Sunday, June 26, 2011
"Patience, Lord,...We're Coming!"
O God, you direct our lives by your grace, and your words of justice and mercy reshape the world. Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. (Lutheran Book of Worship, Proper 8)
Between that magnificent prayer from the Lutheran Book of Worship and Matthew’s Gospel passage today (10:40-42), there’s a whole lot of “welcoming” going on! “Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another…”, we pray. Jesus reminds us that to welcome him is to welcome the Father who sent him, and to welcome one another, even the least of us, with as simple a thing as a cup of water, is to welcome Jesus himself: the Prophet, the Righteous One. The promise is that our lives will be directed by God’s grace, and that our world will be reshaped by justice and mercy.
Jesus spoke a lot about love. We talk a lot about love in the Church, the Body of Christ. But when it comes to actually being a loving person, that’s not always so easy, especially for us who preach about it. Imagine a not untypical situation: a sermon, three points and a poem, has just been eloquently delivered on the topic of Christian love, its obligation to love even the unlovable, and how to apply that in practice. At the end of the service, exiting parishioners say all sorts of nice things to the preacher:
- “I enjoyed your sermon.”
- “Your sermon was so uplifting.”
- “I wish my spouse had heard that sermon”, and you’re thinking “I wasn’t preaching to your spouse!”
Then, just as the preacher is heading home for lunch, the Sunday paper, and a nap, a stranger approaches him. Now, he knows from previous experience that he’s going to hear the 973rd “creative” version of a sad story.
So, what does he do? What would you do? Plan A might be to do a 180º turn when you see the person coming and leave by the back door. If you do, unless you’re heartless or cynical, phrases of your beautiful, “meaningful” sermon on love will come back to haunt and convict you of hypocrisy!
Plan B would be the option to practice “charity by referral”, but you’re already quite aware that the soup kitchen, the Salvation Army, and all the social agencies are closed on Sunday! Besides, you’ll probably feel guilty later for whatever you might have done, but didn’t do.
In Plan C you suck it up and listen sympathetically to the person’s plight, then, perhaps, you hand over the only currency you have in your wallet, which is, of course, a $20 bill, then you smile, with a bit of a wince, and send the person off with a hurried blessing!
You stand there wondering if you did the right thing, or if you simply contributed to the economy of a professional panhandler, who makes similar rounds to all the churches in town. Are you helping or hindering that person?? Is that what "Christian love" really is??
We all feel this sort of tension between the rhetoric and reality of Jesus’ words. There’s perhaps no more agonizing problem for us as followers of Jesus than the gap between what we hear, sing, and pray here in church, and then the decisions we make in our homes, our neighborhoods, our community, etc. The reality of justice, mercy, and love often means choosing between difficult alternatives, and never being quite sure if we’ve made the best decision or not.
St. Paul grappled with these same issues back in the first century, based on his experience as a missionary and a community-builder, as we see in the passage today from Romans (6:12-23), Romans is Paul’s earliest epistle, dating from c. 55-58 CE. It’s also the longest and most systematic of his epistles. Usually his letters are solutions given to problems within the various Christian communities. This letter, however, is Paul’s introduction to the Roman Christian community. He’d never been there to visit. So, Romans is really a letter wherein Paul works out in his own mind problems that he’s experienced in other places recently at firsthand. You could describe Romans as a theological essay in which Paul tries to spell out what the Gospel really is.
Paul outlines for the Roman Christians his take on what God is doing for humankind, despite the insensitivity of both the Gentile Greeks and the Jewish people. At the beginning of Romans, Paul declares: “...I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the [Gentile] Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” Paul understands Jesus’ appearance in human history as a revelation of God’s righteousness. Humankind’s need, he says, is evident in both the selfishly corrupt society of the pagan world, as well as in the Jewish people’s clinging to an insufficient, lifeless Law, all the while remaining blind to recognizing the presence of the Messiah, God’s Anointed One. In Paul’s mind, steeped as he was in the Hebrew Scriptures’ Psalms and prophets, righteousness or justice and salvation are intimately connected. Psalm 71 says: “My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all day long…” (v. 15) Isaiah proclaims: “...There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior…” (45:21)
The righteousness/justice which characterizes God differs from the way we understand it. For Paul God’s justice is always a saving reality. It’s the trait by which God delivers or restores God’s people, frees them from slavery to sin and draws them back to Godself. It is, as Paul says, “the power of God for salvation.” Well, why not just call it salvation? Because in the Hebrew Scriptures, for God to be just or righteous evoked the idea of rectitude (from the Latin, meaning a ruler/guide/tutor/governor, which leads in a straight forward/right/appropriate/ virtuous direction), the idea of measuring up to a norm. If God is “just”, the only norm God can be measured against is Godself as God has revealed Godself. For the people of the Hebrew Scriptures, this could only be the God of the Exodus who chose a people bound to Godself in Covenant. God is “righteous/just” in that God is faithful to God’s promises and sworn word, and in fulfilling them. Amazingly, throughout history, even after humankind’s continuous failure to keep Covenant, God never ceases to intervene to save us, and it’s precisely this that we understand as God’s righteousness/justice/salvation. For the very reason that, in our human nature, we’re continually susceptible to selfishness, to self-centered sin, and consequently death, God’s saving action, God’s righteousness, freely delivers us from this most fundamental of our alienations. In being saved, we’re set “right”, “straightened out”, so to speak.
God’s acting in human life through Christ, Paul says, is directed at human selfishness and self-centeredness, what we traditionally call sin. Rather than liberating us, humankind’s moral sense alone (law, conscience, the moral imperative) convicts us. Paul’s message is that God’s gracious gift in Christ is true liberation, and that it’s readily available to any and all of us. The self-sacrificing love of Jesus’ words and actions is God’s love, and it’s our assurance of being able to share it.
When we respond to God’s love in Christ, and open our minds to his teaching, we have what Paul calls faith: the setting of our mind and heart on Jesus and on his way of living. Faith is the essential preliminary to new life, to a new start. That’s the Good news. The Bad news is the fact of sin, of failure, of slipping back into self-centeredness, as well as the reality of suffering and death, which we’ll all experience. For Paul, God frees us, in the love of Christ crucified and risen, from both of these, and in that freeing we come to share in a new humanity. We’re reconciled with God, emancipated from sin and death, empowered to live in love, and made to share in eternal life. Nevertheless, Jesus doesn’t shield us from the fact that there is a cost in human terms.
If you and I are troubled by the contrast between rhetoric and reality, between Christian ideals and practice, if you and I are often puzzled about what the truly loving thing to do is, then we should thank God for our troubled conscience! The most devastating disease which can afflict us is “no conscience”, the inability or the unwillingness to recognize where we fall short, or worse, the decision not to care at all, to feel no agony of decision.
Jesus’ message isn’t one of self-satisfaction and non-caring, nor of easy answers. His way is a way of loving, but one that costs. “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace on the earth; I’ve come not to bring peace, but division.” We might ask ourselves, in light of today’s reflections on Matthew and Romans:
- Am I able on any given day of my life to separate rhetoric from reality?
- Am I committed enough that I’m willing to learn to live with the ambiguities which arise out of my putting Christ first in my life?
- When, in my relationship with both God and others, I fail to love, when I get rhetoric and reality mixed up, am I still able to humbly confess my inadequacy, to pray for God’s mercy, and to expect that God in Christ will forgive me, help me amend what I am, and direct me to what I can be?
It’s hard to be the Church. It’s hard to consistently carry on the mission and ministry to which Christ calls us. It’s hard to allow ourselves to be ever more deeply drawn into the Body of Christ, dying his death, but also living his life. When I was serving as the chaplain of Sacred Heart College in Wichita, KS, one of my dearest colleagues, Shirley Mallott, the Director of Students, constantly inspired me. She was extraordinarily patient, she was kind and loving and welcoming, she gave constantly of herself to the whole college community, while always remaining in the background. I’ll never forget the little ceramic turtle which Shirley kept on her desk. On the turtle’s shell was written: “Patience, Lord, I’m coming.”
“Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another, through Jesus Christ…but be patient with us, Lord, we’re coming.”