This was my sermon for the 7th Sunday after Trinity at Grace Anglican Church. The readings were 1 Kings 17:8-16 & Psalm 34:11-15 & Romans 6:19-23 & Mark 8:1-10a.
In our new testament reading this morning, St. Paul doesn’t pull any punches on what has since become a hot-button topic in this country: the subject of slavery and freedom. He sets up two opposites: God (who is holy and perfect and good) and sin (which is the result of the denial and rejection of God). Because they are opposites by definition, there is no real middle ground between them. Like in dropping a piece of paper, only one side can land face-up. Thus Paul tells us that, in terms of the struggle we experience in life, we are (by definition) only on one side or the other: we’re either slaves of sin and free from God, or we’re slaves of God and free from sin.
In addressing the Roman Christians in his day, St. Paul reminds us that we are slaves to Christ and therefore set free from sin. Specifically he reminds us that in that slavery we must yield ourselves “to righteousness for sanctification.” So often we talk, hear, and sing about our freedom from sin yet forget that freedom is not just a passive stance: it comes with the ability and responsibility to do the opposite of sin – righteous deeds that are in accord with sanctification, the process of growing in holiness ourselves.
What kinds of deeds of righteousness must we do, one might ask? We heard to examples in our scripture readings this morning. In the 1st book of Kings we hear about the generosity of the widow of Zarephath in the face of her and her son’s immanent starvation, and the generosity of God in feeding them and Elijah for the duration of the drought and famine. Similarly, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus helps his disciples be generous with distributing food to 4,000 people who had traveled out of town to hear him teach.
Generosity with food is just one example of being a slave to Christ. The point of the idea of us as slaves is primarily a counter against one of the classic “seven deadly sins” – sloth, or apathy. This is a sin which is especially about our spiritual disposition. Often, we think of laziness as lying on the couch watching TV instead of doing our homework. But the sin of sloth is deeper than that, revealing a sense of indifference or lack of care and interest in living the holy life that Christ has called us to. As we face off against this sin of sloth, and seek to purge it from ourselves as active slaves of Christ, let’s look together at the Collect of the Day, as it serves as a fabulous teaching device to this end.
Lord of all power and might, who are the Author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of your great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
As you look at this prayer you’ll find it has four petitions (four requests): graft in our hearts…, increase in us…, nourish us…, and keep us…. Let’s walk through each of these in turn.
#1 Graft in us love for God’s Name.
The first thing that we should observe about this petition is the fact that it is God, specifically the Holy Spirit, who grafts the gift and virtue of love into our hearts. True love, selfless sacrificial self-giving love, isn’t natural in our sinful condition. Selfishness always creeps in at least a little bit. So we ask God to give us his perfect love first. ‘Cos at the base of it, love is what it’s all about. We have seen slavery without mutual – the racial divisions in our country are still recovering from the damage done by that. So we cannot understand what it is to be a slave of Christ without knowing & realizing mutual love with him.
The other thing worth noting here is that it’s not just about love for God, but love for God’s Name. Throughout the Bible, especially the Old Testament, we find references to God’s Name. What this refers to is not just the words by which we call him, but also the tangible presence and representation of God. The Ark of the Covenant, the Tent of Meeting, the Temple in Jerusalem, and the man Jesus of Nazareth were all described as places where God’s Name dwells. Today, this especially points us in two directions. One is sacred art and consecrated objects or locations (consecrated meaning specifically set apart for a holy purpose). Before doing anything else this morning, we asked God to set apart this room for the purpose of worshiping him. Love for God’s Name includes a reverence or respect for the things and places that are meant to point us to him in special ways. The other direction “God’s Name” points us is toward our fellow human beings. Man and woman were created “in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:27), meaning our very existence – body and soul – is meant to be a picture of God. Therefore, loving God’s Name also requires us to revere and respect all other people.
#2 Increase in us true religion.
This brings us to the second petition. “True religion” is most likely meant to be a reference to the writing of St. James, who taught us “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). In a nutshell, “true religion” is to love your neighbor as yourself, which we’ve already heard about earlier in our worship this morning.
But, just as in “love your neighbor as yourself,” the concept of “true religion” is not devoid of “yourself.” Our work that must increase is about both loving acts toward other people, and a lifestyle that is “unstained” by sin. Notice the complete and inseparable union of caring for physical needs and caring for spiritual needs. True love – true religion – holds both together as equal priority. This is a beautiful outflow of God’s love for us that we’re invited and commanded to share!
#3 Nourish us with all goodness.
Thirdly, we pray for God to nourish us. Where the previous petition focuses on our acts of love and righteousness, this one focuses on God’s love and righteousness toward us. SO what are some ways that God “nourishes” us? In the scriptures, the Church has identified two particular categories of how God cares for us: the Word and the Sacraments. In the Word of God written, we find the true and perfect Word of God revealed to us: Jesus Christ. As we hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the words of sacred scriptures, we are brought closer to the Truth, closer to the Wisdom, closer to the Love of God. Similarly with the Sacraments – as we receive the physical signs offered in the sacraments, we receive the true and perfect Sacrament: Jesus Christ. A sacrament is a ‘means of grace,’ remember. That means it’s a vehicle, or a tool, or an instrument that God uses to give us grace. When we faithfully recognize this, the comfort and love and empowerment for us is great, as we acknowledge and celebrate the great nourishment that God offers us.
And although the ministry of Word and Sacrament is an objective, definite, and certain way that God nourishes his people, there are myriads of other possibilities as to how God cares for us. For, one of the objective means – the sacrament of baptism – assures us that the Holy Spirit of God himself dwells in each of us. And if God is with us, there is no limit to what could happen! None except, of course, the limit of what God has already told us about himself and his Church, so we still need to remain grounded on the established Word and Sacraments to frame our loves together as God’s people.
#4 Keep us in God’s mercy.
Finally we pray that, in God’s mercy, he would keep us in the same (in that mercy). This is very important, both as a prayer, and as a teaching. For our works neither earn nor maintain our salvation; only God does. Realizing this is crucial for us, as it protects us from two opposite problems. On one end, relying on God’s mercy allows us to work as his slaves without developing undue pride in ourselves. Remember the end of our New Testament reading: “the free gift of God is eternal life.” Salvation is not our due; it’s a gift. We aren’t employees of Christ; we’re slaves. On the other end, relying on God’s mercy allows us to work without despair of ‘not doing enough.’ Remember that salvation for eternal life is God’s gift to us frees us from the fear that comes with being a paid employee. If something comes up, if we have a bad day, our paycheck doesn’t get cut. We’re not paid by the hour or by the week or by a commission, but by a promise (a covenant, if you will,) by God himself. So if there is any fear or doubt about the status of our souls, we can go to him in prayer, rather than working ourselves into a frenzy.
So, as we celebrate this moment in our life as a Mission Church here in New England, let us receive these two exhortation from God through his Scriptures today.
First, let us beware the sins of idolatry and sloth that can come with having a worship space. For while it is a beautiful blessing and encouragement, we also acknowledge that “true religion” is not just about what we do here on Sunday mornings, but also what we do ‘out there’ as we love and serve our fellow man.
And second, along those lines, let us seek to be active slaves of Christ. As God nourishes us here in the Word and Sacraments, as well as in many other personal ways through the work of the Holy Spirit, we also must look to nourish others. Just glance at the news headlines these days; the needs are great, and the needs are many.
As our Psalm this morning said, “Depart from evil and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”