“Running to Obtain Your Promises”

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 | Psalm 124  | James 5:13-20 | Mark 9:38-50

What I love about longer road trips, be it to Little Rock or even farther to Sewanee, is the ability to ponder for greater lengths of time in relative silence. For these trips it’s often the Scripture that provides fuel for thought. First thoughts for this Sunday hovered around a question inspired by our Collect. “Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure.” “Running to obtain your promises.” Well, what “promises” are we running toward? I don’t argue that most of us are “running.” We’re always running somewhere, and more often than I like, I’m often running late. But am I running toward God’s promises?

Am I running toward eternal life and salvation in Christ? Are you? What does that even look like?

I spent time Wednesday and Thursday in the seminary setting for the annual DuBose lectures and alumni gathering. In Sewanee, the skies were characteristically gray, accompanied by rain that went from drizzle to downpour to flash flood warnings (alerting us to those who hadn’t silenced their phones). Dr. Charles Marsh’s lectures began a three-year focus on racial reconciliation for the lecture series. I confess that I marveled that I hadn’t heard of him before, though the work that he does hits all the marks of someone striving for social justice, particularly in the field of race relations and theology. After the final lecture Thursday, I didn’t really know what to ask or say to him, but I felt compelled at least to say hello and to introduce myself. I told him we have a Continuing the Conversation group that meets once a month to talk about racism and white supremacy. He wants to know more and gave me his email address so we can be in touch. I realized I wanted him to know that there are those of us outside academic settings who are doing the field work he enjoys and deems necessary as we heal and build relationships across divides.

While he spoke about Nazi Germany in the time of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or White Southern Christians in the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., I had the story from Esther in the back of my mind. The query of the king, Esther’s petition, Harbona’s advocacy, and the hanging of Haman on the gallows intended for Mordecai, all unfold around a story of a people oppressed and justice sought and served. Mordecai spreads the news, the need for remembrance and celebration. The psalm reiterates the gratitude of a chosen people helped by their God, “maker of heaven and earth.”

The story and the psalm support an us-them dichotomy. The us-them mentality fuels prejudice, oppression, racism. We’re the good ones, the chosen ones, the right ones, and THEY are outsiders. They are wrong, different, bad, unknown, and outside our understanding. Whichever side we’re coming from, we want God on our side. Surely God’s anger is abated like the king’s when the guilty party hangs on the gallows, right? Surely, justice is served. Or is it?

In our gospel lesson today, John righteously tells Jesus that he was standing up for him when there’s this “other” exorcist casting out demons in the name of Jesus. “We told him to stop,” for this “other” person isn’t one of us, a part of the disciple crowd we’re familiar with. Jesus’ response isn’t a question of “why did you do that?” Jesus simply tells him and the others not to do that, not to stop someone who is actually healing in his name. Doing good in the name of Jesus Christ bears its own reward, and that goodness can’t be reversed or gone against. Let it be.

Then our gospel lesson continues with Jesus going on to talk about when things are bad. This is one of those times when I kind of wish I had skipped reading the footnotes so I wouldn’t be reminded of what the meaning is thought to be. I want to skip it because talking about sexual morality tends to make people uncomfortable, but our study Bible calls this section “temptations to sin.” Jesus admonishes sexual misconduct against children specifically and sexual transgressions generally. There were Jewish laws familiar to his contemporaries. Jesus warns them, lest they continue in sin and go to hell, “where your worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

Dr. Marsh also spoke about sin, of course, in his talk about race relations. He shared one description of sin that was something like “inappropriate relationship with another for personal gain, self-fulfillment, and/or self-satisfaction.” Putting oneself first and foremost, violating the first commandment, is basically the root of sin from this perspective, which aligns with how I usually define sin (along with the way MLK, Jr., and many others do): our separation from God. If our sin is harmful to others and separates us from God and God’s will, then the description of hell being a place where your worm never dies and where the fire is never quenched, makes perfect sense. A “worm” is something that eats away at you, destroying your life, and “fire” . . . well . . .  

Like Dr. Marsh, I grew up hearing sermons of fire and brimstone describing hell. An eternally burning fire as an image of hell is likely seared into the minds of many of us. BUT, “everyone is salted with fire,” Jesus says, and “salt is good.” What do you mean, Jesus?

Salt is good. Salt preserves food and adds flavor. We actually need salt to live. But fire? Fire cooks food and can add flavor. Does fire preserve life? Actually, it does. We need the fire of the sun, the energy it provides. We need heat in the cold and heat to clarify impurities. I dare say that we need the burns from our sins to remind us of our need for God, too. Maybe that’s the salt we get from the fire. Our wounds remind us of where our failings are, what our weaknesses are, but we’re given saltiness to keep us aware of the presence of God in our lives and of our dependence upon God’s mercy to obtain any reward that is life-giving, let alone our salvation.

And when we lose our saltiness? Maybe that’s when we’ve become numb to the burn. Maybe we’ve relied on ourselves for so long that we lose our sense of taste for what is truly good. We let our selfish desires eat away at us unceasingly, and our selfish yearnings burn unquenchably because we’ve turned away from the one relationship that actually gives us life and fulfillment. Is there no hope if this is where we find ourselves? Of course not.

“Have salt in yourself,” Jesus says. Recognize our own sins and shortcoming. We’ve all got them, some of us more than others, perhaps. In the reconciliation work being done to try to build up the kingdom of God, we have to be self-aware and do our own healing before we can build relationships or reconcile relationships with others. Only when we’ve been healed by the mercy and grace of God can we then have peace with one another because then we’ll realize that there is no “other.” We can have peace. Period.

Like James reads, if you’re suffering, pray; if you’re happy, sing; if you’re sick, call for healing and prayer; and if you’ve sinned, confess.

How many times are our wrongdoings swept under the rug to fester in the subconscious or in the shadows of our mind? Consider the harm that does to us who do wrong, carrying the weight of the carnage left by the worm that eats away at our authenticity, our Christ-light and life. Consider the victims of those to whom a wrong or injustice has been done. It’s something outside the victim’s realm of control. Most of the time it’s also nearly inconceivable or so “inappropriate” that they don’t want to risk shame, accusation, disbelief, or social ostracization. The victim, too, might suppress the trauma–be it physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. The victim might be left to wonder why this happened, and if left all alone might fall into despair, forgetting that God is there–the right relationships waiting to be restored. Dr. Marsh described this as the question of the spectator, asking where God is in times of trial, and the request of the believer, the desire for God to show the way forward.

Maybe that’s what we’re running toward: the life of grace and mercy. We may be running toward life in eternity, but we have our relationships here on this side of the Kingdom tagging along. Lord knows we need grace and mercy, and God can pity us. We’ve created a mess for ourselves. We don’t trust one another to have our best interest at heart because we know we put ourselves first, too. If we truly put God first, we would already be living out the reality of the beloved community, the kingdom of heaven. We don’t need the news to tell us how far from the kingdom we are, but I look forward to a time when the news reflects a people united actually running toward God’s promises, when the news reflects us upholding and protecting those who have been victimized and traumatized, when the news reflects a people who value integrity, when the news–no matter what channel you’re on–shares a vision of a common goal we all share. Call it “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” call it “beloved community;” call it “God’s dream for us” or the “kingdom of heaven”; but call it and name it as one goal for us all to unite in so we can run this race together and practice outdoing one another in goodness, giving everything we have to restore one another and all of creation into wholeness to God through Christ.

We don’t have to go anywhere to figure out what it looks like to run toward God’s promises. We recognize our own sins, realize our need for God, and turn to our neighbor in peace. The kingdom of heaven can be here and now, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

 

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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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