October 24, 2010

Sermon 10/24/2010


Sermon for Proper 25 C
October 24, 2010
Michael Coffey

Texts: Luke 18:9-14
(artwork by Stephen Gambill)

Which one are you:
The Pharisee, or the tax collector?
Are you the righteous one who knows she is righteous,
or the sinful one who knows he is sinful?
But if you are the righteous Pharisee,
you don’t win in the end of this parable.
And if you are the sinful tax collector
who makes life miserable for your own people,
how can you stand to live with yourself?
So which one are you in Jesus’ riddle?
Now before you answer too quickly,
let’s see how tricky Jesus really is.

Suppose you hear this parable
and you take the expected approach to it:
The Pharisee stood there in his pride and prayed:
thank God I’m not like this loser,
the sinful tax collector.
So we hear Jesus telling us not to be like the self-righteous Pharisee
and to be humble and repentant.
Then we find ourselves at the end of the parable saying:
Thank God we aren’t like that Pharisee
and all those other self-righteous religious people.
We are so humble and repentant
that God must think we are really great.
Well, you see how we fall into the trap of the parable.

It is tempting when we hear these parables
to take sides, to find ourselves in the person or part
that seems to be the good moral of the story.
But parables and the kind of spiritual teachings and riddles
that great wise mentors give us
don’t really work that way.
We have to be in the whole parable, get inside the tension of it.
Which one are you?
The only answer is: you are both the righteous Pharisee,
who is good but comes off looking bad,
and the sinful tax collector,
who is a lousy human being
and comes off looking good.
You are both, we are all both sides,
and until we wrestle with both parts of the parable,
and both parts of ourselves,
we won’t know the power of this word of God.

I have learned in my own spiritual and psychological formation
that there is something in us all called the shadow.
Carl Jung introduced the concept in the world of psychology.
Jung is perhaps the most spiritual of all great psychological theorists.
He understood the deep inner workings of the soul,
and how healing comes to us.
He put it in psychological, mythological, and archetypal language,
but he was influenced by his Christian formation,
and the connections for us are clear and helpful.

Jung said that there is a shadow side to each of us.
It is the part of us we don’t want to accept, admit, or have exposed.
Often we deny or hide a part of ourselves
because it is not in keeping with our image of who we are
or who we think we should be.
I am reminded of the old radio program The Shadow.
It had the famous tag line in the introduction:
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
The Shadow knows!
And then that deep, haunting, cackling laugh.
That’s about right. The Shadow knows.

You probably meet your shadow
every time someone else triggers anxiety, anger, fear, or pain In you.
They are embodying the same thing that is already in you
and making you see it, and you don’t like it.
These are the people we often have the most difficulty with,
those whom we blame for our own unhappiness
because we can’t stand to see what is actually in ourselves.
People who reveal our own shadow
are those we hold in contempt,
like the Pharisee did: Thank God I’m not like those other people:
thieves, rogues, adulterers,
or even like this tax collector.

Many spirituality folks and psychology folks will tell you
that shadow work is at the heart of your own healing and growth.
This parable of Jesus, I think,
is shadow work for us.
You can’t hear it and come out winning.
You can’t be the righteous Pharisee,
and love all that is light and righteous and good in you
and come out winning in this parable.
Why? Because the Pharisee can’t see his own shadow side
of judgment, rejection, pride, and lack of faith in God’s wide mercy.
And you can’t hear this parable and be the tax collector
even though you want to come out winning like he does,
because then you have to own his desperation and deep need
and the reality that he has been living in his shadow side too much.
This parable forces us to look at ourselves
and see both righteousness and sinfulness,
good and bad,
light and shadow.
And somehow, Jesus says,
this is the path to exaltation, to enlightenment, to justified existence.
Because, of course, it is the path of truth and honesty,
and complete dependence on the wideness of God’s mercy.


At the heart of shadow work,
or what we might call tax-collector work,
is embracing your shadow,
learning to admit, accept, and even love your shadow,
because it is part of your whole self.
If this sounds too self-indulgent and new agey,
just consider the alternatives:
What else can you do with your shadow side?
You do have it, you know, there’s no getting around it.
But you could deny it.
Or you could wrestle with it day and night,
awake and dreaming, as we often do.
You could numb it with drinking and drug abuse,
as we often do.
You could get angry about it
and turn your anger at the world.
You could see it in others and hate them
for reminding you about it.
You could get really religious
and shield yourself from it with easy answers
and safe rituals.

Or, you can see it for what it is: part of you,
not all of you, but still a part of you.
Embracing the shadow is the only way to truth,
and it brings the openness we need
for grace to infuse our whole selves
and not just the part we want God to love and forgive,
but yes, even the part we don’t want God to forgive,
because forgiving it means admitting it is there.

We want God to love our righteous Pharisee
and hate our tax collector,
because we hate our tax collector
and don’t want to embrace her.
Jesus says: The tax collector is where it’s at in this story.
And even the Pharisee has a shadow side,
so you just can’t win if all you want is to stay in the light.

Carl Jung said:
One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,
but by making the darkness conscious. . . .”
A friend of Carl Jung said:
[Jung] told me that he once met a distinguished man, a Quaker,
who could not imagine
that he had ever done anything wrong in his life.
"And do you know what happened to his children?" Jung asked.
"The son became a thief,
and the daughter a prostitute.
Because the father would not take on his shadow,
his share in the imperfection of human nature,
his children were compelled to live out the dark side
which he had ignored."

Taking on your shadow is the deep honesty with yourself
that Jesus dares us to in this parable.
This is deep honesty with God about yourself,
that Jesus draws us to as he brings us close to divine mercy.
And most of all,
this is deep honesty and trust with yourself about God:
God’s mercy is wide,
as wide as Jesus’ arms on the cross,
and God embraces you, shadow and all.

Doing this kind of inner work is tough
and slow and often painful.
We need spiritual guides, friends, confessors,
therapists, and compassionate strangers to do it.
When we do it, we come to realize
what we really don’t want to admit:
you are your biggest problem,
not everything else that you think is your problem.
And this startling reality
which shocks and slaps us when it comes to us
quickly frees us to find the grace and mercy
that runs deep like an underground stream.

This shadow work as some call it
is first necessary for spiritual growth and healing.
I think it is the reason we have rites and rituals
like confession, and ash Wednesday,
and fasting, and contemplation,
but sometimes those become too smooth and Pharisaic for us,
without enough rough tax collector .

But equally important to finding spiritual growth and healing,
this shadow work, embracing your own shadow,
is necessary for embracing other people in their truth,
their light and their shadow,
their Pharisee and tax collector,
their pride and their shame,
their pain and their joy.
And you know the power of being embraced for who you are,
your whole person, shadow and all.
It is life-giving.
It is transforming.
It is a welling up of gratitude that flows over into love and generosity.

We know this embrace in the church,
this embrace of our whole and true selves,
light and shadow.
It is the embrace of God in Jesus, our brother and friend.
It is the power to live fully and honestly,
not thankful you are not like other people,
but grateful you are the self God made you to be,
a humble gratitude,
a grateful humility.

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