Sunday, June 22, 2008

A: Proper 7 (22 June 2008)

Matthew 10:16-33
Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69

I’m sure you’ve heard this “thought question” before, but let me ask it once again, and invite you to think about it: “If it were a crime to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” In America—so far, at least—we haven’t had to worry about that question being anything more than abstract. But for Christians in, say, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Indonesia or Sudan, it is concrete and real on an everyday basis. They are very familiar with the “cost” of Christian faith. And the notion of faith in God coming with a “cost” is not anything new. Listen to the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

I have become a laughingstock all the day; every one mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, "Violence and destruction!" For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.

Becoming a laughingstock. Being mocked. Being scorned. Suffering reproach and derision. Strangely enough, the human ego is put together in such a way that many of us would endure bodily harm, deprivation of civil rights and social status, even death, more courageously than we would endure being made fun of, being the butt of jokes, the object of ridicule. It is an altogether unpleasant experience. Maybe you remember the opening scene of the first Spiderman movie about six years ago. The character who eventually becomes a superhero is shown as a bumbling, nerdy teenager, with these really thick glasses, who can hardly walk in a straight line. All the kids he goes to school with make fun of him without mercy, and the viewer—this viewer, at any rate, who was sort of a nerdy kid himself—the viewer feels tremendous pity for him, virtually as much as if he were being stretched out on a rack and tortured.

For whatever reason, the way you and I are wired emotionally makes us think and act as if scorn—derision, ridicule—we act as it it’s a sign of failure and a source of shame. So we go to great lengths to avoid being made fun of—being made fun of at home by siblings or spouse or parents or children, being made fun of at work by supervisors or peers or subordinates or clients, being made fun of at school, and especially being made fun of in romance. Most people who are otherwise single and eligible and looking would rather shut down their love life completely than suffer embarrassment or humiliation in a relationship.

So it’s no wonder that, while we would like to think we would bravely stand in front of a firing squad for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, let there be the slightest hint of ridicule or scorn, let the jokes start flying about us, and we start hemming and hawing and hedging. We do so with a guilty conscience, but we do it. Our prayer is that of Psalm 69:

Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, Lord God of hosts; *
let not those who seek you be disgraced because of me, O God of Israel.

We become gunshy about being an open disciple of Jesus. Why act as though we've been recruited into the “Christian CIA,” where we can be a covert operative and always maintain plausible deniability. Rather than being bold witness for the gospel, we become mute whenever an opportunity to make a witness for Christ might result in our being made fun of.

Well, Jesus would like—politely, of course—Jesus would like to challenge that way of thinking. Listen to what he says to his disciples, right after he’s gotten them to sign on the dotted line to follow him:

I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves…

I send you out … in other words, this is not by accident, this is by intention. He means to do it. But wait, there’s more:

They will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them.

It would seem that scorn and ridicule are not merely the by-products of true Christian discipleship and witness; they are veritably the authenticating marks of true Christian discipleship and witness. In others words, we should be concerned if we’re not being ridiculed. We should be worried if we’re not the laughingstock, the butt of jokes. If we’re completely comfortable in the world around us, if we just fit right in, if our faith in Christ doesn’t make us stand out from the crowd in some way, then we might plausibly question whether there would indeed be enough evidence to convict us if it were suddenly against the law to be a Christian.

There is a cost to discipleship. Part of this cost is public. We experience this cost when we take political action that is based on our Christian convictions. Now, this cuts across ideological lines: One could take to heart the biblical command to be good stewards of creation, and as a result join an environmental protest, and become subject to public derision or even arrest. Or, from the opposite end of the political spectrum, one could become deeply conscious of how pornography degrades women and damages the men who are addicted to it, and join in organizing a conspicuous public boycott of a retailer that carries pornography, and thereby become subject to public ridicule. In both instances, it is Christian discipleship that motivates the action, and those who engage in such actions learn the cost of discipleship.

The cost of discipleship, however, is also private. We experience this cost when we make a decision, and then make a subsequent effort, to honor the spirit of the fourth commandment by keeping the Lord’s Day holy. The world doesn’t care about the fourth commandment, you see. The world laughs at the fourth commandment, and schedules staff retreats and Little League baseball games and Girl Scout car washes—all of which are in themselves very good things—the world schedules these things on Sunday morning and assumes the only competition is from the lure of sleeping in or mowing the lawn. A faithful disciple of Jesus Christ will decide that being with the with Lord’s own people on the Lord’s own day is a higher priority than those good things. Such a decision will invite ridicule and derision from those who do not know Jesus.

Of course, merely knowing that public and private scorn is the authenticating mark of true discipleship doesn’t necessarily make it any more pleasant to endure. So Jesus offers us an incentive to hang in there:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Fear not—we are of more value than many sparrows! The one who numbers the very hairs on our head will have the last word.

By the end of Spiderman, the awkward nerd who was the laughingstock of the school bus at the beginning of the movie had turned into a confident and secure and focused young man who knew exactly who he was. You and I know who we are, and we know Whose we are. We know that if we follow him—authentically and courageously—our decision will not go unrewarded.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A: Proper 6 (15 June 2008)

Romans 5:6-11

A full moon rises over the ocean on a balmy starlit night. Waves roll gently onto a deserted beach—nearly deserted, that is. A young couple walk hand-in-hand, barefoot, along the sand. Their feelings are enhanced by the beauty of their surroundings, but they are scarcely even aware of where they are, because they’re totally focused on one another. They stop, look deeply into each other’s eyes, and indulge themselves in a long and lazy kiss. They each whisper to the other those three words hallowed by centuries of human usage, “I love you."

I love you.

What will become of these two young lovers? That’s anybody’s guess. Will they whisper the same words to each other fifty or sixty years later as they look back on a lifetime of devotion and commitment? Is this the very first time either of them has spoken these magical words, or is it the second or third or tenth or twentieth time? Is this the last person each of them will utter these words to, or will there be one or two or a dozen others before settling on “the one”? What is the sign of their love? Is it merely a kiss, and the utterance of words? Or will it be manifested by the submission of each one’s needs and wants to the needs and wants of the other? What is the measure of their love? Will love persist only as long as the attractiveness of youth persists? Will they love each other only as long as there is strength of emotion, as long as love is returned—in other words, as long as it’s easy to love? Or will it still be there in the hard times, when the flame of feeling seems to flicker, when the other one doesn’t love back with the same intensity, when love is tested by poverty or disease?

What are the signs and what is the measure of their love? Do you really love me? How much do you love me? Will you always love me? What will you do to show that you love me? These are the questions that we are vitally interested in. We ask them directly and indirectly, consciously and sub-consciously, verbally and nonverbally, countless times in the course of our lives. We ask them of our parents. We ask them of our siblings and friends. We ask them of our children. But most of all, ultimately, we ask them of God. After all, that's the bottom line, isn't it? If God doesn't love us, it doesn’t make all that much difference whether anyone else does.

Fortunately, for those of us who hunger after God’s love, the religious climate that we live in tries very hard to give us what we’re looking for. Unlike other times in the Church’s history, when the judgment and the wrath of God were proclaimed from the pulpits of all Christendom, we live today in an era of “God loves you.” In fact, this is so much the case that the very meaning of God’s love seems to be devalued, robbed of any deep significance. It has become, for many, a sentimental platitude. God loves me—that's great. But I still yearn to know, what is the sign of God’s love for me, and I want to know, what is the measure of his love? We all want to be assured that he loves us, and, preferably, that he loves us a whole lot!

So ... just what is our basis for affirming that God loves us? What are the signs of that love? And what basis do we have for believing that God’s love is more than just a passing affection? How do we know that the measure of God’s love is as deep and broad and powerful as we need it to be? Some would suggest ... that it’s merely self-evident. Look at the world, look at the universe, and you will find the sign of God’s love. Why would a supreme being bother with a race of creatures that is so outstandingly unique with respect to its environment if it were not out of sheer love ? It seems to exceed the limits of credibility to conceive of a God who would waste so much effort in the creation of humankind, for that act of creation to not be motivated by and followed by love. It would be like Leonardo da Vinci not caring about the Mona Lisa or Beethoven feeling indifferent toward his Ninth Symphony.

Of course, the reply to this line of reasoning is equally self evident: Would a God who loves his creatures allow them to be subject to earthquakes and floods and tornadoes and cancer and drunk drivers and all the other causes of human suffering? No ... it simply won't do to say that it’s just intuitively apparent that God loves us. The world around us can be construed as a sign of God’s indifference or his active animosity just as easily as it can be construed as a sign of his love.

If one is inclined to dabble in theology, and also is blessed with a logical mind, one could reason like this: The Bible says that God created humankind in his own image—in others words, in some spiritual way, we look like God. In this sense, we are all his children, and we all know that parents find their offspring irresistibly attractive, impossible not to love. How can you not love your own baby—if nothing else, it’s a moral obligation. Well, the problem is, most people are not inclined to dabble in theology or don’t know or couldn’t care less what the Bible says, and have known too many instances of parents who really don’t love their children, and I’m not just talking about guppies who eat their babies. In short, it is not a logical necessity that human beings are irresistibly attractive to God. Our being made in the image of God is not a sure sign of God’s love for us, much less that he loves us a lot.

Another direction from which to attack the problem might be this: God is by definition “good”, he’s not only a deity, but a benevolent deity—otherwise, he’s not God at all, but some form of devil. Now this one, it seems, has possibilities. The very notion of God is a sign that God loves us. So we have, possibly, a sign, that God loves us. But—I’m afraid it’s time to rain on the parade once again—is mere benevolence what we're looking for? Does it scratch us where we itch? Are our deepest longings satisfied by a God who merely likes us, who is amused by us? I certainly hope that the dog and the cat that live in my house don’t take the fact that I occasionally think they’re cute, that I sometimes find them amusing, as a sign of my profound love for them!

My friends, we could go on all day speculating about the sign and the measure of God’s love for us. Fortunately, we don’t have to. In the eighth verse of the fifth chapter of St Paul’s epistle to the Romans, we are told that “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

While we were yet sinners ... Christ died for us.

The sign of God’s love for us is not that it is intuitively self-evident, not that God is obligated to love us because we are made in his image, but that Jesus Christ, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, born in Bethlehem of Judaea of the flesh of the Virgin Mary his mother, true God and true man, allowed himself to be put to death on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem for you and for me and for every other man, woman, and child who has ever walked or crawled on the face of the earth. The sign of God’s love for us is not abstract or conceptual, but is as tangible as a corpse, as concrete as a crucifix. We need not agonize or speculate—we need only look into the face of the Crucified One to see the sure sign of divine love.

And as to the measure of that love—how deep and broad and full it is—we need only reflect on the fact that Christ’s death took place while we were yet sinners. St Paul tells us, in verse six of our epistle from the fifth chapter of Romans, that “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” There are indeed people and causes worth dying for. People quite frequently are willing to sacrifice their lives for something they consider to be of surpassing worth. But Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, while we were still weak, while we were alienated and estranged from God. Most of us have had the experience from time to time of trying to love somebody who is not inclined, for whatever reason, to love us back, or even to show gratitude for what we’re trying to do. At times we try to love somebody in the face of outright resistance or hostility. It's hard, isn’t it? Many times the emotional price is simply too high to pay and we back off just in order to maintain our own sanity. It takes an extraordinary outpouring of divine grace, I’m convinced, to persist in loving someone in the face of such adverse circumstances.

This is precisely the situation—only magnified an infinite number of times—in which God approaches humankind with his love. Herein lies the yardstick which allows us to measure God s love. Not only are we not cute or irresistibly attractive in God’s sight, but it is painful for God to even look on us, because he’s holy and we’re sinners. We have, like the Prodigal Son, squandered our inheritance as God’s children, and radically alienated ourselves from him. Yet, God demonstrates the measure of his love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Indeed, God probably doesn’t always like us, and he may not even ever find us amusing—I don’t know—but we can rest assured that he loves us more than we could ever ask or imagine. St Paul continues: “If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” This is our hope—with so much of an investment in us—the incalculable investment of Jesus dying on the cross—God is not about to spare any effort in bringing to completion the work that he has begun in each of us. The God who loved us enough to send his only Son to die for us while we were yet sinners, is surely going to persist in loving us until we are once again lovable, until the sin has been eradicated and the image of God restored. This is the work of growth in holiness, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, that each of us is engaged in, allowing the full measure of God’s love to be showered upon us.

“I love you," God says. But those are not mere empty words, vague sentiment, or the feelings of a moment. It is a concrete promise of boundless depth, signified and commended to us by nothing other than the death of Christ for us, while we were yet sinners. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

A: Proper 5 (6/8/08)

Matthew 9:9-13

Once upon a time, Jesus gave a party. We read about it in the ninth chapter of St Matthew’s gospel. The scholars can’t make up their mind whose house it was at. Some say that it was Jesus’ own home in the village of Capernaum. Others say that Jesus would have been too poor to own a house nice enough to give that kind of party. But in any case, there are indications that Jesus was playing host at this event—it was his party—even if he borrowed somebody else’s house to have it in.

It was a good party, the kind that, when you hear about it being planned, you hope you get an invitation to it. In that culture, dinner parties were semi-public affairs. It was not thought odd for someone to just wander in off the street. They might not actually get a place at the table that way, but it was at least good for an hors d'oeuvre, a trip to the punch bowl, and a good look around. Some of the more socially respectable members of Capernaum society—Pharisees, to be precise—would have liked to have been on the guest list for this party, but the invitation never arrived. So they exercised their option of crashing it for a look-see. They looked, and they saw, and they were aghast at what they saw—or, actually, whom they saw. Now they were glad not to have been invited, because all the wrong people were there. The place was full of notorious sinners and tax collectors. The wine was flowing freely and everyone was having a good time.

The Pharisees were clearly perplexed at why Jesus would associate with such company, and when he got wind of their discomfort, he answered them head on. “Oh, don’t worry! I know you’re good people—upstanding and righteous in every way. I wouldn’t dream of implying that you need any assistance from me as far as your standing before God is concerned. No, I didn’t come for your benefit. You obviously don’t need my help. But these people, they’re in a different situation. Look at them. They’re sinners! They need me. You’re well, you don’t need a doctor. They’re sick, and I’m their physician. They are the ones I came to save.”

Of course, Jesus was saying all this with his tongue in his cheek, because those self-righteous Pharisees stood in at least as much need of Jesus’ assistance in obtaining God’s mercy as did the socially suspect party-goers. It’s my observation that while every human being has a conscience, that faculty is less developed in some than in others. Christian teaching, of course, is that all human beings are sinners, by nature alienated from God and, unless some intervention takes place, on a path to eternal separation from the source of their being. Some people feel the weight of this reality very deeply. Others simply aren’t aware of it. Still others just don’t take it seriously. They figure that, sure, they’re not perfect, but they’re on the whole pretty good people, doing the best they can to live honestly and decently and making a contribution to society. Surely God will give them credit for this, and receive them into fellowship with him when the crucial moment arrives.

That all sounds pretty reasonable to me, and if I were God, it’s probably the way things would work. The only problem is, I’m not God! And there’s not the slightest authoritative evidence that the one who actually is God operates by those rules. The truth may not be pleasant, but that does not make it any less true. There isn’t anybody in this room whose manner of life places God under any sort of moral obligation. There isn’t anybody in the world who can justify himself or herself in God’s sight. Some of us may be more miserable sinners than others, but we are all sinners, all equally under a sentence of condemnation. Even if we identify with the relatively righteous Pharisees, “relatively righteous” doesn’t cut it. We all belong at Jesus’ party, because we are all sick, all among those whom he came to seek and to save.

Some of the party-goers that evening in Capernaum were no doubt enjoying themselves, but thinking, “save me? I’d like to see him try! If he only knew some of the things I’ve done in my life. I’m way beyond his ability to help me.” At the opposite extreme from those who take their sinfulness too casually are those who virtually define themselves by it. Have you ever heard the humorous crack, “I don’t really want to go to heaven; all my friends will be in hell!” It’s intended to be a swaggering and prideful remark, but it’s really a cry of despair. Was it W.C. Fields who quipped that he wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have him as a member?

That’s the way some folks feel about Christ and the church. They don’t realize that, as it has been said, the church is not a hotel for saints but a hospital for sinners. To the precise extent that we cannot evade the truth that we are all sinners, so we cannot evade the truth that there is no sin that is beyond the redemptive reach of God’s love. There is nothing you have ever done or could ever do that God will not forgive if you but repent of it and turn to Christ. The only truly unpardonable sin is the sin of despair, the refusal to believe and trust in God’s limitless love.

But of all the guests at Jesus’ party, it is Matthew who most grabs my attention. Matthew, the tax collector, who is going about his business one day when Jesus forever alters his life by calling him into the inner band of disciples. Matthew was neither particularly righteous nor particularly evil. He had, to be sure, made an unfortunate career decision, but it’s not like he was a pimp or a hit man or something like that. He was an independent contractor for the local government, collecting import-export tariffs from commercial traffic across the Sea of Galilee. The worst that can be said about him is that he was like a Frenchman who cooperated with the Vichy government during the years of Nazi occupation. Now, I really doubt that Matthew, as a child, said to himself one day, “When I grow up, I think I’ll become a tax collector and help support the Roman regime and thereby alienate myself from my own people.” I rather suspect it was much more subtle and gradual than that. A series of minor decisions, temporary choices, each one seeming logical and practical at the moment, but all combining to put Matthew behind that tax collector’s table in Capernaum. There he was, not relishing his low social status, and possibly feeling immense guilt, but making a pretty good living and not really knowing how to do anything else.

Matthew was trapped, trapped in quiet desperation, devoid of any realistic hope for change—a fate not unlike that of many “normal” men and women and children who populate our everyday lives, and who even occupy church pews on Sunday mornings. None of us, as young people, ever said, “I think I’ll get so addicted to nicotine that I’ll keep on smoking even though I know it’s killing me.” None of us ever said, “I believe I’ll become an alcoholic, and slowly destroy my life” or “I’m seriously thinking of acquiring a $200 a day drug habit that I’ll have to commit crimes to support.” None of us ever said, “I think I’ll get married and have a family, and then abuse them through neglect because I’m more committed to my career than I am to them.” None of us ever planned on sharing ourselves sexually with so many different people—one by one, each one making sense at the time—that pretty soon we’ve shared so much of ourselves that there’s nothing left of our real selves. None of us ever planned on making so many parenting mistakes that our children end up in long-term psychotherapy when they become adults. Nobody ever planned on having a job where they’re pressured to view human beings who bear the image and likeness of God as profit centers or human resource assets. We don’t ever start out with the idea of being less than completely honest in our daily life and work, less than totally committed to our families. We don’t ever start out with moral and ethical values that are less than the ideal, with anything less than the best of intentions for the stewardship of our bodies, of our minds, of our time and abilities.

But things happen. Life happens. And we wake up one morning and find ourselves trapped, like Matthew. We don't like where we are. We don't like the patterns of our behavior. We don't like the routines of our speaking and our acting. We look back on what we've said and done, and look ahead to what we expect we will say and will do, and in either direction, “the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.” We are Matthew, sitting behind the tax collector's table on the lake shore in Capernaum, wondering how it had all come to that. And along comes Jesus, and says, “Follow me.” And we follow him, and the first place he leads us to is a dinner party, a dinner party where we are accepted and loved, despite those shameful things we've said and done, despite the shameful thing that we have become, a dinner party where our feet are washed and we are invited to plop ourselves down on a soft cushion next to a large table filled with the choicest food and drink.

That dinner party is a sign to us that Jesus came to save us too. Yes, he came to save those who, like the Pharisees, are so self-satisfied that they don't yet realize they are sinners in need of a savior. And he came to save those whose sins are big and bold and right in plain sight for everyone to see, and who otherwise would be tempted to despair and hopelessness. But Jesus also came to save those, like Matthew, whose sins will never make headlines, but who nevertheless feel themselves trapped in patterns of thinking and doing that are ultimately as deadly. The dinner party tells us that there is a way out, there is victory. It's not instant, and it's not always necessarily pleasant. Sometimes it comes in forms we wouldn't expect to find it in. In fact, the way to victory and freedom frequently looks suspiciously like a cross.

But it is the way. Jesus is the way. And there are frequent dinner parties en route. They are held at least every week at about this time, and sometimes more frequently. And you can almost always find them at a convenient location near your home, or just about wherever your traveling takes you. These dinner parties are known as the Holy Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion, the Divine Liturgy. On these occasions, Jesus, the one who called Matthew, the one who calls us, is always the host, and he ministers to us with his compassionate love and boundless forgiveness, providing us with the nourishment we need to walk the way he calls us to walk in.

And if we follow Jesus, and come to the party when he invites us, just as gradually and subtly as we found ourselves trapped by our unspectacular sinfulness, we will find ourselves liberated from it. We may not be able to point to a particular time and date, but we will wake up one morning and realize that we're free. We will look in the mirror, and we will see Jesus, for we will have been remade in his image. Even this morning, the table is ready to be set, and the food laid out for us. The invitation is ours. Come to the party. Amen.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A: Proper 04 (RCL)

Matthew 7:21-27
Romans 1:16-17, 3:21-31

Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28
Psalm 31:1-5, 19-24

On my first and so far only visit to London three years ago, I spent some time in the neighborhood known as Marble Arch, named for, as you might guess, a grand marble arch that sits at the northeast corner of the sprawling Hyde Park. The arch, in turn, is the site of the famous “Speakers Corner,” where it somehow became a custom about 300 years ago for various sorts of people to stand up, sometimes literally on a soapbox, and vent whatever was on their hearts and minds to anyone who might lend them an ear. They were thereby able to deliver themselves of whatever was burning a hole in their belly until it got spoken.

As a Christian priest and pastor for going on nineteen years now, and as a teacher and catechist for another decade or so before that, I certainly have my own “soapbox speech,” that which bears repeating “till I’m blue in the face.” I actually get a little tired of giving this speech at times, but whenever I think of getting off the box, and letting go of this particular issue, somebody says something to make me get back on. Usually, it’s a casual remark in reference to a person’s own impending death or the impending death of a loved one, along the lines of, “Well, I haven’t been perfect, but I’ve lived a good life, and I’ve tried to do what was right, and I’m sure—or at least I hope—that will be good enough for God to let me into Heaven.” It’s the idea that living a “good life” in this world can earn us a “good life” in the next. After all, it seems “only fair,” and we have an endless inventory of “St Peter at Heaven’s gate” jokes to prove it! Only it makes me crazy, because it bears very little resemblance to the gospel of Jesus Christ or the faith of the Church.

Now, as I reflect on the matter, I’m aware that there is also a collective version of this attitude, one that doesn’t pertain to individuals, but to groups, such as the Church. In this version of earning God’s favor by living a good life, the “mission” of the Church is essentially social and political. The Church’s purpose is to “make the world a better place.” Sure, we worship and pray and socialize and maybe even evangelize along the way, but these are only means to the end of energizing us for our “real” mission, which is to bring about the perfectly just society that God has in mind for the world. Now this vision can take either “conservative” or “liberal” forms. A conservative’s idea of a just society tends to emphasize personal morality and individual responsibility governed by a set of universal values, while a liberal’s idea of a just society tends to emphasize economic and social equality governed by mutual tolerance of diverse sets of values. Either way, though, it’s tangible results that measure the effectiveness of the Church—whether that effectiveness is determined by the number of adult bookstores and abortion clinics that are shut down, or by the percentage of minority students graduating from the state university’s law and medical schools, or by the amount of third world debt that gets forgiven by the wealthy industrialized nations.

Yet, the idea that we can earn God’s favor, that we can obligate God in some way by what we do, either individually or collectively, is precisely the attitude that large portions of the New Testament—particularly the writings of St Paul—an attitude that large portions of the New Testament rail against. Today we are confronted with one of these very passages, from the third chapter of St Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Paul takes pains to emphasize that our standing before God is something that is determined “apart from the law,” that is, outside the framework of doing certain things and avoiding other certain things. Our standing before God is based on grace, it is a gift, paid for by the shed blood of Christ and received by faith. It’s not something we earn or otherwise qualify for by our own efforts. This theme is amplified by the Psalm appointed for today’s liturgy: “How great is your goodness, O Lord! which you have done in the sight of all for those who put their trust in you.” This notion of salvation by grace through faith, not by works, is one of the core convictions that lay at the heart of what we now call the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. As Anglicans, we’re kind of schizoid about the Reformation. Some of us are acutely aware of its excesses and eccentricities, but there really is no denying the fact that, given some of the superstitious practices of medieval Catholicism, there was good reason for it. The basic thrust of the Reformation, if not all the actual details, was a necessary corrective at the time.

But there’s a flip side to this as well. The “good news” of Paul—salvation by grace through faith, not by works—particularly as interpreted and explained by some of the reformers in the sixteenth century, sometimes is allowed to run amok. This can lead to a problematic theological notion that a serial rapist and mass murderer who says “Jesus, forgive me” with his dying breath goes straight to Heaven, while an ordinary sinner who never cheated on his taxes or was unfaithful to his wife but told an occasional white lie to protect people’s feelings and bounced a check once in a while, and who never “accepted Christ” as a conscious act, will go automatically straight to Hell without passing Go or collecting $200. This, too, is really a distortion of Christian truth.

Now, there is also, I believe, a collective version of this attitude as well. This is the frame of mind that sees the “mission” of the Church as solely evangelistic, solely about persuading people—even if it means resorting to emotional manipulation or thinly-veiled material inducements—the church’s mission is solely about persuading people to “accept Christ,” even apart from any relationship with the Church. Groups that adopt this strategy indeed do often engage in social ministry and adopt a very servant-like posture. But it is not difficult to discern that they do so only as an instrumental means, the way animal trainers use food to train dogs or lions or porpoises to do what they want them to do.

Yet, Scripture is awash in exhortation to good works, both personal and social.

Jesus said, “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’

These words of our Lord are recorded for us in St Matthew’s gospel. Note the emphasis on doing, not just talking, and not just believing. Now hear these words of Moses to the people of Israel in the book of Deuteronomy:

Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you this day, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods which you have not known.”

Today’s liturgy confronts us with the classic tension between faith and works, between believing and doing, between a faith-filled talk and an action-filled walk. The truth, as always, lies not in favoring one side over the other, or in somehow splitting the difference and meeting in the middle, but in honoring both ends of the tension. The Psalmist was right; Paul was right when he wrote to the Romans. The faith that puts us into a right relationship with God, the faith that allows us to even have a conversation with God, is rooted in free and unmerited grace. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. As sinful human beings, there is nothing we can do on our own that would morally obligate God to take even a passing notice of us. We all deserve to be eternally banished from His presence. Yet, saving faith in God’s free gift of grace, if it is at all genuine, necessarily expresses itself in adherence to the high ethical demands of Christian discipleship.

The larger context of this gospel passage today is that long discourse in Matthew’s gospel that we know as the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus talks about “every one who hears these words of mine and does them,” the “words” he’s referring to are all that he said in this “sermon.” We’re talking about the Beatitudes: personal characteristics such as meekness, poverty of spirit, and mercy. We’re talking about foregoing personal justice and forsaking revenge. We’re talking about turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile. We’re talking about staying married when we might be inclined not to. We’re talking about loving our enemies, giving to the needy with extravagant generosity, and behaving toward others in the way we would like others to behave toward us. Obviously, ethical demands such as these are likely to cut across the grain of our surrounding culture. I mean, how many best-sellers talk about getting ahead by being meek or merciful?! These are the high ethical demands of Christian discipleship, and they are likely to invite scorn at least, if not overt persecution. Yet, saving faith, rooted in God’s free grace, leads directly to such a lifestyle.

Jesus goes on to give us that compelling image of two houses: One is built on sand and one is built on rock. Works without faith—doing “good” things just for their own sake, apart from a lively faith in the author of all good things, or as a means of earning the favor of the author of all good things—works without faith is like a house without a solid foundation. It can be very beautiful and very comfortable. But when the rains come, and the foundation is compromised, the house vanishes. And faith without works—religious talk and religious observances that don’t express themselves at some point in concrete actions of justice and righteousness and mercy and love—this is like a solid foundation without a house: The rock may stand secure, unmoved by the storm, but who wants to live on a bare rock? A disciple has faith that expresses itself in works. Let’s be disciples! Amen.