Homily for Ecumenical Lenten Prayer Service at Saint John’s RC Church, Wading River NY (3/27/19)
So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. 2 You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you. 3 You have seen for yourselves what the Lord did with regard to the Baal of Peor—how the Lord your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, 4 while those of you who held fast to the Lord your God are all alive today.
5 See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
9 But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children—
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Pretty deep into Lent, here we are together. And these words from Deuteronomy and from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are all over us about obedience and rules. These are usually not the things most of us revel in thinking about. Many of us as kids getting out of school were saying then, “Now I’ll be able to make my own decisions about what I read, or if I read, what I do, and how I’ll live.”
And then comes Lent every year. And here comes these old words saying in effect, “Wait a minute, there’s more here than you may ever have noticed.” Some of the deep roots of this church season are found in the ways the early church – and much of the church again in our own day – brought and bring people who are converting up to and into the baptismal font; through death to the old life and entry into new life in and with Christ.
And part of that new life is living and dying precisely as Jesus lived and died. He tells us himself in John’s Gospel that he spoke only what the Father gave him to speak, and that he carried out only the works that the Father gave him to do. In other words, Jesus was obedient, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us also, in rather mysterious words to use about Christ: “He learned obedience through what he suffered.”
Obedience. It’s not a word much in vogue in our day. It hasn’t been too popular since the 60’s. But it’s worth looking at a bit more deeply than we usually do. When you look way back and break it down, to obey means to listen, to pay attention, literally to ‘hear towards.’ To obey asks us to be willing to perceive in a new way.
So it’s not as simple as doing something that you are asked to do because the ask-er in some sense has authority over you. Deeper than that, obedience will engage your ear, your heart, your willingness, your freedom. Obedience asks you to lean in and really listen to what is being said and asked, and to come to know why.
So it is important that what we usually call God’s “Law,” which seems distant to us and outside us, actually is more like God’s path to life laid out before us for our good. It’s God’s way to the good life explained and offered. And both Moses in the book of Deuteronomy and Jesus in the Gospel are asking us to give God’s Word a good listen, to listen like our lives depended on it, to listen like we’ve never listened before.
This invitation to obey has been out there since before Deuteronomy’s text was written about 800 years before Christ. So for 3000 years give or take, this obedience has been asked of us humans.
How are we doing in our listening and responding after three thousand years, do you think? Whenever I raise questions like that in public I have to pose them to myself first of all, to justify in any way asking others to question either themselves as individuals or all of us as a society. And when I ask myself how I am doing listening, hearing God, recognizing God’s way as the way I should and will follow – in other words, obeying – I can hear the voices of my several nieces in their 20’s answering for me as to how I am doing at it. In a word, they would say, ‘sucky,’ which translated into older English means something like, ‘really not so good at all.’
I know that is true of me. It may be your truth as well. And I don’t think it gets any better when we look at the worldwide culture and society of which we are members. Just think of some recent news. Fifty people at prayer in two mosques in New Zealand murdered. Does that look like the act of someone who has heard and heeded God’s way? Two teenagers and a father in our country whose lives were terrorized by violence close to home have ended their own lives over the last several days, plunging their grieving families into deeper sorrow (though they probably had thought there was no such thing as deeper sorrow). And these come within the context of a period where an average of twenty veterans a day are taking their own lives in this country. What does it say when death comes to look preferable to life?
And what of those who desire to live? What of the many victims in the two recent crashes of the Boeing 747 Max-8? The most recent flight was populated by aid workers and missionaries, people on their way to be hope to other people in sorrow and need. And it is reported that instruments that could have alerted the pilots to the source of trouble and afforded them a greater chance, at least, of saving the day were not on those two aircraft because they have been considered ‘extras,’ for which the manufacturer charged more and made more profit. What does it say when profit appears to be preferable to life?
What these things say to me is that it is not only me who is doing ‘sucky’ when to comes to hearing and obeying the 3000 year old words of Moses, the 2000 year old words of Jesus, or the timeless Word of God.
Where then does this leave us on this afternoon in Lent 2019? Recent times and ongoing consideration of God’s loving offer of life convince me of something I have never said before. I think the instances mentioned above – and so many more that could be offered in every sector of human life and endeavor, every day and any day – bring us to a time in which we need a new reformation. I don’t mean the reformation of a particular church. I mean a reformation, a deep cleansing renewal, a starting again, for all the churches. In fact even beyond that, I mean a reformation of human society.
It’s worth noting that every profound reformation of human society has begun in the church, has begun somewhere inside the stuff of what a people believe. But it begins first right inside here, right in the guts of you and me and of all our sisters and brothers. There are at least three levels of radical reformation needed within us, all of them based on obedience, and each of them dependent on the others.
We need a reformation of manners. We need renewal in the way we treat one another. Within families. In workplaces. On the roads. In the halls of government from local to worldwide. What does this obedience sound like? Remember the voice which spoke and said, “Love one another as I have loved you”? We, all of us here, have committed our lives to hearing and heeding that voice. That one phrase must be translated into life in every place and time when we find ourselves in one another’s presence. In every meeting there is you, there is me, and there is the Christ
We need a reformation of the mind. The question that can open that work might be phrased as simply as this: ‘What really matters, after all? What really matters, and why?’ Is there a point when the urgent will no longer overwhelm the important, where the rational will not be overrun by the incoherent? Can there be a time and place where we ‘reason together,’ as the voice of Israel’s God invites us to do in the book of the prophet Isaiah? Can this come to be true in homes, in classrooms, in conversations wherever they take place, and first of all within our own minds?
And finally, we need a reformation of the heart. Both the reformation of manners and of the mind ultimately depend on this. Used more than 1000 times in scripture, the bible understands the heart as the center of the person – physically, intellectually, morally, and spiritually. Just as the physical heart can weary and become diseased, so can the heart as center of the moral and spiritual person. To reform the heart above all, it must lean in to listen to the ways of the Lord and to respond. The very rhythm of the heart must be re-set and renewed so that our humanity is reborn.
The new listening, the new obeying which must underlie any new beginning for our lives and our society, can only be powered by God’s grace, by God’s own life living in us. This gift is ours by baptism. We have received the capacity to reform ourselves and our society if we decide to do it.
There’s another word for all this. It is this season’s call to repentance, to change our hearts and minds. We can and will change only if we are dissatisfied with the way we are now. So the first question is, are we?
That question cannot be answered by anyone but you; by each one of us deep in the silence of ourselves. The final verse of the words we hear today from the 4th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy might serve to energize and encourage us to face that question, and all that follows from it, courageously. These ancient words both point to our responsibility to hear and obey in our generation, and to the fact that the good lives of our children and grandchildren depend, at least in part, on our response. Moses said:
“Just make sure you stay alert.
Keep close watch over yourselves.
Don’t forget anything of what you’ve seen.
Don’t let your heart wander off.
Stay vigilant as long as you live.
Teach what you’ve seen and heard to your children and grandchildren.”
Father John McGinty