“May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer.” I have used these words as part of the prayer before preaching for more than 30 years. Words are important, but faithful living requires more than words. And meditations of our hearts—the desires we have, the wishes we express, the dreams we harbor—are important, but faithful living requires more than just meditating in our hearts. And that brings up another phrase that never stops resonating in my mind. It is one we say at the end of every installation/ordination service—“You are now [an elder, a deacon, a minister of the Word and Sacrament] in the Church of Jesus Christ... Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, so that your whole life will bear witness to the crucified and risen Christ.”
In word or in deed—in what you say, in what you think, in what you do, in what you live—may it all be under the banner of Christ, be part of a life lived in witness to the gospel. Who else feels a little daunted in trying to meet that goal? How do we make a start?
We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for asking the question “How do we faithfully live?” It is a topic that has been mulled over for millennia. It is part of the story arc of our Scriptures. In the last three weeks, the Old Testament readings have reminded us of—God’s covenant with Noah (the bow in the clouds), and God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah (the promise of their generations being blessed to be a blessing).
And today, the covenant, the relationship, is provided a code of conduct, a God’s “Top Ten List” of things to do/not do.
That is the way the Jewish people understand what came to be called The Law (the 10 commandments and those regulations that followed from the 10 commandments)—it was a gift from God, a way to understand what it was that God wanted from us, our part, our responsibilities in this extraordinary covenantal relationship we have with God. The question always was: “What do we have to do to live rightly, to live faithfully, to live blamelessly before God?”
And if those 10 commandments seemed too dry, there were the summary statements like the one in Leviticus to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” or Micah’s declaration to “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” All have an action component—not just words and meditations, but how we relate to God, how we relate to one another, even how we relate to ourselves. Faithful living couldn’t be contained in a list—couldn’t be boxes to check off, and then dust your hands off. Done. Finished. Faithful living is something that we aspire to, work on, and oftentimes fail at.
In looking at the Scripture lessons for this morning (all four of them)—I thought they could give us different hints at what a faithful life might look like. Yes, there are the 10 commandments, some have called them the 10 laws of love, the guideposts on how to worship God and respect and love our neighbors. Faithful living intends that we prioritize “right” relationships.
Then there are the psalmist’s words that we heard in prose and in song—a hymn of creation, a hymn to the Creator—a reminder that our faithful living isn’t just about us personally, or even us as a human species. Our lives are connected with all other life on this planet—we have been tasked as stewards of the earth, and all that dwells upon it. Sadly, we have not been very faithful in this regard. And it is high time that we begin to take seriously this part of our covenantal responsibilities. Faithful living is intended to include all of creation when we regard with whom we are in relationship.
But it is in the two New Testament readings (from 1 Corinthians and the gospel of John) that our faithful living is really challenged. The apostle Paul talks of God’s choosing the foolish, the weak, the low and despised—a complete reversal of conventional thinking about power and strength, then and now. This faithful living requires basing your trust on an alternative reality—coming not from Q or any other source, but from our belief in the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Isaac and Rebecca, the God of Jacob and Leah and Rachel, the God of Moses and Elijah, the God who Jesus called “Abba.” And in this reality, which Jesus termed the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of heaven) things weren’t the same old, same old. Shepherds went searching for one lost sheep, leaving 99 behind. Banquets were thrown where the high and mighty missed their chance to attend, and the invitation was sent out to those not usually in attendance. The rules, the law, was bent if it got in the way of the spirit of love. As the parables show us, Jesus intended to flip our mental constructs—to make our words and our meditations align with the bedrock of righteousness.
To faithfully live, we have to be willing to step away from all that “the world” tells us is important—status and wealth and power for its own sake. Faithful living turns what we think is important upside-down.
But the story of Jesus in the temple, Jesus upsetting the money changer’s tables, Jesus having righteous rage reminds us that God did not ask us to shy away from living in the world, from seeing the world for what it truly is, or from trying to make changes in that world. You might think, after reading the 10 commandments and the pretty language of Psalm 19, and the alternate reality of 1 Corinthians, that we could live faithfully in our own little bubble—not paying any attention to what was happening “out there.” As long as we followed the rules, as long as we included all of creation, as long as we readjusted our thinking, we were ok (this thinking goes). But our gospel lesson strips that away from us. In the prophetic tradition, Jesus cannot abide the turning of the temple into a worldly place, where justice did not roll down like waters. And this is where faithful living steps onto the world stage.
It is not enough for us to be “right” with God and our neighbor in our own personal dealings. It is not enough for us to be in “right” relationship with the rest of creation. It is not enough for us to get our thinking “right,” to push aside the constructs which hold us prisoner. Faithful living propels us into the world, propels us to challenge the things that are not yet “right,” propels us to do something about it. That is what I hear from the story of Jesus in the temple.
Justice and mercy and walking with God, the law of love, is not something that can remain cloistered, or quarantined. Certainly our words, and our meditations, need to be acceptable before God—but they cannot be divorced from our actions, our deeds, our work for a more just and merciful world for all. Only then will we have a glimpse of what faithful living truly is.
May God grant us the courage to follow in Jesus’ footsteps: Faithfully living under the law of love, including all of creation, believing in the kingdom come near, and actively working to make our world closer to God’s intention.
May it be so, Alleluia, amen.