On 23 October, Rev Sheila Cameron’s sermon, which had started with comments about the painting above (The Presence by A.E. Borthwick, which you can see in St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh) ended …
The challenge for us is to be aware of just how much we like to feel exalted, how easy it is to lose our true righteousness by becoming self-righteous, principally by seeing ourselves as the instruments of our own success. We might begin by thinking of that as the satisfaction of a job well done or a duty fulfilled. And then we might start to believe that all the good things we do, such as giving money to the church, doing charitable work and being upstanding members of society, or the bad things we avoid doing, such as committing theft or coveting the possessions of others, really can in themselves justify us or make us better than our fallen neighbour. But until we let go of the notion that we’re better than others we won’t go home truly justified. We’ll be trapped in self-sufficiency and might (worst case scenario) even present the Church as a club for especially holy people, which outsiders will understandably want to avoid. On the other hand, we may need to challenge any fear in ourselves that because of our failings, because we don’t think we measure up to the standards of the Pharisee, we are somehow stained beyond redemption.
The good news of the parable is that the role of the tax collector, the character for whom Jesus has the greater compassion in this story, is easily available to all who follow him. In all of our failings and imperfections, we are all beloved of God. To return to the Borthwick painting, all faithful Christians belong by grace to that distant company around the altar, and yet, as we follow Christ, we are also drawn through compassion and empathy into the darkness of others, as bearers of the light of his presence where it’s needed most, in the marginal places of rejection and suffering.
Jesus invites us to know the freedom that comes from putting aside our flimsy efforts to justify ourselves and pouring out our hearts in penitence to a God who is never deaf to our pleas. He wants more than anything to comfort and reassure us, and lead us by his grace into the fellowship of the truly righteous. Amen.
Read the whole of Sheila’s sermon at this link.