Sunday, August 9, 2009

Pentecost 10 (proper 14), Year B, Sunday August 9, 2009

2 Sam 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

I once met a Zoroastrian priest who explained to me the basics of the Zoroastrian religion. It’s a very ancient tradition that follows the teachings of Zoroaster, who lived in ancient Persia anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 years ago. Today, we mostly think of Zoroastrians as “fire worshippers”, but this priest explained that they don’t worship the eternal fire itself. The fire for them symbolizes goodness and purity, which is the focus of their worship. The light of the fire, or of the sun, or any other light, is a reminder to them to turn towards good rather than evil. The core teachings of Zoroaster were to have “good thoughts, good words, and good actions”.

This sounds a bit like our collect for today, in which we prayed to be given “the spirit to think and do always such things as are right”. It also is similar to a verse in our reading from the Epistle to the Ephesians: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another…”

There is much to learn in the moral and spiritual teachings of world religions. I think we could safely say that something like these basic teachings of “good thoughts, good words, and good actions” can be found somewhere in the teachings of any of these traditions. For example, Buddhism teaches generosity, loving-kindness towards all creatures, humility, non-attachment to possessions, and selfless service to others. Judaism’s earliest teachings are found in the 10 commandments, especially loving God, honoring parents, and respecting others’ property. In Islam, believers are taught to worship only one God, submission to God’s will, mindfulness of God, just actions towards others, and generosity to the poor.

So also in Christianity, Jesus taught about the good things we should do, and good thoughts we should have, and good relationships that we should maintain. Unfortunately, such fine teachings alone are often not enough, and it can be a constant struggle to live up to them.

There is a Greek myth about a man named Sisyphus, who did many wicked things in his life. His greatest sin, in the eyes of the Greek gods, was that he was arrogant and he pointed out the sins of the gods themselves! His punishment was the ultimate in frustration: he was to roll a great stone up to the top of a mountain, and not to stop until he had reached the top. The problem was that each time he pushed the rock up, the mountain got steeper and steeper, and he would eventually lose his footing and his grip on the rock, and it would roll back down to the bottom of the hill. Then, he would go back to the bottom of the hill and start rolling the rock up the mountain, all over again, for all eternity.

Trying to live always in love can be just about as frustrating as a Sisyphean task! We may also slip and slide and sometimes crash. But, we are not on our own, as Sisyphus was. We have a unique and sacred gift in our Christian faith, as we hear in the conclusion of this verse from the Epistle to the Ephesians: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another,… and live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”

The message of the Gospel was something entirely new in the ancient world, and Paul found that it was “foolishness” and a “stumbling block” (1 Cor 1:23) to the Jews and Gentiles who first heard it. On his missionary journeys, Paul could have taken the easy way out, and just preached about the teachings of Jesus. That would have been revolutionary enough, since Jesus always set a higher standard than anyone had ever heard before. It was customary for him to say, “You have been taught such and such, but I say – go even farther; you can even become perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. (Matt 5:48) Paul could have just presented this new set of teachings from the Rabbi Jesus, and that would have been challenging enough.

If he and the other early disciples had only done that much, I doubt we would be here today and I doubt there would be a Christian Church. Instead of taking the easy route, Paul preached about the resurrection. He preached that belief in the power of the risen Christ would open up the way to transformation in God’s love. He and the other earliest believers in Christ told of this new way of living in love and walking with God. Some believed, and some didn’t. For those who did believe and who did begin to follow Christ, this new message of God’s love, and forgiveness, and grace was so powerful that it completely transformed their lives and their communities.

If only Sisyphus had heard the Gospel. He could have experienced the forgiveness of God’s grace, and release from his sentence. The rock and the mountain would no longer have bound him. He could have walked away into the new creation and into eternal salvation.

As Christians and Episcopalians today, we too could take the easy route. We could try to reach the unchurched and try to be relevant to secular society with an easy message. In my humble opinion, if we only talk about how to be good people, we lose the very power of the Christian message. We lose the opportunity to introduce others to the risen Christ and by so doing, experience more and more deeply our own transformation by the power of the cross. As we live into this new life and new creation we may then be led to love God more fully, to love our neighbors in more generous ways, and most often to choose a compassionate way. When we do slip, we can return and accept the forgiveness and embrace of an ever-loving God.

I’ve never seen it, but I hear that in some Christian churches there is an impassioned sermon to accept Jesus Christ as Savior and then an altar call for those who are ready to be saved and make a public commitment to Christ. We Episcopalians are not quite so demonstrative and emotional, but we do have our own restrained style of altar call. Our altar call starts with the words, “The gifts of God for the people of God”.

With these words, all baptized Christians are invited to come forward, to the altar, to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation. The Eucharist of bread and wine is both a reminder of the gift of salvation and also to us a sacrament, which makes real for us the self-giving love of Christ. We are reminded in this sacrament that “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” in the healing grace and redeeming love of our Savior. Thanks be to God.

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