choose?

preaching-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Deuteronomy 30.15-20, Psalm 119.1-8, and Matthew 5.21-37, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2017

“I have set before you…life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey God’s commandments…you shall live…But if your heart turns away…you shall perish…Choose life.”

So speaks Moses.

moses-restating-the-law-to-the-people-of-israel-before-they-enter-the-promised-land-henri-felix-emmanuel-philippoteaux-1815-1884

The Israelites, following their exodus from Egyptian captivity and their forty-year sojourn through the wilderness, stand on the threshold of the land God promised them. Throughout their journey, many were the declarations about the blessings of obedience to God’s will as codified in the commandments and warnings of the misfortunes of disobedience. Now, about to enter the Promised Land, Moses reminds the people of their choice: life or death.

The psalmist echoes Moses’ praise of obedience to God, singing, “Happy are those…who walk in the law of the Lord.” Then, in addition to “law”, using, lest any fail to grasp the point, a cascade of words, verily, synonyms for God’s will: “decrees”, “ways”, “commandments”, “statutes”, “judgments.”

But an immediate problem arises. One inherent in our humanity, which our Collect clearly identifies: “O God…through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do nothing good…”[1] “Weakness” ironically, for me, conveys the power of our freewill, poetically expressed in the words of a prayer, “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”[2] Succinctly stated, we humans want our way, follow our will. In Moses’ language, we “bow down to other gods” – our bodily appetites and lusts of the flesh, our pride and trust in our intellects, our feelings and senses of how things and others should be, our hungers for self-attainment.

Jesus, speaking expansively of God’s commandments, amplifies our problem. In one example, Jesus reminds us of the olden law, “You shall not murder.” Then he declares that beyond our outward obedience in refraining from killing someone we, in our inward will, must renounce our right to be “angry with a brother or sister.” Given our egoistic freewill and our desire that things and others be as we want them, it is improbable, impossible for any of us never to be angry. Therefore, according to Jesus’ stringent definition, none of us can keep God’s commandments and therefore, according to Moses’ strict description, we unavoidably choose death!

No choice is no choice. So, Moses, what do you mean, “Choose life”?

The Israelites, at journey’s end, stood on the threshold of the Promised Land. An auspicious moment for Moses, the Lawgiver, to remind them of their life-or-death choice. We, near the end of the season of Epiphany, stand on the threshold of another Lent when we again will walk with Jesus to Jerusalem. When we again will tell the story of his crucifixion and death. When we again will remind ourselves of our need to crucify anew all that hinders us, in the words of our Collect, from “keeping God’s commandments (that) we may please God both in will (what we desire) and deed (what we do).”

But given who we are, the way we are, how do we, how can we keep God’s commandments? To ask that question is the first step. The second and only other thing required is for us to trust, as our Collect also says, “the help of God’s grace” to do the rest.

Pontheolla and I have a dear friend whose company we enjoy. On most occasions when he comes to our home he dines and partakes of libations with us. Only sometimes does he bring anything to share to eat or drink. Pontheolla, being hospitable, doesn’t seem to mind. I, being territorial, take umbrage at what I consider his taking undue advantage. I once said to her, “Baby, all he brings is his appetite and you do all the rest!”

Precisely. In this, Pontheolla is an earthly, incarnational image of who God is and how God works. Whenever we come with even the barest hunger and thirst, as the Beatitudes commend, for God’s righteousness,[3] God, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, fills us, leading, guiding us into obedience.

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, January 2017, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustration: Moses restating the Law to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land, Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815-1884)

Footnotes:

[1] The Collect for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany (full text): O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in thee: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because, through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping thy commandments we may please thee both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

[2] From Confession of Sin, Evening Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 62.

[3] Matthew 5.6

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a Lilliputian prayer

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Luke 18.9-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 23, 2016

Sometimes one can be good and inspire intense dislike or bad and dislikable, yet, perhaps paradoxically, useful.

the-pharisee-and-the-publican-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902

Jesus tells a parable of two who prayed. One, a Pharisee.

Historically, Pharisees haven’t fared well. “Pharisaical” is a synonym for the hypocrisy of outwardly doing of all the right things, but inwardly being less than true to the values the actions symbolize.

All Pharisees weren’t bad. Indeed, their “job” in Judaism was to know and do God’s Law – all 613 ritual imperatives of Sabbath observances and feast days, dietary rules and tithing. They were to be embodiments of the heart of the Law: love for God and neighbor. Yes, Jesus condemned the Pharisees as legalistically obsessed with externals; more concerned about correct conduct than love or justice.[1] Nevertheless, their role in the life of the community was important, for all of us need outward and visible, at times, living symbols of the values we cherish if we are to know and remember them.

All said, Pharisees were respected, admired, but not well liked. Hard to like someone who rises above us and perhaps looks down on us.

The second actor in Jesus’ two-person drama is a tax collector. A despised collaborator with the hated Roman Empire. A desecrator of the Law, taking money from his own people on behalf of the enemy. A thief who often levied higher amounts than were owed, pocketing the difference.

Tax collectors, seeking to repent, came to John the Baptizer, asking, “What should we do?” John said, “Collect no more than is due!”[2] Zacchaeus, a tax collector, overwhelmed with gratitude that Jesus would come to his home, joyously declared, “If I’ve defrauded anyone, I’ll repay fourfold!”[3] Clearly, tax collecting was profitable; the prosperity often the spoiled fruit of the misery of others.

Nevertheless, the disrespected, despised tax collector was useful as one who falls beneath us and perhaps upon whom we can look down.

So, the Pharisee. In his prayer, his hubristic litany of self-praise, he saw himself as morally superior to the tax collector. And he hadn’t lied. He had done everything he said. But he hadn’t lived the Law. He hadn’t loved. Thus he fulfilled Paul’s sad commentary on a loveless life; blessed with ability and achievement, but lacking compassion for others: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels…if I have prophetic powers…understand all mysteries and all knowledge…and faith…but do not have love, I am nothing.”[4]

The tax collector, in his contrite confession, had gotten nothing right, but everything real, for he hadn’t fallen prey to the temptation of comparison. (Whenever I measure myself against another, I know the risk. Whenever I, by my standards, look for some lesser mortal over whom to exalt myself, I will find that person. Yet inevitably I also will stumble into shadows cast by giants whose Brobdingnagian achievements by comparison make my accomplishments appear Lilliputian.[5]) The tax collector, judging himself only by himself, found himself lacking, compelling his cry for mercy.

As we interpret this tale, it is good for us to remember that Jesus was an intuitive story teller who taught in parables because he wanted us to think for ourselves. I believe Jesus ended the story with the tax collector’s plea: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Luke, writing a generation after Jesus, added the moral to the story, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” I guess Luke didn’t trust us with our own ruminations.

I think this because the ethical line that Luke draws is too solid and too straight. The Pharisee, outwardly righteous, inwardly flawed. The tax collector, outwardly flawed, inwardly righteous. Nothing in life or human experience is that clear!

So, taking up the story where I believe Jesus left it calls us to recognize that a Pharisee and a tax collector abides within each of us.

Like the Pharisee, we, at times, compare ourselves with others. The cost is that our self-perception and esteem can rise or fall in relation to how we view others. At the same time, we need to claim the pharisaical promise that we are “not like other people”. Each of us is created wonderfully, differently, uniquely, individually. Therefore, there always is something each of us can give to others and receive from others.

Like the tax collector, we earn much of our profit, yes, our material treasure, yet also the wealth of our personalities at the cost and through the giving of others. Therefore, forgetting that, we always are in danger of believing somehow we did it ourselves and, thus, need to remember to pray like a Lilliputian, in gratitude, always in mind and heart of our need for mercy.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: The Pharisee and the Publican (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). The Pharisee (left), as described in the parable, “standing by  himself”, his bearing erect, hold his hands aloft in prayer. The tax collector or publican (right) also stands alone and, “far off”, his posture abject, leaning against a pillar for support, his head bowed in his hand, unable to “look up to heaven”, his other hand grasping, “beating his breast”, all signs of contrition. (Note: publican was a title given to a public contractor who served the Roman Empire in a variety of roles, one of which was tax collection.)

Footnotes:

[1] See Matthew 23.1-36 and Luke 11.42-44.

[2] Luke 3.12-13

[3] Luke 19.8

[4] 1 Corinthians 13.1, 2, my emphasis

[5] A reference to peoples, respectively great and small in size, in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).