Friday, October 07, 2011

October 9, Proper 23, Kingdom Characters #3, Lovely Aspirations

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Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

This parable is the Monty Python parable, the Marx Brothers parable, the Three Stooges parable. Whatever is comic, whatever is confusing, whatever is vengeful, whatever is violent, whatever is impulsive, whatever is short-sighted, if there is any unfairness, if there is any impatience, that is this parable. Is this really what the Kingdom of Heaven is like?

For today I will say two things: first, the finish of this parable is not within the parable, but in your response to it, and second, the Kingdom of Heaven is offered as free for all and open to everyone and absolutely welcoming, but once you find yourself in it, the Kingdom has its expectations. Of course the poor guy had just been pulled into the party and had no chance to get a clean robe on, but what about you who hear this parable: the kingdom is near, so dress for it. Act the part, if you've been made a part of it.

It’s analogous to Exodus 32. The Children of Israel had not asked God to lead them out into the desert. They had only asked for relief from the misery of their slavery. God gave them more than they asked for, God gave them freedom from the realm of Pharaoh and then all the blessings of the realm of God. But they do not act the part. They use their freedom to indulge their fears and appetites. “Make us gods that we’re familiar with. Make us gods who will serve us and who will not challenge us. Make us gods who have no expectations.”

The Realm of God is welcoming and gracious. You find yourself within it. Maybe you started coming to church, and then you began to see the Realm of God behind you and before you. Or maybe you were baptized into it, and you grew up knowing you were in it; you grew up knowing that “The Lord is near.” However you find yourself within it, you face its challenge and its expectation that you act the part, and that you have a certain kind of character. Which might daunt you, except that its expectation is most natural. Not the kind of “natural” the flesh regards as natural, with our distractions and idolatries, with our typical indulgence of our fears and appetites, but the “natural” of God’s original intention and design, the truly human nature which we can aspire to.

This is the third sermon in a series of sermons on “character”, the kind of character that goes with being a citizen within the Realm and Sovereignty of God. Your character is the rôle that you are writing for yourself in the long-term drama of your life. Your character is not static but dynamic, and you develop your character through your choices that you make through time, each choice affecting your further choices. Your choices have momentum and a trajectory, which affect your posture and your attitude, your uprightness and your soundness as you address your life. Your choices leave a residue—your look and your smell, whether you are savory or unsavory. The combination of that residue and your attitude is the character you show the world.

My method in this series is to ask the Sunday lessons what they might tell us about character. This week is easy. “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything praiseworthy, think about these things.” A list of virtues to aspire to. Actually not so much a list as a field, because these virtues are not discrete, they overlap, they weave into each other, they blend into the fabric of the robe to wear within the Realm of God.

What’s remarkable about this list is that these words are not narrowly Biblical. St. Paul does not take them from the Torah and the Prophets. That may be because the Christians in Philippi, as indicated by their names, were not Jews but Greeks, and in Hellenistic culture, these virtues were already familiar. And so any new convert could recognize these virtues and immediately aspire to them. But I think there’s something else. These virtues are not peculiar to God’s people. They are the truly human virtues, which many cultures have aspired to. And so to live within the Realm of God is not to live apart in some utopia, it is to live within the restoration of humanity and the reclamation of human culture. The Realm of God is what the world desires even when it does not know its own desiring. You don’t have to be a believer to see the virtue of these virtues.

Whatever is true: αληθη, that is, genuine, honest, sincere, and true;
whatever is honorable: σεμνα, pious, noble, stately, and honorable;
whatever is just: δικαια, right, righteous, trustworthy, and just;
whatever is pure, ἁγνα, chaste, holy, unsullied, and pure;
whatever is pleasing, προσφιλη, lovely, winsome, and pleasing;
whatever is commendable, ευφημα, well-spoken of, reputable, commendable;
if there is any excellence, αρετη, any virtue, any excellence;
if there is anything praiseworthy, επαινος, worthy of admiration and esteem, anything praiseworthy — think about these things.

Get your mind off yourself, and get it on these aspirations. That means, paradoxically, not to focus on making yourself better, or whether you’re improving, like Mayor Koch, always asking, “How’m I doing?” Don’t worry about your own success at these or your performance. It’s not like learning the piano or the violin, where you have to think about your fingering, it’s like singing: you hear the notes, and from within you rise to them, your body is designed quite naturally to sing. And God designed your mind to think about these things and your soul to aspire to them, you were made for these virtues to be natural, you were not made to aspire to your appetites and self-indulgences or to be governed by your fears and your idolatries. Keep your eyes on the virtues and not upon yourself, and you will be joyful; when your attention is not on yourself you will rejoice and again rejoice. Choose for them. Be guided by them in your choices. Set them up as targets and keep aiming at them when you make your choices and decisions. Yes, put them up as slogans on the mirror in your bathroom. Get tee-shirts printed up with the words on them in some nice pattern, maybe shorts would be more telling. Wear these virtues like clothing, if they’re still outside you, and you can live into them.

Now these virtues are not only idealistic, only for the good times. They’re especially for the bad times, the critical times. The Epistle to the Philippian Christians is lovely and pleasing but it’s not House Beautiful magazine. Their situation was more like the Diary of Anne Frank. They were regarded by the Romans as seditious in their loyalty to Jesus as their Lord, their worship of the God of Israel was illegal in the city, so you can imagine the pressure they felt when they crowded in their little homes to break the bread. No wonder Euodia and Syntyche gave each other friction. St. Paul advises them to have a common mind: not sharing their own minds, but the mind of Christ. The mind of Christ who stood firm against the pressure of his opposition, but yet whose gentleness was known to all. The same should be the character of the congregation; that should be their reputation in the city of Philippi. These virtues are for witness and community.

Today we baptize Claire. We commit to a community in which she can learn these virtues by watching us aspire to them, by watching us make our choices and decisions in the direction of our aspirations. We commit to develop our own characters this way, and we want to populate this community of Jesus with a cast of characters in which she can take her place and add her voice and act her part. Today she is our joy and today she is our crown. Her future is what we love and long for, and as much we love her, she is even more beloved of God.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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