Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.So goes our Confession of Sin, the prayer with which we began this service, which is structured to begin with confession and end with thanksgiving. It’s a familiar prayer to us, because it also appears in the mass, either at the beginning in the Penitential Order or before the Offertory as part of the Prayers of the People. Following the direction of St. Paul’s exhortation, we turn to God for forgiveness and absolution before approaching the Lord’s Table in the Eucharistic liturgy.
Amos had a vision of God setting a plumb line in the midst of the people of Israel, a weighted string used as a vertical reference line, metaphorically speaking a standard for judging their moral correctness at a time when their failure of that test was very much a foregone conclusion. So too are we as Christians called to a holiness we are fundamentally incapable of keeping through our own power. Thus the inescapable necessity of our confession and subsequent absolution.
When the authors of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer were working on the revised confession of sin prayer for the Rite II services, they chose to make explicit that the standard we were failing to meet was that of the greatest commandments identified by Jesus in today’s gospel passage: “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
The first of those commandments would be one well known to Jesus’ audience, especially to the expert in the law who questioned Jesus. It’s a quote from the Torah book of Deuteronomy and appears in the Shema Yisrael--the one which appears in the Gospel According to Saint Mark, the first phrase of the shema is quoted as well:
Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.To love God with all one’s heart, and with all one’s soul, and with all one’s strength, and with all one’s mind means to love God with one’s entire person -- physical, mental, and spiritual. But what does it mean to love God, in practical terms, when God’s very Being defies the very possibility of our comprehension? After all, as Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote long ago, si comprehendis, non est Deus -- “if you understand, that isn’t God.”
We live in an age where there are almost as many different, warring understandings of Who and what God is -- or isn’t! -- as there are people to hold to them. As a consequence of religious freedom and a long list of social factors, the diversity of opinion which exists on questions of ultimate reality and the sacred is truly unprecedented.
Over the last month and a half, we have listened in our lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures to stories of how different understandings of the divine quite literally warred with each other, often with massive amounts of violence involved. The way the story is told, it’s almost like a sporting event. There’s the home team: Elijah, Elisha, Amos. And there’s the away team: Ahab, Jezebel, the priests of Baal, Amaziah. When our team “wins” we’re supposed to cheer; when “their” team scores a goal we’re supposed to hiss.
But is it really supposed to work that way?
Jesus’ answer to the lawyer in our Gospel reading today might suggest otherwise to us. The Samaritans were a people who held a different theological understanding than did the Jews of Judea, different in a way which seems small and trivial to us but which was the world to the Jews and the Samaritans themselves. You might remember the Gospel we heard two weeks ago, in which Jesus was refused entrance to a Samaritan city “because the face of Jesus was set toward Jerusalem.” The disciples wanted to “command fire to come down from heaven and consume them” but Jesus turned and rebuked them.
And now, a mere chapter later in the Gospel According to Saint Luke, Jesus uses a Samaritan as the example of the ideal neighbor, even above the puritanical obedience to the Jewish purity laws found in the refusal of the priest and the Levite to make themselves unclean by touching blood. Jesus is asked what is necessary to inherit eternal life, and the answer doesn't seem to presuppose that theological correctness is any necessary prerequisite.
“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus is asked, and answers: the Samaritan. The Muslim. The Hindu. The Wiccan. The Buddhist. The Scientologist. The Daoist. The Satanist. The Mormon. The atheist.
Amos said to Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son,” denying “that he belonged to the class of professional prophets; his vocation is due to the personal intervention of the Lord.” God is not limited to expressing truth in those places where we already expect to find it. All people are among God’s children, for whom Christ lived and died, and the work of the Holy Spirit can be found in all peoples and places.
Furthermore, the deep spiritual and philosophical insights of those of other faiths, or of no faith at all, can often be used to deepen and enrich our own Christian understanding and spirituality. For example, the descriptions of an intellectually compelling “Zen Catholicism” put forth by the Roman Catholic monk and priest Thomas Merton in his writings on the intersections of Zen Buddhism and Christian mysticism played a crucial role in my own conversion to Christianity.
Our proper recognition of those elements of truth and sanctification found in all faiths ought not, however, be allowed to lead us into the sort of theological relativism in which Christianity is merely “true for us” and one faith is just as good as other.
When I finish this sermon, we will stand up and affirm our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, the creed of our baptismal covenant which we renewed just two weeks ago as we welcomed two new members into the Body of Christ. We will say “I believe” with confidence, pride, and thanksgiving, as is good and right. These are the truths, however we may understand them, that God has revealed to us through the person of Jesus -- who identifies Christself in the Gospel According to St. John as the “way, the truth, and the life” -- and through the writings of the Holy Scriptures and the traditions of Mother Church. We affirm these tenets boldly and without flinching.
To do otherwise would be to give in to the dangerous idea that religion is little more than personally meaningful -- or, at best, communally meaningful -- ritual and theology a discipline without a subject. That is the fatal quicksand which threatens to consume our “Spiritual But Not Religious” age. Our ultimate commitment must always be to the radical power of eternal truths and self-consuming love.
But it must be to truth and love even above tradition or doctrine. And those ends are always best served when people with different understandings can come together in humility, admitting that we each but “see through a glass darkly,” to teach and learn from each other without animus or coercion; to challenge the beliefs of others and have our own beliefs be challenged in turn, amidst a welcoming environment of respect and toleration; to love and serve one another as neighbors, as full citizens of the Kin-dom of God.
All people who seek truth and love with sincere hearts are on the same team, and that team is God’s team even if its members might not agree on just Who God Is -- or isn’t. Indeed, in many ways a devout member of a different faith, or a principled person of no faith, can be said to be doing the will of God much more perfectly than can a lackluster Christian.
Saint Paul writes that he and Saint Timothy have prayed without ceasing for the Christians in Colossae “asking that [they might] be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that [they might] lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to [God], as [they bore] fruit in every good work and as [they grew] in the knowledge of God.” So too ought to be our own prayer for ourselves! For all of us, no matter what our religion or lack thereof might be, have plenty of room to grow in our knowledge of God.
Many of you are no doubt familiar with the old joke about a group of people who, having passed from this world into the next, are met by St. Peter at the pearly gates for a tour of heaven. As the tour goes on St. Peter takes them through the Baptist section of heaven, where everyone is giving glory to God in fully staid dourness, and the Pentecostal section, a crazed ecstatic frenzy of dancing and speaking in tongues, and so on. They come to our own Episcopalian section, with is an elegant dinner party with fine wines and exquisite food. As they come to a certain group way off to themselves, St. Peter draws the group closer and whispers, "Now, for this next group, we need to be really quiet. They are the Catholics and they think they're the only ones here.”
I repeat this joke now not in order to single out our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers and siblings for criticism. Indeed, I would argue that it grossly misrepresents actual Catholic doctrine on the subject. But I repeat it because there is a sense in which we are all -- Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative -- guilty of acting as if we have an exclusive monopoly on salvation, of falling into the sin of thinking we have found the formula -- the words or the actions or the beliefs -- by which one can alone properly solicit the grace of God, that only we have gotten it right. When we do that, we idolatrously place our own conception of God in front of the infinite and ineffable reality of Who God Is.
And so, truly sorry, we turn to God and humbly repent, and ask that for the sake of God’s Holy Begotten One, Jesus Christ, God might have mercy on us and forgive us; that we might delight in God’s will, and walk in God’s ways, to the glory of God’s Name.