DEVOTED TO THE ONE
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
September 18, 2016 Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
Lections: Jeremiah 8: 18- 9:1; Psalm 4; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
Methodists, I think, like most Protestant Christians, are loath to apply the word saint to any particular person. We are more likely to call Paul “the Apostle,” than “Saint Paul.” We are wary of “works righteousness,” that is, of attributing achievement to our own efforts, and careful to acknowledge the sovereignty and grace of God present in all “good works.” Closer to home, we do not talk about farmers, accountants, educators, doctors, truck drivers, business people or pastors as saints; we are quick to find fault, where we do not see perfection. Yet perfection remains our goal: as Jesus, our teacher, says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). And we were likely to call Mother Teresa “Saint” Teresa, even before Pope Francis canonized her earlier this month.
Herein lies the fundamental paradox that we live with: we are entirely responsible for or actions, even as God’s sovereign will directs our lives. We should strive at all times and in every place – especially in work and public environments, but in all the ordinary occasions of our life – to live as saints, for this is our witness to the world. Every Christian regardless of circumstances can live a life of example worthy of Saint Teresa.
Today’s Scriptures draw several lessons from failed and successful efforts to meet this challenge. Jeremiah, the Weeping Prophet, pleads in prayer for his imperfect people, captured by a foreign army, and taken from their homes:
“You who are my Comforter in sorrow,
my heart is faint within me;
listen to the cry of my people
from a land far away.”
Countless people over the centuries have made this same prayer in their hearts; few, in any generation, have lived to see it answered. People displaced by the violence of weapons and armies rarely reclaim their lives or homes; their future augers pain, suffering, and death, which their descendants inherit. Jeremiah bemoans the demise of a nation that failed take refuge in righteousness; consequently, the nation, Israel, becomes subject to the unrighteousness of the world.
We need to be clear about this: the world is aligned with unrighteousness. We should think upon this, as we devote entirely too much hope and concern to deplorable politics. Where in American public life is there a role for the Christian saint? Think of black lives -a poverty-stricken presence of a displaced people – perpetuated across the country, in places we avoid: at the bus stops, train stations, and exit ramps we don’t get off, on the streets we don’t walk down. Are we pleading with God for Black lives? Are our hearts faint within us; do we hear their cry?
The reality of Black lives is for us a shadowy, lurking danger to be contained and avoided. Elsewhere in the world, we see images of those who are daily displaced on TV, newspapers and social media, and we harden our hearts, refusing to recognize their humanity. Yet we are moved when we hear the music their cry makes:
“There is a balm in Gilead
to make the wounded whole,
there is a balm in Gilead
to heal the sin-sick soul.”
Whose sin-sick soul is this, do you think, theirs or ours?
“The harvest is past,
the summer has ended,
and we are not saved.”
Gilead, a mountainous region east of the Jordon River, was known for its medicinal balm, made from the resin of the storax shrub. Jeremiah asks if this balm would not heal the Israelites, held in captivity by the Babylonians; the ones who were not slain, as they fashioned idols to worship. Why, we might ask, should image-making prove fatal? Yahweh must have a reason for insisting, “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth” (Deut 5:7).
God’s commandment, as one teacher of mine argues, is rooted in the Genesis account, where “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). When people put an image of their own making between them and God, they displace themselves; they harden their hearts to their humanity, which is god-like. They become strangers to themselves.
Christians will recognize Jesus as “the balm in Gilead” that heals “the sin-sick soul,” but will they recognize their participation in the sickness of the soul? Paul’s 1st Letter to Timothy addresses the relationship between church and state: the church is to petition, pray, intercede, and offer thanksgiving for rulers and “all those in authority,” so that Christians “may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Noteworthy here is what Paul does not say: he does not instruct us to engage ourselves with “all those in authority.” He does not say Christians should vie for influence and wield authority in businesses, courts, armies, politics, or government. No, he says pray for those in authority, so they will not persecute you. From this we infer that persons in authority cannot “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness,” that is, they cannot live lives of piety and devotion. All we can hope for from them is that we might be left to ourselves to follow our calling with dignity.[i]
Once more we see that the apostolic vision of Christian life is a counter-cultural life, a model of “behaving in a right and proper way before other people.[ii] Paul says, “This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Our lives are our witness. How we live our lives in the midst of the world sets us apart as “true and faithful” teachers of the Good News: that the man Christ Jesus goes “between God and mankind to enable them to have a relationship, but entirely on God’s terms.”[iii]
When we live in a right relationship with God, Christ Jesus mediates for us; when we displace ourselves with idols, we make ourselves unavailable and leave ourselves without refuge. Images are not the things they represent; man and woman are made in the image of God so that we can know we are not God. Our idols come between God and us, severing our relationship and resulting in our death. If we hope to be brought safely through the treacherous way of the world, we will need to depend “entirely on God’s terms.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that we are to go into hiding. To the contrary, The Parable of the Shrewd Manager indicates that to fulfill God’s will, we must be as wise as the most successful people of the world.
In the parable that Jesus tells, a rich man lets his manager go, because he is accused of “wasting his possessions,” that is, of being irresponsible. The manager, i.e. a trustee or steward, realizes he will not be able to get other employment, and quickly sets about making friends with the rich man’s debtors, thinking “when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.” He has each person who is in debt to his master reduce the amount he owes. For this dishonesty, the master commends him, “because he had acted shrewdly.” He has planned ahead; each of his master’s debtors is now also in debt to him, and his future is secure. Jesus comments, “the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” Then he adds the enigmatic statement, “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” One commentator explains, “He was teaching [his disciples] that they should use material things for future spiritual benefit. This was a good lesson from a bad example.”[iv]
John Wesley introduced his sermon, “The Use of Money” with a reference to this parable. After quoting the KJV, which as we heard, reads, “I say unto you, Make unto yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into the everlasting habitation” (Luke 16:9), Wesley observes,
“I. We ought to gain all we can gain but this it is certain we ought not to do; we ought not to gain money at the expense of life, nor at the expense of our health.
II. Do not throw the precious talent into the sea.
III. Having, First, gained all you can, and, Secondly saved all you can, Then “give all you can.”[v]
As Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” As familiar as these words are, their challenge remains. Worldliness is associated foremost with wealth, and we are, most all of us, attached to our possessions.
This is the deal. We are called to struggle; always with our sin, and to build a Christian life. We have studied together the Book of Acts, and of money and possessions we know, in “the infant Church at Jerusalem, “no man counted anything he had his own,” but “distribution was made to everyone as he had need.” We expect “the use [of money] will be superseded; as we cannot conceive there is anything of the kind among the inhabitants of heaven. But what does this mean, “in the present state of mankind”?[vi]
Early Christians took their vocation seriously, distinguishing themselves from the surrounding peoples and cultures by living holy lives in fellowship with one another. They were ordinary people; they lived in the midst of the world, yet apart from it. There was nothing false or easy about the effort they made to live as saints. They accepted the challenges and hardships of faith-based lives, because they took refuge in the teachings of Jesus. They lived as saints in the world.
For us, in our ordinary lives, we achieve most when we reject the temptation to make money our “primary concern in life,”[vii] striving to live simply, with like-minded folks, in the midst of worldly activity, loving and worshiping the God who searches our hearts, and keeping the commandments. Idol-making begins with an almost innocent urge to refashion the commandments so that they become more to our liking. Let us be trustworthy, remembering, “What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15). Amen.
[i] Dignity is suggested by the UBS Handbook for New Testament
[ii] behaving…before other people is suggested by the UBS Handbook for New Testament
[iii] NET Bible Notes
[iv] Bible Knowledge Commentary
[v] John Wesley, “The Use of Money,” Sermon 50, http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-50-The-Use-of-Money
[vii] Bible Knowledge Commentary