary school, my best friend was a boy named Bill.
Bill and I met on the very first day of kindergarten.
And for five years, we were inseparable, until his father was transferred to Dallas when we were in the fourth grade.
Bill’s family took lavish vacations every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Spring Break.
Their family had a summer home on Cape Cod.
Bill was the first kid I knew to have a digitial clock radio and a ten speed bike.
Bill’s grandfather lived with their family in the guest house attached to the house.
They were a kind and loving family.
They were good people.
But Bill’s family never went to church.
One Sunday, I invited Bill to church with my family.
I remember that is was Palm Sunday, and Bill enjoyed the outdoor procession with a real live donkey and the waving of palm branches.
Bill seemed to enjoy the service, yet neither he nor his family seemed very interested in the Christian life.
That next week, my mother saw Bill’s mother at the grocery store.
In the aisle of the grocery store, my mom exchanged small talk with Bill’s mom.
Then my mother asked Bill’s mom a question.
“Barbara, why doesn’t your family go to church?”
Bill’s mother seemed a little taken back by the question, then thought for a moment, and answered:
“Well, we live a comfortable life, we have a great family, Don has a good job, we really have gotten everything that we need on our own.
I just suppose that it is because we don’t need God.”
Jesus tells us a story:
Two men go up to the temple to pray.
One of the men prays, saying:
“Thank God I am not like other people.
Thank God that I live a comfortable life, I have a great family, I have a good job, everything that I need I have gotten on my own.”
However, the other man stands far away in the corner of the temple.
This other man is a crook, a fraud, a tax collector.
This tax collector is so aware of his need for God that he keeps his head down, with his eyes focused on his shoes.
He is so aware of his need for God that he cries out and prays:
“God, be merciful to me, because I need you.”
Jesus then tells us that this second man, the tax collector, the man who recognized his own emptiness, his own shortcomings, went home justified.
Because all of us, all of us, need God.
I have heard it said before that all of us have a God-shaped hole in our hearts that only God can fill.
Frankly, I have found that phrase to be a little bit corny.
Yet in these last few days, I have realized in my own life, that houses and vacations and careers and money never truly fill the hole, the emptiness, in my heart.
I realize that I do have God-shaped hole in my heart that only God has filled.
I realize that I do need God.
Last Friday afternoon, my Facebook page and my emails began to buzz with tragic news.
The tragic news was that the Chapel at the Virginia Theological Seminary, my alma mater, was on fire.
As friends began to post pictures and links to news coverage, within a period of less than two hours, the beloved old chapel had all but burned to the ground.
The Chapel at Virginia Seminary was built in 1881, and included many old stained glass windows, including a Tiffany window, which melted in the fire on Friday.
This was the chapel that Jimmy and I, when we were in seminary, worshiped in every day.
At the front of the chapel, over the altar, was a stained glass window that was 129 years old.
The window depicted Jesus, with his arms open wide.
Below Jesus, the disciples huddled at his feet.
Over the stained glass window, in a giant arc, the following words were written in black letters:
Go Ye into All the World and Preach the Gospel.
Day after day, for three years, I got on my knees at Daily Morning Prayer and I looked into that window.
Day after day, for three years, I looked into Jesus’ face, and the words written above that window, and I asked God what in the world I was doing in here, preparing to be a priest.
Yet day after day, the God-sized hole in my heart was filled with the presence of Jesus.
During those three years, I volunteered to sing in the Seminary Chapel Choir, believing that this old accountant had to become a fool for Christ.
And day after day, the God-sized hole in my heart was filled with music, sometimes sung off-key, that gave me the courage to try a new thing for God, no matter how foolish I might sound or look.
During those three years, I went with my family, Susan, Scott and John, to worship at evening Community Eucharists in that creaky old seminary chapel.
And day after day, and year after year, the God-sized hole in my heart, and that of my family, was filled with the Holy Spirit, which strengthened us to realize that God was pushing us out into all the world – to preach and to love – and it would be okay.
So last Friday, when the Virginia Seminary Chapel burned to the ground, I began to grieve.
I am grieving, not just because of a building that was made of old wood and plaster and windows.
I am grieving because, during those three years of my life, I experienced that God does fill our emptiness.
In that chapel, I discovered that I do need God.
At this time of year in the Episcopal Church, we are filling out our pledge cards.
On the pledge card, we are writing down a dollar amount, an amount that represents the money we are going to give back to God in 2011, in the form of an offering.
You might not believe this, but I really do believe that the money that you take out of your wallet and your bank account really has very little to do with St. Alban’s Episcopal Church.
But the money that you take out of your bank account has everything to do with declaring that no amount of money, no house on Cape Cod, no job, no car, no stocks, no bonds, no 401(k) account – none of these things will ever fill the God-sized hole in your heart.
But the money that you take out of your bank account and give away is a testimony that only God can fill the God-sized hole in your heart.
For when we give away our money, when we give away our things, when we give away our very own lives, then we are saying that we do need God for everything.
Jesus tells us a story:
Two men go up to the temple to pray.
One man feels that he can work his way into God’s kingdom by being a good boy.
This man believes that he has never really needed God for anything.
But the other man, a tax collector, looks down at his shoes and prays, recognizing that God is his only hope, recognizing that only God can fill his emptiness.
The tax collector knows, in his heart, that he needs God.
My sisters and brothers, none of us, none of us, can work our way into God’s kingdom.
So we give away the things, the money, the status, that delude us into thinking that we have gotten everything on our own, that delude us into thinking that we have no need of God.
So we ask God to fill the empty hole in our hearts, praying:
“God, be merciful to me,
Because I need you.”