Sunday, September 2, 2012

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

(Proper 17B2)
Dt 4: 1-2, 6-9; James 1: 17-27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Grace and peace this morning, Sunday in the Labor Day Weekend holiday, and as we all around us have the themes of “Back to School,” and in the Church Office as we have begun with some seriousness to be reviewing the calendars around Advent and Christmas, I do pray that you will have an enjoyable last bit of summer relaxation and refreshment, even as remnants of Hurricane Isaac may make it something of a rainy day.

Many of us I’m sure are familiar with a saying attributed to St. Francis—probably not something he actually said, but perhaps something that many have found to be “in the spirit of St. Francis,” anyway—“preach always, when necessary use words.”  St. Francis was of course known as a dynamic and effective and more-or-less relentless preacher and teacher, and someone who used words all the time and as skillfully and as intensively as any of his era or of any time and place, so we shouldn’t think that a saying like this is intended to take us off the hook when it comes to giving a clear and careful and even persuasive account of our faith.  At the same time, the wisdom shines through, in the “Spirit of St. Francis,” that words are only powerful and effective and meaningful when they reflect with integrity and, to borrow a word we hear a lot, with authenticity, the life and character of the one who is speaking them.

We know it deep down and we demand it, explicitly or intuitively, from our preachers and politicians and from our teachers and neighbors, from our husbands and wives, from our parents and our children.  Authenticity.  Put your money where your mouth is.  If you’re going to talk the talk, walk the walk.  When I was a teenager I read the J.D. Salinger Catcher in the Rye, and so much at the center of that fascinating mid-century American novel young Holden Caulfield’s piercing judgment on the world around him, “phonies” everywhere.

And all three lessons this morning center on exactly this.

Moses addressing the people at Sinai at this great moment of Covenant, calling the people into relationship with God and into the fullness of their identity as his Chosen People as they accept his Law and agree to walk in his paths.  Some of the later prophets described this as a kind of marriage ceremony.  The promises of faithfulness not as an end in themselves, and they had to be more than words alone--the essential equipment for their purpose and vocation and identity as His people: to be a sign to the nations, a living sermon, we might say: “You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people,” for what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him.”

And so Jesus, distinguishing for his disciples between the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in their assiduous keeping of the external ceremonial law, in their harsh judgment of any who slip in even the slightest matter, while at the same time there is evidence every day of what comes from a defiled heart, “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.”  Great list.  Sounds like a sermon series in the making. This is of course why so many come near the Church and then turn and run once they’ve had a good look at us.  “What phonies,” they say with Holden.  “They talk a good game, but who needs talk?”  In the words of the old t.v. commercial and campaign slogan, “where’s the beef?”

“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” And so James: “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger . . . .  Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.  Be ye doers of the word, and not merely hearers, who deceive themselves . . . .”

This is not about a cosmic game of gotcha.  It is absolutely serious.  But not some kind of celestial score-keeping.  St. Peter standing at the Gate and announcing to you whether you scored high enough to make the grade.  But it is about repentance and regeneration, transformation, the power of God to bless us not just in external and superficial ways but through and through, to the essential core of our character and our identity. 

One of the things I know that happens when I begin to move into a new friendship is that in a sincere way I find myself engaging in the world from a different perspective.  Perhaps my new friend is an avid bird-watcher, and I find really without any great effort on my part and often almost without conscious intention I begin to take an interest in knowing what birds are building their nests in our backyard.  My new friend likes to listen to opera, and though I wasn’t all that interested in opera before, again, I find myself drawn to it in a new way.  Sometimes I pick up a new expression or a way of talking.  So that when  I visit my sister in LA I notice her eyebrows raising a bit when I offer to drive “dahntan.”  I’ve known our Bishop-elect, Dorsey McConnell, for some time, and I discover recently that he has become much more attuned to the beginning of the football season and the prospects of our Steelers than he ever was when he was service parishes in Boston or Seattle.  Amazing how your wardrobe begins to drift into the basics of black and gold after a while.

So just to say this: to come into relationship with Jesus Christ is not about being oppressed by some great weight of complicated rules and ordinances.  No more than friendship, marriage, parenthood.  It is rather to find ourselves drawn in our hearts toward a greater enjoyment.  In friendship, in love.

Thinking of that great movie with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt a number of years ago.  “As Good as it Gets.”  The love story between this deeply neurotic, troubled, angry man, and a beautiful and generous but fragile, wounded, scarred, defensive woman, both of them traveling on into the cynicism of middle age.  This key moment in what I guess you could call their courtship, as she says “why are you doing this?  What is this relationship about for you?”  And he says to her, this great line, “You make me want to be a better man.”  That is something to say about friendship, love, marriage.  Perhaps what a new dad or mom discovers when the reality of this new situation begins to settle in.  Not because I have to, not because I’m supposed to, but because I want to.  It can become the deepest of longings.  To be—to be, for lack of a better word, to be better.

Again James.  This not about wagging fingers or keeping score.  “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome—welcome!-- with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

These Christians.  Not perfect by a long shot.  But you can see it all over the place, can’t you, that they’re in love?  Listen to the songs they sing.  Look what happens when that name is even mentioned, Jesus, when they sense that he is nearby.  Watch them for a while.  You don’t really need to hear them say a thing.  Words are unnecessary.  You can just tell.

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