In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning, St. Matthew’s! Today is my son, Spencer’s birthday. When I told him I was preaching on his birthday, he offered me this advise. He said, “Dad, a rule of thumb for preachers is this: If after ten minutes you haven’t struck oil, stop boring!” Let us pray that I hit oil…
What’s the Human Condition?
In today’s OT and gospel lessons we are reminded of a tragic aspect of our human condition—our tendency to put our ultimate hope and trust in things or persons other than God. In the verses preceding our reading from Amos, God pronounces a fearsome judgment on his people Israel because their love for money had resulted in the oppression of the poor. This was made even worse by the fact that those who were exploiting the poor were going through the motions of being “religious.” They had all the form but none of the substance of true religion. They observed the holy days and the Sabbath, but this only made them more eager to resume their dishonest activities once the markets reopened. Their god was money and their religious creed was “gain at any cost.” And because they chose to worship a false god, money, a god that cannot bring life, the one true and living God allowed them to have what they wanted—death. These are hard words to hear and it breaks the heart to be reminded that there are those who will ultimately cut themselves off from God because they choose to worship a false god. This is also heartbreaking to God because as we heard in today’s NT lesson, he wants all humans to be saved and have life. That is why he took on our flesh and gave himself as a ransom for us.
And lest we think that idolatry only pertains to money or the people in Amos’ day, we don’t need to look too far to see that it is alive and well in our day and age. [Nebraska legislator]. Perhaps it is technology or science. Maybe it is a title or particular job. It might be our retirement account or the size of our house. Perhaps it is our education or our family and friends. It might even be something as good and noble as prayer and fasting or reading the Bible or tithing or coming to worship in this magnificent building every Sunday. Anytime we mistake a means for an end we are flirting with idolatry because we make the means the source of our ultimate love and worship rather than God.
But as God warned Israel through Amos and Jesus reminds us in his parable of the dishonest manager, these false gods lead to death and we will all have to give an accounting of our lives one day. Whether it is sudden and catastrophic or gradual, our mortal bodies continue to decay and we will die. Our bank accounts won’t stop it, our social status won’t stop it, fame and fortune won’t stop it, science and technology won’t stop it. When our mortality finally becomes real for us, we become like the starving people in Amos’ prophecy who seek the Word of the Lord but cannot find and wonder why we chose to put our trust in dishonest wealth, in whatever form, that cannot bring life, but only death.
Where’s God’s Grace?
But thanks be to God this isn’t the end of the story! As we read in Paul’s letter to Timothy, we have a God who loves us passionately despite our history of disobedience and rebellion (of which our OT reading is but one example) and who desires for everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of truth (1 Timothy 2:4). When God took on our flesh in Jesus Christ and died on a cross to make it possible for us to have a relationship with him again, a relationship that goes beyond our physical death, he took the proverbial monkey off our backs and did what is impossible for us to do for ourselves. We simply have to decide if and how we are going to respond to God’s love for us and his desire for each of us to have eternal life. Will we decide to love and serve him with a joyful and thankful heart and have life forever or will we continue to pursue and worship other gods in destructive ways?
If we choose to serve God, fortunately there is “honest wealth” that will help us respond faithfully to him so that we can become more like him, or as Paul says elsewhere, so that we can “grow to the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). The church calls this kind of wealth “means of grace” and the apostle Paul focuses on one of those means in our NT lesson today—prayer. He tells us to offer our prayers, requests, thanksgivings and intercessions to God, both individually and corporately as the Church. The Greek word that Paul uses for intercessions is enteuxis and is found in the NT only in 1 Timothy. Its root means “to take part in” and it was used in the sense of having a conversation and then making a petition. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? If we are trying to develop our relationship with Jesus and become more like him, it’s important that we learn what he wants us to do, both as individuals and as his body, the Church. And we can’t do that if we’re the ones doing all the talking and never listening. We can’t know how to use our talents, gifts, and worldly resources wisely unless we ask Jesus and then let him answer us.
This becomes especially important as we begin a month of discernment starting in Oct. Fr. Ron will call us to prayer and fasting. He will also be talking about the purposes of the church and we will be meeting in small groups to listen to each other and to God in prayer. As Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians, it is critical that we pray for each other as well during this time so that God will help us as a church to live a life worthy of the calling we have received in Christ—a life characterized by humility and gentleness, patience and bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Eph 4:1-2).
To be certain this is a troubling and difficult time, full of uncertainty and fear. Some of us have been lifelong Episcopalians and have invested quite a bit of ourselves in the life of this Church. For some, the possiblity of leaving or losing this building becomes a great burden and we feel terrible sadness and grief. For others, the possibility of staying produces the same feelings of sadness and grief. But even in these difficult times we are reminded that we are not alone. If God loves us enough to be crucified for us so that we can have life with him forever, he will certainly never abandon us, especially in the dark and troubling times in our lives. We must be willing to allow him to lead us, however, and to do so we must listen for his Voice.
And so as we enter this period of discernment, where will you put your ultimate hope and trust? Will you follow false gods like fear of the unknown and distrust? Or will you enter into a conversation with the One of loves you and who is always present when two or three are gathered together in his name? Will you choose to put your trust in things that lead to death? Or will you align yourself with the One who abolished death forever, a gift freely given and available to anyone who chooses to accept it? We, like the people of Amos’s day, must decide whom or what we will follow. As we enter this important time in the life of our church, my prayer for each and every one of us is that we will humble ourselves and choose to listen to and follow the Living Lord, the giver of life. He is ready and eager to guide us so that we can live with him forever. That’s good news, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.