I find myself thinking about the sermons at St. Thomas of Hollywood long after we’ve all chanted “Thanks be to God.” As most of you don’t live in LA, & many of you don’t have the good fortune to hear Father Ian’s interpretation of the Gospel (or his signature humour), I thought I might write these impressions down.
Last Sunday, Deacon Walter chanted from the Gospel of St. Luke 18:9-14. To summarize, a Pharisee goes on & on about what a great fricken Jew he is & what a bad dude this publican is, & the publican feels bad, hits himself in the chest, & asks God to be merciful to him, a sinner. Jesus explains that the publican is a way cooler dude than the Pharisee because he admits his faults.
Father Ian went on to explain that not only do we find people like the Pharisee annoying, but he thinks maybe God does, too. If you’ve ever been a boss, you remember the kid that was fond of telling you everything he did during the day. You were thinking the whole time “Yeah, that’s your job, spanky.” Then you’d go to lock up or run a report & find stuff missing or undone. Alternately, you’d have an employee that would come timidly to your office & say “Uh, I think I screwed up” & that person was awesome because you could fix it right now, not at 6:47 when everyone else had gone home.
God loves everybody, but I have to think He rolls His eyes when folks go on & on about how they’re getting into heaven because they’re super duper on time to church or gave a ton at the plate or are Kanye West or whatever.
This reminded me, to my great personal horror, of a birthday party I attended in Croydon when I was 5. The birthday boy was Nicholas, my first love. He was tall (for a six year old), had blue eyes, was very nice, & was the sort of lanky grey colour English school boys tend to be.
His mum announced at the beginning of the birthday party that a present would be given to the most well behaved child. She then held up a festively wrapped box. She probably read this little trick in some mothering book or magazine, thinking it would elicit cherubic obedience from what might otherwise be a mewling hoard of primary school whingetarians.
She did not count on me, the ultra competitive people pleaser whose entire life up to that point was a study in impressing adults.
I announced from the get go that I would be so good, she would have no trouble deciding on whom should receive the present. She smiled. I then proceeded to help as much as was possible for a 5 year old. I was extra quiet except for my periodic announcements that I was being quiet.
At the end, Nicholas’ mum asked us to vote for who the best behaved child was. I humbly nominated myself. When informed I could not nominate myself, I cheerfully nominated Nicholas. When informed that the birthday boy was excluded, I thought for a moment. I looked at my very quiet little brunette friend in the corner, Joanne. “Joanne is the best behaved,” I said solemnly, as that was pretty much always true.
The other children nodded. Joanne looked positively horrified when she was handed the gift. We all asked her to open it. I don’t even remember what it was. All I remember is that Joanne did not seem to want any attention on her.
I have since seen that slightly guilty, horrified look on a little girl’s face when it was inevitable she’d win a game of musical chairs at the expense of a movie star’s daughter. The winner burst into tears; the movie star’s daughter, a very thoughtful & normal little girl, burst into tears because the other girl was upset. “It’s ok for you to win!” said the movie star’s daughter, stroking the sobbing winner’s hair. I imagine the winner’s mother made a tremendous fuss over being nice to Movie Star’s Daughter before the party.
I have two points (I know, I know). Point A: I was a hideous child, as despicable as the Pharisee in the gospel. B. Little girls have intense pressure from their status-seeking mothers, but also inherent empathy, until it is scolded from them by status-seeking mothers.
My mother, who was not seeking status via Nicholas’ 6th birthday party, might have been horrified to learn of my competitive goodness. The mother of Musical Chair Winner was probably pleased as punch to learn that her kid & Movie Star’s Daughter hugged it out.
I feel like Joanne & Musical Chair Winner were the “rest of the publican’s tale” of their respective stories. They didn’t feel like they did enough, they wanted to play it safe & escape notice, but then attention was called to them & they were rewarded for being humble in the face of it. The difference between myself & the Pharisee is that I loved Joanne & was happy she won, though by pointing this out, I’m still being a little Phariseesque I spose, in that I don’t want you to loathe 5-year-old me.
Is it wrong to want to be noticed for being good good good & oh so smart? Not really, unless that is the only reason you are being good good good & oh so smart. The idea in Christianity is that goodness is its own reward. Parents teaching toddlers empathy say this all the time. “See? Doesn’t sharing just feel good?” Most toddlers say no, mostly because that part of their brain hasn’t developed yet (so seriously don’t even worry about sharing until they’re about 4).
Maybe somewhere God is telling a bunch of angels “Seriously don’t even worry about teaching the humans sharing for another 2 millennia. Right now they’re doing it expecting some kind of societal feedback, with rare exception. Keep an eye on the ones that do it ‘just because’. They shall inherit the earth.”
If you remember nothing else from this, repeat this mantra: “Be awesome to other people. Don’t rabbit on about it, cos then you’re just Kanye*.”
*If you want to be Kanye, I can’t help you, but I’ll pray for you.