Year B, 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17 September 2, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Lord who may dwell in your tabernacle? * who may abide upon your holy hill?”
It is Labor Day weekend. The fleece is coming out of the closets. The stuff you left in the backyard got wet this week. 4J opens its doors on Wednesday and homeschoolers are already starting to close theirs… We are passing from Summer to Autumn. You can hear it. It is glorious. And there is much to do.
Our lectionary sets us up well for our transition from the Summer rest to the busy Fall. We have some very practical texts before us today. Having left the stratospheric heights of St. John and returned to Year B’s down to Earth heart, St. Mark’s Gospel, we also are in the first of five weeks with the letter of St. James, Brother of our Lord. St. James is eminently practical. We’ll talk more about the letter itself next week when we hear its most famous verse, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Today we’ll keep it a little lighter and just discuss the purpose of religion.
What does it mean to be a Christian, to be Christian? _____ That is a question. _____ Seeing that not everyone’s hand shot up, I’ll take that as confirmation that many, most of us do not have our Christian elevator speech worked out. You know that term, “elevator speech?” Being able to describe something in the span of an elevator ride… a big city elevator. (Fitting it in between the parking garage to the 3rd floor of the library is an unreasonable goal). This is a theme we will be exploring over the next couple of months, and hopefully we’ll form for each of us a basic, digestible, communicable, enlightening, sustaining and even healing understanding of our faith. There is an adult ed series starting in October that I will call something like “We believe what? How to explain the Christian Faith to children and other novices.” Something like that. It is specifically for parents as the first catechists, but we all would do well to be able to explain this stuff at a child’s level. Pew Research did a study some years ago that indicated that most of us operate at a 2nd grade level of religious education… And in this time where apparently “Truth isn’t truth,” we need to get back to our foundation, we need to get back to basics, so that the moral compass of our God is right there in front of us. For that, is what this sin-sick world craves more than anything: actual truth; actual grace; actual love. Therein is our salvation.
What does it mean to be Christian? St. James is about as crystal clear as can be, isn’t he? “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Got it? Go forth and spread the Word!
What does it mean to be Christian? James is right; serving the least of these and remaining holy, which is something like following Jesus’ injunction to “be in the world but not of the world,”; to not be sucked into the morass of temporal concerns in the face of Ultimate Reality. That sounds pretty good, and it sounds like a pretty all in sort of endeavor. And it is, and many, most of us don’t go far enough with it. James talks about deceiving ourselves, being pious hearers of the word who do nothing different in our lives. Even though we are given “the implanted word that has power to save your souls,” so often we just hear it, maybe repeat it, maybe go through the motions, come to church on Sundays, but are not actual “doers of the word.”
This is like Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in our reading today. They pointed out that the disciples did not adequately follow the Law when they ate with dirty hands. Jewish law indicated ways that many daily tasks were to be accomplished. Some minor, some profound. So they critiqued the disciples unobservant eating habits and in response Jesus quotes Isaiah at them, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” Ouch!
Jesus is speaking specifically about those who rigorously observe religious law, the rituals and customs when it suits them, but not when it doesn’t. But really He is getting at the same thing St. James was getting at: what does it mean to actually be religious, to take the life of the spirit seriously? What does it mean to follow God, to follow Jesus Christ? What does it mean to be Christian? Because through the lens of James and Jesus, this, being here, saying these prayers, worshiping God together in the ways handed down by our ancestors, believing the way our ancestors did… that ain’t it. That is not what being Christian means.
I think the root of what Jesus is saying and James is amplifying is maybe best summed up in something Windy said the other day. We were talking homeschool philosophy, what the goal of her schooling of our girls is. One of the guiding principles that she hopes to pass on to the girls is this: It is not as important to be right as it is to do right. It is not as important to be right as it is to do right. Now that is a rule to live by. (And a hard one for those of us who have spent as many years in school as some of us have and make or made our livings being right. Because really, being right really matters very infrequently; doing right always matters).
If we just believe things, believe them correctly; if we follow all the rules, not the “do unto other” rules, but the rules like Jesus is talking about, washing your hands properly, or like St. Paul talks about, being circumcised or not, or like good Episcopalians talk about, crossing yourself during the Sanctus when we sing “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” or which altar candle to light first or which color vestments are appropriate to the season… if we just did all of that and the myriad other traditions we have been handed, will every little thing be alright? Will be we in line with the teaching of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior? No. Those things don’t matter, because it is not as important to be right as it is to do right. What we need to do is “… care for orphans and widows in their distress, and [to] keep oneself unstained by the world.” There is a difference between God’s commandments, between pure and undefiled religion and what we are doing right now, following human ecclesiastical tradition.
And… And you know what, you probably should cross yourself during the Sanctus when we sing “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” It is proper to light the right candle first. It really wouldn’t be appropriate to have the white altar frontal out right now, though I think it is the best one we have, or for me to wear the gorgeous blue stole that Kim made for me a few years ago, my favorite stole ever. And you know, we are going to follow the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, and follow them pretty strictly. As you know or will soon learn if you are new to this community, I have only one really conservative bone in my body: the Liturgy. There are some things I can be very flexible about; the conduct of our principal Mass is not one of them. Of course. What did you expect? We are Anglican, for goodness sake. My own liturgical formation happened at a monastery, talk about observance of ancient tradition. There are ways we do things and ways we don’t (or shouldn’t)? And that has what to do with what James or Jesus are saying in our readings today? And that has what to do with what it means to be Christian? Now those are good questions.
What do you think? Why does it matter that some of us give a simple bow, just a head nod at the name of Jesus in the liturgy? Or that Blue is for Advent, Green for Ordinary time, Purple for Lent and White for Christmas, Easter and Funerals? (There is Red, Black and Rose, too, but let’s not get carried away). Why should we even consider using the form of the Daily Office as our principal devotion between Sundays? Why does any of this matter?
You might have guessed that I have a couple of thoughts on that. First and foremost, we humans, we are scatty creatures. You know how distractible you are hearing, and consider Jesus’ run down of the horrible things that arise in the human heart: fornication, murder, avarice, wickedness and the rest of them. Those sinful tendencies are in our hearts, more often that most of us like to admit, even to ourselves. We need help along the way. One of the antidotes, a means to a holy end is discipline. Rigorous discipline. Getting up in the morning, and whether you feel like it or not, doing the spiritual equivalent of putting on your running shoes on a cold, wet morning. Maybe it is the last thing you want to do, say Morning Prayer or go to Church, but it is good for you, so you discipline yourself an you get up, wash your face and start your day right.
Submitting to a common way is a means to temper our ego; to remind us that it is not in fact about us, because it isn’t. Discipline pushes us into places we might not go otherwise. And it is not so much the content that matters, though we’ll get to that, it is the form. Accepting a form not generated by yourself. Going through the motions, mindfully going through the motions itself is good for us, it focuses out attention and can clarify our intention. In this my preferences age, submitting to the discipline of a larger body is a clear path to freedom.
Another reason that our traditions and customs are helpful is that they help to reveal a whole universe of faith, that cross-references, builds upon, reinforces itself. The vocabulary and images of our faith are ingrained in marvelous ways. “Walk in love as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering to God.” We hear that each week at the Offertory. And a few weeks ago, the Lectionary present us the source code, Ephesians 5:2. I love when that happens. The whole Mass is cut and pasted from scripture, and when you encounter it, reading your Bible or hearing a line in a song, it is another brick in the wall, a good wall, the wall of a beautiful home where you live in peace, and love radiates out and the doors are open to all. All of this stuff, the fussiness, the traditions, the words collected from ancient times and modern ones, collated in this little red book in 1979, it begins to be a map, a map of sacred references points, pointing us in the right direction… which happens to be East. Because churches have always faced East!
It is good! We get a glimpse in the words of a hymn or in the Taize chants we share. A line from a collect sticks and emerges when we need it. A bow of the head when encountering something holy. It all builds upon itself, revealing the holiness of everything. Layer upon layer… our Christian faith offers a deep and ancient well from which to draw. Remembering, practicing the tradition reinforces the inter-connectedness of it all and inserts tools, reminders into our souls.
That brings us to the category of practice itself. Practicing being in a holy space makes it easier to see other spaces as holy, makes it easier to act holy when we are in them. I have called this the Karate Kid school of religious practice. You’ve seen that movie? The boy goes to the master to learn karate. But instead of going to the practice floor, he is given a paint brush: paint the fence. Do it this way. Then he is told to wax the master’s car: wax on; wax off. Do it this way. He does it, but by the end of the day he is frustrated. “Painting, waxing… that is not what I need. I am getting beat up at school!” So the master, Mr. Miyagi, stands before him, “Paint the fence” and throws a punch… the boy’s new found muscle memory deflects the blow. “Wax on”, the boy parries left. “Wax off,” with new instincts ingrained by practice, the blow is parried right. If you set your mind and soul and even your body on God, and you practice saying the words, feeling the feelings, letting yourself get carried by the community to the mystery of the Table, just the simple (and profound) act of bowing or kneeling, practicing that, practicing putting yourself into posture of receptivity to God, a posture of vulnerability within a group of others that you can, you should try to trust, if you do that, then when you encounter hardship in your life, when you need to feel the warm, familiar arms of God, when you want to trust that what you know to be right is right no matter how hard it might be… the practice you have done here, week after week, month after month, year after year… it adds up, and it can bend you in the direction you need to bend towards, it can help you face God when everything and everyone one around you is facing in precisely in the opposite direction.
Someone wrongs you: forgive. Someone wrongs you: forgive. Encounter difference: do not judge. Encounter difference: do not judge. Do unto others. Do unto others. “The Lord is my shepherd, he walks with me always. He knows me and he loves me and walks with me always.” When you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, when you are at your worst, your weakest, your least capable of doing right, what we do here, the hooks that you place in your soul each time we pray our common prayer together, that can save you. It can become for you a beacon, a shining city on a hill, calling you home through the storm. That is why this, doing all this matters, can matter. That we are doing it, what we are practicing, all of that serves, can serve, to focus our attention on God. (That and it is wicked fun for us priests to wear this stuff. I mean really, my job description includes wearing a cape! That is awesome).
Now we can always slip into becoming more concerned with what we are doing, with the form itself, than with the why we are doing it, the end. We can easily become more concerned with being right than doing right. That is Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, James’ caution about being hearers, not doers of the word and that is a constant moral risk we face. But it doesn’t mean that tradition should be abandoned, it just means we have to be careful. We have to be mindful, and ensure that God in Christ, not us, is the center of our practice.
So we didn’t quite answer the question of what does it mean to be Christian, part of it, maybe, but we’ve got a long way to go, and it is not something we, that you, can do only on Sundays. So I am going to offer the opportunity for your own study this week, homework if you like, ‘tis the season. I want you to read the Baptismal Covenant, found on page 304 – 305 in the BCP. I have some printed copies in back, too. Today we covered point four in the Covenant. So please read it, even talk about it with someone, and we’ll continue with it next week. AMEN