Sunday, November 8, 2020

23 Pentecost, 20-A: Purity and purpose 

Lectionary: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13 

En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

In our Collect today, we affirmed that Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, then we asked God to grant us the hope to purify ourselves as he is pure. I wish we could talk together so I could ask you what you make of this prayer. There are two terms in it that stood out for me as a priest and pastor: the devil, and purity. My experience is they are often misunderstood and certainly misapplied, so let’s discuss them. 

The devil is a persona that has evolved over the centuries and the meaning today is radically different from the biblical understanding. Remember that Jesus said to Peter, get behind me satán. Satán, however, is not a proper noun but a descriptor - and it means tempter, distractor from the path of the will of God. By loving Jesus and wanting to protect him from the fate that awaited, Peter (the video mistakenly says, Jesus here - sorry!) became satán to Jesus. 

The lesson is, we all can - even when we are acting out of love. To purify ourselves then, we must return to the path of the will of God. That’s it. That’s what purity of heart is, biblically speaking, and this connects us to the gospel parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.

This is a hard parable to understand. As we know by now, parables are meant to wake us up, shake us up, and cast out our certainty like a rock thrown into a lake, leaving us standing there watching the ripples flow out into the still water wondering what just happened.

As I stood prayerfully on that proverbial lakeshore watching the ripples, I saw the church, the body of Christ in general, and Calvary in particular. Suddenly I understood that the wise bridesmaids are those who know their own divine purpose, the divine purpose of their vessel and how to use it, keeping them on the path of the will of God.

In the parable, the bridesmaids have a purpose - they are to serve the bridegroom who is coming by lighting his path using their lamps. The wise ones knew what they would need to take with them because they understood their own purpose and the purpose of the lamp.

The foolish ones brought their lamps, but no oil. You can almost see the meme for this: You had one job!

The lamp is an empty, useless vessel without the stewardship of the bridesmaids. This is a powerful wake-up, shake-up kind of moment for those of us who are the church. Our church buildings are our lamps - the means by which we shine the light of Christ in the world. They have a purpose, but without our stewardship, they are useless vessels.

Our stewardship, however, isn’t as simple as weekly attendance, participation in ministry, or annual pledging, although those are important. Our stewardship includes an understanding of our divine purpose as the body of Christ in this time and place and how God is calling us to serve. Our beautiful building is the vessel of our community. It is at once the repository of the many resources God has given us and the vessel from which we serve in our corner of God’s kingdom. It’s our home base but it is a useless vessel without our stewardship.

Another lesson we have been blessed to learn during this pandemic is that our buildings offer us support but are not the source of our identity or our worship. We have been set free from that certainty and our building can now reclaim its rightful spot as a tool, a vessel for the accomplishment of our service to God and God’s people. 

The source of our identity is Jesus Christ and he is not constrained by a pandemic or inhibited by an election. Therefore, neither are we.

On Wednesday morning, the day after the election, as I was praying, I heard the wisdom of God speak to me. I was praying out of habit and with a hope that I might not get caught up in the anger and contempt that is peddled in so much discourse right now.

I was brought to remember a Jewish midrash story I heard years ago in a religion class I took in undergrad at Rutgers about the parting of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus. According to the midrash, when Moses and the Israelites got to the other side and watched the sea crash in on the Egyptians, killing them, they rejoiced in their salvation at the hand of God. But God admonished them saying, ‘There is no reason to rejoice! Those now dead beneath the Red Sea waters are my children too.”

The church is not concerned with who sits at the Resolute Desk in the White House. We are concerned with the suffering of our neighbors, many of whom are truly and deeply suffering. Many were suffering before the election and many will suffer as a result of it. How do we serve them - all of them? 

The church is concerned with noticing evil, that is, whatever divides us or causes pain, sadness or undue burden or whenever someone is excluded or disrespected. Wherever we discern evil, the church’s mission is reconciliation.

As the Episcopalians, our identity is Via Media, the middle way, established by Elizabeth I in order to stop the killing of Protestants by Catholics, and Catholics by Protestants during the Reformation Era. We are all English, she said, and we must find a way to live together in peace.

To accomplish that, Elizabeth commissioned a team of theologians, writers, and poets, led by Thomas Cranmer to produce a book of worship that would spiritually feed the Catholics and Protestants among her people. Our Book of Common Prayer has its roots there and remains the symbol of our unity today. We do not seek uniformity of doctrine but unity in prayer.

Whatever differences our diversity raises up among us, we are made one body, one spirit when we pray and worship together. As priest and theologian Henri Nouwen says, “Every time we encounter one another we are offered an occasion to encounter the sacred.”

A bond of relationship builds over time enabling us to discern the path of the will of God in our time and live it together, in all our diversity, in the name of God and for the sake of God’s people and creation. One simple but stunning illustration of that is our habit of praying the Lord’s prayer together where we proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. Whether we’re talking about the pandemic, the election, the persistent, destructive malignancy of racism, and the other -isms that divide us, we count on God delivering us from these evils. We repeat this prayer often to remind ourselves of God’s redeeming love so that we aren’t led into the temptation to despair or abandon hope while God acts to redeem - and God is always acting to redeem.

We, as Calvary Church and individually as members of it, are the means by which the light of Christ shines in the world, in downtown Columbia, today. We, in all of our diversity, frailty, and wisdom have a purpose: to radiate with the light and the truth that we all are beloved children of a loving God. All of us.

The church, our church, is a place where the truth of everyone’s belovedness is intentionally and counter-culturally lived out. When the world blames and excludes someone for being poor and hungry, we welcome them into our midst and feed them. When the world derides someone for whom they love, we celebrate that God is the author of all love. 

 Our church’s divine purpose is to shine the light of the truth of everyone’s belovedness until everyone believes it… and lives it… and glorifies God for it. 

I close with a prayer from Bishop Steven Charleston, retired bishop of Alaska, and a member of the Choctaw nation: “Give your heart to love today, not to old thoughts of who you were, but to the new idea that your kindness could change another life. Give your mind to hope today, not to the usual list of impossibilities, but to a single faith that goodness is the purpose of history. Give your spirit to peace today, not to the anger of the moment, but to the welcoming road of grace that leads to the home for which you have longed. Give your hands to the work of justice today, not in resignation but in certainty, knowing that what you do will make an enormous difference.” Amen.

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