Archives for August 2013

Repeatedly lost, repeatedly found, 17 Pentecost, Proper 19 (C) – 2013

 September 15, 2013

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 and Psalm 14 (Track 2: Exodus 32:7-14 and Psalm 51:1-11); 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Jesus puts before his audience two stories of lost and found.

In each case, the one who loses goes to extraordinary efforts to find what is lost.

Having recovered it, the finder calls upon the surrounding community to join in rejoicing that the lost has been found.

Jesus applies both stories to what happens when even one sinner repents: There is abundant joy in heaven.

All well and good, we may say. There is reason to rejoice in such circumstances.

A shepherd leaves his big flock – in somebody else’s care, we hope – to search out a single sheep that is missing.

A woman turns the house upside down, sweeping in every dark corner to find a valuable coin that is part of her dowry.

There is abundant rejoicing when the lost sheep, the lost coin is found.

We want to believe in a God who searches for the lost and celebrates when the lost are found.

We want to believe that God feels it more deeply when people stray away than we feel it when our cell phone or car keys are nowhere to be found.

But there is another side to our reception of these stories: What happens next?

What happens once the sheep’s back with the flock, the silver coin is back with the others, when we have in hand once again our cell phone or our car keys? What happens after the sinner repents and does a 180-degree turn? Is there more to the story?

Jesus speaks of one sheep that strays and the 99 who do not. He also distinguishes between one person who repents and the “Ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”

Maybe Jesus delivers that line with a slight smile on his lips. He may mean that those 99 simply believe they need no repentance, when, in fact, they need it as much as the one identified “sinner.” Their belief that they are righteous is mistaken.

If so, then the distinction is not between one sinner who repents and 99 other people who do not need to do so. The distinction is between those aware of their need for repentance and those unaware that they have this need.

Keeping all this in mind, therefore, we may reach the conclusion that the only options for any of us are two: We can be a single lost sheep; or we can belong to the flock who mistakenly account themselves righteous.

To say this only a little differently, we can be a single lost coin or we can be a coin that, along with others, rests self-satisfied in some secure place.

Indeed, these two options appear in the framework that surrounds the stories under consideration. The recognized sinners draw close to Jesus; these are people on the margins of society, condemned by the power structure, and condemned even by themselves. The Pharisees and scribes, on the other hand, keep their distance from Jesus and murmur against him. They enjoy positions of respect and, in general, hold themselves in high esteem.

Is there perhaps another alternative? What about those of us who are not blind to our failings, but whose sinfulness does not cause us to be exiled?

An alternative exists that is found close to the heart of the gospel. To recognize it, we must turn away from two misleading notions: The first is that repentance, conversion – call it what you will – is, at most, a once-in-a-lifetime event; the second is that a conventional lifestyle can replace radical obedience to God’s will.

This alternative to these two notions is that on a regular basis each of us turns out to be a lost sheep. Each of us is often enough the precious coin that disappears, the cell phone or the car keys that annoyingly cannot be found.

Yet God, like a shepherd with no common sense, leaves the rest of the flock and searches the immediate world in order to find us.

God, like a housewife gone crazy, tears the place apart, searches every dark corner in order to find us.

That happens in our respectable lives. Again. And again. And again. Grace is always fresh, new enough to startle us.

We can’t eliminate our need for this uproar to happen. All we can do is make repentance a regular practice.

We cannot cause the sun of God’s love to shine on us. All we can do is turn to the sunlight and be grateful.

Practicing repentance may sound burdensome. It may seem a practice oriented to the past, preoccupied with regret. Actually, we come to see repentance as the exact opposite of a preoccupation with regret. Metanoia, the New Testament term for repentance, means, literally, a change of mind, a shift out of the past that prepares us for a better future.

Our metanoia can be, needs to be, a matter of habit. We have practices to help us with this.

One of them is the regular recitation of the Lord’s Prayer with its request: Forgive us our sins, forgive us our trespasses. That’s metanoia, our request that we not be stuck in our sins, not be stuck in our mistaken sense of righteousness.

Another helpful practice is an expansion of this one, namely the Confession of Sin, which appears so often in liturgies of the Episcopal Church. We engage time and again in this communal exercise where we see ourselves and one another not as the 99 who supposedly need no repentance, but in every case as the one sheep that has strayed and needs to be brought back. This holds true of both the worst reprobate and the most splendid saint. We all need to repent. This prayer helps us to do so.

Furthermore, some find it helpful to confess their particular sins to God in the presence of a priest, whether at a time of crisis or as a regular practice. The Book of Common Prayer makes provision for this form of reconciliation, even as it also recognizes that “the care each Christian has for others” is a way we are restored to peace with our neighbor and with God.

Christianity is loaded with paradoxes. Here’s another one: Each of us is a sheep lost and found. A valuable coin lost and found. Car keys lost and found. A cell phone lost and found.

Later in this service, as we pray together the Confession of Sin, recall that what you are doing then as one person causes abundant joy in heaven.

Through continuing openness to the grace of God, our hearts are kept from being swamped by sin or hardened by self-righteousness.

Through continuing openness to grace, we declare allegiance to the One who never stops looking for us.

Time and again we decide not to trust in our own devices, but in the future God intends for us.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

Freeing our usefulness, 16 Pentecost, Proper 18 (C) – 2013

September 8, 2013

Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 (or Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Psalm 1); Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Imagine coming to church some Sunday morning and reading an entire book of the Bible. In fact, you just did.

Well, almost. To be exact, you just read, or heard read to you, an entire book of the Bible – minus four verses. So, for the sake of completion, here are the missing verses from Paul’s Letter to Philemon, from which our second reading today is taken.

“One thing more,” writes Paul in concluding his letter, “Prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

And that is it.

With barely 335 words in the original Greek, the Letter to Philemon is one of the shortest – and some might say most fascinating – books in all Scripture. It could almost be an ancient text or email message. But in spite of its brevity, it is a useful and instructive work for us today.

Let’s take a look.

To begin with, scholars are universally of the opinion that this is one of the genuine Letters of Paul – not just a letter attributed to him. And it is the only one of his epistles that is addressed, not to an entire church or Christian community, but to an individual.

We do not know with certainty all the details behind the letter – who all the characters mentioned were, where the letter was written, or exactly when – but it is clearly an appeal on Paul’s part for one of his companions named Onesimus, a run-away slave who has embraced the Christian faith and found his way to Paul’s inner circle. Interestingly, his master or owner, a fellow named Philemon, is also a Christian – presumably a wealthy merchant of Colossae, and likewise a friend or follower of Paul.

Paul is here sending Onesimus back to Philemon along with this “cover letter,” asking that Onesimus be treated well upon his return and not be punished for his escape or for any damage he may have caused during his servitude. Paul pays tribute to Philemon with kind words of praise – what Martin Luther calls holy flattery – likely in the hope that, as many scholars have surmised, Philemon should allow Onesimus to return and continue his work and ministry with Paul.

Over all, the letter offers intriguing insight into the life of the early church – the implicit acceptance of slavery, for instance, and the fact that rich and poor alike make up the body of the church.

Curious, as well, is the name of Onesimus, the slave, which essentially means “useful” or “profitable” in the original Greek. It pretty much tells us how slave owners viewed their “property” in those days.

Paul, in fact, engages in word play with the name Onesimus or “Useful,” subtly but forcefully suggesting that Onesimus will be more useful or helpful now, continuing to spread the Good News of the gospel as his companion than as – one assumes – a common laborer or servant of Philemon.

There is also implicit irony in the fact that Paul, the self-described “prisoner of Christ Jesus,” is appealing for freedom and leniency on behalf of Onesimus, the escaped slave.

What to make of it all?

Though Paul appeals to Philemon to treat Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother,” there is little evidence that humankind has ever learned this simple lesson of human dignity and respect. While we might like to think that slavery today is a thing of the past, tragically it is still with us some 20 centuries after Paul wrote his appeal to Philemon; though we in the West are often blind to its existence and insulated from its devastating consequences. Meanwhile, few modern-day exploited workers have an Apostle like Paul to intervene on their behalf.

There is, by the way, no record of what actually happened as a result of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. Was Onesimus freed to continue his work with Paul? We simply do not know. We can only hope that Philemon was swayed by the Apostle’s words and granted Onesimus his freedom. Some ancient commentators even suggest that Onesimus went on to become one of the early bishops of the church. So, perhaps in some spiritual or deeper sense he became “useful” after all in ways previously unimaginable.

Whether we are rich or poor – entrepreneur, salaried or hourly employee, or unemployed – we, too, must become useful. By God’s grace, each of us has the freedom to use our talents and gifts in the service of others in need. “Useful,” then, is for us Christians no longer a pejorative term as it probably was at one time for Onesimus. For us, being useful means living the gospel. It makes us one in Christ and binds us each to the other. Yet it also makes us free – as paradoxically free as was Paul the “prisoner” and Onesimus the slave.

“Prepare a guest room for me,” writes Paul – ever the optimist – near the end of this brief letter from captivity, “for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” Needless to say, we will never know if Paul got to use that guest room or not. Perhaps Philemon left the porch light on for him – just in case. But it is tempting to envision Paul, the former prisoner, sitting at table together with Philemon, the former slave-owner, and Onesimus, his former slave, gathered under one roof and sharing Christian fellowship and community – possibly even Eucharist – equals at last in the sight of the Lord.

Scholars sometimes wonder how on earth such a short and private correspondence as Paul’s Letter to Philemon could have survived the centuries and made it into the canon of Scripture. If nothing else, it is surely there to teach us once again the infinite value and worth of each individual person – no matter that person’s background, color, sex, age, language, dress, or social and economic status.

Any slave or “prisoner of Christ Jesus” could tell us as much.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary – a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page. Isten hozott!

Awaken the servant within, 15 Pentecost, Proper 17 (C) – 2013

September 1, 2013

Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

There is an old story that goes like this: There was a university professor who went searching for the meaning of life. After several years and many miles, he came to the hut of a particularly holy hermit and asked to be enlightened. The holy man invited his visitor into his humble dwelling and began to serve him tea. He filled the pilgrim’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring so that the tea was soon dripping onto the floor. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “Stop!” he said. “It is full. No more will go in.” The holy hermit replied, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions, preconceptions and ideas. How can I teach you unless you first empty your cup?”

It’s a wonderful story about humility, about the recognition of the limits of our own talents, abilities and authority. It seems like many of our religious traditions hold the virtue of humility in highest esteem. In Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” the virtue of humility is considered the most important of the seven capital virtues. Humility holds the most important place because it is the opposite of what Dante considers the worst of the seven deadly sins, the sin of pride. Dante defined pride as the “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for neighbor.” For Dante, pride, indeed, goeth before the fall. Humility, on the other hand, is radical dependence on God, total trust in God and surrender to His will.

And yet, even though humility is highly esteemed in our religious traditions, it doesn’t seem to be one of our favorite virtues today. In fact, humility seems downright humiliating. Who wants to eat “humble pie,” after all? Don’t we think of pride as a virtue rather than humility?

Aren’t we all rather more interested in buying a book about the “Seven Secrets of Highly Successful People” than a book about the “Seven Secrets of Lowly, Humble People”?

Don’t we love to hold up those big foam fingers and signs proclaiming that our team is No. 1? I’ve never seen a foam finger or a sign proclaiming that our team displays the virtues of temperance, honesty and humility.

Isn’t “American Idol” about the thousands of people who desire fame, if only for 15 minutes? Can we even imagine a program about people who seek to cultivate the classical virtues of justice, temperance and fortitude? It would seem an absurdity to have a televised competition rewarding someone for displaying the greatest humility, but I suppose I wouldn’t put it past some television network to come up with a new reality program entitled “Dancing With the Hermits” or “Who Wants to Be a Franciscan?” or “The Last Monastic Standing” or some such nonsense.

Well, no, probably not.

To quote a pop song from a few years back, “We all want to be big stars.” And it’s not all about becoming rich and famous. Browse the self-help aisle at your local bookstore, and you will see books entitled “Awaken the Giant Within” by Anthony Robbins, “The Hero Within” by Carol Pearson, and “Achieve Anything in Just One Year” by Jason Harvey. For 20 or 30 bucks you can buy one of these books, and apparently be on the road to awakening either your inner giant or your inner hero and achieving anything. I wonder what Dante would think! More importantly, I wonder what Jesus would think.

In our gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus tells one of his most famous stories, a story about pride and humility. Apparently, Jesus was invited to share the Sabbath meal at the house of a leading Pharisee, who would have been something of a big muckety-muck in religious circles.

It’s hard to understand why these upright religious folks keep inviting Jesus to dinner parties, because he always causes a ruckus. At a dinner party at another Pharisee’s house, a disheveled and disreputable woman crashes the party, throws herself at Jesus feet, and begins weeping. The host of the part gets very upset, but Jesus apparently thinks she has done a beautiful thing.

So, in today’s story, when we hear Jesus was invited into the home of a Pharisee for a meal, you know there is going to be trouble. Jesus arrives, maybe he makes a little small talk, and then he watches how the guests jockey with each other for the places of honor. You know that delicate dance where you try to get the good seats next to the really important people.

So Jesus watches this for a while, and then he launches into a story, which basically skewers the pretensions of all the guests. He says, “When you get invited to a banquet, don’t seat yourself in a place of honor, because someone more important than you may come along, and then you will be asked to give up your seat, and you will be disgraced in front of the whole party. Rather, take the lowest seat, so that when your host sees you sitting in the cheap seats, he will say, ‘Friend move up higher,’ and then you will be honored in the presence of all the guests.”

And then Jesus utters the great saying, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Before Jesus leaves the party, he tells his host, “The next time you throw a party, don’t invite your rich friends and neighbors, so that they might return the favor some day and invite you to one of their nice parties. Rather, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they can’t repay you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Robert Coles tells a story about his first encounter with Dorothy Day, who was living and working with the poor in the slums of New York City. Coles was in Harvard Medical School at the time, studying to be a psychiatrist, proud of his status, and also proud that he had volunteered to work with Dorothy Day in helping the poor. He arrived for his first meeting to discover Day sitting at a table, deep in conversation with a very disheveled street person. She didn’t notice Coles had come into the room until they had finished their conversation. Then she asked, “Do you want to speak to one of us?”

Robert Coles was astounded by Dorothy Day’s humility. She had identified so completely with a so-called “nobody” as to remove all distinction between them. Coles said it changed his life. He said he learned more in that moment than in his four years at Harvard.

For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. In this statement, we hear a great truth about humility. In emptying ourselves, we will find fulfillment. In humbling ourselves, we will be exalted. In a culture that prizes “the secrets of highly successful people” and urges us to “awaken our inner giant,” this sounds rather counterintuitive.

But is it true? Is Jesus right? Are Dante and Dorothy Day pointing us to the truth of Jesus’ statement?

We can submit this statement to the test of human experience. Can we walk through life on a perpetual high? Once we have found fulfillment, do we live from that place from then on? Or does the universe have a way of knocking us off our perches and emptying us out?

It seems more like the latter than the former. Even for those who have powerfully known and experienced the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ, who have known in our hearts and minds the peace of God which passes understanding, they have also known the dark night of the soul and the fear and trembling of salvation.

Is this surprising? Disappointing? Should it be? After all, when Jesus called his disciples he didn’t promise them that they would be able to achieve anything in one year. Rather, he said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

It seems that we are constantly moving back and forth between emptiness and fulfillment, between humility and exaltation, between death and resurrection. Life still knocks the wind out of us. The universe still reduces us to tears. Death and loss still bring us to our knees. But rather than try to awaken the giant or the hero within, we try to remember the truth and the promise that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md., and co-author of “A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love” (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

The living, active Word, 14 Pentecost, Proper 16 (C) – 2013

August 25, 2013

Jeremiah 1: 4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13: 10-17

In our reading from Hebrews today, the Word of God is described as “living” and “active.” That is, the Word of God is not dead and static. Because we tend to associate the Word of God primarily with the texts of the Bible, we tend to lose sight of its living and dynamic character.

And we tend to forget that the Bible is largely a collection of past utterances that came from God to address critical situations as they arose in history.

And we sometimes forget that the Word of God is also wholly contingent on what is happening right now, whenever “right now” happens to be. Therefore, God’s Word to Abram is vastly different from God’s word to Jeremiah, or to the psalmist, or to Jesus, or to whomever left us the epistle called Hebrews.

So one thing we get from reading the Bible is that the God of Israel is capable of addressing many different situations as they arise in many vastly different historical periods and places: Time and space shape the Word of God.

One thing that should also be obvious is the simple fact that there is no book, not even our Bible, that can contain all of what God might say. That is, the Bible surely does not contain all that God has said or might say.  Nor is it God’s only way of speaking to us.

The Bible does not address many topics we consider to be of grave importance. For example, neither the word “abortion” nor “homosexual” can be found in the Bible. All efforts to find out what God might think about these and similar issues depend on one’s reading or one’s interpretation of texts we think might be able to inform us.

But in the end, we are left with our interpretation of the texts over against the interpretations of others, to which we attempt to apply our own calculus in fashioning some sort of trump argument.

Which brings us to having to admit that when one wishes to enter God’s world through the texts of the Bible, we all do so with whatever tools and preconceived notions we bring along from our own experiences.

There can be no reading of the text that is not interpretive. Or to put it positively, all readings of the texts are interpretive. Because of who we are and the gifts God has given us, there can be no neutral readings of any of the texts.

The Bible itself, in fact, spends a lot of time interpreting and re-interpreting its own material. And the Bible gives a lot of equal time to dramatically competing notions of what it means to be a people of God.

To begin with, then, one needs a firm grasp of all the Biblical landscape, with particular attention paid to a few core narratives: exodus, exile and Jesus’ life/death/resurrection.

It can be argued that all the Bible reflects on these core narratives – exodus, exile and Jesus – with emphasis upon the indisputable fact that nearly all the New Testament looks at Jesus through the dual lens of exodus and exile. It is no coincidence, for instance, that in our liturgy we describe Jesus as “our Passover.”

Without an intimate knowledge of what the Passover story is  – slavery, exodus, wilderness, land of promise – we end up having no idea what we mean when we call Jesus “our Passover.”

To put this another way, the entire Jesus saga engages the reader in a vast interpretation and re-casting and reinterpretation of both the exodus and exile narratives.

So in Hebrews today, a contrast is being made between how God was experienced at Mount Sinai during the wilderness sojourn of the exodus and how God is experienced in Jesus.

In its conclusion, our posture before God is to remain one of thanksgiving, eucharistia, reverence, fear and awe, because our God is “a consuming fire.” A fire that Jesus hopes to kindle across the whole earth!

The text in Hebrews depends on our knowledge of all that happened in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy for it to make any sense at all to us today. Just as the word that comes to Jeremiah as a young boy eventually uses the exodus saga to announce a new exodus from the exile in Babylon.

While in exile and coming out of exile and re-settling Jerusalem, the biblical texts carry on an extended sort of debate about whether or not God’s Israel should bar the gates and become an exclusive community, or open the gates and become a blessing to all the nations of the earth as God had promised all the way back to our brother Abraham.

That is, should we become an exclusive or inclusive community? Should we remain particular in who we are? Or should we become more universal in our acceptance of others?

There are whole books of the Bible that argue the need to be exclusive and pure, and whole books that argue the need to be inclusive, tolerant and universal in the acceptance of others. There are whole books devoted to strict adherence to the purity codes of Leviticus, and whole books devoted to reaching beyond custom and law in an attitude of compassion and justice to accept all people of all backgrounds into the community of God’s people.

To see Jesus’ perspective, as we do today in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 13, step outside the limitations of tradition and beyond the customs of the Sabbath and the purity code. Jesus heals a woman, a woman who does not call out to him, but one whom he sees and calls to himself, a woman who, because she was a woman and because she was crippled, would not be allowed into the synagogue, let alone inside the gates of the city in all likelihood. This seems to suggest which side of the exclusive-inclusive debate Jesus lived on.

Surely it does not take too much interpretative skill on our parts to see that Jesus shatters the status quo to announce a new way of doing God’s business.

In Jesus we see that God’s Word is alive and active, not at all dead and static. Jesus is seen to be reinterpreting the Bible and the biblical tradition. Jesus, God’s Word, is alive and active.

We cannot even begin to know the significance of this story without intimate knowledge of the exodus saga, the Abraham saga, the prophetic literature calling us to care for those in need, the life and the customs of Israel in the first century. That Jesus would touch an unclean woman in public is remarkable, and causes division amongst the community of God’s people. Note how those who are angry do not address Jesus directly, but rather spew their indignation at the woman and the rest of the congregation. Some things never change!

We all want to know what the Bible says. But are we willing to put in the time necessary to become familiar with all its texts, its various histories and points of view? What it addresses and what it does not? All the personalities represented, and the possibilities and promises sometimes merely hinted at?

Are we willing to let the Bible, the Word of God, have its way with us rather than our trying to domesticate it to our own needs and desires?

Are we able to step back from a verse or a few words and see them in the larger context of an entire book, or the whole Bible?

Are we comfortable with a Word that is living and active?

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and International Baccalaureate (IB) English. His sermons are archived atwww.perechief.blogspot.com.

Are you a hero or a pig?, 13 Pentecost, Proper 15 (C) – 2013

August 18, 2013

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Powerful stuff in today’s readings. Everybody seems to be on a tear; Jesus and Isaiah are full of wrath and judgment, and even the author of Hebrews slips out of his Platonic abstractions long enough to get downright graphic about the costs of discipleship. All pretty grim for a Sunday in late summer.

This abundance of slaps upside the head calls to mind a little saying from the French writer Léon Bloy. Bloy is often quoted as having said, “Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.”

Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig. That’s true in a scary sort of way. And it’s true of all of us.

After all, in every reading we heard today, even in the psalm, God is saying, rather strongly, that behavior is important, that God has some very real expectations of us, and that what we do, our actions and attitudes, matter.

So, we hear all that talk of demands for faithfulness, of discipline and judgment, wrapped up by Jesus’ strong words about division and fire – about what he must undergo and his impatience to get on with it.

And we need to hear this stuff. Maybe we don’t hear it often enough.

We cannot simply ignore or overlook the fact that God offers us a vision of what human life can be, of what it should be. We pretty much know what that vision is. It has to do with shaping ourselves as people by living faithfully, by keeping God at the absolute center of our lives. It has to do with telling the truth and with living not for ourselves alone but also for others. It has to do with holiness of life and with a passionate concern for the poor and oppressed. It has to do with the way we take care of the stuff and the people God places in front of us. It has to do with how we behave, but even more, it has to do with who we become.

What it all really comes down to is the imitation of Christ; Jesus living his life in us and through us. Now, God is very serious about this. God expects us seriously to try to conform our lives to it.

And when Jesus talks about fire, and about his baptism, and about division and conflict, he’s talking about what it looks like and what it feels like – for him, and from time to time, for us – to struggle to live this way, to be faithful to God’s vision of who we are created to be.

Now, in all of this, we need to see first and very clearly that God’s primary call for holiness and righteous is not made to an evil world out there, telling them to shape up. God’s first call for holiness and righteous is made to us, to those who claim to follow Jesus. It is only after we hear and struggle long and hard with these words to us, that we might have something to say, and much more importantly, something to show to a world that definitely needs to clean up its act. But it all begins with us.

Each one of us – grown-ups (whatever that means), youth, children – every one of us has the same choice. On one hand, we can choose to try, over and over, to live as God will have us live, to live faithful, honorable Christian lives wherever we are, no matter where such faithfulness may lead us or what it might cost. And that’s hard. It’s not for the weak, the lazy or the uncommitted. Such a life is truly heroic. It demands our very best. We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. That’s one option.

On the other hand, we can simply put all of that stuff on the back burner, do what the world out there and our own ideas and appetites tell us to do, and hope for the chance, every now and then, to be a nicer person.

Every Christian who is not a hero is a pig.

Now, it’s also very important that we keep clear about something else here. God doesn’t give us this vision of how human beings should live so that God can sit up there with a checklist keeping score and gleefully sending us to hell if we get too many things wrong. That’s just dead wrong.

And none of this stuff about behavior and discipline has to do with whether or not God will keep loving us. God’s love is a given, it’s never at issue. Instead, there are at least two other reasons, two real reasons, why God tells us these things about how our lives should look.

The first reason for all of these demands is that God loves us, and God wants for us the fullest and the richest and the deepest life we can have. We are created in such a way that the very best that life has to offer us is available to us most fully as we try to live God’s vision of what it means to be a human being. It’s a little bit like the fact that most cars are made to run on gasoline. Sure, there are some other things you can put in cars that may work for a bit – things that might even make for a very interesting ride, for a little while. But then the car just won’t work any more. So with God’s vision for our lives. We just run better, over the long haul, when our lives are running as they are created to run.

God’s way of living promises is life at its fullest and its most abundant. God loves us, and God wants the very best for us. That’s one of the reasons God gives us his vision of how human beings should live. For our own sakes.

The other reason has to do with our mission, with our calling to be the body of Christ, to carry out the work and the ministry of Jesus Christ wherever we may be. Part of our witness to the world out there is offering it a real option – a different way to live and to be.

This is what Jesus did. The way Jesus lived forced a choice from everyone who met him. Remember, Jesus didn’t grab people by the throat and say, “You’re a jerk. And if you don’t get fixed, you are in deep trouble.” Instead, he offered himself; he spoke of the Father; he told the truth; he lived with absolute integrity. People saw in Jesus something that caused a crisis within them – and they had to choose.

And for the world to see Jesus today, it must look at us. There’s really no place else.

Again, it does no good for us, or for the church, to sit on the sidelines and shout to the world out there that it is “bad, bad, bad.” Even – indeed, especially – when it really is bad, bad, bad.

Nor does it do any good self-righteously to tell “them,” the folks out there, exactly what they should be doing to clean up their acts. Even if –  indeed, especially if – we might have some rather useful ideas. We are called, as was Jesus himself, to transform ourselves, to show and to tell the world what it looks like, and how it’s different to live as we are created to live.

That’s what’s behind all of these tough lessons. It’s the call to that wholeness and completeness and new life that living as we are created to live can bring. And it’s the call to present such new lives to a world that is dying for the lack of exactly that.

It’s a challenge, and it’s hard. Nevertheless, this is what we believe, this is the challenge we have accepted, and this is what we try to teach our children.

And the simple fact is that trying to share this vision of life with our world – or with our children – doesn’t make any sense and won’t have any effect unless we, ourselves, are firmly and visibly on that path.

Like our children, our world may not pay much attention to what we say, but it’s watching very carefully what we do.

So today, amidst all this talk of judgment and destruction, we are, I think, being invited to remember two things.

First, we are being invited to remember that God loves us, all of us, more than we can possibly imagine. God wants, for all of us and for each of us, the best life possible. For this reason God gives us in Jesus both a model of what human life can look like and the grace and forgiveness to embrace that life, and to live it faithfully.

The second thing we are called to remember is the fundamental issue of our own integrity. We are reminded to remember that any challenge to faithfulness, any vision of human life, that our faith offers – this is really about us. It with ourselves that we begin, and nowhere else.

After all, any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.

 

— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.