Year C, 6thSunday after Pentecost (Proper 11)
July 21, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“O God, who may dwell in your tabernacle; who may abide upon your holy hill?”
When I am writing a sermon, I always have a few people in mind. I am constantly asking myself “What would Ms. X think of this?” “Would this upset Mr. Y?” “How would Z react?” They are touchstones, a constellation of weathervanes of sorts that I check myself, navigate the choppy waters of preaching to a parish. Maybe saying something would upset Mr. Y, and maybe that is ok, but it is good to get some external references. Don’t ask me if you are one of those people, I won’t tell. And they change, too.
I’m not preaching to those people, I try very hard not to preach to a small segment, or single person, not even to myself. But today I am going to make an exception. I am going to preach to one person. You all are welcome to listen in, but this is specifically for our newest, freshest Christian, Cedar. Well, about to be Christian.
Cedar, I want to tell you a bit about Christianity, this religion, this community, this family you are being initiated into today. There are a near infinite number of angles we could begin this conversation from, and many could be the best, most appropriate starting point for someone just starting out. But it being Sunday morning in a liturgical church, we’ll let the lectionary point the way. The gospel is Mary and Martha. Martha bustled around the kitchen, doing what needed doing when the Son of God and others show up and Mary did what needed doing, sitting at the feet of her Lord, being in His holy presence.
Our starting point, at least the point of this sermon, is that what we do and who we are matter. Matter in every conceivable way, and are inextricably linked. We are accountable to forces seen and unseen for what we do and who we are. The Christian language for this is that we will be judged, but that sounds so judgmental. Another way to say it is that we must be concerned with the understandable and the mysterious, or if you want to be fancy about it, we are answerable to the immanent and the transcendent, again not only for what we do, but for who we are. Being Christian is all about our relationship with God in Christ with the Holy Spirit and is just as all about how that relationship manifests in the world, how it guides our hands, our very lives in this world. Holiness alone isn’t enough, even for God. God in God’s own self became incarnate of the Blessed Virgin, took on flesh and dwelt, and taught, and healed and suffered and all the rest of it amongst us. Th divinity of Christ, the presence of God was reveled in who He was and what He did.
Who we are, our faith, what we believe, matters. Our faith matters. It matters what we believe. Does what we believe matter to God? Perhaps, but without a doubt what we believe matters to our relationship with God. God is our ultimate concern. What we believe has a significant impact to our relationship with fellow Christians, in how we gather as Christ’s body. God requires our submission, and much of our practice of that involves submitting to human created systems, human created structures, even sometimes other humans. It is tricky and risky, but there we are. As St. Paul tells us, we are justified by faith alone, certainly. That means that we are aligned, we are made right with God through our faith, not by ritual works, not by the blessings of the Church and her agents.
And what we do matters, too. The brother of Our Lord completes the circle by teaching us that “faith without works is dead.” That takes less explanation than faith and being. If you have perfect belief but live a dissolute life, you are in trouble. If you have perfect belief but, maybe you don’t actively hurt your neighbor but do nothing to help, you are in trouble. But really, if you are justified, if you are righteous in yoru being and belief, truly, there is no way that you could not do right, not do what is needed moment to moment. And there just aren’t that many folks out ther doing what is right without some moral force within them, no matter the source. What we do and who we are matter, and are inextricably linked.
- But how are we supposed to be? What are we supposed to do? As Christians, where do we get our guidance of how to be and what to do in the world? Because it is tough to figure out. Sometimes we have very clear answers to those questions. Sometimes it is easy to do and be what you are supposed to do and be. Sometimes it is clear what we should do and be but it is monumentally difficult, sometimes even dangerous to follow through. Sometimes it can seem impossible to discern right from wrong, or to choose a course of action through choices that are every shade of grey. Sometimes, things happen so fast you might not have the time to stop and figure it all out.
You’ve got good, faithful parents. They are a thoughtful and loving resource that you can rely on. May you not forget that too often between the ages of 13 and 35. I suspect your sister will be helpful, too. And that is why we are here. Maybe you will grow up here, with us. That would be great. But we are also a stand in for The Church with the Big C. We are and represent Christ’s body in the world, people to trust and learn from, lean on, rely upon, love and be loved by. In good times and bad, in the dark nights of the soul and the towering heights of your joy in this world, you are not alone, not only is God with you, but we are, and some of us are more than willing to give guidance. Some of us are maybe a bit too willing to offer advice if not exhortations, but we are here. You are not alone in heaven or on earth as you navigate the wonders of this life.
We also have our faith to offer, the faith of our ancestors. That comes to us in a lot of ways. It comes in how your fellow Christians live their faith in the world. It comes in the traditions of the church that are handed down, like the sacrament you are about to take part in. And it comes to us, of course, in Holy Scripture. We’ve already talked about your parents and fellow Christians, a living source of life and guidance. Tradition-wise… this is your first dose of it. In the Baptism ritual you are given very clear expectations of how to live in the Baptismal Covenant, and you are given interior expectations, expectations of faith, of trust in the Apostles Creed. It is a lot, especially being so young: renouncing Satan and the evil powers of this world, putting your whole trust in the grace and love of Jesus Christ, and promising to obey him, as your Lord. It is a bit formal, and a bit abstract, but pay attention to the ritual as we go through it. (And you all too, so when you are asked, you can help).
But is a bit abstract, a bit removed from day-to-day life, renouncing Satan and all. I am constantly seeking tools of discernment, reference points, guide posts to help me make good decisions and be in right relationship with all sorts of people in the world as life happens. I think most of us need something simple, that is right there guiding you as you navigate life in all its lifey-ness. Here scripture can be helpful. Holy Scripture is alive, it is a revelation of the truth of God through the hearts and minds of our ancestors. Holy Scripture is teeming with wisdom. Sometimes it comes in rules. Do this. Don’t do that. (And sometimes old-time consequences are attached. Don’t worry, we don’t stone anyone anymore). Sometimes it is in proverbs, sometimes in didactic teachings from prophets, apostles and martyrs, the words of The Word made Flesh, and sometimes it comes to us in the truth of poetry and in the narrative arc of a people’s story.
Most basic are the Ten Commandments. Do or don’t do these ten things that God directly told us about. Pretty straight forward and all pretty sound throughout the 3000 years they’ve been in use. They are not the end all, be all, though. They are not so much about the content of our character then our most basic dos and don’ts. Pay attention to them, but if you are looking for Christian guidance on how to vote or whether to by local conventional versus industrial organic spinach, the Decalogue isn’t going to help. They are not comprehensive.
Now you also don’t want to go overboard. In the Torah, the Law given to Moses, the Rabbis identified 613 specific direction about how to be and what to do in the world. The most common rendering of this list is by Maimonides, the 12thcentury rabbi. That is a name you should know. Of these 613 commandments, 365 of them are negative, don’ts (one for each day) and 248 are positive commandments, dos (one for each bone in our bodies, at least by a medieval count). Now 613 commandments are a lot to remember, and you are about to become Christian, so some of them don’t apply, and a bunch of them don’t apply to modern Jews because the Temple doesn’t exist any more. So if you are looking to figure somethign out, you could break out your Deuteronomy and Leviticus. It is there.
Now Jesus summarized the entirety of the Law and the Prophets in the Great Commandment. He told us to love God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself. Now really, there is nothing else you need to know. To Love is a state of being and a human activity. Loving, as Christians are called to love, is all that we are supposed to be and do, it covers it all, but it is a pretty broad brushstroke; a little more specificity can be helpful.
Now one of the better guideposts I have found in scripture is one we read today, Psalm 15. There are other catalogues like this in the Hebrew Bible, in Isaiah and Micah, and Psalm 24, but Psalm 15 is concise, and direct, meaning helpful, useable. The way rabbi’s teach it, King David took the 613 commandments of the Torah and simmered them down to these 11 points. These are the six minute abs of moral theology. We don’t need 613 rules, the 10 Commandments are very behavior based, and the 2 points of the Great Commandment, well, that takes a lot of imagination to apply in real time.
What I really appreciate about David’s rendering of the Torah is that it is not a list of dos and don’ts. It addresses behavior, but being poetry, the behavior is addressed not only in what to do, but in how to be. It was likely used ritually as a proclamation of the character of priests before they entered the temple. It is about what we are called to do, yes, but just as much as it is about who we are called to be by our God.
What is a godly person supposed to be and do?
“…lead blameless lives and do what is right…”
“…speak truthfully from the heart.” (That’s not a rule, that’s a way of life).
Have “no guile upon their tongues…”
“…they do no evil to their friends…”
“…they do not heap contempt upon their neighbors…”
“In their sight the wicked are rejected…” (That’s not about what you do, but about the reaction of others to one living as God calls us).
“…they honor those who fear God.”
“They have sworn to do no wrong…”
They “do not take back their word. “
“They do not give their money in hope of gain…”
They do not take “a bribe against the innocent.”
Now I am not going to do exegesis of each point, because
ritual language, the liturgy, which is simply a form of applied or enacted poetry, is not just didactic. The truth of the psalms is between the lines, the flesh of the Word is found in and amongst the words and our relationship with them. I commend it to you. I commend it to all of us here to study, to contemplate, heavens, to memorize. This is the kind of person we can and should aim to be; these are the kinds of things we can and should try to do.
Cedar, ours is not a rules based religion, though we have rules. Ours is not a dogmatic religion, not a catalogue of beliefs to conform your heart and mind to, though we do have doctrines and creeds and shared beliefs that define us as a covenanted community. Ours, primarily, is a relational religion, we understand that we exist only in relationship. Our very understanding of God, the Holy Trinity, is an image of a mysterious complex of relationships, begetting, begotten, proceeding from, a great theo-drama of relationship. We exist only in relation to God and each other. Relationship is always about both who we are and what we do, they are inextricably linked. And all of this, from the revealed truth of God in scripture, to the Word made flesh, to the saint’s and sages, known and anonymous throughout the ages, can guide us, can guide you as you navigate your life as a person of faith, as a Christian in a strange land. Welcome, young Cedar. May God bless you and keep you and may you always be the apple of God’s eye. AMEN