Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Wisdom's Holy Flame

On its best day, the Church is not merely a gathering of individuals who come together to be filled with esoteric knowledge, to abstractly ponder the deep mysteries of God in a sanctuary of safety and comfort, surrounded by like-minded individuals and wonderful pageantry.  On its best day, the Church is a gathering of diverse individuals who come together as one body, asking for the illuminating wisdom of the Holy Spirit, seeking to incarnate once again the subversive first-century radical Jesus of Nazareth, and to be sent out by God the Father to transform the very fabric of the world.  As the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer says, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Or, to say it another way, stealing from our United Methodist sisters and brothers, “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” 

Our lives as Christians are burdened with glorious purpose, a purpose that is simultaneously terrifying and overwhelming yet life-giving and empowering.  You, me, all who are baptized into the name of Jesus…together, we are the hands of feet of Jesus, called to be passionate about the transformation of the world, the restoration of all people to unity with God and each other.  We are tasked with struggling against the injustices of an often cruel and vicious world.  We have a standing order to look at the world around us with eyes wide open, attuning them to the needs of those around us, particularly the marginalized and oppressed, and to have the courage to imagine that the dream of God need not remain a dream deferred, but a reality realized right here, right now, in our streets, in our coffee shops, in our offices.

This is the story since the beginning, since God began to speak through the mouths of women and men, casting a vision of a world reconciled, put to rights, standing upright instead of upside down.  The words from Sirach speak vividly about this work of God, struggling against the pride and vainglory of humanity.  The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers, and enthrones the lowly in their place. The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations, and plants the humble in their place.  The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations, and destroys them to the foundations of the earth.  You know, I can’t imagine too many of you would return if I preached like that every Sunday.  But, nevertheless, the wisdom of Sirach, the collected words of a man also named Jesus, casts a vision of God working to overthrow the corruption of power-hungry nations…overthrowing the systems of oppression that stamped down the humble poor and elevated the rich and mighty.

He wrote during the 2nd Century BC, and bore witness to the violent and turbulent transition of power that occurred in Judea between the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria.  While not necessarily an original thinker, he stood on the shoulders of the prophets and sages before him, and channeled their clarity and conviction as he cast this vision of the downfall of the violent proud and the lifting up of the lowly and humble poor.  In his own way, he carried on the tradition of speaking truth to power, of calling on the people of God to work outside of the Temple and synagogues.  Repeatedly he invoked the Holy Wisdom of God, understanding that this vision of God’s work in the world was not simply about doing the occasional good deed because it was the right thing to do. Our spiritual lives, lives lived in relationship to the Living God, lead us down paths such as these. “Draw near to me, you who are uneducated”, he says in the 51st chapter, “and lodge in the house of instruction. Why do you say you are lacking in these things, and why do you endure such great thirst? I opened my mouth and said, Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money. Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.”

And this wisdom was transmitted through the ages, even into the heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of our Lord, at whose breast and in whose lap Jesus himself received instruction. Listen to her song of praise, and find the echoes of Sirach’s vision therein. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” There it is, that wisdom from the ages, contained in her own words of praise. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. Mary’s own response to the wonderful working of God in her life was not a quiet and contained “Amen.” It was a song that proclaimed that God’s work in the world, in and through God’s chosen vessels, was a radical work of reorientation and restoration.

She carried on this age-old tradition, she transmitted this age-old vision, and she spoke the powerful and mighty works of God into the ears of her own son, whose words we hear this morning. “But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." Without coincidence, we hear his words as we gather for our own feast, the celebration of the Eucharist, where we feed on the life-giving body and blood of Jesus, not just for our own personal and spiritual needs, but for the strength to return to the world as ministers of God’s reconciliation. We will soon ask God the Father to “send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” In this moment, we would do well to ask ourselves, with unabashed vulnerability, “How seriously do we take these words?” As individual disciples and as a parish, how serious are we about going out into the world to do God’s work, to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world, to take our place next to prophets like Sirach, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Jesus himself, doing all we can to exalt the lowly and to create, in our day, a new human family that leaves none forsaken and lonely while we feast on the riches of Christ’s grace?

In this very hour, we are being challenged by the wisdom of ancient sages and the radical witness of Jesus Christ. The prophet Jeremiah once described his conviction to speak the words of God with incredibly vivid imagery: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Does this kind of fire live within your bones, a fire that burns so intensely you cannot resist its call to live with a burning passion to speak the words of God and do all you can to build up the Beloved Community? Imagine what God could do through our parish if we all prayed, every day, for a fire burning so hot we couldn't resist making this Gospel work our life's priority? May we be always seeking new ways to stoke this flame, to be a parish that, in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, “does not neglect to do good and to share what we have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on August 28, 2016.  The texts were Sirach 10:12-18, Psalm 112, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, and Luke 14:1, 7-14.

No comments:

Post a Comment