Sermon for 2nd Sunday after Trinity
1 John 3:13-24
Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 16:33). These words of Christ, found a few verses after the conclusion of today’s Gospel reading, were directed at the multitude that followed Jesus. This morning of grace, they are directed at us.
What is our goal in life? When all is said and done, what is the goal of all this spiritual laboring and reading, morning prayer and evening prayer, writing and worshipping? Well, what else could the goal be other than reconciliation with our Creator? That we should walk with God during our time here on earth in a way that allows us to dwell in him perfectly in eternity. ‘Israel’ means to ‘persevere with God.’ The Church–and this has been our faith through the ages–truly is the new Israel; forged in the old covenants and fulfilled and perfected in the new covenant, in and through Christ.
Today’s Gospel reading calls on us to reflect on the demands made on those who persevere with God. The reading from St Luke is the text appointed for the ‘Sunday of the Forefathers’ in the Eastern Orthodox Church, a feast shortly before Christmas devoted to the celebration of Christ’s ancestors according to the flesh. St Gregory Palamas explains that this is done “so that all may learn that the Hebrews were not disinherited nor the Gentiles adopted as sons in a way that was unjust, unreasonable or unworthy of God who did these things and made these changes. Rather, just as among those Gentiles who were called, only the obedient ones were chosen, so the race of Israel… only those among them who lived according to God’s will were true Israelites. To them the prophecies belonged, through them future events were prefigured, and to them the promises were given” (Hom LV).
When the prophecies were fulfilled in and through Christ, this was not what many of them had expected, and they rejected him. When God made good on His promises in and through Christ, many received Him as an impostor and an inconvenience, rather than a blessing. When the Messiah really did come, many of the chosen ones were no longer interested. This relationship, this changing response of the people of God to God’s loving mercy, is at the heart of the parable recounted by St Luke. It is among the most straightforward parables in Scripture, the dramatis personae are easy to recognize, and their responses are easy to interpret. That said, it is commonly the case that layers kan be peeled away to reveal something not immediately evident, and this parable is no exception. A piece of ground, five pairs of oxen, and a wife–these are the excuses recounted in the parable. Earthly possessions had become more important than heavenly treasure. But what kinds of earthly possessions are these? St Augustine (of Hippo, not Canterbury) saw these possessions as pointing to something beyond themselves (Hom LXII). The possessions are not problematic. It is perfectly possible to be a married, cattle owning farmer and still follow Christ. To St Augustine, the issue is not with the possessions, but with the way in which the possessions have ensnared the people and diverted their focus. In his homily, St Augustine suggests that the piece of ground that the first man had bought indicates a sense of dominion as opposed to stewardship, an imperative to own and control that is ultimately grounded in human pride and ambition. The second man’s five pairs of oxen indicate–as part of an extensive explanation that I will not go into here–the five bodily senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. This St Augustine understands as our preoccupation with worldly things; with things that we can see, smell, hear, touch and taste. That is to say, an interest in the world around us, rather than the interior, spiritual world. And, suggests St Augustine, the third man’s excuse of having taken a wife indicates, not a preoccupation with family life–because married life is in and of itself eminently Christian–but with carnal desires and lust. Put differently, and less specific, what causes the invited guests to reject the invitation are various expressions of materialism. Corrupted passions and warped priorities are the root of the explanation for why these invited guests turned away the servants when they came to inform them that the supper is ready; that preparation is complete and, in the words of Christ on the cross, it is finished (John 19:30).
Friends, nothing in this parable is specific to the Israelites. This is not merely a historical anecdote about other people long ago and far away. This is an ongoing spiritual truth for those who profess to persevere with God; for those who have received the invitation to the supper. Just as the prophecies and the promises belonged to the faithful among the Israelites, and to them only, so too do the prophecies and promises belong to the faithful among the Christ followers, and to them only. We are the branches grafted onto the Israelite tree planted by God; a tree has the roots that ground us and through which we receive the nourishment necessary for survival and growth. We are neither better, smarter or more sophisticated than the Israelites. Therefore, friends, are we called to pause and ask ourselves, holding up this parable as a mirror before our faces: is all this spiritual toil of ours really leading us towards that blessed goal of redemption and reconciliation. Let us not run aimlessly or box as one beating the air (1 Cor 9:26) as St Paul writes to the Corinthians.
In his letter to the Philippians, St Paul laments the many Christians of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Phil 3:18, 19). Does this not sound exactly like those three men in the parable, who reject the invitation because of sinful passions and materialism? St Paul talks about the necessity of a living faith, and tells us that to keep that living faith is a struggle. There is no hint anywhere in Scripture that there is anything easy or guaranteed about salvation. That notion, so common today within evangelical Christianity, that salvation is like a spiritual vaccine–one shot and your done–is simply not scriptural. In his letters, St Paul tells us repeatedly of living Christianity as an ongoing struggle. So are we truly struggling? Is our spiritual toil and our belief leading us to reconciliation, or to self-righteousness? Does the Word stir us to action or sooth our egos? Are we on the right path forward? I don’t mean we as ‘the Church,’ but we as individuals confessing the faith of the Church—are we serious about this confession and all its implications or are we, like the Israelites, getting too comfortable?
God’s holy prophet Jeremiah was sent to prophesy against Jerusalem. As the nation of Israel wallowed in sin and selfishness, Jeremiah warned them: Thus says the LORD: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to listen to the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently, though you have not listened, then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth (Jer 26:4-6). Repent and serve the Lord. That’s it. God tells his people to straighten up and fly right, and he does so out of love; the everlasting, tender love of a parent who, with the heart of a father and a mother, seeks nothing but blessings for his children.
But the reaction against Jeremiah was what? They wanted to put him to death. Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, This man deserves the sentence of death, because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears (Jer 26:11). The priests and the prophets in Jerusalem itself, the servants at the Holy of Holies wanted to have the messenger of God killed. Small wonder then, that Jesus underscores the wickedness of the chosen people by referring to Jerusalem, the holy place were God dwelled, as the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it (Luke 13:34). He does so shortly before offering the parable that is today’s Gospel reading.
Again, these are not mere historical anecdotes about other people long ago and far away, but an ongoing spiritual truth for those who profess to walk with God. We get comfortable in church. This is a fact. Tradition and liturgy gives stability to our lives. Church attendance provides a nice frame. We are told form the pulpit that God loves us, that the Church to which we belong is the mystical body of Christ, and so on and so forth. Soothing and stabilizing, lovely and comfortable. So the question remains: am I ready to respond to the servants when they bring that message that the supper is on? Am I content simply with being chosen, or am I eager for that for which I have been chosen—discipleship?
Let’s not kid ourselves that living Christianity, persevering with God, is easier today than it was for the Israelites of old. We live in a world that constantly hammers home the point that material possessions are the be all and end all of life. Where everything seems to be about prestige, power and lust. Where greed is good and the most important benchmark for success is to be more successful than the neighbor. In a world where our churches are teeming with priests and priestesses who accept, condone, encourage and engage in activities and lifestyles that are contrary to God’s will and unworthy of those chosen to sit at the table of the Lord. In a world where many church leaders lack the moral fiber to say no to that which is contrary to the faith, while clergy and laity who do say no find themselves shunned or even sued by the very churches to which they belong. In a world where life is grand for the superficial Christian who contents himself with dead faith, but hard and perilous for those who wish to follow Christ in the footsteps of the apostles. In this world, in these surroundings, are we able to say ‘yes’ without reservation, to the invitation?
As we ask ourselves these questions, let us remember that we already have the invitation. By grace are we chosen, and by grace are we able to persevere with God, guided by His holy Word and trusting in His love and mercy. With a living faith in our hearts, a living and life-giving passion that is divine love and love of the divine, we can steer clear of the pitfalls and run the race to the end. St Peter writes, He has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were no people, but now you are a people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pet 2:9b-10).
May the Lord continue to have mercy on us. Amen.