Scripture: Luke 18:10-11a (NRSV)
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ?God, I thank you that I am not like other people..."
It's not a competition. Really, it's not. And perhaps that might be the most countercultural thing about being in a community of faith these days. Everything else in the world seems to be arranged around pitting human beings against each other to show who is the best at something. We see it in sports, even in events like the Olympics which claim to show the oneness of the world, where reporters talk about someone having to "settle" for the silver medal. We see it in politics, where the orators care less about truth than about making their opponents look bad so their standing will drop in the polls. We see it in education; our family settled our youngest in college this Fall after a senior year filled with the intense competition of applying and auditioning for performing arts programs.
And in this story, we see it even at worship. The Pharisee thinks to make himself look good before God by comparing himself to others so that he can win God's affection. Perhaps the saddest part of this whole story is the little phrase "standing by himself." The Pharisee went to worship and stood apart from the community, not with them. He was proud of being apart from them, seeing himself as better than almost everyone else.
The tax collector felt he was apart from the community as well, but not by choice. So he fell to the floor seeking mercy from God, perhaps in hope that he might be reconciled not only to God but to his people as well. He knew he could not compete with the "good" people and prayed that he might have a chance. We are told that he found home again, justified. But the Pharisee continued to stand alone, clueless.
Do people ever come into our worship services feeling like they have to compete? Like they have to be good people to be accepted? Like they have to come with the right pedigree or clothes or background? Like they have to know our music or our prayers? Do they end up standing by themselves against their will? Does the church in your town or neighborhood compete with other churches in your town or neighborhood to prove they are the best? Does your church seek to stand alone rather than enter into the messiness of human community? Really, it's not a competition.
God, be merciful to us, sinners all, and bring us together as one people, tethered to one another and to you with bands of love.
The Rev. Rochelle A. Stackhouse is the Transitional Pastor of the First Church of Christ in Hartford, CT.