Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

Sermon

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, 2011
Good Shepherd, Charlestown; Trinity Church, West Lebanon

 

Let us pray: Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service; Grant, we beseech thee, that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life, that we fail not finally to attain thy heavenly promises; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

"Two men went up into the temple to pray..." It is the beginning of a parable that Jesus tells to certain very specific people; people who believed themselves to be righteous; people who also despised others. It is a simple parable, a parable that is easy to grasp. But it is also a parable of incredible depth, a parable whose wisdom can only come from God.

 

When I hear or read this particular parable, I am sometimes reminded of an event that I witnessed perhaps twenty-five years ago. At the time, I was heavily involved in producing Shakespeare's plays. I would hire directors to direct certain plays and that director would cast actors. A simple, straightforward process of matching the actor to the role and the role to the actor. It can be complicated. Actors project different qualities on stage. Furthermore, certain combinations of actors create different effects. It is not simply a question of who is the most talented or who has the best training. There are intangibles that must be considered. Actors are, after all, not the same.

 

The play was "The Taming of the Shrew." The director was an excellent one. A good casting director, he was known to choose wisely and well. Auditions began. It seemed very clear that he had two strong candidates for the role of Petruchio, the vain and buffoonish suitor to Kate, a very strong-willed young woman. The director did his work well. He gave each actor an opportunity to show his worth. He asked each to read scenes with the actress who would play Kate. He had them demonstrate their stage combat techniques and try a few improvised exercises. Finally, he made his decision, repaired to his office and wrote out the cast list.

 

The posting of a cast list is an emotional event. The joy at being cast is balanced by the greater heartbreak of losing that cherished role. Even professional actors feel the sting of disappointment. But they get on with the job, go to the next audition and hope and sometimes even, pray. Professionals know what the often cruel world of professional theatre is all about. They learn to deal with it.

 

But not in this particular case. The actor who was not cast as Petruchio was furious. He said so. Loudly. To anyone who would listen. Well, we thought, actors are emotional creatures. This will pass. He will get over it. But he didn't. He appealed to the producer. He wrote a letter to the board of trustees. He started a petition drive to force the director to overturn his decision and give him the role. He was absolutely certain that he was the finest actor for that particular part. He claimed to have done a better reading, to have been more skilled at swordplay and to have done a better job at the improvisational exercises. "Besides," he told us, "I have been to a top conservatory acting school. This other guy," he said with mild contempt, "doesn't have anywhere near the training I've had. And for another thing," he added, "I already know all the lines." In many years of working with the theatre, I had never witnessed anything like this.

 

Well, you can probably figure out that all this ranting didn't work. He didn't get the part. The director's role was final. The hardest thing for this young actor to understand was that the decision was not his own. The decision belonged entirely with the director; no reversal was possible. I am not sure what happened to this actor. I have never heard his name again. He may have decided that the theatre was not for him. Perhaps he gravitated to a profession that would use his skills and abilities. Perhaps he became a politician.

 

Two men went up into the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee. One knew he was right with God. He had trained to be right with God. He followed the commandments. He prayed. He fasted. He completed his to-do list and it was perfect. He did it all. And he knew it. He was also a member of the group that was favored by God. And he knew this, too. All was right with his world. And he knew it. He lifted up his face to heaven and prayed "with himself," thanking God that he wasn't like other men, like, for example, this certain publican standing beside him.

 

The publican has everything against him. He won't even look up to heaven, in the manner of the Pharisees. He has placed himself at God's mercy. Seeking only to humble himself so that he may be healed from his sins, he becomes right with God. Seeking only God's love and knowing that God's love alone may make him well and whole.

 

We look for a moment at this snapshot of two men praying in the temple. How much time might this represent? A minute. Two minutes. Not much time in the life of two men, even in ancient Judea. But how do we regard them? Yes, we understand the publican; we know that he is right with God. But do we judge the Pharisee? The temptation is to do just that. We judge him. We place ourselves above him. Perhaps we even regard him with contempt. And so, we show ourselves to be just like him.

 

God loves the Pharisee, just as God loves the publican. Just as God loves us. He wants us to be with Him and for us to have a right relationship to Him. Why is that so hard to do? Why is it so hard to walk the Christian path? St. Paul, the great convert, the former Pharisee, knew the challenges that faced him. How often did he look back on his former life, a life of simple and straightforward rules, a life that was easily measured by the simple Law of God. But he knew he could never go back to that life. He knew he never wanted to go back, because of the joy of his new life with Christ.

 

The Pharisee in the temple, just like our young actor, was certain he knew the answers. They both knew they were right. But these little snapshots from moments in their lives do not tell the whole story. They both came to moments when they needed God. Did they reach out to Him in their times of need? Did they, in the fullness of their hearts, reach out to the loving God who is always there for them; did they say, "God be merciful to me, a sinner."

 

 

Let us pray: O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in thee; mercifully accept our prayers; and, because, through the weaknesses of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping thy commandments we may please thee, both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.