Mercy and thanks.

Homily 448 – 37th Sunday After Pentecost
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
February 21, 2021
Epistle: (296) 2 Timothy 3:10-15
Gospel: (89) Luke 18:10-14

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

Few parables capture the essence of human existence and the relationship with our Creator better than the Publican and the Pharisee.

In the Pharisee, we can witness many of the passions on display. Passions, as a reminder, are those aspects of humanity, warped by the fall, that serve self – that is, our ego – and not God.

The difference between a passion and a blessed part of human nature is one of giving thanks. In giving thanks, we understand that we are not independent. We are not self-sufficient. We are all dependent on God for everything we need, and everything we have.

In and of ourselves, we have nothing.

This is a very common theme throughout the New Testament, and most of the Old Testament as well.

St. Paul says that one plants, one waters, one harvests – but it is God who provides growth.

The first settlers knew that God was the provider of everything. That was abundantly clear to them. First, in the seasons. Seasons of abundance, seasons of drought.

All serve to remind the early settler that although for the most part, they did not receive help from others, they could not create a forest or rocks or soil or seed on their own.

None of the necessities of life.

It is exactly the same for us, although we are significantly more removed from the process than they were. We go to the grocery store and buy the fruit of their labor. Even then, it is God’s provision that makes it available. The producers realize that every moment of every day. We are a bit removed.

It is part of the command to give thanks in everything, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you, as written in St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.

It is this very cycle that we call the Divine Liturgy – the Eucharistic worship. Eucharist, meaning thanksgiving.

We take what God gives – growth of wheat, growth of grapes – and we add to that our own effort. We produce bread and wine. It is the offering of ourselves, made of the material of God’s choosing: the earth, the sky, the waters.

Bringing it here, to this place, we offer it to God in thanksgiving for giving it to us. And He, our God and Creator, accepts our offering, the offering of ourselves, and He returns it to us as Himself – the body and blood of Christ.

He takes us and returns it to us as Christ. It isn’t just the bread and wine that changes. We change. We offer ourselves, and we are given back Christ.

We become Christ. Really. Truly. Amazingly.

Now the Pharisee didn’t recognize this truth when he gave thanks. He gave thanks that he was unlike other humans. Better than other humans. Because he complied with the Law.

Except he was like other humans, and he didn’t comply with the Law. His offering of thanksgiving was for something false. He made it about himself, giving thanks to God for his own ego, his own self-gratification, his own pride.

There is another part of prayer, also. If we recognize what we deserve, and give thanks to God for everything, we ask God for mercy.

We are never able to provide mercy for ourselves or grace for ourselves. It seems non-sensical to even think about. Mercy and grace come from God.

The publican, the hated tax collector, the despised government official and agent, recognizes that of himself he is nothing. But – critically – God is a God of mercy, and this mercy tempers justice, and grace tempers punishment.

And as such, the publican is justified, and not the religious zealot – the Pharisee.

The Pharisee does mention that he fasts twice a week and gives tithes, and he obviously attends the obligations of the Temple and the prayer life without fail. Yet, he is confused.

These disciplines are live-giving, in the sense that they help us to deny ourselves and follow God, but they are not the end. They are exercises, making us stronger so that we may in fact be able to live the life God created us to live.

A life of self-denial and service to others. A life of love toward others. A life of humility.

It is for this reason that we do not fast this week. We ignore the rules of the fast, not in celebration as we do at the Nativity, or during Bright Week.

We ignore the rules of the fast this week as a reminder going into Great Lent. These disciplines will not save us. Our salvation is not found in them alone.

Rather, we rely on God’s grace, and God’s mercy for our salvation. These tasks help us to restore what were passions to their proper place in the order of ourselves – subject to God, with our desires and our will subject to God.

We offer ourselves to Him. In this offering of bread and wine, and in the offering of every moment of every day that we exist, for our very existence is at His will and desire, not our own.

And we give thanks to God, not for us, or even what He has given us.

We give thanks to God for His mercy. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Glory to Jesus Christ!