Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sunday, August 8, 2010. Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost.

© 2010 by Louie Crew

Today’s Lections

The Collect

Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I whole-heartedly pray to God for the “spirit to think and do always those things that are right,” but I have to work much harder for a spirit of self-criticism lest I glibly conclude that what I think and do is God’s will. It is important to ask for God’s help, but just as important to hold in question what we discern to be God’s answer.

That’s why I desperately need the church to test what I discern to be God’s answer to my prayers. I often find myself wrong, and I sometimes find the church wrong.

For example, I have no absolute certainty that I am right in what I have discerned to be God’s will in my life about my commitment to Ernest in marriage. If I believed God opposes our commitment, either I should leave Ernest or leave God: what an horrendous choice either way.

I am much more certain in my understanding about God, whose property is always to show mercy. I make no claim based on my own rightness, but on God’s rightness. I trust God’s manifold and great mercies.

I am absolutely certain that the church is wrong when it laughs at, mocks, degrades, devalues…. lgbt people.

When scripture, tradition, and reason seem at odds, I find myself returning to the first and second commandments, on which Jesus says all law and all prophecy must pass muster: Love God with your whole heart. Love your neighbor (lgbts and straight alike) as you love yourselves.

As best I can discern, my effort to love Ernest is not against God’s will except when I fail to love Ernest as much as I love myself; for that I must steadily repent.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

Sodom produces in many bible readers such a fixation on sexual sin that as a gay Christian I have to resist a tendency to duck when I encounter Sodom in Scripture: so often it is the biggest brick many of my adversaries pick up to hurl at me.

Isaiah gets very specific about Sodom’s sins too, and he makes it quite clear what sodomites need to stop doing and how they should change:

I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

Homosexuality is not even hinted at! The sins named here include

  • oppression
  • injustice
  • Abuse of widows and orphans

As an Episcopalian I am chilled by the warnings in the first part of today’s reading from Isaiah. God is disinterested at best in the beauty of our worship. God is also not interested in our tithes and offerings when we do not do justice.

Should the lector today turn away from the congregation and speak directly to the thurifer with Isaiah’s injunction “incense is an abomination to me”?

I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good

Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24

This is not one of my favorite psalms. It lacks the coherence of many, and those who designed the lectionary have split it, making it appear even more piecemeal.

Summary: God yells and shows up wrapped in flame. He’s angry and calls his minions to assemble his people. God’s judgment itself is not altogether clear. He bears witness against Israel, but lets some get off the hook because they have made good sacrifices.

That’s quite a contrast with God as Isaiah describes him. In Isaiah’s account, offerings and solemn assemblies count for naught.

However, in the very last verse, the psalmist proclaims, much more tamely than Isaiah, that God is more impressed with our right behavior: “but to those who keep in my way will I show the salvation of God." Lectors would be wise to give very strong emphasis to but, lest sleepy auditors miss the contrast.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Some talk about their faith as certainty. They readily accept the challenge to prove right any claim in scripture, as if we will be found unfaithful if we doubt a single word of it. Some talk about faith as if it is a score card by which we will earn the right to enter heaven by believing every jot and tittle we are commanded to believe.

Will you be smacked down if you turn silent through any part of the creed? Even the filioque?

What’s the minimum iq one must have if she hopes to enter heaven? Some of these beliefs are quite complicated. Does one get an exemption for those parts of the creeds that one does not understand? And must we understand them in the same sense that those who wrote the creeds understood them? They believed the earth was flat and was at the center of the universe. We are not morally superior for knowing otherwise, but dare we pretend to the innocence persons had before they learned these facts?

Just how much are we allowed to use our minds if we also want to be faithful?

Saint offers helps with these troublesome questions. Saint does not look at faith as certainty. What you believe based on physical evidence is not faith at all: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

If you can see it, it just is; it’s not something you have to ‘believe.’

Jesus would have us test all law, all creedal statements, and all prophecy against the two greatest commandments: Love God with your whole heart. Love your neighbor as you love yourselves.

Growing up and well into my early thirties I understood faith as my gift to God, but I was wrong: faith is God’s gift to me. I have it in great abundance. I can “pass” the creeds with a lie-detector test, but I am awfully glad that I belong to a church that does not require the use of them.

It would be wrong-headed to boast about this gift: it is not based on my merits. I have not earned it, indeed cannot earn it.

I know many who live more faithfully than I do but have less faith, have many more dark nights of the soul than I encounter. I am deeply humbled by their righteousness.

Luke 12:32-40

My husband’s favorite t-shirt says it more succinctly: “Jesus is coming. Look busy!”

He wore that t-shirt when we lived in the Bible Belt deep behind the Cotton Curtain, and it was fun to stay a few feet behind him in the grocery aisles to watch the reactions. It drew far more angry looks than smiles. A few looked up as if afraid the ceiling would fall.

Yet Luke makes a point only slightly different: “Jesus is coming. Be ready!”

Jesus died at age 33, so we’ve been expecting his return for 1,977 years. While we can understand the eschatological urgency Luke proclaims, it’s understandable that generation after generation of Christians have managed to live faithfully, some even with a sense of holy urgency, without losing heart when night after night, year after year, century after century, the Second Coming has not yet happened, at least as Luke and other first-century Christians anticipated.

At 73 I am much more aware of what I am saying than I was as a child when I prayed, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I also sleep peacefully. My God is not a slave-master cracking a whip and doing white-glove inspections.

When ends life’s transient dream,
When death's cold, sullen stream
Shall o'er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love,
Fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above,
A ransomed soul!

I am ready for the Commendation:

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Louie. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive Louie into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen. -- BCP, 483

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