Sunday, October 22, 2006

22 October 2006 - Identity in Christ

This is an "off lectionary" sermon in Two Parts for an evening service.

Part 1 - Reading:
Amos 8:1-12

Amos 8:11-12: “The time is coming when I will send famine on the land. People will be hungry, but not for bread; they will be thirsty, but not for water. They will hunger and thirst for a message from the Lord. They will look everywhere for a message from the Lord, but they will not find it.”
Israel in Amos’ Time

I believe that, in order to understand the message of the book of Amos, it really helps a lot to understand what was happening in the society in which Amos prophesised. Because I think the message of Amos is a timeless one, but maybe it is particularly significant to our situation today.
Amos prophesied about 750 to 700 BC. It was a time of prosperity for Kingdom of Israel. It was a time of peace because both of its historic enemies, Egypt and Assyria, were weak. And so Israel was left in peace to prosper as a nation.

The problem wasn’t so much that Israel was prosperous, but it was more in the manner in which the nation was prosperous. According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin – a modern Jewish rabbi – archaeological evidence suggests that 300 years before Amos’ time, most of the houses in Israel were about equal to each other in size

But the book of Amos repeatedly describes the differences between the conditions in which the poor and the rich were living in his day. Amos 3:15 describes the wealthy living in winter and summer homes, decorated with expensive furniture. Amos 5 describes a situation where the poor are being robbed of their grain, but they are also being prevented from getting justice in court because the rich are bribing the judges. This is in violation of God’s commandment in Deuteronomy that the poor must be given sufficient for their needs But, instead, the poor are being sold into slavery when they cannot pay their debts (Amos Chapter 2)

To add insult to injury - in Amos’ Israel, it is not only the rich who are happy to keep this exploitative system the way it is, but the priestly class are also disobeying God’s law and endorsing this way of thinking which is in clear violation of God’s law.

And so, in Chapter 5, we have one of the more famous passages from the book of Amos where Amos puts the words in God’s mouth: “I hate your religious festivals; I cannot stand them!” The priests have conspired in the society’s exploitative value system because they have behaved as if proper observance of religious ritual is all that God requires.

And so, there has developed a society which is proud of its religious observance and proud of its faithfulness to God, But it’s also a society where there is great inequality and where the poor are sold into slavery. Amos is there, as God’s prophet, to tell the people of Israel that God is not pleased with their religious observance on account of the enormous injustice that is being lived out by the people.

It’s not difficult to see why Amos’ message is a timeless one. This sort of situation has appeared in almost every notable civilisation since Amos’ time. And I’m not going to insult either one of us by spending the time now drawing out the very obvious message that the book of Amos brings to our time. I think our job here this evening is to understand the root of this problem and the remedy for it.

The root of the problem is that the people are hungering and thirsting for the word of God, so that they can understand what God requires of us as human beings. They are spiritually starving because they are not eating God’s spiritual food nor drinking God’s spiritual drink. And I want to suggest that perhaps one of the reasons is because this people are leading a double life – The double life of “God and spiritual things are over here” and “The rest of my life – my REAL life, my every-day life – is over here”.

Leading a Doubt Life

Gerard Hughes is a Roman Catholic priest who has spent most of his life working for justice issues, but he has also written a small number of books on prayer and spirituality. He tells some very good and very pointed stories

One of them is about how it is human nature to want to lead this sort of double life with God on one side and “real life” on the other.

He asks you to imagine what you would do if, one evening, there were a knock on your door and, when you went to open it, there was Jesus standing there. You are stunned but Jesus is grinning from ear to ear and says “There you are! At last I’ve found you! How wonderful to see you! How much I love you!” And you smile from ear to ear and you invite Jesus into your house.

Out comes the best China, the tea and the cake and you and Jesus have a good old chin-wag – a really wonderful and refreshing evening. Now, good Christian that you are, you invite Jesus into your life and you insist that Jesus must stay with you and become part of your family.

And that’s when the trouble starts.

Before you know it, Jesus has invited the local homeless person to join in with your household. And then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, one day you come home to find that Jesus has invited into your house all the local lads who go around the neighbourhood stealing cars and destroying other people’s property.

So you decide you need to put a stop to all this, and you politely invite Jesus to step inside the cupboard under the stairs. You lock the door, and very probably you nail it shut just for good measure, You then proceed to decorate it – possibly with a cross and a candle and maybe even some sort of liturgical cloth for the appropriate time in the church year. And every time you walk past the cupboard under the stairs, you bow to it reverently and say a prayer. The net effect of this is that you’ve got Jesus, in your house, in you life – but most importantly of all – you’ve got him where he can’t cause any more trouble!!

I have to confess that I still find this story a bit painful to hear. And if it’s painful to hear, it’s even more embarrassing to be standing up here in front of you telling you the story. Because I know I’ve got my God in a cupboard. I comfort myself that possibly there are a lot of other Christians out there who do too, though that is no excuse. But I’m also ashamed because I know that it’s not the way that God calls me to live as a Christian.

The people of Amos’ time had their God in a “cupboard” (or maybe it was in a tent somewhere), the people in Jesus’ time had their God in a cupboard, and we have our God in a cupboard.

A Right Heart is a Giving Heart

Using the mouth of Amos, God tells us that he hates our worship when it is not motivated by a right heart. God tells us that when our heart is rightly motivated by the love of God – and love is what holiness in Christian discipleship is all about – then that “right heart” will be there for all to see in the way we treat our fellow human beings.

It’s no good saying that we’ve invited Jesus into our life and then locking him in a cupboard. It’s no good observing proper religious form but being content to be part of a society that behaves immorally and unethically. It’s no good fulfilling our religious duties but engaging in an individual life-style that is immoral and unethical.

Like many other societies before us, we live in a time when people are hungering and thirsting for the real word of God of their lives.

The prophecy has come true, not because Amos could predict future events, but because of people’s behaviour. When we lock God in the cupboard, he can’t influence our life in the living room – where it really counts.

The good news is that God in Christ became incarnate in Jesus to bridge the gap between himself and human-kind. The good news is that God is always yearning to feed us, he is always yearning for us to drink from the deep waters of his love.

And so, I pray this evening that we may all grow in Christian discipleship, with our roots firmly grounded in the wellspring of God’s love and God’s word.

As we grow grounded in the Lord, I pray that our lives will bear the good fruit of deeds which are pleasing to the Lord, and deeds that further his Kingdom. I pray that we work for God’s Kingdom, not because we believe we will be saved by good works, but because we are already assured of our salvation in Christ.

Because we know God’s love for us and for the world, we cannot help but express that love in our lives. And I pray all of this in the name of Jesus, Amen

Part 2 - Reading:
Luke 10:38-42

The One Needful Thing

This short story about Mary and Martha is a story that I, personally, have always found to be a difficult one. The story tells us Martha is running around, worried and troubled over so many things, but it is Mary who has chosen the one thing that is important.

Whichever way you look at it, there is something about what Mary is doing that is being affirmed in this story over and above what Martha is doing. But exactly what is “the one needful thing” that Mary is doing? What is the “one needful thing” that she’s figured out? Where have Martha and I missed the plot here?

When I was preparing for this talk, I found one short comment that was extremely helpful. One of the resources I used said the following:

“When you preach this Gospel, please make the point ‘We’re too busy with too many things” and move on from there quickly. Leave room for the main point of the Gospel which is ‘Our identity in Christ is the one needful thing; other identities are valuable only to the extent that they deepen our maturity in Christ and empower us for Christ’s mission in the world.’

The One Needful Thing

The “one needful thing” is our identity in Christ.

What does this mean? Does it mean that Mary was doing the “right thing” by dedicating herself to her spiritual life and that Martha was doing the “wrong thing” by being active? And, if the story is saying that, how does it fit in with the lesson we just heard from Amos – where the call seems to be very much to “do the right thing”?

I don’t think that this story is trying to say that dedicating oneself to one’s spiritual life is better than doing the right thing. And here’s why: First of all the story that comes before this reading in the Gospel of Luke is the story of the Good Samaritan. Although the primary lesson of the story of the Good Samaritan is not a call to doing good works, it is nonetheless, the person who does the right thing who is affirmed in that story as the “real neighbour”.

Since the Good Samaritan story comes immediately before the story of Martha and Mary, I think that we are being told that: It is our identity in God – our identity in Christ – that is the most important thing, BUT, that it is equally important to “do the right thing”.

It’s not a case of “either/or” when these stories are set next to each other, but a case of “both/and”

An Invitation to Freedom

I have a strong suspicion that Jesus’ words to Martha weren’t so much a scolding as they were an invitation to freedom. “Martha, don’t worry about what the world says. Don’t worry that the world says that your identity is in your hospitality. In reality, your identity is in me, your identity is in being my disciple. Even though you are a woman, your identity is in me.”

These are the gracious words of Jesus to us: “My beloved, your identity is in me. Rest your soul in my presence and be at peace knowing that I accept you unconditionally. Never mind if the world says you are too sinful. Never mind if you feel dirty or guilty. I want you in my presence. Never mind if the world says you come from the wrong class, the wrong country, the wrong race, the wrong sex. Never mind if the world says you too young or too old. *I* want you in my presence. Your identity is in me.”

This is not a different message from the message that Amos proclaimed. Amos tells us that when our heart is rooted firmly in the love of God, that the fruits of our right actions will be visible in the world around us.

Luke tells us that God calls us to rest our identity in Christ and to live out that identity in the action of loving our neighbour and loving God.

And, so I pray this evening that we each remember that our real identity is as a disciple of Christ.

I pray that we may all put Christ at the centre of our lives, and that Christ becomes more and more a part of our identity – as individual Christians and as part of the world-wide church.

May we live out the church’s mission in the world to spread the message of God’s forgiveness, to proclaim God’s love in word and deed and to work for justice and peace. Amen

No comments: