Lenten Evangelism #1: The Publican and Pharisee

The Publican and the Pharisee
The Publican and the Pharisee

This sermon is also available as an audio recording via Ancient Faith Radio.

Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, February 1, 2015
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

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

We now begin the pre-Lenten period with the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee. Today is the day we open the Triodion, the liturgical book that governs this time of year. And this year, we will be doing something new on these Sundays both before and during Great Lent—the sermons will all fall into a series with a single theme. This is not something I’ve done before, so I hope you will bear with me if this is a little experimental.

And so what is the theme? For the next ten weeks, from today through Palm Sunday, we will be discussing evangelism. Each Sunday of the Triodion has a different theme to it, usually based in the Gospel reading, and all of them have something to say about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. The Gospel is like a great jewel with many facets, each sparkling with its own light, and each drawing us into the depths of the beauty of this most precious gift. So from now until Palm Sunday, we will be looking at different facets of this gem of evangelism.

This Sunday, we read the Gospel parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. And the overall theme here is humility. It is the Publican, this tax collector and infamous sinner, whose prayer before God justifies him, that is, puts him into a right relationship with the Lord. And it is the Pharisee, known for his sanctity and exact observance of the tenets of his faith, whose prayer is only “with himself,” as the Scripture says, and it fails to provide him with justification before God.

The lesson here is clear enough—be humble. The fervent prayer of a humble heart reconciles us to God, justifying us even if we are great sinners. And this apparently righteous man, the Pharisee, who leads a good life and does what he is supposed to—he goes away from his prayer unjustified.

So how does this connect with our theme of evangelism?

One of the dangers that many Christians fall into is seeing the purpose of the local parish as being almost exclusively about taking care of the people who are already there. Often, when this kind of approach to church life is made central, we hear the phrase “our people” or “our own” a lot. With this view, if someone mentions emphasizing outreach, there is often a backlash of fear that such an emphasis would mean that “our people” would become neglected. And Christians and even whole parishes turn inward and become about trying to hold on to what they have.

But this is actually a distortion of church life. We have to recall how it is that Church life began—it began with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, filling the disciples of Jesus with power from on high, power that they immediately began to use to preach the Gospel to any who would listen. And they were fulfilling the last command that the Lord Jesus gave before His ascension, to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature, to baptize them in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and to teach them to do all that He had commanded.

This same kind of distortion exists on the individual level, too, and we sometimes use parables like the Publican and Pharisee to try to justify it. I only need to become humble, to work on my own spiritual life, to cultivate myself and what I have, and that is my purpose here. I have spiritual needs, and here I get them met. I come here to pray, and this faith exists to serve my spiritual needs and the needs of my family and friends. It is all very inward focused.

What we do not realize when we fall prey to this temptation is that this attitude actually has nothing at all to do with the humility taught by the Publican. And to understand why, we have to ask why he was repenting, what his prayer was about. The Publican is a public sinner. He is someone who has harmed other people. And so when he asks God for mercy, he does so precisely with the knowledge that he has been causing pain for other people. He has been taking from them what is theirs and keeping it for his own. His repentance is not some private spiritual experience. His repentance is part of the process of healing his relationship with his community.

So we see now what this has to do with evangelism. To bring the good news to the world, we have to have humility. And what is humility? It is to place ourselves last and always to place someone else first.

If I take humility as a true principle for what it means to be an Orthodox Christian, then everything changes for me. I come here not to ask what this parish can do for me, how it can serve me—which is really just a way of asking how God can serve me, because this parish is nothing other than an outpost of His Kingdom. Instead, I come asking how I can serve God. I come here asking for Him to have mercy on me, because it is I who am the sinner. I come here asking to be let in and made a citizen of His Kingdom, because I do not deserve it. I have done nothing to deserve it. The only ticket into this Kingdom is mercy. And mercy is for those who are repentant sinners. Mercy is for the humble.

And when I ask what I can do to serve, then I become focused not on my own spiritual needs, my own desires, but I become focused on what the needs are of those around me, both within the parish and those who belong to this parish but are not in this parish. And I don’t mean only those whose names are on the membership rolls but are not present here today—though I do mean them—but also those who live here in our community but have not yet seen the light of Christ here.

For they are also members of this parish. They also belong here. There are so many who are ready to respond if only one of us would love them and bring them here, if only one of us would make it our mission to pray for them, if only one of us would see their pain and their abandonment and their confusion and bring them the light.

They also belong to us, and we are like wicked publicans if we do not bring them what we owe them. We have been entrusted with the greatest treasure the world has ever seen, a treasure that belongs to all mankind, a treasure given by God Himself when He became one of us, and yet most of us prefer to keep that treasure to ourselves. When we do that, we are wicked publicans who steal from our own people, in collusion not with the Roman Empire but with the principalities and powers of darkness, who would see us all remain in spiritual destitution.

If we have humility, then we cannot help but evangelize. We cannot help but bring the good news to our family, our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, our fellow students, and so on and on until every last person we know has been invited into this holy place to see the Face of God and to hear His voice, and to know the power and the glory and the rest and the healing and the love of our Savior Jesus Christ.

So does this mean that we forget about the people who are here and spend all our time trying to get new people here? By no means. What it means is that we transform our vision for who we are as Orthodox Christians, for who we are as St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church of Emmaus, into a vision of humility and love. If we do that, then our outreach will also find those same people whom we worry about who are no longer here or who are only occasionally here or who are here and hurting in our midst, perhaps unknown to us, silent in their suffering and in their need.

The ministry of this holy church does not belong only to the clergy or the choir or the parish council or any of our active organizations—it belongs to each of us and to all of us. God is calling me right now like the Publican to humble myself, to pray for His mercy, to commit or recommit myself to the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ to every creature, to ask not where I can be served but where I can serve.

This feeling that the Church exists to serve me, this distortion of church life, is hidden in many wounded hearts throughout the holy Orthodox Church, and the hearts of the saints cry out to God with the Prophet King David “How long, O Lord, how long?” And they wait for us to awaken, to see that the whole world is our parish, and to humble ourselves and pray for God’s mercy for our sin. And they wait for us to see that the only way our own spiritual needs can be met is by asking how we can serve others. Because if we only look to be served, then we will remain starving for the One Who is truth, Who came not to be served, but to serve.

Brothers and sisters, where is the saintly fire of old? Where is our humility, our love, our prayer for mercy? I will not accuse anyone here except for myself. I have much work to do. I have been waiting for this holy season of Lent which is now coming soon, and I have been praying that my own eyes and my heart may be opened for what God would do within me, so that I, too, may find mercy, so that I, too, may ask how I can preach this Gospel which is given to me not for my own possession but rather so that it may be multiplied all around me.

So we begin this great quest for this year, the search for the meaning of our Lenten labors. This year, let it begin with the humility of the Publican, who asks for forgiveness and mercy so that he can be set back into a right relationship with God and with those whom he has cheated.

If we make our journey toward Pascha in humility, then it will be a journey of evangelism, a journey of service, a journey of giving that good word of Jesus Christ to those around us. It is not only to invite the stranger to church, but most especially to begin by inviting those next to us—whether they once shared this space with us and are no longer here, whether they only share this space with us every so often, or whether they have not yet come here into this holy place.

For everyone we know belongs here. Everyone is properly a member of this church. No one is shut out. No one is excluded. No one has a priority. We are all called.

Who will listen? Who will come? Who will fall down before God and cry out with the Publican, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”? Who today will make it their mission this Lent to restore those who have been lost to us, to bring closer to us those whose connection is only tenuous, and to bring into our midst those who belong to us but have not yet become one with God in the flesh?

Let our Lenten evangelism begin. And let it begin with humility.

To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.