Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Proper of the Day: The Third Sunday after Pentecost

On this day, the Church gathers, as it always does, to hear the Word and to celebrate the presense of Jesus in, with and among us in the Eucharist. Today we began the cycle of readings that will take us thoruhg the summer: epic stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, the letter of Paul to the Romans, and the Gospel of Matthew. One could preach a lot on any one of the readings for today, but good Prot that I am, I concentrated on the lesson from Romans and justification by grace through faith. I hope I got through to a few people, at least, as we has some visitors with us, as two members of our parish asked for a Blessing of their Civil Marriage today. It was a great day!

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon
Proper 4A RCL 2008
Genesis 6:9-22, 7:24 8:14-19; Ps 46; Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-31; Matt 7:21-29
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our refuge of strength. Amen.

In this season of graduations, I can’t help but think back to all the commencements I’ve gone through. Seminary was pretty special, of course, but so was my business school graduation. Before that was college. I ran across some pictures from back then when I was packing up to move. How hopeful we all looked! How emotional that day in particular was! And before that was high school graduation. How we all felt like adults! And how wrong we were!

I’ll be many of you still remember your graduations, from whatever schools you went to. And if you haven’t graduated yet, don’t worry. It will come! Did the band play pomp and circumstances while you all marched in? Since we’re Episcopalians and we like such things, we’d call it a procession, of course, but it’s still the same thing. And the faculty would be in their robes, and even in high school we’d have robes to wear. I remember one rather eccentric teacher I had in high school who would always wear his graduation robe to class several times during the year. He reminded us that it was once the custom that all students and faculty wore robes – it was what everyone wore, and plus they helped keep you warm. Just think of the Harry Potter movies or books and you’ll get the idea.

And then of course each student would be called forward to receive the diploma, the very official document that announced to all and sundry that you had earned the degree to which you were entitled, with all the rights and privileges thereto. Depending on the degree, you might also be presented with a hood, like this one. The shape and colors of the hood told anyone in the know what degree program you studied and what degree you actually received. This is my M.Div. hood, and this one is my MBA hood. It’s not terribly uncommon to see someone wearing an M.Div. hood at an Episcopal lectern, but I’d guess an MBA hood is somewhat more rare. So I’ll keep it on for a bit. I know it’s really only supposed to be worn with cassock and surplice and tippet, but I earned it, so I’m going to keep it on. You can ask me at coffee hour what those other things are.

And isn’t that why we remember our graduations anyway? All that pomp and circumstance? The calling up by individual name? The parties afterward? Graduation is a big thing in a person’s life. It’s considered a life passage. At graduation, most of us, I’d guess, actually like the fact that everyone is making such a big deal about it, even though we might never admit it. After all, we did something. We earned our high school diploma, or that bachelor’s degree, or that certificate, or whatever else it was. We worked hard, we earned it, and by golly, I’m gonna wear my hood because I worked so hard for it!

Earning things. That’s what we do. From the time we are born until the time we die, we’re always earning something. In our society, we are taught from the very earliest age that if we want something, we have to pay for it in some way. We earn our educational degrees by going to classes, doing homework, and writing papers – endless papers, it seems! We earn money by trading it for work. Sometimes it’s with our heads, sometimes by the sweat of your brows, but earn it we do. Even our recreation is organized around winning and losing, earning victories in the sports we choose to participate in. And to do that means more practice and time and effort and sweat. Nothing in life is free. You get what you pay for. No one is going to hand it to you on a silver platter.

You’ve heard all the platitudes before. The reason they are trite is because they are true. That’s what our lives and our society and our economy is like.

But that’s not what God’s life and God’s society and God’s economy is like. In fact, it’s about as opposite from ours as it can be. For God, nothing is predicated on earning anything. For God, it’s all about giving. God gives us his love and devotion and affection. God loves each of us completely. It’s not just the good parts God loves, but our sinful parts too. God offers to reconnect us with him freely and without any conditions or anything we have to do first. That free act of God is what we call grace, and it’s what St. Paul talks about in the excerpt we heard from his letter to the Christians at Rome in about the 50s or so AD. Paul explains first of all that everyone is disconnected from God and from each other and from themselves. We call that sin. Paul says that, well, everyone has sinned - nobody’s perfect. “All have snned and fall short of the glory of God.” But Jesus showed us how to reconnect to God and to each other and to ourselves. Paul uses the somewhat technical term “atonement” which really has a sense of “at-one-ment.” Jesus “at-ones” us with God. Where we were separate, now we’re not. Where we were disconnected, now we’re connected.

Paul then asks a rhetorical question. What becomes of boasting? Now we all know what boasting is. It’s bragging. Usually it’s about something we’ve done or something we received or someone we know. Hey, look at me - I got this MBA degree I worked so hard for! That’s boasting.

Paul then says a very curious thing that’s really important. He says that boasting is excluded. Why? “for we hold that a person is justified [that’s Paul’s word for reconnected] by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Now Paul was writing to both Jewish and non-Jewish converts in Rome. And Paul was a Jew – a Pharisee, which was the strictest kind of Jewish believer there was at that time. Paul could probably recite all 618 commandments of Torah blindfolded and upside down. So for him to say to a Jewish audience that none of that mattered was a huge thing. What matters is not what you do but simply who you are and what you believe. We are justified by faith, Paul says, and only by faith. In other words, there’s nothing you can do to earn God’s love. You’ve heard me say this a lot, and here’s where it comes from. Our salvation is a gift and freely given in Christ Jesus. You can’t go to school for it. You can’t write papers for it. You can’t practice for it. You can’t work 40 hours a week for it. You can only accept it. That’s what faith is, the trust, the accedptance, that God’s love freely given – the grace of God itself – is in fact free. It’s completely and utterly and absolutely free! No coupons needed. No homework required. There’s nothing you can do to earn it, and there’s nothing you can do to keep getting it once you have it!

We’re going to be thinking about the implication of this for a while. We’ll be reading from Romans throughout the summer, and Paul does a good job of exploring what this very simple but astoundingly countercultural idea is all about. We’re also going to be working our way through the Gospel of Matthew, and we’ll be hearing some of the most wonderful stories from the Old Testament as well. There’s so much we could talk about every week, and the lessons are not necessarily meant to coordinate with one another. This week they do, but sometimes they won’t, and we may only concentrate on one of them at a time.

So what does the great story of Noah and the Flood have to do with God’s grace in Jesus? It’s pretty simple, but oddly, it’s not something that the lectionary editors included in the passage for today. The story of Noah, like the other stories from the first part of Genesis, were never meant to be literal fact. They’re intended to illustrate truths about humanity and God and how we came to be the way we are. At the end of the story today everyone came out of the Ark, including Noah and his family. But what happens next is that God showed Noah a rainbow and made a solemn promise – a covenant - with not only Noah but with all of humanity. God promised to never again wipe out all living things with a flood, and said that the rainbow would be both a sign of the promise and a reminder to God that God had indeed promised that. How wonderful that the editors of Genesis had God needing a reminder about anything! The sign of the rainbow is a preview, if you will, of God’s grace in Jesus, because the reality is that God didn’t need to promise not to do something. He’s God after all. But he did. He voluntarily bound himself for all time to a decision - a gift, really - that he himself came upon and that humanity didn’t need to earn first. That’s grace by any other name. Read Genesis chapter 8 when you get a chance, and hear for yourself the solemnity of the covenant God enacts by his own sheer grace.

I think today’s excerpt from near the end of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew is harder. Jesus says that not everyone who does things in Jesus’ name will become part of God’s society. He also goes on to give a parable about building one’s home on solid rock or on shifting sand. Everyone who hears my words and acts upon them is building on rock, Jesus says. Everyone who hears my words and doesn’t act on them is building on sand. So isn’t Paul wrong? Paul says ones’ actions have nothing to do with salvation. Jesus seems to be saying the opposite, that what we do does matter.

Of course what we do matters. Listen again to what Jesus is saying. Jesus says, Everyone who hears first and then acts is building on rock. Hearing is what we do when we receive the Word of God. And the Incarnate Word is Christ. When we receive Christ, we have faith that what Christ says about God is really true, that God really does love each of us completely. So Paul is just making very very clear the same idea, that we accept God’s love in Jesus by faith, not by what we do. Jesus says the same thing – the hearing comes first, then the doing.

And it’s the doing in the first part of today’s Gospel passage that is eye-opening. Jesus isn’t saying here not to do things in his name. Far from it. What Jesus is saying is that if you don’t have the right intent when you do things, then you can move mountains in Jesus’ name and it will all be for nought. The will of God, Jesus is saying, is that we have faith in God. Once we realize that God loves each of us down to the last cell of our bodies, then we can go and do good in the world, in joyful response to what we have accepted in faith. But going off and doing all sorts of good things first, in order to try to earn God’s love, isn’t going to cut it. That’s why Jesus says that not everyone who does things in his name will become part of God’s society. Intent matters. Why you do what you do, is more important in God’s eyes than what you do. If you think you can buy God’s love, Jesus says, fuhgettaboutit. It won’t work.

Earning things. Something for something. You get what you pay for. I earned this hood. It took several years and a lot of money and lots of time too. I earned it. In the society outside our red doors, this means something. I have the right to wear it, because I earned it. That’s how that society works.

But in this society, inside here, God’s society, it means nothing. I can’t earn earn God’ love. It’s free. It’s free for you, for me, for everyone. I can choose to accept that it’s real – that’s faith. I can have faith in God’s reconnecting grace, and then that reconnection happens and continues to happen in Jesus. That’s the completely upside down, inside-out nature of God’s society. This week, think over for a few minutes about why you do what you do. Is it to buy favor with God? To get something from God? All of us at times fall into that habit. We can’t help it, because from the moment we are born we are told that’s the way the world works. Well, that’s the way that world, that society, works. It’s not the way God’s society works. We can’t go to school for it. We can’t practice for it. We can’t work for it, no matter how many hours we try. We can’t do anything more than accept God’ love to get it, because it’s always and already there. But what we can do is look deep inside and see how God’s love is building up inside us and then help that love come out. We love because God first loved us by his free gift. We don’t have to earn it, and in fact, we can’t. We can only choose what do with it once we know we have it. God wants all people to become part of God’s society, and each of us are the agents to do that, if we choose to. What will you choose today, this week, for your life, and for this community and for God’s society?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today's Psalm 46 is the basis of the great Reformation hymn from Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress. Luther helped remind us that God's salvation is free and a matter of grace. Here's a nice setting of the hymn by the Wheaton Men's Glee Club. If anyone can find a better rendition, please let me know. I sang this arrangement with the Capital University Chapel Choir myself.

O God, your never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and earth: Put away from us, we entreat you, all hurtful things, and give us those things which are profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


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