August 11, 2019
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
August 11, 2019
Br. Juan Charles Valles, CG
Lessons: Genesis 15:1-6 / Psalm 33:12-22 / Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 / Luke 12:32-40
“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”
In the name of God, sacrifice, victim, and champion. Amen.
As we all know, church bodies periodically update hymnals: it’s all done with an eye toward speaking (or singing) to present generations, using metaphors that still make sense or that speak to our ever-growing and -deepening understanding of God. One hymn that has rightfully fallen victim to our rightful pacifism is “Onward Christian Soldiers.” I completely understand why most Mainline Protestant denominations have retired this hymn, if not in their hymnals, at least in their cycles of hymns: it calls to mind a scenario in which the evil world out there is assaulting our insulated perfect little bubble. It’s a call to arms to not only defend our bastions of spiritual powers but to conquer the world in the name of Jesus. It moves the cause of spiritual development and growth from in here to out there. In. Out. Good. Bad. And, so on.
However, I want to resurrect this hymn for just a moment. Looking around our present world, it’s so easy to think of everything through a lens of violence, war, and conflict. Everything is painted as a zero-sum sort of game. I totally get how easy it is to fall into the sense that one must defend oneself and one’s place and one’s possessions against enemies both seen and unseen. But, before I go any further, I’ve asked Jim to take us through the first verse and chorus of the hymn, found at 562 in the blue hymnal.
[Onward Christian Soldiers – https://hymnary.org/hymn/EH1982/562]
So, clearly, verse one is full of archaic war imagery. Battles, banners, and so on. If you look closely at verses two and three: there’s a little asterisk there. For us churchy types it means that those verses are optional; the remaining verses still capture the spiritual lesson of the hymn. But, if you look at them, they, too, are full of even more disturbing images. They praise conformity and uniformity, instructing us to shout down difference and dissent. No wonder so many denominations have chucked this piece. No one ever gets to verses four and five. But, here’s where we find the gospel message:
Crown and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane, but the Church of Jesus constant will remain; gates of hell can never ‘gainst that Church prevail; we have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail.
Onward, then, ye people, join our happy throng; blend with ours your voices in the triumph song: glory, laud, and honor, unto Christ the King; this through countless ages we with angels sing.
Jesus again shouts to and at us: all this pettifogging and obsessing and quibbling about things that simply don’t matter is a waste. This stuff so occupies your heart and soul and mind that there’s nothing left for Jesus. It’s this obsession that yet again tricks us into hoarding goods spiritual and physical: you’re either with me or against me.
Just like our readings the last two Sundays, Jesus admonishes us in the following way: “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.” Simplify, downsize, and share what you don’t need. Be a better discerner of what you do need. Builds stores for those things that feed our souls and our hearts and our minds and our bodies. Invest there. And, most beautifully, Jesus reassures us that this is a process: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Sometimes we just have to act first and simply let our hearts catch up. It’s sort of a divinely inspired take on “fake it ‘til you make it.”
Where does this leave us sitting here in Downey after non-stop news about mass shootings and global carnage and death? It’s so easy to take a defensive posture of sealing yourself off from the rest of the world, away from things strange and unknown. But, as we know from those who suffer from prolonged trauma, being fearful like this for so long can easily transform someone into a sociopathic monster. Christ cautions us against this soul-crushing paranoia.
So, if not this, then what? We invest in God’s economy, even if it seems crazy and risky and foolish. We know that there are no junk bonds in God. We know that investments there never get written off or down: they grow and spill over, a true bonanza. How do we start? Start by trimming away the fat. Create space so that we can pray and worship and praise. We can pray for courage. Courage to pray for change. And courage to turn those prayers into action. Actions of love and joy and real Christian fellowship, openly challenging those things and systems that strive to dehumanize. Each time we breathe out goodness, we breathe a prayer into the world. These prayers can start a cascade that goes well beyond any one of us. Like the stars that God pointed out to Abraham, our prayers can together brighten the dark, night sky.
Faith without works is dead…Saved by faith alone…This debate has been going on in Christianity for centuries. You’ve heard me talk about prayer without actions isn’t enough. While it is imperative in this present world to prayerfully and tangibly confront powers that seek to divide, harm, and demean, sometimes, prayer is all can muster up in the moment.
As was mentioned in this week’s e-Vangel, we will be offering a litany, one compiled by a group of Episcopal bishops in the call to enact reasonable laws to tackle America’s gun crisis. As we pray “The Litany in the Wake of a Mass Shooting,” sit, hold, feel. Pray for hands and a mouth to make change; but, be still. You will know when the time is right.
“[F]aith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But, because we know Jesus, we know that faith is always fulfilled. When the time is right, act. Act in courage. Act in hope. Act in peace. And, most importantly, act in love. Amen.