The 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 18 September 6, 2015 Carole Seeley
The Liturgical Calendar tells us that we are in Ordinary Time. Putting aside the canonical explanations of what that means, which Fr. Brent clearly explained back in the middle of June, saying that the church calendar “helps align us to the way things really are…what God is calling us to be…pointing us in the direction that Jesus calls us to from across the ages, the Kingdom, the Commonwealth of God.” Or, in language that makes it really plain for me, “the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
However, I would like to suggest that the time we are in right now is anything but ordinary. Rather, that we are ordinary people, living in extraordinary times.
I am obsessively uninformed about current events for the most part. I don’t watch the news on TV, or listen to the radio, or read the newspaper. What information – or misinformation – I get about what’s going on in the world pops up in my Facebook timeline and either it registers in my mind or it doesn’t. It’s overwhelming to consider all the killings, beatings, shootings, looting, terrorism, murders, rapes, bombings… not even considering the mind-numbing ecological damage being done globally, the wholesale slaughter of endangered species, the reckless and wanton destruction of land, property, rain forests, the ocean, the polar icecaps. And on and on it goes – the “dark forces” to which Fr. Brent alluded a couple of weeks ago – “greed , apathy, denial, selfishness, hardness of heart, duplicity… these spiritual maladies [that]are endemic to our civilization and will someday be the death of the moderately participatory democracies in the western industrialized world.” Extraordinary times. Dark times. And fear is the ravening wolf that moves among us, devouring our faith, feasting on our indifference, plundering our mindlessness.
So, to paraphrase Mary Oliver: Tell me. What is it you plan to do with your one and precious ordinary life? In thinking beyond the everyday – driving to work, doing laundry, weeding the garden, shopping for groceries, cleaning the house, minding the kids, and so forth – what can we do to make a difference in these times of which Yeats wrote prophetically, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
What the readings last week and this seem to be leading us toward is an understanding that, fundamentally, in the Old Testament, God laid out the rules and laws and – because from the beginning people found ways to break them – was pretty specific about the consequences of ignoring them. Hence the ritual sacrifices to atone for messing up. In the New Testament, Jesus – not an unblemished goat or calf or lamb – is the fulfillment of the law. So we come now to the next installment of the faith versus works debate that has been argued since the Reformation and the words of Paul and James that apparently contradict each other. Is it in reconciling the theological dispute over the question of whether salvation is by faith or by works that we can make a difference?
I love the way The Message Bible paraphrases the verses in Ephesians: “Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.”
And on the flip side, James says: “Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup – where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, ‘Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.’ Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works.”
One of the commentaries I read stated, “In summary, both faith and works are important in salvation. However, believers are justified, or declared righteous before God, solely by faith. Jesus Christ is the only One who deserves credit for doing the work of salvation. Christians are saved by God’s grace through faith alone. Works, on the other hand, are the evidence of genuine salvation. They are the ‘proof in the pudding,’ so to speak. Good works demonstrate the truth of one’s faith. In other words, works are the obvious, visible results of being justified by faith.”
It’s almost like watching a well-played tennis match with expert volleying by both players – lots of back and forth neck action. And now I’m going to hijack the whole argument and probably give you whiplash to boot, because I don’t believe either of those is the right answer. I don’t know how exegetically accurate my opinion is, which is why it’s just an opinion and not a sermon. I will also not presume to speak for others of you, because I can only know what’s in my own heart and soul for sure. Most of the time. Sometimes I even wonder about that!
I think the only way I can really make a difference as the “powers and principalities” duke it out and it becomes increasingly clear that dimensional boundaries are thinning is to recognize what God is calling me to be: a three-legged stool. Faith, hope and love. The King James Bible says it’s “faith, hope and charity.” I cross-referenced 24 paraphrases and translations of I Corinthians 1:13 and, in all but three, the words were, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary states that “Faith fixes on the Divine revelation, and assents thereto, relying on the Divine Redeemer. Hope fastens on future happiness, and waits for that; but in heaven, faith will be swallowed up in actual sight, and hope in enjoyment. There is no room to believe and hope, when we see and enjoy. But there, love will be made perfect. There we shall perfectly love God. And there we shall perfectly love one another.”
The Pulpit Commentary goes on to write: “The greatest of these is charity; more literally, greater than these is love. St. Paul does not explain why love is the greatest and best of the three but four reasons may be given:
- “Love is the greatest, because it is the root of the other two; we believe only in that which we love; we hope only for that which we love.
2. And love is the greatest because love is for our neighbors; faith and hope are mainly for ourselves.
3. And love is the greatest because faith and hope are human, but God is love.
4. And love is the greatest because faith and hope can only work by love, and only show themselves by love.
It is love, therefore, that is the greatest of the three, also because it presupposes ‘faith’ which, without ‘love’ and its consequent ‘works’ is dead (Galatians 5:6; James 2:17, 20).”
The Collect from last week included the words: “Graft in our hearts the love of Your name (which could also read “the love of Jesus”)… and bring forth the fruit of good works.” You who are gardeners will know that grafting is the process of a young shoot or twig of a plant, especially one cut for grafting or rooting, being inserted into a slit on the trunk or stem of a living plant, from which it is nourished. Having seen this done in an effort to create a “cocktail tree” – the original being a lemon tree – with limes and oranges, I know that the root is often the dominant plant and the grafts may not survive. However, if I visualize the love of Jesus as being the root of my heart, I believe faith and hope will yield good fruit in my life!
I think the conclusion is best worded in the Message Bible paraphrase of I Thessalonians: “Every time we think of you, we thank God for you. Day and night you’re in our prayers as we call to mind your work of faith, your labor of love, and your patience of hope in following our Master, Jesus Christ, before God our Father. It is clear to us, friends, that God not only loves you very much but also has put his hand on you for something special. When the Message we preached came to you, it wasn’t just words. Something happened in you. The Holy Spirit put steel in your convictions.”
As you may know, I am the coordinator of what we have referred to as the Pastoral Care ministry. And the conviction I have for making this kind of difference is holding space for agape in this labor of love. Agape is defined as “the love of God or Christ for humankind; the love of Christians for other persons, corresponding to the love of God for humankind. “ It is the “love which is of and from God, whose very nature is love itself.” The apostle John affirms this in I John 4:8, “God is love.” God does not merely do love; He is love itself. Everything God does flows from His love. But it is important to remember that God’s love is not the moonstruck, sentimental love that we often hear portrayed when we think of love. Grand gestures are great when it comes to love. But grand gestures are not the neighborhood agape love lives in. God loves because that is His nature and the expression of His being. He loves the unlovable and the unlovely (sometimes that would be moi), not because we deserve to be loved, but because it is His nature to love us, and He must be true to His nature and character.
Agape is unconditional. It is a decision, a matter of will. Agape is heart; it isn’t task-driven. It’s not about how many meals we fix, how many rides to church we provide, how many visits we make to sick people. Agape is totally selfless and does not change whether the love given is returned or not. Jesus doesn’t expect anything in return. He loves me when I speak to Him daily, spend time in His Word or prepare meals for Rahab Sisters or our dear Betsy Jones. But He also loves me when I make a snarky comment about my neighbor, flip the bird to the person who cuts me off in traffic, or don’t feel like going to church on Sunday morning. His love is unconditional and is there even when I screw up. Agape is what J.B. Phillips refers to as The Royal Law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Without any weasel words like, “well, who is my neighbor?” Love everyone. No exceptions.
I had finished proof-reading this and saved it to a thumb drive to take down to FedEx and get it printed out when my smart phone notified me I’d gotten a new post to Facebook. Something made me open it and read it. And now I’m going to read it to you. This was written by the late Rev. John Stott, and says it absolutely perfectly:
“I was hungry and you formed a humanities club and discussed my hunger. I was imprisoned and you crept off quietly to your chapel in the cellar and prayed for my release. I was naked and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance. I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health. I was homeless and you preached to me about the spiritual shelter of the love of God. I was lonely and you left me alone to pray for me. Christian, you seem so holy; so close to God. But I'm still very hungry, and lonely, and cold...”
Love lives in the ordinary. Love lives in the day-to-day. Love lives in the little.
John O’Donohue wrote in Soul Gatherings the following blessing, which I ask for all of us:
“May the light of your soul guide you.
May the light of your soul bless the work you do with the secret love and warmth of your heart.
May you see in what you do, the beauty of your own soul.
May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light and renewal to those who work with you and to those who see and receive your work.
May your work never weary you.
May it release within you wellsprings of refreshment, inspiration and excitement.
May you be present in what you do.
May you never become lost in the bland absences.
May the day never burden.
May dawn find you awake and alert, approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities and promises.
May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.
May you go into the night blessed, sheltered and protected.
May your soul calm, console and renew you.”