22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 30
October 24, 2010
As part of my Abnormal Psychology class, we studied alcoholism and then were required to attend an AA meeting and write a paper about what we had observed. There was a big ‘speaker’s meeting’ which met in the basement of my Santa Barbara congregation on Saturday night, so I decided to attend one of those meetings. My friend Mary came with me. She explained that in her growing up in Minnesota, people had been so judgmental of other people’s problems. Even though she hated it, she always struggled to get past that judgmental attitude herself. She wanted to see what a meeting was like.
It was weird to go in a different door to my church – the basement door at the opposite end of the building. It was also weird to see the parking lot jammed with cars and people coming from the parking lot of the shopping center next door to come to the meeting. There were always plenty of parking spaces on Sunday morning.
We were greeted warmly, and no one even asked us why we’d come. We felt a little guilty, since we’d only come to gawk – um, observe. One by one, people rose to claim their solidarity: people who’d come to their first meeting, people who’d been clean and sober for 30 days, people who’d been clean and sober for six months. People stood to thank people for their help and support, and to share a small victory. “Hi, my name is Tamara. I am an alcoholic. This is my first meeting.” “Hi, Tamara.”“Hi, my name is Ron. I am an alcoholic. I’ve been sober for 60 days.” Hi, Ron.”
We heard stories of lives torn apart and marriages and jobs lost forever. And of lives reclaimed when people finally admitted that they were powerless to fight the disease that owned their bodies and souls. They surrendered, and found in their giving up, that they were in the hands of a Higher Power – some called it God – which gave them the strength to look past their addiction to the life they longed for. They learned the truth about themselves and the power of the disease they fought. They learned that by themselves they could not fight it. But with the help of God and of the community which understood and fought beside them, they could say no to one drink after another.
The stories were shocking and emotional, and Mary and I were so deeply moved by the complete stripped-down honesty of the people who had lived and were living the struggle to be ‘normal.’ These were salvation stories, pure and simple. I was lost, but now I’m found, once was blind, but now I see. This meeting was one of the most profoundly spiritual experiences in which I had ever participated.
I could not help but contrast the spirituality of the Saturday night meeting in our church’s basement with the Sunday morning experience I saw in the sanctuary. So often people came to church on Sunday morning covering up their deepest woes and shame, putting on the best possible face. They would never have shared their truest story with other church-goers for fear of being too imperfect to be included with such ‘good people.’ The raw truth of ruined lives turned the Saturday night crowd toward God’s mercy and drew strength from the forgiveness offered to them as they worked their program and their lives changed minute by minute. So often the Sunday morning crowd put on as much righteousness as they could scrape together to feel worthy of joining God’s people. Who goes home justified?
When I told my pastor about my Saturday night experience, he smiled. “Yeah”, he said, “I’ve often thought to begin a worship service by saying, ’Hi. My name is Tom. I’ve been a sinner for 44 years.’ And then people would say, ‘Hi, Tom.’”
We don’t know if this tax collector went back to his trade of ripping off decent people, or if his asking for mercy was truly the sign of a changed heart. Jesus tells this story to catch the attention of those who fail to recognize their own inadequacy, and miss out on receiving the mercy and forgiveness that come from facing the truth about themselves. This story should give all us good church people chills, because we are so often the ones who fail to recognize how far we are from the paragons we’d like to be.
Jesus has been hard on the Pharisees, and on those of us who hear this story pointed at us because he wants us to wake up. It’s not what we have done that makes God love us, it is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Now we can go out with joy to serve God, because we are loved and forgiven. We can bear the truth about ourselves because God wants us to come, just as we are, so that we can become what God wants to build us into. Amen.
Now, may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.