Sermons That Work

These Words Sound…, Epiphany 3 (B) – 1997

February 02, 1997

1 Corinthians 7:17 & 20

“…let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you.” “…Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.”

These words sound very strange to us in a culture where all the pressure is on self-improvement whether in body or mind or job. We are part of a society which is struggling hard to continue to be upwardly mobile. The newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and radio programs all are paid for by advertising which is constantly pushing us to bigger and better cars, bodies and families. No matter where we turn our culture is constantly after us to change, to get the newest, to “get with it,” to “live up to our potential.” Yet here, St. Paul is clearly saying that we don’t need to better our condition, we don’t need to conform to the social and cultural pressures to be “with it.” Most of us look at this passage and either say “Well, that doesn’t apply any more,” about being circumcised or not, or we will say that Paul cannot possibly mean that we shouldn’t fight against slavery in whatever form we find it. He is using illustrations of his time and society. Remember that some of the formerly Jewish Christians were insisting that gentile men had to be circumcised in order to become Christians. They wanted to keep the old Law, the old way of marking the separateness of the people of God. And also remember that St. Paul expected Christ to return during his own life time at this point. Only as time went on did St. Paul begin to understand that the Second Coming might not be immediate. So slavery or freedom was to be a short term issue, not a condition which would last.

Two thousand years later, our society and culture are vastly different from the Apostolic world to which St. Paul wrote, but many of the issues are the same. There are still many who try to force others to conform to their way of being Christian. Whether from the theological right or the theological left there are still those who want to insist that you and I be like them if they are to accept us as Christians. Sometimes this takes the form of insisting that we obey the Pope, or a literally-interpreted Bible. Sometimes it takes the form of insisting that we follow “Christian” standards in politics or business or our family life. Always, however, people with this kind of attitude of mind and heart want to define for us, as well as themselves, what is “Christian.” If we aren’t “circumcised” we can’t possibly be Christian.

But, we also do this same sort of thing to ourselves, without ever really being aware of it. We have all grown up with some sort of picture in our minds which tells us whether or not something we think or do is “Christian” or not. We may have consciously rejected that “picture,” but very frequently it continues to function on a subconscious level. This can be a real stumbling block for us in our life in the faith, whether we have stayed in the church, or whether we dropped out and have returned. Let’s look at a couple of places where this can happen to us.

Many of us have tried and frequently failed to improve our “spiritual life,” our “prayer life,” and our reading of the Bible. It seems to me, that most frequently we fail because we demand too much of ourselves. We seem to feel that somehow, we ought to be able to pray and meditate and regularly read the Bible because that is what “Christians” do. We forget that we have to learn to do all of these things. One of the great geniuses of the Western Church was St. Benedict of Nursia, the author of the “Rule of St. Benedict” and the founder of the Benedictine monastic movement. From the beginning of the Rule to the end, Benedict reminds us that we are just normal people trying to obey God’s call. Most of us can only do this slowly and stumblingly. We are not spiritual giants, but God’s children seeking to follow Christ. Our prayer is not to be elaborate or long, or accomplished. It is to be short, sincere, and heart- felt. Remember when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, what He gave us is very straight forward, simple, and direct. It begins by addressing the Eternal and Absolute Creator God with the familiar name “Our Father” and it stays on that level throughout. We have been given the privilege of addressing God familiarly as who we are. We don’t have to match any standard of “Christian” behavior or understanding in order to approach God. We do not have to be anything other than our real selves, warts and all. But that is who we must be, for the God we approach knows us inside out. Whether we admit it or not, He knows us more truly than we know ourselves. It does not matter whether we match someone else’s standard of Christian faith or not, it only matters whether or not we are honest with Him. We may still be “slaves” to some habit, we may not yet have learned how to pray except haltingly, we may be unsure of our faith, He has opened the Way for us to turn to Him. As St. Paul reminds us elsewhere, “He died for us while we were yet sinners.”

What is important about the words with which we began is the fact that God does not demand of us that we be something other, something “better” than we really are whenever we turn back to Him and seek to follow His Way. Only our false pride demands of us that we be “worthy” of receiving the sacraments. None of us can possibly be “worthy,” we can only be grateful and honest in accepting our need for His Grace and His guidance. We can only start where we are, and we can only grow in grace as we maintain our honesty with Him.

One of the best ways we can find for learning how honest we must be with God and ourselves, is the regular reciting of the Psalms. St. Benedict built the whole pattern of the Rule around the regular reciting of the Psalms for the simple reason that they teach us more about the reality of human nature, warts and all, than any other single part of the Scriptures. Parts of some of them make us blanch before the bitterness and rage they display, along with their occasional prejudice against other nations and peoples. They are not all pleasant and pious and devout, indeed they are sometimes almost violently self-righteous, but they are all honest before God and they can lead us to be honest about our prejudices, our angers, our “dislike of the unlike,” for they make clear the fact that God already knows everything about us and still loves us and calls us to follow Him.

We are all called to be saints, but the church is a “hospital for sinner not a hotel for saints.” We are only on the way to being “saints,” and the only way to that goal is the way of the Cross. The way of absolute honesty with ourselves before God, the way of learning daily from Him, of starting over every time we fail, of being willing to accept the fact that sometimes our prayer seems to be only rote repetition, to have no “feeling” or “spiritually” in it. Or being willing to accept ourselves as we are, not as we want to be, as He accepts us as we are in order to thus become what He has created us to be. The willingness to “lead the life…to which God has called (us)” begins with the willingness to know where we are and therefore where we are to live out our faith and our way of the Cross. Very few of us are called to live the Rule of St. Benedict in a Benedictine house, all of us are called to strive day by day to live with one another with the same kind of charity, respect for others, and concern for others which shows so clearly in the Rule. All are called to spend time in prayer, in study of Scripture, and in the service of others. All of us are called to worship God in the liturgy and to respect His whole creation as we respect the vessels of the Altar. To treat the tools and materials of our lives as being as valuable in their own way as are the chalice and paten.

We are all called to begin where we are, to recognize our reality, and to seek to “grow in grace as (we) grow in age,” to be sinners on the way to being saints. Demanding of ourselves or of others that we somehow jump from the reality of our everyday, distracted, over busy lives into being able to always be aware that the stranger we are dealing with may well be Christ, is to set up ourselves or the other for failure. We learn to pray by praying, even when we do it badly, only with practice will we get better at it. We walk the way of the Cross stumbling along it, only with practice will we come to begin to be able to walk with Him, to see others through His eyes, to care for others with His love. Only as we really begin to practice living with Him in all of our lives, will we really be able to learn how deep and complete His love is and only then can we really begin to love ourselves and others. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that these two loves are so intimately a part of each other, that there is no way of separating them, any more than there is a way of separating our forgiveness and our forgiving of others. It is only on this level of day by day reality, this level of honesty with ourselves and Him that we can either begin to follow or continue to follow in the footsteps of the Master.

“Living the life to which God has called (us)” does not mean staying where we are either spiritually or practically. It means starting where we are and finding the way He calls us to. It means not getting lost in the pressures, and attractions, and problems of the world. It means not accepting the standards of the world and even sometimes not accepting the standards of our past or others about what it is to be “Christian.” It means seeking to find our way to answer the call of our Lord Jesus Christ to follow Him and to show forth in our lives our proclamation of the glory of His marvelous works, not in word but in deed. And none of this can happen without first being totally honest with Him and ourselves about who and where we are in our lives. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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