I did mean to post Sunday’s sermon yesterday; I just ended up in two committee meetings that ran much longer than I expected, and then after I strolled home and made dinner I remembered that I was supposed to go to the Monday evening Bible Study at the cathedral, so I dropped everything and dashed to church. By the time I got back and chatted with Margaret, I just wanted to go to bed.
It’s now only a few days till Margaret will arrive. I need a sermon for Sunday, and I have a series of administrative obligations to fulfil this week, and I haven’t even opened the file for my James commentary for two weeks (augh!), and I need to clean house for Margaret’s arrival — but the weather is lovely, I’m gratified that my colleagues respect and trust me with responsibility after so short a time in this new system, and above all, I’ll be together with Margaret in less than a week!
Sermon in the “more” link below, or you can watch the video over at St Mary’s.
29 August, 2010
Jer 2:4-13/Heb 13:1-8, 15-16/Lk 14:1, 7-14
St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow
We can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper;
I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes when we church people argue about the Bible, we start talking about whether we or those other folks believe the Bible literally — literally or figuratively or inerrantly or not a jolly bit. In this respect, our fights resemble other conflicts we might see within families, or at workplaces, or among teammates: although we seem to be arguing about one topic, there’s always another irritant bothering us even more. We argue that way perhaps because we don’t have a clear perspective on the ourselves; that’s true often enough. Maybe the background conflict is too dangerous, too sensitive, for us to bring to the surface; we see that frequently when couples are rowing, when the apparent argument conceals other deeper, scarier fears. “Why don’t you help with the washing-up?” sounds safer than “Do you really love me at all any more?” And sometimes certain arguments are handed to us on a silver platter, such that it doesn’t occur to anyone to wonder whether we ought to look for a different, deeper explanation that might lead more promptly toward mutual understanding and reconciliation. Sometimes we just want to fight, just want to find someone to put the boot in.
“What Scripture literally means” has become one of those surface arguments that no longer gets at the roots of our differences. When we argue that people in the next parish, or diocese, or province, ought to adhere to what Scripture literally means, or what it plainly says, we’re neglecting the fact that if it were so obvious what Scripture meant, our neighbours wouldn’t be arguing with us. When we cling to literal-or-not, we’re sticking with the surface, “Who does the washing-up” rather than opening up the dangerous “Do you still love me?”
Take this morning’s lessons: in the epistle, we heard “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled.” That’s probably clear to most of us; people who commit themselves to one another oughtn’t to dally with somebody else. If an acrobatic philanderer told us, “Well, literally, we were caressing on the couch, so the marriage bed is still undefiled,” we would not be impressed by his literal exegesis of the verse — not even an avowed literalist would want to excuse an adulterer on that basis. But when, on the other hand, Jesus tell us to clothe the naked and feed the hungry, even the most loose-jointed liberal metaphorical reader will recognise that Jesus would like us to. . . ummm. . . clothe the naked and feed the hungry.
Likewise in the gospel lesson for this morning: When Jesus says, “When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place,” he doesn’t intend that we form a scrum and wrestle to see who gets the chair furthest from our host (still less, that he wants us to seek what is literally the lowest chair). “I’ll sit in the kitchen, my lord.” “Well then I’ll sit out in the close.” Nor does Jesus mean to forbid us ever to dine with friends or family; the literal sense of these sayings doesn’t convey what Jesus wants from us (something to the effect that we ought not allow our sisters and brothers to sleep rough and go hungry when we have room enough and food enough to sustain them). It’s a distraction from the more challenging, less comfortable, scarier point that Jesus does want us to observe.
Since people define “literal” differently depending on whether they want to apply it to themselves or to others, whether they want to boast about it as their own special virtue or to deride it as their opponents’ special vice, we do better to set that question aside and see whether there is a shape of life that fits what Scripture demands of us — and see how well we fulfil those requirements. Or as the Epistle to the Hebrews urges us, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” The faith of our heroes is not something we can reenact literally; it requires that we immerse ourselves in the goodness of their ways of life, and soak in from them their wholehearted allegiance to God and to God’s ways. We imitate their faith by ordering our lives in ways that make their influence over us visible, audible, tangible. We preserve their memory not just as a gauzy abstracted notion, but in our very bodies as we embody the way of life that they taught us.
By following the examples of the saints who handed the gospel down to us, we come back to the specific instructions that God gives us, the instructions by which the saints lived. When the epistle urges us to hold marriage in honour, we actually understand more about how we should behave than we would if we had a list of instructions about where, when, and with whom we might join in intimate embraces. If we depend on a catalogue of specific dos and don’ts, we make ourselves captive to principles that can never enumerate all possible circumstances. We draw out that thin line between licit and illicit, and then we tangle ourselves up in it. Yet in Christ, we have been set free from bondage to a rulebook, from the knots and snares of the dividing line; if we are living in the Spirit, we need not litany of sins because we have shed the desire for anything that draws us away from God. As we sang on our first hymn this morning,
His desire our soul delighteth,
pleasure leads us where we go.
In other words, by following the good examples set for us by the saints who guard us from the tops of these pillars, by the apostles who gaze at us from our stained-glass windows, by our own patroness the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary and by our Lord Jesus Christ himself, we live not according to an exhaustive set of instructions — literally — but by the grace that enables us to shape our lives for holiness. And we demonstrate this grace specifically in such behaviour as the epistle commends to us. We shelter and nourish strangers not because we know in advance that they’re good people who deserve a decent meal and a restful night; we offer food and shelter because whether our visitors deserve it or not, grace moves us to show them hospitality just as God offers us protection and nourishment, forgiveness and blessing regardless of our deserving. We remember the prisoners in Barlinnie not because we think they were unjustly convicted and deserve release, but because none of us is guiltless, and yet God sets us free. We extend ourselves on behalf of those being tortured not because we know that they have no secret plan to cause us harm; rather, we identify with the victims of torture because we harbour shameful secrets, and yet God welcomes us and heals us. As recipients of a grace that abounds beyond our capacity to understand, we display God’s ways to the world by living in a world of grace, offering grace to our neighbours, giving daily thanks for gifts that far outstrip anything we might deserve.
And for those who worry — with some reason — that living by grace can become a bolt-hole through which we return to ways of sinful self-indulgence, we notice a peculiar thing about the saints whom we follow: although the apostles urge us to live by the Holy Spirit, to permit our reliance on the Law to fall by the wayside, yet our exemplary teachers do not characteristically recommend any course of action that contravenes the Law. This morning’s epistle lesson doesn’t say, “We’re through with the Law, so hold an orgy,” or “That rascal cut you off on the M8, so run her off the road!” It says, “Live without greed, share what you have.” Against such things, as Paul says, there is no Law. In keeping with Jesus’ teaching in his great Sermon, life in the Spirit directs us away from even approaching transgression; for the desire to live literally, to adhere to unshakeable rules with which we can bludgeon our undeserving neighbour, the desire to seek loopholes, to evade God’s way of holy discipleship, all of this partakes of the attitude Jeremiah denounces in his prophecy this morning: going after worthless things and making ourselves worthless, defiling the good and plenteous land God has given us, indulging ourselves instead of turning to God, ignoring justice to serve instead our own interests.
We may always choose to turn away from grace and live in a world of fear and mistrust, calculating who is literally good enough to earn our approbation. We may align ourselves with the locks and chains that protect us from that sort of person. We may try to reserve the best seats at Christ’s feast for the deserving people, and banish those who aren’t like us to the lowest, least honourable place. But with each such step, our determination to exercise judgment on God’s behalf, our fixation on superficially hashing out who does the correct share of the washing-up, prevents us from hearing that we are truly, deeply, eternally beloved — and thereby we set ourselves further from the loving God of holiness and grace. If we allow ourselves to step away from dependence on the literal, on percentages of washing-up time — if we allow Christ to set us free from childish waywardness and our adolescent need for rules and control — we can step forward as heirs of God’s kingdom, radiant in the image of God’s grace, and we can indeed say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”