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Well, I’m back. I want to start by saying how grateful my family and I are. You all have supported us in so many ways during this time of upheaval, and heartbreak.
Early on the vestry met and voted to give me the space we needed through late October. When Mary (the senior warden) called to tell me that it meant the world. I could just focus on where we were at that time, and make sure we got Naomi set up with the best care we could.
I wanted to come back because I miss all of you and the work that I do. It’s so much a part of who I am and how I make sense of the world. But I should also tell you that I don’t know what this next year is going to bring. I’ve asked Father Dan to stay on just a little longer to help with the preaching load. He’ll be back next week. I may not be as timely or as organized about things, and if that’s the case I hope you’ll bear with me for a little bit. And this is probably obvious, but I’ll need to mask up for parts of the service and when I’m around a lot of you, maybe even missing bigger events for a while.
Again thank you for being so kind. So full of faith and hope for my daughter Naomi and our family. It’s meant more than I can say.
It’s impossible not to bring yourself and your experience to any scripture text. I won’t be approaching every Gospel lesson from the angle of my life and the pain I’m experiencing right now, but this first Sunday back preaching I couldn’t help but bring my current self and circumstances to this reading.
When I’m doing great, in a good place in life, I’m often aware of how that affects what I see in a reading and what I preach, what I bring to you. In those times, I also know there’s probably someone out in the congregation who’s not in a good space and comes in here and hears that same Gospel reading and gets from it something totally different, and I will have failed to reach them. So, we bring who we are, and where we are. We see different things as a result of what’s going on in our lives right now.
And so it is with today’s reading. What I saw here were two people who I think of as two different parts of each of us: the one is broken, and the other is not, is doing quite well in fact. “Standing by himself, [he] was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.‘”
But the other, “standing far off would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'”
Whenever Jesus tells a story with “two people” – a younger son and an older son, a grateful servant and an ungrateful one, a humble man and one who’s proud – we’re challenged not to figure out which one we are or aren’t, but how we’re actually both.
This proud Pharisee has it together in his life. He prays regularly, makes it to temple, isn’t in trouble with anyone, has enough money to give generously: he’s in a good place. And sometimes, by the grace of God, so are we.
The humble tax collector isn’t doing so well. He makes it to temple, but it’s been a long time and he doesn’t go in. He sees around him people like the Pharisee and can’t bring himself to come near. He’s not in a good place, and sometimes, neither are we.
By the way, that alienation suffering brings, the feeling like you don’t want to be in the presence of those who are well–I totally get that. My husband Andrew and I felt like that in the first weeks of learning Naomi’s diagnosis. Here again, I’m noticing something in this story I never saw: that impulse on the part of the tax collector to stand far off, not to be near that proud and happy Pharisee. Maybe it was just too painful, seeing him like that.
If we understand these two men as representing different times in our lives, then how can we keep these two sides of ourselves closer together, being humble and in tune with suffering when we’re doing just fine, but not closing ourselves off from those who are joyful when we’re not doing well. These different states like to keep themselves separate: our success wants to feel impervious, when we’re in it; wants to forget that it won’t last. Our suffering, too, wants to feel like it’s all that will ever be, we’ll never find our way out. But we do. Thank God we do. And a wise life seems to me one where the two states talk to one another, and make us better people when we’re riding high, and when we’re in the depths.
The other night at our vestry meeting, I closed with a prayer that I often close with as we adjourn and part ways. It’s one of my top three prayers in our Book of Common Prayer. The vestry members know: I’ve said it many times before, but I couldn’t get through it that night, so someone else finished for me.
Again, new resonance because of what’s happening in my (and my family’s) life right now. But it asks God to keep watch over all people in all states of being, whoever and wherever they are and whatever they’re going through, all the while reminding us that our own lives pass through so many phases, ups and downs, none of which last forever, but all of which, in total, make up a life. Hopefully a good life. I’ll try to get through it this time.
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.