Sermon for The Ninth Sunday after Trinityadmin | 9 August 2009
“Now these things were our examples”
The Collect captures wonderfully the complementary nature of today’s Epistle and Gospel readings about the practice of Christian life. We pray for “the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will.”
Our thinking and our doing are intimately related. What we think, what we believe, and what we know are to be realized in what we do. Our actions reveal our intentions. We are to be what we believe. We are pilgrims who know, in some fashion or other, our own incompleteness but acknowledge, too, our completeness in God through Jesus Christ. Our purpose lies in the Son’s love for the Father in the embrace of the Holy Spirit. Such an understanding impels an activity of purpose in our everyday lives. It is the note which the Gospel sounds.
The Gospel exhorts us to be prudent, not unrighteous. To be prudent means to discern the good, “such things as be rightful”, and to pursue it, “living according to thy will”. It means thinking and doing the right thing at the right time in the right way and for the right reason. It is, we may say, a tall order. The challenge is to get all those things together.
The unrighteous steward in the Gospel is simply all of us. We are all stewards – those to whom things are entrusted. It is a profoundly biblical view. Nothing we have is our own. We can only enter into what God has provided for us. Our wills and our actions apart from the will of God are never right. My ways and your ways, considered in themselves, are at best ways of self-righteousness, tinged and coloured by our own agendas and motives whether known or unknown to ourselves and to others. They are always less than the full righteousness of God; in short, they are ways of unrighteousness. I know, it seems so judgmental and negative but in our reformed understanding of things it is actually altogether positive. Why? Because it throws us into the mercies of God’s redemptive grace.
Who we are and what we have are given by God. Like the “certain rich man” in the parable, God demands an account of what we have done. We are accountable. This, too, is a profound point-of-view which speaks to the dignity and the freedom of our humanity. How do we stand in the light of God’s truth and justice, the ground and measure of our standing? How faithful have we been to God with what he has entrusted to us?
To be prudent is to be faithful in that which is least for the sake of that which is most. It means to make proper use of the goods of this world but with an eye firmly fixed on the highest good of God in whom are “the everlasting habitations”. In themselves, apart from the justice of God, the things of this world are “the mammon of unrighteousness”. Prudence means their proper use according to God’s justice – righteous dealing with things according to their purpose in the right ordering of all things by God. Being faithful in the least things of the world – honesty, courtesy, kindness, consideration with respect to our lives in family, church and the work-a-day world – is the condition of our being faithful in much. In other words, right dealings in the world through right dealings with God. In a way, it is about the much in the least.
The Epistle offers a marvelous correspondence between the ancient people of Israel and Christians, then and now. All are pilgrims who walk and live under the providential care of God who has made his love known to his people: their deliverance from the bondage of Egypt through the Red Sea waters; our deliverance from the chains of sin and death through the “red sea” waters of Christ’s blood in our baptisms.
God’s providential care extends beyond deliverance to sustenance. He provides for the means of our wayfaring. He feeds his people spiritual food, the manna in the wilderness, the water from the stricken rock. He feeds his people with “the holy bread of eternal life”, the Body of Christ, and “the cup of everlasting salvation”, the Blood of Christ, flowing out like water from the stricken side of Christ crucified, for “that rock was Christ”.
Paul recalls, too, the disobedience of the people of Israel even in the face of God’s deliverance and sustenance for them. They did not act in accord with the knowledge of God’s providential care. They were unfaithful and unrighteous with respect to what had been given to them. To act contrary to what has been made known to you is, of course, sin. It has, of course, consequences.
Paul specifically warns the Corinthians and us against lust and idolatry. Why? Both treat the things of this world as if they were the be-all and the end-all of everything. This is false to the things of creation, false to their place and purpose in the justice of God. To lose oneself in the appetites of the flesh – food, drink, sex, for instance – or to be defined by the nature and the number of one’s material acquisitions is really to deny God from whom all things do come, to whom all things return, upon whom all things depend and in whom all things have their being. It is to make our appetites and our possessions our gods. Such is idolatry.
Our bodies, our appetites, and our daily lives are part of the way of pilgrimage. They, too, must be directed and ordered to that home and end with God, to those “everlasting habitations” wherein our wills are at one with God’s will. That end gives purpose to our lives. We are bidden to act in accord with the reasoned will of God manifest in the just order of his creation. For we are neither self-complete nor wholly self-sufficient. We are not our own; we are God’s. Indeed, we are God’s dearly beloved whom he has loved in his Son who “was made man and dwelt among us”, who “died for us that his life might live in us.”
Our pilgrimage proceeds in God’s awesome and accessible love by way of the practical means of that love. We come neither to the food of idols, nor to the idolatry of ourselves in the vain imaginations of our hearts, but to the great groaning board of God’s infinite love. Prudence calls us sacramentally to make use of the good things which God has given us. In the sacrament the things of this world are taken up into the higher purpose of our life with God. Bread and wine, the fruits of creation and the work of men’s hands, become the body and blood of Christ, the holy means of our incorporation into the life of God.
“These things were our examples.” Israel in the wilderness, the wild ones at Corinth and the prudence of the unrighteous steward are our examples about what to do and what not to do. They bring us to what is more than an example. They bring us to the reality of Christ and to our abiding in him, to Christ in the Sacrament by which he would be “in us and we in him”. It is our prudence to enter faithfully into what he wills to give us.
“Now these things were our examples”
Fr. David Curry
Trinity IX, ‘09