Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost.
From the Epistle: “That we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will.”
Fr. Perren Hayes, who often sits in the back of the church at 8AM on Sundays, signs off on all his emails, “There is nothing that you can do that will ever make God stop loving you.” Louie Crew, an old friend, signs off his emails, stating unequivocally, “God loves absolutely everybody.” Both of them understand that the love that God has for us is due not to our being good, but our being God’s. God creates and sustains us, every one. And God does so with unconditional love.
Remember the old catechism question, “What is a sacrament?” The answer was, “A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” A sacramental life would be one filled with outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace, and all those graces spring from the fact that God loves us unconditionally. We live sacramentally when we show in our lives that love of God working in us.
Here at St. Peter’s people of talent, ability, and just plain delight, bless us. Not a week goes by without someone from this parish being in some way or another honored “out there” in the larger world. (And here I spoke of specific persons) Sometimes members of this parish are “out there” without notice, but they are there. Each week there is something of note, and I don’t by a long shot know all that is going on. In this congregation there are pilots and preachers, real estate agents and teachers, lawyers and therapists and doctors and on and on… and as the song says, “They are all of them saints of God, and I mean to be one too.”
They are mostly saints because they live sacramentally, showing in their lives the love of God working in us.
The saints of God, the people I’m talking about, live the collect we prayed this morning “Grant us Lord the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will.”
They understand that God, in creating and sustaining us, also appointed us to be moral agents, to think and do always what is right, according to God’s will. So they try – they work at being what God wants of them. Sometimes we don’t even think of it that way, but simply believe they (and we) ought to do and be “our best.” But deep inside we also know “our best” is not what we think of as best, but what God would have us be.
This works out pretty well when we think of people, known and unknown, who do good. But what about people, known and unknown, whose lives are not so tidy, ordered or moral?
What about David? He certainly got a lot of press, lots of it bad! We’ve been reading about it the past three Sundays. Yet David knew that God created and sustained him, and, even when he did wrong, also loved him. God loved David.
David was sure of this. Even in his darkest hours, when his own greed and misuse of power and arrogance go the better of him, he knew. God loved him. Here in today’s lesson David loses his son, killed in battle, in a war that David wages against him, and we hear his cry, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you. O Absalom, my son.” The prophets believed that God was punishing David for his sins, and David agreed. Yet David even in sorrow knew what he knew from when he was a boy, that God loved him.
Without God we cannot exist, and because we do exist, on some level or another we know that we are created and sustained by God, even when we are miserable sinners. (I take great comfort in this!) And so, in addition to all the saints of God who do good, we must add all those who God loves but who don’t do so well, and the list, as Perrin and Louie suggest, becomes everybody.
I’m not going to get trapped in the rather peculiar question as to whether or not this means I believe in universal salvation or not. I am not talking about salvation. I am talking about love.
Thinking this way about God’s love places moral action where it ought to be: not as a means of acquiring God’s love, but rather as a means of expressing our gratitude for all we have been given in that love. Moral action, the effort to do what is right in God’s eye becomes a product of thanksgiving rather than a means to effect a change of status from bad to good.
Looked at that way, Paul’s comments read today are more than admonitions. They are more than recommendations. They speak to the product of grateful hearts, they speak to the matter of loving-kindness. “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in Love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Our being, our existence, is created and sustained by God, and without God there is nothing. We exist within the love of God. The issue at hand is how we live within that love.
Creating and sustaining are two sides of the same loving actions of God. But how do we live into being God’s creation and how do we understand our being sustained? What keeps us from despair of our own sin and misery in our own failings? How can we be always part of that creation / sustaining presence of God? How do we find the sacramental – the outward and visible sign of God’s love – in this broken world?
Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “I am the bread of life.” It’s easy to get what he is driving at: Jesus both makes us new and sustains us, and gives fully of himself that we may have life and have it abundantly.
We all know this, don’t we? It’s why we come and receive communion together. It is why we are baptizing children this morning. We know that without God present and sustaining us we would become hard of heart and reduced to stone. We live with joy and expectation because Christ lives in us, because God continually sustains us.
This is not so hard is it? But this is theology at it’s simplest and most useful – it is attempting to find in the outward signs of creation the Creator, and in the outward signs of loving (even loving badly) the inward and spiritual reality of God’s love.
Some years ago I heard for the first time the song “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.” It was sung by a street beggar in London and recorded, and from it Gavin Bryars wrote an amazing musical composition. Now, I am not a big fan of “the blood of Jesus” and the “suffering for us” sort of theology. But something struck me about the words.
The words were simple, and in the composition repeated again and again. I don’t know why, but still after these years the same words still echo in my mind:
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet,
Never failed me yet,
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.
There’s one thing I know
For he loves me so,
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.
The inward and spiritual reality is that God’s love in Jesus Christ never fails us. And all of us can act in witness to that love by the love we show one another, whatever its cost, and it never fails.
Pretty simple. There it is.
Somebody say Amen.
(web addendum: Here is a YouTube version of part of the composition, with difficult and disturbing, but finally wonderful photography.)