Sermon - 3 Easter
In the Name...
A rich man was near death and grieved because he had worked so hard for his money that he wanted to be able to take it with him. So, he prayed and an angel appeared to inform the man that he would be allowed to take one bag. Overjoyed, the man filled his largest suitcase with gold bars and placed it beside his bed. When the man died, he showed up at the Gates of Heaven bag in hand. St. Peter opened it, took one look, and in disbelief, exclaimed, "You brought pavement?!!!" Few metals hold the same allure as does gold. It has been treasured since prehistoric times and it says a lot about human nature that the earliest known map, dated to 1160 BC, is of an Egyptian gold mine. In nature, gold is usually alloyed with silver, copper, lead and many other minerals. Refining processes are used to extract the gold and the resulting purity of the metal is measured in what are called carats. Pure gold is designated at 24k. At that quality, the buyer knows that he or she is purchasing an item that is completely free of all impurities.
The concept of purity was deeply ingrained in the Jewish faith. In the Old Testament, purification had to do with the removing of uncleanliness from someone or something in order to make it suitable for the service or worship of God. These ceremonies, which might involve sprinkling water or blood over a person or object, reminded the community that acts of service and worship were not common ordinary, everyday occurrences. They were other-worldly, sacred.
Today, these ancient practices tend to be ridiculed as superstition. Maybe, we have forgotten that these rituals were to remind the people to take their religion seriously. Or maybe, we haven't forgotten and some folks find it uncomfortable. After all, people who take their religion seriously are expected to demonstrate a high level of commitment and sacrifice.
And it's our cultural upbringing to look down upon excessive behaviour, even excessively good. We prefer moderate commitment and manageable sacrifice, nothing too extreme. As we heard, this morning, though, St. John, had a different understanding. He believed that Christians should do everything they could to remove every form of impurity from their lives. He wanted his readers to strive for 24k purity.
This striving for moral and ethical purity has historically been called the practice of piety. Piety. That's a word which has had a bad press, not least because "pious" has become synonymous with "sanctimonious", which is a very bad thing. Piety, though, is really just the name for a spiritual exercise routine which builds us up and makes us fit for God's service. Far from being a bad thing, one writer has defined piety as "our reverence joined with His love" and this morning we've heard a bit about that love.
“See what love the Father has given us.” St John wrote. And while the Greek word "dedoken" does literally mean “to give” it also carries with it the sense of something excessive, poured out upon the recipient. So, "See what love the Father has lavished upon us", is more to the meaning of the passage.
And piety is how we respond to this. Piety is how we join our reverence with His love and purify ourselves accordingly; doing whatever it takes to remove anything in us that prevents us from, in the words of the baptismal covenant, growing into the full stature of Christ.
But, although we know the theory, we also know we allow impurities to remain. We allow the materialism of the age, the prejudices of the times, our own personal likes and dislikes to remain within us. And this was as true in the 1st Century as it is in the 21st.
In addressing this fact of life, the 16th C Reformer John Calvin described three practices of piety which he said Christians should work on developing. First, he said, we should practice Generosity toward those in need. I don't think, in our day and age, that's as big an issue as it once was. We accept that the Gospels are filled with stories that speak to this. In response to a question by a lawyer on the subject of who is my neighbour Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. He warned the rich that they could easily become preoccupied with building bigger barns at the expense of their souls. He praised Zacchaeus for reimbursing everyone whom he had cheated.
The second practice, though, Calvin called Frugality, and that is even more of an issue in our time than it was in his. The world is a gift from God and a place for us to enjoy and we should not abstain from enjoying good things, but, we have a human tendency to overdo it. We want everything bigger and better to the point where getting the biggest and best becomes the driving force in our lives; from the food we eat, to the vacations we take, from the cars we buy, to the electronics we enjoy. It is by exercising frugality, self-restraint, however, that we prevent material possessions from possessing us.
And the third practice has never been easy in any age and that is Obedience, specifically to Scripture. People, being people, though, we tend to get fixated on certain things. We're quick to denounce some things as sins, but, not so quick in other cases, especially when we're the sinner. Obedience means looking at the big picture and realizing that we all have things which need to be burnt away. A great saint of the Church, a woman renowned for her holiness of life, for her spiritual depth, a woman to whom great miracles of healing and faith had been attributed, once said to an admirer who was singing her praises, "Oh, please. I'm not God. I know I'm not. God is forgiving." And that about sums it up. We've all got problems.
Generosity, Frugality, and Obedience. All good practices to join our reverence with His love. The process, though, is just that, a process and at times it's uncomfortable, even painful, and we don't always see where it's leading or even if we're making any progress. Which is why I'm going to close today with the parable of a teacup.
It's a story I remember from some years ago and it goes like this: A woman was in an antique shop and spotted a beautiful teacup. "This is the loveliest teacup I have ever seen.", she says. At that point, the teacup says to the woman (well this is a story), "Thank you, but, I wasn't always beautiful. Once, I was just an ugly, soggy lump of clay. But, one day some man with dirty wet hands threw me on a wheel and spun me around until I got so dizzy I couldn't see straight. 'Stop! Stop!', I cried. "But, the man said, 'Not Yet!' Then he started to poke me and punch me until I hurt all over. 'Stop! Stop!', I cried. But, the man said 'Not Yet'. "Finally, he did stop. But, then, he put me into a furnace. I got hotter and hotter. 'Stop! Stop!', I cried. But, the man said 'Not Yet'. "Finally, he took me out and some lady began to paint me. The fumes were so bad that they made me feel sick. "Stop, Stop!', I cried. 'Not Yet!' said the lady. "Finally, she did stop. But, she gave me back to the man and he put me back into that awful furnace. This time it was hotter than before. 'Stop! Stop!', I cried. But, the man said 'Not Yet'. "Finally, he took me out and let me cool. When I was completely cool another lady put me on a shelf, next to a mirror. "When I looked at myself in the mirror, I was amazed. I was beautiful, firm, and clean. I cried for joy. It was then I realized that all the pain was worthwhile. Without it, I would still be an ugly, soggy lump of clay."
St. John Chrysostom said that a Christian is a human in the process of being made like God. We should not settle, then, for being 10k, or even 14k Christians. We should strive for 24k. We should strive to remove all the impurities of our lives. And we should strive to understand and praise God for the process by which we are shaped, that we may enjoy to the fullest the love and the life he has lavished on us. A gift more precious than gold.
In the Name...