Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Pentecost 9 (C)
11 August 2019
[ video ]
Each week the lectionary serves up a selection of texts for us to explore as we seek spiritual wisdom for everyday life.
Most times those readings are not chosen for their connection with one another. However, there is a logic to the choice of readings, as you may know.
For a whole year at a time we listen to one particular gospel: Matthew in year A, Mark in year B, and Luke in year C . This year our focus is the Gospel according to Luke.
The first reading is selected on an entirely different basis. During most of the year this reading will come from the Old Testament. We work our way through consecutive portions of various ancient texts, rarely reading the entire document but hopefully gaining a sense of its purpose and flavour.
The Psalm which we sing or read each week is chosen for its ‘fit’ with that first reading. It is not so much a reading in its own right, but rather a reflective response to the reading which has preceded it.
Typically, we also have a reading from the letters of St Paul or one of the other apostles from the early church. Most often it is Paul although this week it is from the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews.
As always, the first task when preparing a sermon is to listen, to read, to sit with the text and see what lines of reflection emerge. What is the Spirit saying to the church through this set of texts?
There are some Sundays when the readings cohere and the sermon almost writes itself. On those days it is often very clear what line the sermon might take.
There are other Sundays when the readings do not seem to converge at all. On such Sundays the preacher has a more challenging task.
Today seems to be one of those Sundays!
As you may have noticed, I tend to focus on the gospel since our core task is to be followers of Jesus. However, today I want to start with the middle reading, the passage from the letter to the Hebrews.
In Hebrews chapter 11, we have a series of characters who are presented as examples of faith.
In this context interestingly — and unlike the authentic letters of Paul — faith seems to mean a mysterious confidence in providence, perhaps grounded in some secret information revelation, rather than the faithfulness of Jesus which demonstrated in both his living and his dying.
In any case, Abraham is clearly represented as a model for the person of faith.
Let’s unpack that picture a little further.
In the Abraham story we find a character who feels compelled to leave behind everything and everyone which he is familiar, and to embark on a journey into the unknown. The destination is never revealed to Abraham but the consequences of the journey are described.
When Abraham goes on this journey he will discover a new relationship with God and he will also learn that the people amongst whom he then lives count themselves blessed because of his presence among them.
Abraham is to leave his comfort zone in order to discover the place of deep blessing: for him and for others.
At this point I want to bring in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah ben Amoz. Isaiah appears to have been a senior official in the royal government in Jerusalem prior to experiencing his own call. We find that described in Isaiah chapter 6.
Like Abraham, Isaiah was being pushed by God to move out of his comfort zone. The journey was not across a great distance, but rather to set aside his privileges as a government official, and to become that crazy person who insisted on telling the king what the king did not want to hear.
Such characters are both necessary and unpopular. This was to be true of Isaiah as well.
But let’s focus simply on the excerpt from Isaiah chapter 1 that we heard this morning.
It is quite a challenging text.
The prophet is calling out his peers because they have got religion—indeed life itself—entirely back to front.
The conventional wisdom said the best way to keep God onside was to be very religious. Lots of prayers. The very best music. Valuable livestock being burned by the wagon load as a gift to God. Beautiful vestments. Wonderful liturgies. Powerful rituals.
Isaiah’s journey from privilege and comfort included the lesson that this was entirely the wrong way to nurture a relationship with the love that is at the heart of the cosmos.
We heard the words earlier, but let me repeat them:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood. (Isaiah 1:11–15 NRSV)
What God requires is something very different, and much more challenging:
make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16–17 NRSV)
QUESTION: How do we deepen an authentic relationship with the Sacred?
ANSWER: Not by intense religious activity, but by being a compassionate human being.
Heart and treasure
Let me wrap this up with a brief mention of today’s Gospel from Luke 12 where we heard these words:
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:32–34 NRSV)
The takeaway from these readings today may simply be to reflect on that final statement by Jesus: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Like Abraham and like Isaiah we are compelled to reflect on what matters most to us.
What is the treasure we cannot let go?
What is the journey we refuse to take?
Where is our heart?
What matters most to us?
As we come to the Table of Jesus for Holy Communion we seek God’s help to set aside privilege and influence, comfort and security, and to pour ourselves out in compassionate action for the sake of others.
What do we most desire?
Where is our heart?