Sunday, June 12, 2016

4th Sunday of Pentecost: Of Sacred Worth in Sacred Trust

1 Kings 21:1-20
Luke 7:36-50

“We affirm (rather than “assign”) that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.”  ¶161, Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church

When we are baptized we are set apart from the rest of the world, having been claimed exclusively by The Lord and brought into His Covenant, His Church.  Baptism, then, is much more than a mere rite of passage.  As a Sacrament of the Church, we understand baptism to be an initiation into something broader and more fully encompassing than even we realize.  It takes a lifetime to live into what baptism truly means – a lifetime of more than mere devotion to self.

The challenge of baptism for us, however, is that nothing on the surface really seems to change so much.  The world is still pretty much as it always has been.  There is still plenty of heartache, exploitation, injustice, hunger for food and fellowship and comfort and peace, and it seems clear few really care that we are baptized, reborn by “water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) into a relationship that can never be fully understood in the context of the world into which we are born nor can it be understand as strictly “personal”.

What’s more, the Bible reads like a fantasy book filled with stories of the poor, the weak, the marginalized coming out on top in the end; and those who would exploit these weak, poor souls finally get what’s coming to them.  The stories express hope in The Lord, comfort in His Covenant, and peace in the world which is to come.  Yet it is this world we must contend with.  It is the stories in the daily news we read as the reality we seem stuck with; stories which seem to prove the good die young, and the wicked always come out on top.

By faith we know our God is always going to get the last word when the wicked and the greedy take unfair advantage to get what they want, but we do not always get to see the final outcome.  I do not know that we ever will.  Maybe there will come a time when we will rest in the “bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:22) and see those on the other side begging Abraham for mercy, but we must also consider the possibility that someone else – someone we victimized, someone we stepped over, someone in distress we overlooked and never made peace with – will be looking down upon us.

For the contemporary notion of what it means to be “saved”, I think maybe we do not give enough thought or attention to the reality that being baptized and confirmed into the Holy Covenant imparts to us a “Sacred Trust”, rather than a personal privilege; a Sacred Trust that requires more from us than we realize or can even fully appreciate if we allow the moment to pass as only a “church practice”, a “thing” it is time to do. 

“We Americans have to unlearn some of the ways of individualism that we absorb uncritically, and we must relearn the craft of community living.”  Writer Rod Dreher made this observation in an article published in “The American Conservative” about the so-called “Benedict Option”.  Though the “Benedict Option” cannot be fully understood in a single statement, the idea that “we Americans have to unlearn some of the ways of individualism that we absorb uncritically” is thematic to the whole of the Option.  That is, we are baptized into a Body, a community, what is known in the Greek as the “ecclesia”, the congregation of The Lord.  We enter into a community, a covenant of shared responsibility.  “To each his own” has no place in this community.

What is revealed in this simple statement is the reality that we have become so enculturated to the American Ideal of “rugged individualism” we have “absorbed so uncritically” – that is, with little or no thought - that we have lost our sense of who we are in the larger context of the community, the Church, the Holy Covenant.  We have become so “personally” saved that we don’t really give a rip about anyone other than ourselves.  It is that very shallow notion of “saved-ness” that allows us to hate others with a clear conscience.

We have become so caught up in taking care of ourselves and getting our own way that we have all but forgotten (assuming we ever knew) our Holy Charge; that Sacred Trust which acknowledges the biblical reality that “to whom much is given, all the more will be required” (Luke 12:48).  That is, we have been given much in this world because there is much to be done for the World To Come.

King Ahab had no real concept of what it meant to be Israel’s king (1 Kings 21).  To him, it was about power and personal privilege.  He had no idea about the enormous responsibility that came with such a Sacred Trust.  The same can be said of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50).  He believed himself to have been put in a position of authority as a teacher and enforcer of the Torah, the Law.  Indeed he was in such a position of authority, but the fuller meaning of Divine Law had clearly been lost on him so much so that he did not even think to offer to Jesus the very basic of cultural courtesy which was due a guest in his home.

Each of these persons of authority – and even King David in the murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 11, 12)!! – lost all sense of all they had been entrusted with and why they were so entrusted.  They “absorbed uncritically” (without thoughtful introspection) all they had at their disposal that they became overwhelmed with a sense of personal privilege.  Within that Sacred Trust they had no concept of the Sacred Worth assigned to the entire human race created in The Divine Image – even the “sinners”! 

I have no doubt most of us believe we really are doing the very best we can do with whatever we have at our disposal, but I also think we do not “critically” consider how much we really have.  We measure ourselves and our worth according to cultural and social standards that are incompatible with covenantal standards. 

We live in an age in which those who lack have somehow been convinced they have been cheated out of what they are entitled to, never “critically” considering … well, anything.  Caught up especially in an election year in which it is customary for politicians to promise all things to all people, we have allowed this shallow narrative to convince us we are coming up short through no fault of our own.

Some are coming up short, but not always in the way they think because they are listening to the wrong narrative.  Public policy debates even within the Church pertaining to doctrinal disputes have become so loud, so bitter, so resentful, so malicious that we have forgotten the Sacred Trust inherent to the Holy Covenant. 

We have forgotten that the Sacred Worth assigned to us is the same Sacred Worth assigned to all by the God who “shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).  I will grant that we sometimes get pushed to our limits, especially when the nature of sin itself is not always “critically” considered and respected for its destructive power more than it is considered something personally offensive to us.  We only use the Bible incidentally to make our own case without fully understanding the holy nature of the Sacred Trust

This, I think, is what Simon the Pharisee was being called on.  He was so caught up in the woman’s sin and the response he expected from Jesus to back him up that he failed to look upon the woman as a human being of genuine Sacred Worth, the worth measured by The Lord rather than by humans.  He could only see her sins for which she was apparently well known, and he expected Jesus to do the right thing, the cultural thing, even the religious thing; to shun her for the sinner she was, unworthy of any human consideration.

We’re pretty good at this; a little too good at it, I’m afraid, for our own spiritual well-being.  We are so caught up in our own “saved-ness”, our own self-righteousness, that we are virtually incapable of seeing others with anything less than with disdain and contempt because they do not fit our preconceived cultural molds of what is proper.  Yet when The Word calls on our contempt and our narrow vision, we often become even more resentful, more contemptuous than before!  Repentance is for “them”!  Not for us.

As baptized Christians confirmed in the faith, however, we must not lose sight of the Sacred Trust which comes with baptism in discipleship.  I think if we were more aware of the The Lord’s Covenant and put less emphasis on “personal” salvation, we may get a better sense of the Sacred Worth of others within the Sacred Trust placed upon us.  And when we are able (and willing!) to do this, we will get a better sense of the Body we truly are a part of, the Body of Christ; and “church” won’t be quite the dirty word it has become in our society.

If we truly desire a transformed society, it must begin within the Body of Christ – not within the US Congress or the White House.  Let us therefore strive to become more aware of what we are called into rather than what we think we have been “saved” from; for when we are more aware of who we truly are, we will become more aware of who our “neighbors” are also in Christ.  Only then will the transformation begin.  Amen.

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