As I grow older, there is one facet of faith that has become exceptionally powerful to me: grace. The undeserved, unearned, unmerited favor of God. Grace: that my every moment of existence is sheer gift; that I was loved before I came to be; that the limits of my strength are fertile borderlands of divine power; that my sins are a narrow gate to perfection by way of my headlong plunge into the limitless mercy of God; that love born of grace is never a negotiated balance of power or of debt, but the free expenditure of one’s power and wealth for the other’s welfare; that the most courageous thing a human being can do is entrust their heart to another in the face of the risk of rejection; that the most painful thing a human being can suffer is to have their heart-offered, rejected.
That on the Cross God reveals Himself to be the only safe refuge in which this whole magnificent and terrifying economy of grace can unfold.
It’s so hard to express the sense of beauty in God I have. I feel inept.
This homily, given last Sunday by my dear friend and brother, Fr. Dustin Feddon, captures this intuition masterfully. I’ll let him speak:
Alas, let us clear the air, our faith is for sinners. Our Church is for sinners. Christianity was and is established by way of these tax collectors, prostitutes, revolutionaries, and you fill-in-the-blank, who know they have no special talent for religion per se. Our Church is built from human lives whose stories tell of so many falls, so many transgressions, yet so much grace that repairs. We come to encounter grace and mercy not ultimately by keeping our Sunday obligations or following this or that devotion, but rather we become Christians by knowing we are sinners, simple beggars in need of God.
These tax collectors were seen by most Jews as sell-outs who connive with the Roman Empire for financial gain by collecting taxes. Most of the devout saw them as scum. These tax collectors were right down there on the lower rungs with lepers with respect to the social ladder in 1st century Palestine. But this tax-collector, as Jesus tells us, enters the Temple in Jerusalem not as one who gathers self-esteem by despising others or comparing his piety to others or the lack thereof. Rather he enters knowing he’s a sinner. This tax collector couldn’t even raise his eyes to heaven; his eyes were cast to the ground knowing he was of this earth and filled with all its messiness, delights, struggles, and disappointments. Much like us I assume.
But what does this knowledge of one’s own sin do? Now this often comes across by some as the Church trapping people in some arcane guilt-reward system. If understood in the light of Christ though, deep within our awareness of our weaknesses we encounter the mercy that only God can give and in that moment everything changes. This certainty, oddly enough, of our iniquity, our weaknesses draws us close to God who cares not for presumptuousness.
As one Danish existentialist philosopher put it, our greatest perfection as humans is our need for God. To think, we must strive to know we are sinners and this is our greatness. How do we live this out daily? That must come across as miserable to so many. But in it we discover a truth that we are like the rest of humanity: we are all sinners in need of God. Unlike the Pharisee, sinners don’t self-congratulate how favored by God they are because they practice all the right rules. Instead they know that God shows no partiality and is merciful to all. Imagine if this is how we lived our lives daily?
And yet at times some of us in the Church have cast judgement on others. We have despised those individuals very much like those through whom God’s purifying mercy built the Church. The sinner teaches us that what God has given is free and so who are we to judge or to envy for that matter? Nothing earned. There’s such a simplicity with this tax collector as Jesus tells this parable. He knows he has nothing to show for by way of his life. Rather he can only bring his sins to the temple. He who knew not how to play the “religion game” was exalted because he understood he can’t play the game. Period. Only God can bring light into his darkness.
In a few minutes we will follow by way of this tax collector as we come to the altar to receive God into our lives as beggars. When we come note that we hold out our hand to receive the gift; not to take as though we come to get what is rightfully ours. No. We place ourselves with this sinner who once stood at a distance but now draws near to our merciful Jesus. We are all beggars here in God’s house.