The Work We Must Do

Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 | Philippians 2:1-13 | Matthew 21:23-32

Saturday night marks the end of Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, one of if not the most important day in the Jewish calendar. A day of prayer and fasting begun at sundown Friday evening, it’s not only a time of acknowledging one’s own wrongdoing, such as unfulfilled vows to God, but also a time to seek forgiveness. Every time we come together for corporate worship–whether it’s the Daily Office or the Holy Eucharist–we can pray our general confession as well as the Lord’s prayer. Twice in our worship today, we ask forgiveness not only for what we’ve done in thought, word, and deed but also for what we’ve left undone and for forgiveness of our trespasses, where we’ve crossed a line or committed an offense against someone else . . . as well as forgiving their trespasses toward us. We do this not to live in perpetual guilt but so we remain awake, fully aware of what is going on in our whole lives, mind, body, and spirit. We do this because when we make our baptismal vows, we promise that when we sin (not if but when), we will repent; we will re-orient ourselves toward God. We do this because we are not perfect, because on our own, we don’t have the ability to fulfill the yearning for a life lived fully, authentically, rich with wonder and purpose.

Throughout Scripture, time and time again, we get the message that it’s not us who can solve things alone.

In Exodus, again we hear the people raising their voices at Moses. They “quarreled” with him. If they didn’t have water to drink–in the desert of all places–I cannot imagine this is a lighthearted disagreement, and we get clarification when Moses tells the Lord that the people “are almost ready to stone (him).” Not only are they quarreling with Moses, but Moses says they are testing the LORD. All the things the LORD has done, now they test Him again, questioning as Moses said, “Is the LORD among us or not?” Yet God provides. Here in Exodus, Moses and Aaron do what the LORD says. The same story in Numbers (Chapter 20) has Moses strike the rock and take credit for what God has provided, receiving the promise that he will not make it to the promised land. It wasn’t Moses alone who provided water for the people of God.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, the chief priests and elders deceitfully prompt Jesus with a trick question, one they hope will incriminate himself. Jesus, however, turns the table with full transparency, unveiling the very criteria to which they themselves are held accountable. In their unwillingness to state their own position about where John the Baptist came from, they showed themselves unworthy before Jesus to receive the Truth. How different the moment in the gospel would have been if the elders had been honest about their struggle, given ear to Jesus as the Philippians did to Paul about what constituted righteousness, about what mattered. If they had, Jesus could have shared with them what Paul shares to the Philippians, what Jesus shared with his disciples: that there is complete joy to be had in love of one another through Christ who comes from the Father, that abiding in love with love of God is the utmost fulfillment we can attain this side of Glory.

Presumably written from prison, Paul shares his letter to the Philippians with love and affection, including in our reading today what may have been a “Christ hymn,” something familiar to the community. What truly matters to the welfare of the people is having the same mind, love, and agreement–rooted in Christ. This was to be their work, to “work out (their) own salvation with fear and trembling” since it “is God who is at work in you.” Reading this correspondence, it doesn’t take a great stretch of imagination to hear how the Holy Spirit might speak to us from the Word. Are we as a people of one mind? Are we willing to let God work through us, in us, for the sake of love of God alone? For love? For joy?

There’s an article titled “America Wasn’t Built for Humans” by Andrew Sullivan, noted to be a conservative political commentator. In it, the whole premise is that because humans are tribal creatures, America isn’t the best set-up. From the beginning of humanity, tribalism was a good thing, necessary for survival. You know who your people are, you’re working toward the same goals, you share the same myths to understand the world and the supernatural. I want nothing more for my daughter at college than for her to find her tribe, because our tribes can be a good thing. But tribes of around 50 are quite different than a tribe of 323 million. Naturally, we have many tribes within America, and we want to sort and classify everyone so we can understand not only others but also ourselves. From the beginning of our nation, Sullivan figures, “Tribalism was an urge our Founding Fathers assumed we could overcome. And so it has become our greatest vulnerability.” Surely they must have thought that common values rooted in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would be enough to keep us united. Sullivan himself hopes that America can find common ground under one president.

But I warrant that placing our hopes upon any one person or even a group of persons alone is not enough. This is hard work, this working out of our survival, especially our salvation. It’s okay for it to be a struggle. Our tradition provides many examples of people wrestling physically, verbally, and emotionally with God or God’s messengers. Think of Jacob, Jonah, and Paul. Like them, if we truly engage, we are not the same person after a genuine encounter with God. Most of the time, if our endeavor is entered whole-heartedly, we are transformed by the experience because the struggle moves us deeper into relationship with God. The closer we are to God, the clearer it can be to see how we’ve lost our way, how much we need God and one another to be fully restored.

The key to a full restoration, the hope for us all is that our humanity can be transformed by the life of Christ, by an understanding and practice of life that restores us to unity in God.

It’s true that we don’t have to be Christian to be good people, but as Christians, we have a unique responsibility to bring about reconciliation and restoration to unity to God through Jesus Christ. How do we do that? As Paul told the Philippians, we have to be of one mind in Christ. This might sound idealistic, but I believe it gets at the core of what a Beloved Community is. It’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female: it’s here and now, inclusive of all. But it’s going to be hard, admitting when we’re wrong and losing our lives–especially losing perceived control of our lives–for the sake of true salvation in God. If we can make this sacrifice, then we might be able to taste the exquisite beauty and ultimate freedom in a life given over to God . . . our best opportunity to experience joy made complete.

All this is easy to talk about, especially in context of characters of the past. But the Holy Spirit speaks to us through our Scripture now as then. The clarion call for us all to have the mind of Christ rings loudly and earnestly today, but how do we get it? As Episcopalians, we do engage in Scripture; we have Bible studies. I challenge you to take this reading from Philippians, to take it and read it at least two to three times per day this week. When the Bishop comes next week, see how you hear his message, notice how you welcome our newly confirmed and received, observe how you listen to the news. Will it have changed with a constant focus on who Christ is? Can we put on the mind of Christ and “be the change we wish to see in the world” (to borrow a quote from Gandhi)? We won’t know if we don’t try, and this is the work we must do.

 

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