Tuesday, January 16, 2024

It's Not About Me: A Sermon for Pentecost 14, Proper 17A

I'm more than a little behind editing and posting some of my sermons. This was preached at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church September 3, 2023.

I have said in this room that I am a General Convention junkie.  I've more made more than half of the General Conventions since 1976 for at least a few days. And one of the fun things I saw was that I was in New Orleans in 1982. If you look at the back of the Hymnal, you will say, it says the Hymnal 1982 because that's the general convention where this hymnal was approved. And one of the really fun things was to be on the floor of the House of Deputies. I was in the gallery and it was a joint session. So it was both deputies and bishops and they were debating things about this hymnal. And this was where people could say from the floor, “why isn't this one proposed? Why isn't that one proposed?”

Now, my favorite of those stories is about why “He's got the whole world in his hands” is not in the hymnal. And one of our scholars stood up and said, “The joy of that song is that you can make it up as you go along. And our fear is that if we put it in the hymnal, no matter how many various verses we put in there, somebody wouldn't be able to do, or wouldn't think they could do, what they wanted to do.”

So a lot of hymns were debated and one of them was this:

I walk in the garden along when the dew is still on the roses 

and the voice I hear falling on my ear, the son of God discloses. 

Why is that not in the hymnal?

Now, before anybody gets concerned, we can sing it in church. The Hymnal is not like the Prayer Book and, and you can bring in outside stuff to sing in a way that you can't to pray, at least not in a Sunday service. And in any case, it actually is when in one of the two supplements to this Hymnal. But they said, “Why is that not in the hymnal?” And they said, “Well, sing the refrain.” 

And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own. 

And the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known. 

And they said, “That leads to bad theology.” What? 

You know, one of our heartfelt and well understood - excuse me, often misunderstood - tenets of Protestant Christianity is the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Wonderful and important. The problem is that for too many people, that's it. “I’ve got my relationship with Jesus; and heaven help - actually, I will send to perdition - those who want to challenge that, who want to challenge what that means.” It can lead, and has too often led, to a sort of, “It's all about Jesus and me” perspective

And that encapsulated by itself is bad theology; because if we've been paying attention to Scripture, it's never about me. It's never just “about me.” 

Look at Moses today. Moses is out there in the wilderness and he sees this wonder, he sees this bush burning. You know this story well. You've heard umpteen sermons preached on it. So Moses is listening to God telling him what God wants him to do and he comes to this question. His question is, “Who am I to stand before Pharaoh?”

Now there's a lot of history behind that question. Moses was someone special. Moses was raised in Pharaoh's household; and Moses ran because he broke the law. He committed murder, he brought dishonor on Pharaoh's household. He fled to the desert. “Who am I to go stand before Pharaoh?” 

And God's response is this as if to say “This is not about you. This is not about who you are. This is about who I am. I am sending you.” This is one of our wonderfully introductory instances of that aphorism you've heard so often in church, God doesn't choose the skilled, God gives skills to the chosen. I know that's not the way you've heard it most often, but you get the point.

And that's what God will go on and say to Moses again and again and again. “It's not about who you are, it's about what I'm sending you to do and what I'm empowering you to do. It’s not about you and me; it's not about who you are. It's about you and me and Israel.”

By the same token, we get Jesus, having heard over the last two weeks about this whole “You are the Messiah, the Christ;” and then last week “And don't tell anybody.” Why. Well, this week we understand why. He's trying to tell the Twelve, “This is what's going to happen. There's going to be pain and suffering, and I'm going to die. And then there's promise.” 

And Peter says, “Oh no Lord, no, no, it can't happen that way. God forbid that it happened that way.” And Jesus's response - let’s skip past the really shocking part: “Get behind me Satan” - and go on to “You’re thinking the way humans think. You're not thinking how God thinks.” Or to turn that: “This is not about how you see things. This is about how God sees things and about what God is doing, not with you, but for everyone.” It's never just “about me.” 

Now, in our day and time, that's a real challenge. I read within the last week an opinion piece about an evangelical pastor - it didn’t say which of our evangelical sibling traditions he's in - preaching about the love of God and preaching perhaps from our Romans lesson where it says, “Bless your enemies and don't curse them;” or where Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek.” And a man comes up to him after the service and says, “Pastor, where did you get that?”

“It's in the Bible. It's literally in the Bible. It's in the Bible that you say you believe literally.”

“Well, pastor, it doesn't work that way anymore.” 

if it doesn't work that way anymore, if Christians say it doesn't work that way anymore, it's not because of what Christ told us or showed us; because what God has been saying, really from Adam: “It’s not about us.” An awful lot of people approach the first creation story where we human beings are the height and pinnacle of creation; and skip over the first part of the second creation story where it says we were created to manage and take care of things, to tend and care for. From the very beginning, God's call for us has been to tend and care for.

And so if we've lost that, we can argue that we've lost Jesus, and we've lost our personal relationship with Jesus, because we're not listening anymore. The wonderful piece about a personal relationship with Jesus is to remember that Jesus is with us still and is a person; that God comes to us in personality and so offers us the opportunity to be in relationship, to be listening to and learning from Jesus in Scripture, in prayer, in meditation, in moments of wonder. If we get somehow triumphal about it being “me and Jesus,” we end up leaving Jesus out of the conversation. 

And so Paul, after working with the Romans and saying, “Life in Christ begins with an understanding that you're saved by God's grace, and that nothing can come between you and the love of God,” - that wonderful passage at the end of Romans 8 - “nothing at all creation can come between you of the love of God in Christ” - he then goes on to the rather pedestrian understanding of what's expected of us. Out of that, Adam and Eve were expected to tend and care for; Moses was expected to lead a brazen-necked people. Jesus said, “All the world will come to me.” And to participate in that, then Paul says, “Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil. Do what is good, even to the point of do not repay anyone evil for evil. Take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. Never avenge yourselves. Leave room for the wrath of God. For it is written, ‘vengeance in mine;’  that it is God’s, not mine. 

How shockingly different that is from some, not all, probably not most, but some of the noisiest rhetoric in the air around us. “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. (What!) if they're thirsty give them drink;” a high set of expectations, but, really, they shouldn't be a surprise if we understand that it's never been “about me.” And to the extent that we want to identify our community as somehow distinctive or special, it's never been about us. 

We can get distracted if we focus too much on walking in the garden alone and how wonderfully comforting that is. We don’t pay attention to the third verse. I don't think it's entirely adequate, but it does say that he calls us out of that garden. We are called to remember in Christ, in God, yes, we are very much involved, but what God calls us to is not “about me,” but about how God calls me for others.

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