Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, Morning Prayeradmin | 25 September 2011
“Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful”
These words of Joel the Prophet sound a particularly fitting and providential note on this Sunday which is designated in the Anglican Church of Canada and beyond as “Back-to-Church Sunday.” What Joel’s words remind us is that back to Church really means back to God. “Return to the Lord, your God.”
In so many ways, this is the problem that the Churches confront in our contemporary culture. While God may or may not be a believable concept, the Church certainly is not. Beset by scandals and decay, despair and demographical decline, there seems nothing positive and attractive about the institutional church, especially in the face of the feel-good culture of the contemporary smorgasbord of “spiritualities.” And yet the words of Joel, within the context of our liturgy as a whole, speak profoundly to the discontents and fears of our increasingly anxious and fretful world. All our vaunted certainties have crumbled into the dust of uncertainty.
The progressivist myth that things are always getting better and better is simply not true and no longer credible, however much we try to cling to it. It is, perhaps, in that context that Joel’s words here have a kind of resonance for us and signal the possibilities of a new beginning.
For that is what the Prophets of Israel are always about. Their words, which sometimes seem so harsh and uncompromising, are the strong wake-up call that we desperately need to hear, now and always. They recall us to the most primary relationship in our lives: God, without whom there is nothing and we are nothing. In a way, we know this and in a way, we don’t. What gets in the way?
Many things. Not the least of which is ourselves and one another even in our gatherings as Paul suggests in our second lesson. To be the Church has never been an easy task and yet that is our vocation. We are to be the place where God’s word is proclaimed to hungry and thirsty, desperate and lonely souls – mine and yours, I might add. We are called to be the place where the transforming and radical love of God for a sad and weary, wounded and broken world, is made visible. How? By the quality of our love. Our love for God and for one another shown by our patience and forebearance and consideration, by our service and sacrifice.
In a way, it is as simple as that and yet how many are the ways we betray it! First and foremost, by our neglect of the worship of God, treating it as if it were some optional extra rather than the whole purpose and meaning of our humanity. Tough talk, I know. Please forgive me but it is utterly true. Without the primacy of worship, God is nothing more than the idol of ourselves in our practical and sensual lives. We are emptier that we realize. That is the tragedy, the tragedy of the modern world.
The Christian gospel was proclaimed in the face of the tragedy of the ancient world. What was its tragedy? To know and see the Good and yet be forever apart from it. To see and know a blessedness which is forever beyond you and utterly unattainable. To contemplate the utter futility of human endeavour and striving because the goal remains entirely beyond your reach and grasp. In the face of such fatalistic futility and frustration, Christianity offered freedom and dignity. It still does.
We have to know what it teaches and, then, we have to will it in our lives. Both are impossible without the grace of God in Jesus Christ and in his body, the Church. This is the great teaching and the very thing which discomfits and challenges us the most. It states unequivocally and without compromise the absolute and utter primacy of God. Our humanity is nothing and utterly incomplete without God. This is the great insight of all the great religions of the world.
For us, as Christians, this understanding is concentrated for us most wonderfully in the figure of Jesus Christ, both God and man, our Lord and Saviour. Joel’s words, for Christians, mean a return to Jesus as God and Lord, recognizing the vanity and emptiness of our all-too-human lives. As such, the modern return is very much like the Christian answer to the tragedy of the ancient culture but in a different key. What we have to learn is the utter emptiness of our subjectivity, of our sense of entitlement, of the vanity of thinking that somehow our world is so very much different from earlier times and is somehow perfectible by us. It isn’t.
To know this marks the beginnings of the return that Joel is talking about. It is about humble repentance. It is about recognizing the sovereignty of God that overrides all human pretense and presumption, ecclesiastically and politically, socially and economically. There is, to my mind, as well, the great paradox: cultures are only as strong as their adherence to the spiritual principles that define them. Sometimes the return to those principles happens when we are most empty and bereft. Then the return to God is a most gracious and joyous event and we discover, and, here, is the paradox, that all our fears and worries about our world and day are not the most important thing at all, indeed, our fears and worries are only because of our forgetfulness of God and his providence.
The modern tragedy? Not to know that there is anything more than the emptiness of ourselves. Yet there is. It is God with us in Jesus Christ. In him we discover the true dignity and worth of our humanity. It is found simply and wonderfully in the mystery of God’s being with us in Jesus Christ, in his body, the Church.
St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans complements wonderfully (and providentially), I think, the reading from Joel. Paul knows only too well the barriers and obstacles that all of us, individually and collectively, erect between us and one another and above all else, God. In the face of that human reality, he proclaims the kind of return to God that Joel also points us, namely, the realization that what is looked for is not “food and drink” but “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” something which belongs utterly and entirely to our being with God in Jesus Christ. Christ did not please himself, Paul suggests. How much so for us? Let us please God.
“Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful”
Fr. David Curry
Trinity XIV, September 25th, 2011