Proper 14 Year A
Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45bRomans 10:5-15Matthew 14:22-33
I want to tell you a story about an Italian teenager named Chiara Offreduccio
. Chiara was the oldest daughter of a wealthy nobleman, engaged to a man of wealth, destined to a life of pleasure and leisure--until she heard the teachings of a local preacher, who spoke of the need to live a life of simplicity, in voluntary poverty, and to serve the poor. She ran away from home and became an important leader in the new movement started by that local preacher.
The town was Assisi, the year was 1212, and the name of the preacher was Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, better known to us as St. Francis
. We recognize the contributions of Chiara to the Church this Thursday, when we celebrate the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi.
The life of St. Clare of Assisi exists as a shining example of the Franciscan values of simplicity and care for the poor. Yet we must remember she was able to live such a life of saintly virtue only by defying those authorities which her 13th-century culture claimed to have rightful power over her: her father, her promised husband. To be accounted righteous under that culture, that Law, it would have been necessary for her to submit to those powers. But Clare knew there was a higher righteousness she was called to obey, one which made no distinction between male and female, leading her to write the first monastic rule known to have been written by a woman.
For first-century Jews, the Law by which their “righteousness” would be judged would have been theMosaic Code
, the rules set down in the Torah. It’s this desire to be counted as “righteous under the Law” which leads the priest and the Levite to pass by the bloodied man in the street in Jesus’ famous parable
, for touching such a man would have rendered them ritually unclean. And thus it was left to a Samaritan--a heretic!--to respond in a neighborly way and render aid.
St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reminds that Jewish culture, the culture of the priest and the Levite, that for them too, there was a higher righteousness, a righteousness of the heart, of faith. Now there are many, especially among our siblings-in-Christ of a more Calvinist persuasion, who would have us believe that all St. Paul is saying is that people who “believe in” Christ go to heaven, and people who don’t go to hell. But I think St. Paul’s message is far more beautifully challenging than that.
St. Paul writes: “if you believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved.”
The heart--Greek kardia
, from which our English word “cardiology” derives--was not the seat of intellectual activity for St. Paul’s audience. That would have been the mind--the psyche
, from which we get “psychology.” Of course, neither was it simply an organ pumping blood through the body. Instead, it represented a person’s will: the volitional faculty that made a human being capable of self-determining, the center and seat of spiritual life. This suggests to me that “believing in one’s heart that God raised Jesus from the dead” is less about the intellectual assent to a checklist of propositions about Jesus of Nazareth than it is about allowing one’s actions to be ruled by the power and compassion of the Risen Christ, allowing ourselves to be transformed by grace
--that amazing, unearned gift which is the birthright of every Christian by virtue of our baptism
--to make our lives a living testimony to the compassion and power of the Lord alive in us, paving the way for our salvation here on Earth: our right relationship with God and with God’s church.
Similarly, for a Christian in St. Paul’s time to “confess with one’s lips that Jesus is the Lord” was a radical act likely to result in alienation from family and outright persecution from society at large. It was to announce oneself not answerable to the worldly powers which sought to control and oppress, but to the one Lord, Jesus Christ, and Christ’s teachings of love of God and neighbor. Such a Christian would be actively living out their principles in a powerful and dangerous way.
For us in twenty-first century America, in a world of Christian privilege and cultural hegemony
where every U.S. President for as long as any of us here can remember has at least nominally been a Christian, where we probably get many of our Christian holy days off of school or work, to merely announce our self-identity as Christians falls far short of what St. Paul had in mind; indeed, in many ways it represents its very antithesis. Katharine Jefferts Schori, our Presiding Bishop here in the Episcopal Church, has spoken
of what she calls “the great Western heresy - that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It's caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being.”
Jefferts Schori later clarified her remarks
by noting, “If salvation is understood only as ‘getting right with God’ without considering ‘getting right with all our neighbors,’ then we've got a heresy on our hands.”
What it would look like for this parish of the Church of the Ascension
, here in Gloucester City, to occupy as radical a place in our twenty-first century culture as did the early Church in the first and second centuries, or the community of Sts. Francis and Clare in the thirteenth? What would it look like for us to confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord in a way which lives up to the true depth of St. Paul’s challenge? To proclaim a Jesus who stands in challenge to a twenty-first century “righteousness of Law” which seeks to divide us according to gender or race instead of unite us in one Body, tells us to fear the stranger instead of to love them as neighbor and as sibling, values the worth of a human being by the size of their house, their checkbook, or their pocketbook, instead of extolling the value and dignity of every human person as a beloved child of God Almighty, made in the divine image
? Mike King
, a progresssive evangelical author and blogger, has written about two models of evanglelization
. The first he calls believe-behave-belong
: "If we can just get people to believe the gospel, they will begin behaving properly, and eventually they can belong to our churches." But King suggested that a different model exists, belong-behave-believe
, where "evangelism happens quite naturally when we are entrenched in faith communities that are actively caught up in cooperating with God’s compelling work of restoration--restoration between people and God; between people and their own brokenness; between people and other people; and restoration of all creation. As our God invites us into the divine fellowship of the Trinity [King writes], so we should invite people to join us in community.”
Some of you here today are visitors to this church. Some of you have come to see me preach. Some of you have come only
to hear me preach. I hope I have communicated to all of you that you are welcome here--today, next Sunday, next month, whenever. Chances are, I haven’t as well as I could have, so let me reiterate it now: the Episcopal Church welcomes you.
Whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever else you go to church, whatever you believe or don’t believe, whatever you have done or may do in the future, the Episcopal Church welcomes you
. As slogans go, it’s not particularly profound or sexy, but at its heart it represents the crux of what it means to be Christian. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek: the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all.
It’s a challenge that all of us who are baptised members here at the Church of the Ascension--we who are listed in the collective, right on the front of our bulletins, as ministers in this church--need to live up to. We have been sent to proclaim Jesus Christ to the world--and, as Clare’s mentor Francis famously said, to, when necessary, use words--so that others may say of us that verse from the Book of Isaiah
which St. Paul quotes: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Living our lives so as to be counted righteous under the Law is safe, comfortable, risk-free. It is not easy to go against the teachings of our parents, our culture, our worldly authorities, the logic of empire which has co-opted much of Christianity. It is tempting to want to play it safe, to not want to leave the safety of our boat. But as our gospel passage this morning demonstrates, to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear is to sink for sure. It is only by marching ever forward, leaving safety behind us and exposing ourselves to risk, embracing the truly radical option represented by the righteousness of the heart, that we will be empowered to do what the world tells us is impossible.