Sunday, November 26, 2017

A Unifying Ethic

PROPERS:          PROPER 29, YEAR A 
TEXT:                 MATTHEW 25:31-46

ONE SENTENCE:        The transformed, genuine Christian life leads to an ethic guided by the essential teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25.

            In my salad days, right after ordination, I was, as they say, “not always right, but never in doubt.”  I had some strong opinions, though not all of them were well thought-out.

            Those opinions came into conflict with those of a much more senior priest – who had equally strong but not well-thought-out opinions.

            He was largely retired, having served as Canon to the Ordinary in another diocese and, more importantly, as one of my predecessors at the small congregation where I was then assigned.  We were like the older, wary dog and the younger, more impetuous pup circling and sniffing each other.  Trust was in short supply.

            In a social setting one evening, the topic of basic homiletical perspectives came up.  To de-fancify that terminology, the discussion had to do with our basic theological opinions.  In other words, what was our starting point for our sermons?

            The older priest believed, he said, in the basic sinfulness of human beings.  He believed that people in the pews needed to be confronted with their sinfulness and that their perverse nature should be named and challenged.  I would have described that perspective as Calvinist in nature – naming the utter depravity of human nature.

            His view was that we willfully resist God’s goodness and that it is the preacher’s responsibility to name and condemn that behavior.

            That perspective could be represented by a repeated emphasis on the Ten Commandments.  The Law. God’s requirements. And our resistance.

            That was his approach to preaching sermons.  I profoundly disagreed with him.

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            My opinion was quite different.  I believed that human beings – the people in the pews – tried hard.  I believed that many folks carried a burden of guilt with them, like a 50 pound bag of potatoes. Much of that burden had its roots in sermons such as my colleague said he preached.

            I believed that people sought to do the right thing, but our human nature got in the way.  I identified with Paul’s struggles from the Letter to the Romans: “Wretched man that I am!  Who will save me from this body of death?”

            I believed that people needed a healthy dose of grace.  They needed to realize that God loved them, and that his love could overcome the gulf between what God calls us to be and what we are capable of.

            If I had labeled my older friend’s theology as Ten Commandments’ based, I would say that my own was Beatitudes’ based. Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the meek… blessed are the peacemakers… and so forth.

            To boil the conflict down, I would describe it in this way:  The older priest emphasized the sinfulness of human nature; I saw the need for grace.  The Ten Commandments versus the Beatitudes.

            We both had our perspectives, and never the ‘twain shall meet.

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            As the years rolled on, I gained a different perspective:  We were both right – in our own ways.  We just didn’t go far enough.

            Today I would describe the older priest’s perspective with a phrase we use to use when I was a lobbyist – All hat and no cattle. The emphasis on the Law was precisely one of the shortcomings that Jesus saw in the religious institutions he confronted in his day.  A good product, but ultimately unfulfilling.  Good talk, but little substance.

            My own perspective, while in my opinion, well grounded, was equally empty.  The emphasis on grace and the love of God could lead a horse to water.  However, the simple proclamation of God’s grace left open the subject of the proper response.  It was the theological equivalent of the dog who catches the car – what does he do with it?

            I wondered:  How do I bridge the chasm between “All hat and no cattle” and “the dog who catches the car”?  How was I to overcome the gap between the emphasis on the demands of the The Law and the potentially vacuous proclamation of God’s grace?

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            So, I come to the Great Judgment in Matthew 25 – perhaps the high point of Matthew’s gospel.

            In those 15 verses, Jesus talks about all nations coming before the king.  As the king judges those nations he says,

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

            It is within these few verses – among Jesus’ final teachings – that we find the meat of the gospel.  In the Great Judgment we find the ethical imperative of the good news.  The needle of law and grace is threaded.  The balance is there.

            A Christian life, whether forged by law or grace, is a transformed life.  It does things other than speak platitudes and proclaim empty phrases.  It does much more than hammer people’s broken nature and utter soft words of forgiveness.

            A Christian life – transformed as it is – is founded in lawful nature and cloaked in grace.  Yet, that transformation brings forth fruit that is described in Matthew 25 – concern for the sick, drink for the thirsty, food for the hungry, clothing for the naked, a welcome for the stranger, care for prisoners.

            And interesting and confronting for me:  There is not a word of blame.  That empathy, that care, that concern is not allocated on the basis of the person being blameless.  The ethical mandate is for all people in such states.

            When we as individuals have embraced and lived that gospel ethical standard, we will be living more fully the gospel life.  We will be ready to stand before the king.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Power of Call

PROPERS:          PROPER 28, YEAR A 
TEXT:                 MATTHEW 25:14-30

ONE SENTENCE:        Your gift is your call; you should be prepared to answer it.

            What is your call?

            Be assured you have one.  Three brief stories may prompt you to think more deeply.

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            In the year 386, a wealthy young man sat quietly in a courtyard.  His life had been one of ease, but searching.  He had followed various philosophies popular in the day.  His journey had taken him from his birth home in modern-day Algeria to his courtyard in Milan, Italy.

            His mother was a devout Christian; his father a pagan.  He had had various concubines during his profligate life, and now he was 31, seeking a direction for his life.

            He sat quietly in his courtyard.  Perhaps he slumbered.  But he heard a childs voice chanting the Latin words: Tolle, legge Tolle, legge.  Take up and read take up and read.

            Within reach he found a scroll with Pauls Letter to the Romans.

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            More than 1,000 years later, a young monastic student wrestled with life.  He had always been quite bright and gifted.  His father a cruel and oppressive man wanted him to study law, but this young man had his heart set on a religious vocation.

            His abusive childhood had left a mark on him.  Modern-day psychotherapists may have diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Safe within his monastic community away from most temptations of the world he nevertheless felt compelled to go to confession many times a day.

            No sooner would he emerge from confession than he would realize some personal flaw he had failed to mention.  He would return to confession. His life was broken and he saw no way out.

            But a kindly mentor perhaps inspired by the Spirit guided this young man into teaching.  And teach he did.  The topic was the New Testament, and the young man torn and distraught found himself.

            He set the Christian world aflame.

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            The third story.

            Some 300 years later, there was a woman 32-years-old, struck down by a devastating illness.  She had previously been a writer of humorous articles. The illness left her bed-ridden for the next 50 years of her life.

            She was the daughter and granddaughter of Anglican clergy.  Her father was a well-known Evangelical preacher.  Their house was a whirlwind of activity, being a center of the social activist Clapham Sect, which had been founded by John Newton, the former slave trader and author of Amazing Grace.

            Her illness frequently left her depressed.  One evening, her family had gone to a church bazaar and she was alone at home.  She was feeling lost, worthless, and depressed.  It was in that fog that the words of one of her pastors came to her, as she had wrestled with her sense of worthlessness.  His words: Come to Jesus just as you are.

            She put pen to paper.  The year was 1834.  We remember her and her words to this day.

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            So, who were these three individuals?  And why do they matter today?

            I mention them because they had gifts that were not being utilized.  Those gifts are analogous to the talents we heard about in the gospel lesson today.  If those talents had been buried and not invested we would all be poorer today.

            There is a call from God as we hear in the Parable of the Talents to use our gifts.

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            The first person I mentioned sat quietly in a courtyard in Milan, Italy, having lived a brilliant but profligate life.  He heard a voice saying, Tolle, legge Tolle, legge.  Take up and read, take up and read.  He reached for a scroll containing Pauls Letter to the Romans.

            That young man was Augustine of Hippo who, out of his sordid background, became perhaps the greatest theologian in the history of the church.  His writings such as The City of God and Confessions have a profound impact on the church today.

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            The obsessive-compulsive monastic, so overwrought with his own sinfulness, was Martin Luther.  As he taught scripture to the other young monks, he discovered a depth and graciousness to God that he had not known.  And the Reformation was born.
            His life was not easy afterwards, but his calling was answered, and his gifts were uncovered and utilized.  He shook the foundations of the church, and we exist as a parish because of his calling.

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            The bedridden English woman, so convinced of her lack of purpose in life, penned words that have caused hearts to turn, tears to stream, and lives to change in the last 180 years.  Charlotte Elliott, lying in her bed as her family went to a church bazaar, wrote the words to Just as I Am.

            I should note that she was an Anglican, but her hymn has been sung by millions of worshippers at Billy Graham Crusades and is found on page 693 of our hymnal.

            Charlotte Elliott had shown a gift for writing much earlier.  Now she uncovered that gift again and responded to Gods call.

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            These three people lived fairly unremarkable lives until they allowed their gifts to be uncovered.  Through meandering, lost and struggling lives, they invested what they had and those investments paid rich dividends.  In many ways, we live on those dividends today.

            Besides his Parable of the Talents, Jesus says other things in Matthew to make the same point.  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

5:15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

            I invite you to reflect today:  What is your light?  What is your call?  How may you invest it in a way that pays dividends for Gods work in the world?