PENTECOST 9 2019
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts always be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Isaiah the great prophet was speaking to the people of Israel in a situation very different from Hosea’s time. The difference is overwhelming. Last week we heard that intimate and tender moment of seeing God as a young parent, bending over, picking up her or his little child simply to kiss the child on the cheek. How delightful!
This week Isaiah blasts off with: “I’ve had enough of you and your burnt offerings. What good do they do me? I don’t need them; I don’t want them and especially since they make you feel so totally pious and self-righteous. Don’t you realize I know how you lie and cheat and steal and gossip and slander? You are not confessing to me that you have come to a realization of what you are doing and how much harm you are causing, how much you are dividing our society, how much you are using others. You are not repenting and trying to make amends and trying to reform yourselves. All you are doing with these elaborate sacrifices is trying to bribe me so that I won’t take notice or will let you off the hook.
When you stretch out your hands to beg for even more, I won’t listen to you. Your prayers are all about yourselves; you never pray for anyone else, and that kind of selfishness and self-centeredness is not becoming to you. It is more than a disappointment to me. When you add hypocrisy to your greed, it is ugly; it is vulgar; it is shameful and disgusting.
Again, God reminds them: You know what I want: Clean up your act, both outside and inside and I’ll recognize it when I see you doing good–seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow, (to which we might add) and the strangers among you. And since we today live in a time of cumulative damage to the environment, not thought of in Isaiah’s day, we need to add caring for the environment.
There we have it: the core of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Notice that it is not a code of rules. It is not a set of principles. It is the journey of falling in love with the world and those who surround us, risking empathy and compassion and learning how to serve with mercy. This is summed up in the refrain of that wonderful Ghanaian hymn, “Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.” [602, Hymnal 1982]
Through Isaiah God invites us: “Let us argue it out.” If you think there is a better way to undergird and surround human society with health rather than division, I want to hear it. Well, who among us want to argue with the omnipotent, omniscient and overwhelming presence we know God to be? I can think of a few, but perhaps they don’t see God as I do, this loving energy of creativity and blessing Who is omnipresent when we open the eyes of our minds and hearts to see.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is trying to describe this way of living as faith, and he does not imply wishful thinking or pollyannish optimism. He writes: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” As one of my mentors said in a sermon many years ago, this is a reversal of the old adage “seeing is believing.” It is, rather, “believing is seeing.”
The writer uses Israel’s ancestors and particularly Abraham as examples, but my favorite is Moses when he goes up the mountain and encounters God in the burning bush. God gives Moses his mission for, with, and on behalf of the enslaved people of Israel. “How will I know this is real,” Moses asks. In other words, “Give me a sign.” And God says, “You’ll know it is true when you again worship me on this mountain.” Way to go, God! What kind of a sign is that? I want the sign first, not after we’ve lived through all the dangers between now and then. We all want the sign first, don’t we, but as we just heard, “…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Jesus speaks from just that experience. Even though he has already been rejected by some, scorned by many, verbally attacked by still others, and even though some have already tried to kill him, he still speaks with “the conviction of things not seen.”
“Do not be afraid, little flock.” Jesus acknowledges their smallness in the world, their smallness even among the people of Israel, yet he encourages them to live liberally and generously. The Way of Jesus, or “the Jesus Movement,” as our Presiding Bishop calls it, is characterized by the liberality of love. We did not earn the love God gives us, so how can we expect others to earn love from us? That is much different from earning trust. It seems to me that our human nature is such that we can love without trusting, but we cannot trust without having love.
Jesus gives them an image of making for themselves “an unfailing treasure in heaven.” By “unfailing” I think he means two things: 1) that this treasure will never run out like money in the bank does when we live recklessly, in fact the more we practice loving the more we have to give away; and 2) that this treasure cannot be taken away, because it is the reality of an internal place where heaven and earth are joined, that place called faith and sometimes hope. The promise is that we are going to inherit the kingdom, so what else is there to worry about?
Jesus concludes with the statement, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” We so often hear that the other way around: where your heart is, there will your treasure be. That does describe much of our charitable giving, doesn’t it? Think of “heart” here as “love” or “loving” and “treasure” as “faith” or “faithing” (to use it as an active verb). Think of music, if that is our primary passion, our love. If our heart is in music we shall have the faith (the active means) to support music with our contributions to the symphony, classical radio, the choir, schools of music, and so on. We do the same thing with all kinds of important things: art, education, medical research, micro-loans to third world people, food banks, shelters, animal care and welfare, the environment—you know the list. You probably give to as many as or more of them than I do. That kind of giving comes from the heart and is manifest in a check or a money transfer.
Now what if our treasure is “faith” in itself, or “hope” in itself? Then we are inspired to invest our very selves: body, mind and soul in order to bring about the fruits of faith and hope for others around us or those who come after us. I certainly want our grandchildren’s grandchildren to hear the Gospel preached in this place and lived out in grace and mercy.
When “faith” is our treasure, we make the investment first so that our very hearts may grow into wholeness. This is why I give to the Church and some other bodies that exist to convert us from narrowness and selfishness and inspire us to gratitude and generosity.
I want to share something personal, not intending to boast, but to indicate how much I believe this, that whenever I talk about money I come from a place that is honest and real and true. St. Paul asks, “How do you account for the hope that is in you?” That is what I want to share. For many years I have given away well over a tenth of my income before taxes, a full tithe and more to the Church as a whole, and the rest to many other organizations that serve well in our larger society. I do this because I want God to stretch my heart into loving more. And I still go to church, even though I am retired and could anonymously get away without doing so. I go to church because I am as prone as anyone else to fall into judging people, becoming annoyed with others, finding shreds of prejudice within myself that I thought I had purged or given away, or holding a grudge for some slight. I go to church every week because when I look around I notice that some of my fellow parishioners have gotten on my last nerve and I have held onto something against someone else in such a way that I have again become enslaved to some unhealth or ill health. So I come to hear the words and the Word, and I hear grace in the word and absolution and blessing. And, most of all I receive that wonderful gift of Jesus Himself in bread and wine, Body and Blood. He gave that to us and named it as Himself; and He gave Himself for us that we may be free.
I am free again. You are free again.
+James L. Jelinek, Trinity, Newport