SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON October 24th 2010
Luke 18:13 “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
If you have been to an Orthodox church service (perhaps Russian Orthodox or Greek Orthodox) you will know that the phrase Kyrie Eleison occurs regularly throughout the liturgy. It is Greek for ‘Lord have mercy,’ which in our Book of Common Prayer is translated, ‘Lord have mercy upon us’. The Kyrie Eleison at the beginning of our liturgy echoes the tax collectors words in Luke 18:13, God be merciful to me, a sinner.
In an Orthodox liturgy, the refrain is featured prominently though-out the service. The refrain is part of processions and litanies of intercession and praise. It is not just a cry for forgiveness of sins, but a bigger and broader cry of, “Lord have mercy.”
In our Mass, the Kyrie occurs just once. It is trinitarian, being said three times. The first ‘Lord have mercy’, is addressed to the Father. The second ‘Christ have mercy’, is to the Son, and the third ‘Lord have mercy’ is to the Holy Spirit. To emphasize this trinitarian formula, at a sung Mass we sing each petition three times.
However, whereas the English ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ reflects the tax collectors’ cry of penitence, the haunting refrain of ‘Kyrie Eleison” in an Orthodox liturgy is a cry for the Lord to not only have mercy on us, but on those we intercede for, and on the whole world.
Coming at the beginning of the Eucharist, the Kyrie is a penitential prayer to the Trinity. This is very necessary. We sometimes come to Mass late, rushed, or not in a prayerful mood. Perhaps we are chatting about irrelevant things before we enter the door. Episcopalians can be very much like the Pharisee, rather than the tax collector. We are glad to be members of our parish, and are proud to belong to All Saints’. We enjoy our worship, and we know we are assured of salvation. We are content with that. Perhaps, we can be judgmental about those we don’t agree with – very much like the Pharisee.
The concept of sin these days seems to be pushed out of sight, and the phrase, ‘Lord have mercy’ doesn’t have the impact it used to have. The Bible is quite clear that sin is a reality in the world. Although it may have no relevance to our secular culture, the condition of our secular culture does not justify the denial of sin.
Our society is much more violent than it used to be. More and more young people are lost, both practically and spiritually. Youth suicide is increasing at an alarming rate. People do wrong things – they deceive and are corrupt, particularly those in power. Maybe, we are all just selfish.
By contrast, the Pharisee, who seemed to be none of these things, but a good man – a churchgoer we might say – is portrayed by Jesus as the bad guy. The man who stands afar off and says, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner,” is the good guy, the righteous man.
What does this tell us? Firstly, in Western society there is an avoidance of the reality of sin and brokenness. Most of us, when we see things we don’t like, simply get on with our lives and avoid being involved. When life does fall apart, people seek solace through therapy, or something less confronting – like shopping!
The world’s solution is not the way of Christ.
For us, who claim to be followers of Jesus, the solution is a lot harder. Not only do we have to acknowledge our sins (like the tax collector) but we must live according to Christian principles in a world that can be hostile, at worst, or just plain indifferent. To be a Christian now in this ‘Christian country,’ often means to stand apart from the crowd, to walk in a different direction. That’s not so easy, is it? We don’t like to be different than the crowd.
The Christian poet, G.K. Chesterton said: “Dead things go with the tide. It takes a living thing to swim against the current.”
What about the temptations that come day-by-day, which often don’t seem like temptations? What about plain laziness. For instance, there was a time that it was considered a sin not go to Mass on Sunday without due cause, especially for Catholics. These days, many Christians would say that’s not a sin; it’s a matter of choice. It’s not that they disagree with the Church’s teaching, but because they don’t see it as that important.
Church going is not number one on the Sunday morning list, even for Christians these days. That’s because we live in a society in which individualism defines our culture. What I think is important, is what’s important. The importance of anything is the importance I assign to it, no matter what others think. Isn’t that the basis of politics today?
For Christians, even though we may acknowledge sin and be uncomfortable with it, we know it is obliterated by God’s all-encompassing forgiveness. In our liturgy absolution of sin follows confession. In the sacrament of confession there is a also a penance, which is a way of saying sorry to God. Here is another thing that has gone by the way – apologising. The real Christian teaching is that because we are forgiven, we, in turn, forgive others.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds sinning easier than forgiving! Too many people remain bitter because they cannot forgive a past injustice or hurt. We need to remember that the only petition in the Lord’s prayer that has a condition attached to it is, “Forgive our trespasses – as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
This simple lesson from the Lord’s Prayer is illustrated wonderfully in II Timothy 4. In this Epistle, St. Paul is writing to his young protégé, Timothy. He is about to face his final trial, to be jailed and then martyred. He begins by saying, “For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” He then talks about the crown of glory that is laid up for him.
Then he says these words: “At my first defense no one took my part; all deserted me. May it not be charged against them!” In other words, the previous time Paul was on trial for being a Christian, all the other Christians in Rome were nowhere to be seen. They deserted him. He had every right to be bitter, angry, and even unforgiving. We don’t know why they deserted him. Perhaps, it was because of the persecution of Nero, and they didn’t want to risk their lives by standing up for St. Paul. The thing is, Paul prays for their forgiveness. For those who abandoned him, he prays, “May it not be charged against them.” I don’t know if I could follow Paul’s example, but it is our example.
Another thing about forgiveness is the phrase, forgive and forget. I’ve heard people say, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget what they did to me.” Both are not easy – but forgetting after someone offends you is not necessarily a Christian virtue. For instance, if you steal my wallet, I can forgive you and pray for you. But I will certainly not leave my wallet around the next time I see you. And I will not appoint you as the parish treasurer!
Forgiveness does not mean an absence of consequences for our sin. Forgiveness is an act we choose to do, but at times the sin committed has a consequence. Sometimes we have to remember. Nor does forgiveness suddenly make us feel good about that person. It’s not about our feelings. It’s a deliberate act of the will. If we have the mind of Christ, we love our fellow sinners, even when we reject sin.
In this parable in Luke 18, the Pharisee’s problem was that he didn’t know he was a sinner. And he didn’t want to admit he was a sinner. Let that not be our mistake.
Always remember, that for Christians, there is only one remedy for sin, and St. Paul wrote about it in I Corinthians 15:
“Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.”