Proverbs 25: 6-7; Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16; Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Grace and peace indeed this morning, the holiday weekend. I know most of our kids and families have already experienced the joys of the first day of school. I guess a few places still don’t get fired-up until after Labor Day. But certainly a sense of transition, even on a warm day like this. Summer to fall. Before we know it we’ll down at PNC Park for the fifth game of the World Series and feeling a hint of winter chill in the air!
In the Seventh Chapter of his Rule for Monasteries St. Benedict has a sharp turn of phrase when he talks about how Christians “climb the ladder” of spiritual life by climbing down. To say that we ascend by descending. That phrase or image came to my mind as I read through the lessons appointed for us this morning. The way of humility, which is deep down the way of the Cross, Christian discipleship, following the footsteps of Jesus.
Ascending by descending, which is the same kind of inversion and unexpected reversal that we hear in the well-known prayer often associated with the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi: “for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Seems pretty basic in terms of what we mean when we say that someone is “acting like a Christian.” And perhaps thinking a bit about the very interesting focus really in all quarters on the character and behavior of Pope Francis. To say that there’s just a lot about him that seems right.
To reflect about what it means to be a Christian not simply in terms of the great doctrines of faith, theology, or even in those inner private realms of what is sometimes called “spirituality,” not that any of those things aren't important, but to say that we listen to Jesus and to his word in scripture as a guide for living our lives. Out in the world.
To talk about Christian faith as it is known in Christian character. That we are called not simply to an inner relationship and commitment to Christ, but to conduct ourselves as Christians. In Ephesians 5 Paul doesn't just say to "love." He says, "walk in love." To talk the talk but then also to walk the walk. To have what in the great religious tradition is sometimes called a Rule of Life. A pattern informed by scripture, by Jesus as we come to know him in scripture and in prayer and in the life of the church, for organizing our hours and days, for dealing with actual relationships, politics, possessions, money.
All driving us pretty deeply into counter-cultural waters. True whatever mini-strand of contemporary culture we happen to occupy. Contemporary/progressive, traditional/conservative. Someone said that if being a Christian hasn't been a challenge to us, hasn't made our lives in this world more difficult, maybe we haven’t been taking it seriously enough.
You know that word to the pastor, “you've gone from preaching to meddling.” There are flags that we sometimes will be willing to salute on Sunday mornings, but often we want to keep pretty distant Monday through Friday. A social reality all around us and within us also that is so much founded on the assertion of identity and rights, self-expression, self-actualization, to satisfy my desires. Finding and celebrating my real self. Appetites and entertainment. The bumper sticker I mentioned a few weeks ago: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” The pop song from a few years ago that captured the great adolescent assertion, “You’re not the Boss of Me.”
I often think of that simple phrase of Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s: “costly discipleship.” The snippet from Proverbs obviously connects to the first part of the Gospel reading from St. Luke. Familiar both in terms of our aspirations and our anxieties. Living as we do with the two sides of the coin, entitlement and grievance. A sense of what we deserve and a sense of what we have been denied. Fueled by that energy. Politics is all about this, economics, the energy of social activity. The dynamics that tear apart marriages and families, infidelity, lies, the emotional undertones that pave the way to addictions and destructive behaviors.
The reading from Hebrews touching in just a few sentences a word of instruction about Christian character and behavior, and intended to have application 24/7. Filling in the background. Mutuality rather than self-centeredness. Hospitality not just to friends but to strangers. Serving others not with a sense of superior station, but with a deep identification. Perhaps reminded of the title of that wonderful book many years ago by Henri Nouwen, “The Wounded Healer.” The prisoner, the poor, the oppressed. And I've only seen about a minute or so of the Miley Cyrus video from the MTV awards show the other night, but to see even that much in the context of this word from scripture that upsets a lot of apple-carts I guess these days. “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled.” Episcopalians of course don’t want to be thought of as prudish. But still.
In any case, sketched out here in all these three readings this morning: modesty; restraint; charity; discretion; fidelity; honesty; simplicity; purity; kindness. We hear these lists over and over again in scripture. It is interesting to me that in several weddings this summer none of the couples selected the very familiar section of First Corinthians in the Thirteenth chapter. I guess that becoming a bit too familiar. “Love is patient and kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way.”
Instead though at least three times this summer couples selected from the lectionary a reading from Colossians, the third chapter. Very similar word to a Christian that like the congregation in Corinth seems to need to be reminded that in the same way that there is an orthodoxy of belief, so there is also an orthodoxy of our way of life. Maybe a hard thing to think about when we’re loading up for a little “shock and awe” this time in Syria.
In my homilies at the weddings I will sometimes talk about all the attention brides and grooms give to the selection of wedding gowns and bridesmaids dresses and formal wear for the groom and his attendants. And then to hear Paul say, again the third chapter of Colossians, beginning at the 12th verse, “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another, and if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you . . . . Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Dress for success. But thinking about success in a different way than the way we usually see it represented or feel it ourselves. Choices every day about what is really important for us. Of values to cultivate with a sense of deliberation. Compelling but also very challenging words, at least I find them challenging, appointed in scripture for us this morning about the kind of wardrobe we select to wear as Christian people when we set out into the world—not just when we dress up for church on Sunday, but day by day. A costly discipleship: with one another, in our homes, where we work, our schools, our neighborhoods. How we spend our money. How we vote. What we set before ourselves as entertainment.
Several Sundays earlier this summer while the lectionary was walking us through St. Paul to the Galatians I mentioned the Steven Covey quotation, and it comes back to me again as we would read and listen carefully to the words of scripture for us this morning: “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” And then to hear the final word here from the Hebrews reading: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Though him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, the fruit of lips that confess his name.”