Saturday, July 13, 2013

What Must I do to inherit eternal life?

The following is the first in a series of three sermons that I plan to preach at St. Andrew's Church in Marblehead MA. "Living the Gospel: A Meditation on three great Gospel words; Love, Reconciliation and Forgiveness." 

Living the Gospel I

Good morning my dear friends. My name is Paul Bresnahan and I am an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church. I live in Lynn just off Lynn Shore Drive where I have a commanding view of the ocean from my front porch. The dog and I enjoy watching the tide come and go.

I was ordained to the Diaconate in 1972 by Bishop John Melville Burgess at The Church of the Epiphany in Winchester, and ordained later that year at St Luke’s Church in Linden Square Malden. Alas that church is no longer with us. I served at Christ Church in Hyde Park, Boston for eight years during the integration crisis. From there I went to Euclid, Ohio during yet another integration conflict on Cleveland’s east side. After another eight years there, I went to Pawley’s Island in South Carolina where I served two tiny black congregations in the wake of the ravages of Hurricane Hugo. That didn’t last long at all given my advocacy for the poor and the Bishop’s reluctance to confront a fellow Episcopalian who was buying land at auction from the cash poor residents of the place. The practice made the poor much poorer and to do such a thing offended my sense of justice. During the ensuing conflict with the then Bishop of South Carolina, I lost, he won.

I returned to Massachusetts to serve another St. Andrew’s Church in Methuen for four years. From there I went to St. Mark’s Church in Saint Albans West Virginia where I expanded the ministries of a soup kitchen a food pantry, transitional housing for battered women and their children and went on to build a homeless shelter. This ministry satisfied me a great deal. I stayed there for almost twelve years. I retired from there to return to Salem, where I served historic St. Peter’s part-time, so to speak, for five years during which time we expanded our ministry to include a Spanish speaking congregation. I retired a second time and before long was invited to go to Douglassville, PA to serve a marvelous congregation as an interim priest for about 15 months. I retired a third time just a few weeks ago after taking half a dozen teenagers to France on an amazing Pilgrimage to places like Rouen, Lisieux, Caen, Mont St Michel and of course Paris. 

They say three’s the charm, but the phone rang when we were in Paris at our last supper there and as a result of that phone call I have an appointment with Bishop Paul Marshall in Bethlehem, PA to explore the possibility of yet another interim position. I shall ponder all these things and keep them in my heart as scripture says Mary did after the Annunciation. After all, the majesty of life; all that we’ve lived and all that we have yet to live requires us to ponder these things in our heart.

If you do the math, I’ve been ordained for 41 years. I must confess to you how much I love the church. Yes, it can be maddening, frustrating, and it can drive you to distraction at times, but the pure majesty of it; the worship of God and the love and care of God’s people and the service we share among rich and poor, among black and white and Spanish speaking and so forth, among male and female and yes among the gay and the straight alike; all this ministry is about nothing less than the love of God and the love of our neighbor. God knows, working out the particulars of our salvations takes a lifetime. 

What must I do to inherit eternal life? I suspect I have been doing it all my life. I suspect you have too. After all, eternal life begins with our baptism, not at the point of death. It won’t do us much good when we’re dead. The time to live like Jesus is here and now!

Look how Jesus responds to the lawyer who stood up to test him in today’s Gospel. He too wanted to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus was careful to repeat the “Shema” the ancient first law of the congregation of Israel.
Hear O Israel, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind."
This is the first and great commandment. The word “hear” in Hebrew is the word “Shema”, hence the name of the foundational commandment of the whole Law and the Prophets. This must have pleased the lawyer. This is what Jesus was supposed to have said.

But Jesus did something else with his reading of the Law. Something I find stunning. His heart and mind searched the entire scripture in the twinkling of an eye. He landed upon a somewhat obscure half verse in the Law of Leviticus, one not terribly well emphasized in regulation by the Levitical tradition. 

Of all the laws that come to us from the entire Rabbinical tradition, and there are 613 of them, 247 come from Leviticus, this particular commandment comes to us from Leviticus 19, versus 17 & 18. The law represents a “summary” if you will of many injunctions found in the first 19 chapter of Leviticus. And that law says quite directly “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. 

Jesus clearly ties the two laws together and in Matthew’s version he says specifically that the second law is exactly like the first. It is, if you will, “congruent” with the “Shema”.

Thus the Law and the Prophets is summed up in these two commandments. You shall love God and you shall love one another.

The Gospel of God is  love. This is the Good News. Fill your life with it.

Sound easy. Ha! Just think of your familial relationships; parents to children, siblings and their rivalries. Nation to nation. Republicans and Democrats, Israelis and Arabs, Sunnis and Shia. Good God, love your neighbor!

And worse yet, he said “Love your enemies”.

How in the world can such a thing be? I’ll tell you how. This is how you and I are to inherit eternal life. A new commandment I give you, Jesus said; “Love one another”.

Look, I have a confession to make. My brother drives me to distraction. He is as conservative as I am liberal. He is always trying to convert me to Christianity. I maintain that I’ve already done that. We have an interesting if strained relationship and have done since childhood. But he is my brother. I must therefore do everything in my power to maintain a loving relationship with him. As you and I must do everything in our power to maintain loving relationships with all in our families.

The Gospel love of which Jesus speaks and of which God requires goes much beyond familial bond. The Samaritans claimed they were the true Judaism untainted by the Babylonian exile. After all this portion of Judaism remained in the land and maintained the Torah in a Hebrew that actually predates the Hebrew of Jesus time. The Samaritans were loathed by many Jews of the day. 

So when Jesus pointedly tells the story of the Good Samaritan to this particular lawyer, I’m sure lots of ears were raised, many eyes looked askance. This Jesus obviously had a new take on the “Shema”. In the case of Jesus we were talking about a love that pierced through the classifications that we humans like to make as we organize ourselves into various ethnicities, races, classes, genders, and yes, orientation.

The Gospel is love. It is hard work. It will take a lifetime. But it leads to eternal life. The kingdom of heaven, as Jesus said, is within you. As you live into the truth of your own heart, you increase the chances of living into the heart of God. That’s worth doing because as you live into the heart of God, you in fact learn to live eternal life.

If ever the world needed to hear such a message, this is the time. While we are entitled to all our opinions, ideologies, patriotic ethnocentricity and so forth, we are not entitled to anything other than love. For God is love.

For the next few weeks, I would like to invite you to explore with me several great words of Gospel life. Today we explore the majestic but often overworked word “love”. Yet if lived as Jesus preaches it and as God requires it, the power of the word builds a life that shall never end. 

Next week, I will ask you to explore the word reconciliation and finally during my third and last Sunday with you, I will ask you to work with me on the word forgiveness. These three words are at the core of living a Gospel life. This is a life worth living. It is pure joy. It is nothing less than eternal life.

Blessings on you one and all,
Fr Paul

No comments: