Year B, 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20 September 23, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”
So how is your Christian elevator speech going? We talked about that a couple of weeks ago, how we are going to be working towards a clearer understanding of our faith so 1, we have something readily available for us to hold on to when the wind buffets or if the mid-term elections don’t go the way you hope; and 2, for apologetic or evangelical purposes, so you have something intelligible to say to your skeptical brother-in-law at Thanksgiving (apology) or that nice lady in line at the grocery store (evangelism – because you say it right before you invite her to church). Anyone making any progress? ___ After last week’s scripture, I thought “Giving my entire life to following Jesus Christ” might be a one, but then I don’t want to have to cross my finger behind my back when telling it to someone. Because that probably is a right definition, it is what He expected of His disciples, His friends, us, but I know I have a long, long way to go to make that true. A really long way. But like we talked about last week, just because we have a long way to go, that we are far from perfect followers (or perfect anythings), that does not mean that we can’t, that we shouldn’t try. That’s the Christian contract. Keep working on it.
You’ve all heard of the notion of being “in the world but not of the world.” It is in St. John’s Gospel, 1st Corinthians, Romans, 1st John. A couple of weeks ago we heard St. James define pure religion as helping the widow and orphan in their distress and keeping oneself “unstained by the world.”
This is not an injunction to flee from the world, to renounce its tawdry and corrupt ways in exchange for a pure life. You know, a Christian school/Christian music/Christian movie/abstinence only existence, or a pleasant garden within a cloister unsullied by profane secular influences. Sometimes that sounds pretty good; not just the cloister garden, I lived in one for five years and it was exquisite!, but it can also sound good to just flee the world, block it all out. We don’t need a monastic habit to do that, we can just ignore the bad, deny the sin, think about rainbows and unicorns or the next beautiful Air b’nb we’ll rent. And who can blame us in a world like this, a world where it is uncertain who is going to sell more books about our President: Stormy Daniels or Bob Woodword? One is horrifying because it can be written, the other because it needed to be. Or Or where for one second anyone should consider not hearing what Professor Ford has to say about a potential Supreme Court nominee? That 35 inches of rain falling in a single storm anywhere in the world, let alone the Continental United States should not strike fear in our hearts and raise every conceivable alarm possible. You’ve seen the images of South Carolina. I sometimes just want to switch off the radio, unplug the CNN-blaring TV at the Y, throw the phone and lap top in the creek and just go out to Jasper and turn off, tune down and then drop out.
If you pay attention to the world, you all know that feeling I am sure. Thomas Merton, writing in the chaos of the late 60’s tried to avoid the whiplash of the news cycle. He suggested forgoing the news cycle and waiting for the book. That, he said, was a sufficient incubation period for sanity if not more truthfulness. In the current nanosecond to nanosecond information age, I wonder if that wisdom still stands? Is that possible and still be in the world responsibly?
Because tuning out, withdrawing from the world, is that what Jesus wants us to do? Is that what Sts. Paul, John and James are teaching? Of course not. We need to be in the world. This is where life is, this is where the work is, this is where Jesus is. Not just His ministry, but Him, the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us, here. Jesus came into this world to save us, sinners, those who were on the wrong path, doing the wrong things. And to save us, He charged us with following Him and helping others stuck in this morass. But we can’t be of the world, like He wasn’t. He didn’t do it like everyone else. He was born in a barn. He was itinerant, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Never did. He certainly did not adhere to social convention, to conventional wisdom, to the sterility of polite society. Prostitutes and tax collectors, lepers and demoniacs, the unclean and uncouth, jokers like Peter and Judas, like you and me, sometimes saintly, sometimes not. And He chose the cross. He willing walked a path that He knew would lead Him there. He warned His friends in last weeks reading, and He did it again today.
It is not the world. The world is not bad. The physical world, the flesh, is not bad: it is from God! Paul juxtaposes flesh (sarx) with spirit (nous), but he is not talking about this, about actual flesh, about the actual biological processes from conception to death… no, that’s the world we are in, that’s life happening, and it is good, very good. The sarx, the flesh Paul cautions us about, that is the “of the world” species of flesh. That is this, the beautiful, the pure, the created being perverted in the truest sense of the word, and perverted by… what’s the word??? Makes Episcopalians more uncomfortable than talking sex or money? Sin. Original sin. Why is it harder to do right than it should be? Why is the Jesus path more narrow for us, less traveled by us than the other fork in the road? It is so familiar that we all know exactly what it means when Billy Joel sang that he’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. Why are the saint’s crying? That’s what original sin is about. That something is amiss… and we need to do our best to avoid that part of it. Being of the world means dabbling in those parts, hanging around in those dark corners, or even just not admitting that a darker side of things exists at all, not being mindful of it. Being in the world not of the world is about not engaging the world with the lesser angels of our nature (or maybe not engaging the lesser angels of nature)?
That is not a very hard concept to grasp, being in the world, not of the world. It is simply not going along with the program, the sinful, worldly program. Simple, but a very, very hard thing to do, because in real time, in the moment to moment living of life, with the enormous pressure of the culture in which we live, what is of God and what leads us to God can be hard to differentiate from those things that lead us in other directions, less edifying directions. Not less pleasant ones, the roads away from God, those are the enjoyable ones, the more enjoyable ones usually… in the near term the road away from God is usually much easier, much smoother, has much more laughter and much better cocktail service than the rocky, steep climb through a lousy neighborhood to righteousness.
Our epistle (we’re still in James) and our Gospel (we’ll be in Mark ‘til Advent) both give examples of the Christian life being in the world, not of it. James tells us to “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” That is beautiful, “gentleness born of wisdom.” Such is a good life, if not the good life, a life in the world lived with “gentleness born of wisdom.” That is not life of the world. And that wisdom, “wisdom from above,” what is that like? It is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”
Those are some words. Pure. Peaceable. Not peaceful, peaceable, descending from Latin word meaning “to please,” it means not arguing, avoiding violent conflict. Gentle. Willing to yield. Full of mercy. Every one of these phrases or words… are those normative to 21st century American culture? Does our society favor those traits? They are kind of the polar opposite of “stand your ground.” Expressing those traits through your good life, living within the boundaries of mercy, gentleness, peaceability… If you do that, if you seek that, seek to live like that, that is life in the world in the way Jesus asks us, expects us to be. And the fruits of that life? “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
This is the heavy lift of the Christian life, living in it but not of it. This is as counter-cultural as can be. Have any of those words describing wisdom from above ever appeared in a Harvard Business Review article about traits of a good leader? They certainly didn’t cultivate gentleness or willingness to yield at Marine Corps Officer Candidate’s School, nor do they at Autzen Stadium, nor before a dissertation committee (the candidate “defends” right). Do those words even describe the average playground? (Ours out back is going to be above average).
In the Gospel today, Jesus gives another clue as to how we live in but not of the world. He spoke of His fate again: betrayal, execution, rising again on the third day. The disciples again didn’t get it, for next thing we know they are arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest. Jesus must have been shaking His head as He called them in close and picked up one of the children. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
In that age children were barely people. They had no rights, no protection, no status in society whatsoever, and Jesus delivers a live action parable demonstrating that whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me. What an affront to the conventional wisdom of the day! If you aspired to be great (or at least greater, and who in their right mind wouldn’t?), you did it by associating with those greater than yourself; the greater in power, wealth, status, station. Honor was gained by associating with those with honor. Things haven’t changed. CNAs in hospitals and nursing homes, pre-school teachers, anyone ones who care for our children, do or will care for us when were are back in a least of these category, we treat and pay them how? Folks who work with the homeless, addicts, survivors of domestic violence, or folks who clean up after us, they are where on the social ladder? Well, if you are looking to get right with God and not be immersed in the striving, achievement-driven, envy-laden world of competition and accomplishment, then you would be right exactly where you are supposed to be, amongst the least of these. That is where you find God. In the world, very much so, but not of it, not the in the way of worldly gain and glory. So must we be also.
Nothing earth shattering here. Well completely earth shattering if we actually did it, but it is nothing that you have not heard before, you’ve heard it ad nauseam if you pay attention to the Gospels. But it is hard to relate it to our daily lives, so I want to propose a thought experiment, or maybe a heart experiment for you to try this coming week. I want you to try to notice some moments that you might be able to choose between in and of the world. We are a capitalist, consumer society, worldly, material goods define much of our culture, much of our identities, so that is a good place to start. This week, I’d like you to notice yourself in relation to things. For example, notice it when a fancy car drives by. Maybe it is a sleek late model Jaguar (very Episcopalian) or a mint condition 1971 VW bus (very Eugene) or the slickest Tesla out there (better get’m quick before the SEC gets involved). Or someone pulls out the latest iPhone, or the best season tickets, or whatever it is that you sometimes covet, the beautiful clothes, the job offer, the gorgeous home, the well-mannered child, whatever tempts you. When you get that flash of want, maybe envy, notice it. What do you feel? What would having that thing actually do for you, to you? What would having (or not having) it say about you? Who would say that?
Or maybe material goods aren’t your poison, maybe it is pride. So next time you are at a coffee shop, or a restaurant, look around and notice who you would most want to have coffee or lunch with. Not a date, just who you would like to spend an hour with at that coffee shop, that restaurant. And who not. Why? Why not? Does it have anything to do with hoe their company would reflect on you? How? In whose eyes?
Or watching TV, being on-line, notice how you react to all the things our economic overlords dangle before you, try to entice you with, make you feel less for not having. Be it the abs of steel, the partner with abs of steel, the vida loca life-style, a winning lottery ticket, perfect teeth… What would having, being any of those things do for or to you? Or do for or to your relationships with yourself, those you share this life with, God?
I encourage you to take that baby step, noticing your relationship with the world, how close (or far) you are from what society tells you you should be, and how Jesus does. All that stuff, worldly stuff, it is not bad, it is what we do with it, how we identify ourselves with that, and not with what is actually important, with God in Christ with the Holy Spirit, that is the problem. Keep your eyes open to yourself this week. Notice. AMEN