Sermons That Work

These Days the Idea…, Proper 17 (C) – 2004

August 29, 2004

These days the idea of “centering” ourselves—our spiritual life, our prayer, the way we live our lives—has become a popular concern. People join helpful groups and learn to meditate; they learn to remove from their consciousness everything that is not helpful to the ultimate goal of touching at least the edges of the eternal. People who thought they understood prayer relearn the discipline and try to cleanse their practice of the ultimate selfishness of endless catalogs of “give me” and “help-me-to.” Certainly there is no harm in these activities, and they may have in them the germ of something quite positive. But as we move through Pentecost, this long season that is in many ways a preparation for learning to live the Christian life in our own world, in the here and now, there are many strong suggestions about what we must do to understand, to get in touch—both with ourselves and with our Lord.

Today’s Gospel, a discussion of humility and hospitality, sounds one of the key warnings of the Christian spiritual life: the margins, the lines of demarcation of the pecking order, have disappeared. You will give your place to the least of your brothers and sisters. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted..”

Wonderful words but certainly not easy to follow. However, as we have reminded ourselves throughout Pentecost, in embracing the faith, we have become new people of whom much is expected. And because we are new people, we must build new identities in Christ. We have been promised that when we open our hearts to the least of our brothers and sisters, when we invite all to the banquet, and we will be “repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

There is great hope in the passage in our New Testament lesson for today: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Is there any need for much more information than this?

And that is a good question to ask ourselves. Our task, our goal, as Christians, is to center ourselves in our new identity, to understand who we are and where we are, and what our goal in life is to be. And since we are to be a new people, this is a formidable task, since the old “us,” is to be left behind and the new “us” is to move forward.

In a very basic, simple way, finding our path as Christians is a matter of taking inventory, of taking stock of where and who we are. How do we fulfill the promises of our faith? What do we owe ourselves, what do we owe to our Lord, what do we owe to each other—not necessarily in that order?

Pentecost is indeed a time of asking questions. It is also a time of taking up the burdens and responsibilities of our faith. We are not asked to do it all at once, but we are given the opportunity of dealing with it in stages. The great Spanish saint, Teresa of Avila, neither an “easy” saint or an “easy” Christian, had this to say about the role of the people of God in the world—and let it be our prayer, too:

You Are Christ’s Hands

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which is to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless
men now.

In other words, the responsibility for our redemption and that of our sisters and brothers in the world is ours, We are charged with taking up the meaning of our faith and carrying it beyond where we are to where we might be. Ours is not to be a passive role but an active one, and we are to take stock of ourselves, in Pentecost and beyond, in order to move forward. Our role as believing Christians is to carry our faith forward and to meet the future with open eyes and hearts. Yes, we will receive help and support in our journey, but we are the ones who must take the first and, perhaps painful steps, because that is the essence of what our faith requires us to do.

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Christopher Sikkema


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