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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 9 – Year C

According to today’s news report, we have just experienced more than 96 days of withering, scorching, and debilitating 90+ degree temperatures, which felt to our skins as though it were 105-107 degrees. Hopefully, tonight we will have a respite; but, the summer isn’t over, and there surely will be more hot, hazy, and humid days to come.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, Abram is standing “in the heat” of the day in a land where that heat climbs to 125-145 degrees. It is in the worst hour of this oppressive environment that God appears in the guise of three travelling strangers. This phrase, “in the heat of the day” is a perfect metaphor for the worst of times, the hardest days of our lives, the bad news that we all encounter at one time or another.
Abram sees three strangers, and rather than beholding them with fear and hostility, he welcomes them with water to rest and to refresh, and food fit for a feast. What a different world from ours where we too often greet strangers with suspicion, hostility, and guns. They, in turn, offer him, not a threat, but a promise: they will return and Sara will have a son.
In today’s Gospel, the travelers are not three strangers, but Jesus and the disciples. They are welcomed, not by a patriarch, but by two women; one of whom is described as “distracted by her work” which not only includes the daily tasks of fetching water and cleaning the house, but preparing food for so many unexpected guests. The second woman stops everything to listen to what Jesus is saying, much to her sister’s annoyance and condemnation.
Jesus’ reply is that there is only “need for one thing:” the presence of God; and furthermore adds that her choice for this promise “will not be taken away.”
Both lessons address God’s presence in our daily living, in the heat of the day, in our daily work and in our choices; and God’s promise of new life whenever and wherever we are, no matter how laughable, unattainable, or unbelievable it may seem! So, with these themes of presence and promise, let’s look at what we are doing this day as we celebrate the two sacraments of our church: Baptism and the Eucharist; those moments when we as a community celebrate God’s presence and promise in our lives.
On page 308 in the Baptismal service of the Book of Common Prayer is one of the most beautiful and meaningful prayers ever written for liturgy. Barbara Hall, a famous New Testament scholar who taught at Virginia Theological Seminary, used to say about studying Paul: “Pay attention to the verbs.” Good advice when paying attention to this prayer.
Usually, when we Episcopalians pray, we beg or plead for God to give us something we want. Not here. In this prayer we follow the Jewish style of prayer by beginning with giving thanks to God for what God has given. Notice the verbs: “you have bestowed….” It’s not, “gimmie, gimmie, gimmie,” it’s thank you for having already given. And the next phrase is “ you have raised….” Again, the act has already been accomplished. We have already been raised to a new life. Don’t we generally say, “Oh, I hope I’ll go to heaven,” or “God please change my life,” or “I want … in the future”? In this prayer we are not longing for things to come, but giving thanks for what has already been given: i.e. a new life in the presence and promise of God. It is no accident that we “name this child” for we are proclaiming in that act that I am who I am in the life of the one God who’s name is in the Greek of the New Testament, ‘ego eimi’, meaning “I am.” And in the Old Testament as spoken to Moses, “I am who I will be.”
After our act of thanksgiving, the prayer goes on to describe the essentials of this new life:
“Give them an inquiring and discerning heart….” Normally these words are associated with the mind and its activity. However, in this prayer we claim them for the heart which represents the whole process of seeing and seeking. The arena of our passion and commitment.
“…the courage to will and to persevere….” An essential ingredient of life for those moments lived “in the heat of the day” when we are told “you have cancer,” “your job is terminated,” “ your home is being foreclosed,” or the dreaded phone call in the middle of the night that begins, “your child has been in an accident….” Or you may add your own worst nightmare that best describes your heat of the day moment.
“…a spirit to know and to love you….” We do not love God by observing the right ritual, or knowing the right dogma, nor by belonging to the right church as so many believe. When I taught liturgy at Virginia Theological Seminary, every year for twenty years, without fail, every student would walk into my class on the first day and ask me the same question: “Are you going to teach us the right way to celebrate the Eucharist?” To which I would respond: “Do you think that on a hot August day when the air-condition is broken, on the feast of Christmas Eve, or at the funeral of a three year old, there is but ONE way to celebrate the Eucharist? No, I shall not teach you The Right way to celebrate. I hope to teach you how to live in your center and from there to connect with the people with whom you are gathered, and the occasion of your gathering, and to celebrate in the most authentic, genuine way of being and of giving thanks as the people of God. Through the spirit to know and to love God, the individual “I am” and the collective community of “we” as the people of God are living within God’s great I Am. That is the heart and soul of celebration: being present to God’s presence and promise.
And finally, “…the gift of joy and wonder in all of your works….” Note the word all – the good times and the bad times. The wonder is that in those bad times there is joy! That is because those dreaded and tough times are never outside the presence and promise of God, the gift of life abundant! Think of those tough times you’ve already endured; did not friends and neighbors, and even strangers give you food and drink to nourish you? Did not you receive cards of encouragement and hope for a better tomorrow? Were you not surrounded by the gift of love that never left your side?
Our experience of Baptism and Eucharist today exemplify those very ordinary moments of life when we have received God’s gifts of presence and promise of life that are transcendent. Today we receive water and food, Christ’s gifts to us, the same as Abram’s life sustaining gifts to strangers in the heat of the day. The gifts that offer us the opportunity to understand with enquiring and discerning hearts that we live in the presence and promise of God, the very same gift the strangers (God’s messengers) gave to Abram. And, like Jesus’ promise to Martha, the gift “shall never be taken from us.” These gifts are summarized in one phrase: God’ abundant and abiding love; which gives a new meaning to “being in love.”
I shall end by quoting on e of my favorite contemporary theologians, The Rt. Rev. Jack Spong, who writes in his new book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic:
“Faith is not believing in creeds, doctrines, or dogmas; faith is trusting the divine presence to be in every moment, in every tomorrow. Faith is having the courage to walk into the unknown, to confront whatever life brings one’s way….”
God’s abundant love is the very ground of our being, our courage, our hope, and our guide. Therefore,
• step over the threshold of past dogmas and “right rules” of faith, into the new life of baptism and grace;
• move into the unknown beyond your safe boundaries;
• be led by the Spirit moving in your heart to face new possibilities challenges, or surprises “in the heat of the day;”
And go forth into the world trusting in God’s presence and promise, singing “Alleluias!” all the way.

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