December 30, 2012
I Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Grace and Peace to you this morning. In the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians, we hear again the command of Christ that we love our neighbors. Beginning with a call to us to learn how to practice the art of patience, we are to told to, “clothe yourselves with heartfelt mercy, with kindness, & humility…”. Anyone who has attempted to live these virtues knows this is not something that comes easily, especially in a world that is constantly telling us that success is all about domination & exploitation. But St. Paul adds to the challenge by getting to the heart of the matter, saying, “forgive whatever grievances you have against one another.” He doesn’t say, “forgive if someone who harmed you apologizes and shows proof that they have changed and won’t bother you ever again.” No, just forgive whatever. Yesterday the Moth Radio Hour replayed a piece from this past October, featuring the Rev. Al Sharpton telling about when he had learned that working for justice starts with a personal commitment to treat all of God’s children the way we would want to be treated. Rev. Al was leading a protest rally in New York City, to demand justice in 1991 for a man who had been murdered because of his race. As he arrived at the rally, a man stabbed Rev. Sharpton in the chest with a knife, requiring emergency surgery to save his life. Months later, as his assailant was going to court on charges of attempted murder, Al’s mother asked him what he thought the Rev. Martin Luther King would have done, and asked Al if he was planning to forgive his attacker. So, Al spent a little while reading about what Martin had done in his life, which did include a similar incident, and Al realized he needed to move beyond the drama and excitement of the protest rally and the anger he felt for the man who had tried to kill him. So, he went to the court and asked the judge for leniency for the accused. This led to an eventual contact with the assailant, who told Al that he was the first person who had ever spoken up for him in his life. When we look beyond the stereotypes we have about people, sometimes we can discover that a personal relationship does lead to understanding, wisdom, and the spiritual foundation for social justice.
St. Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians when he was imprisoned by the Roman authorities. He knew how powerful those other feelings can be. He knew how we can slide so easily from anger and resentment into lusting for revenge and giving into self-righteous judgmental attitudes. St. Paul did not say we should forgive only after we have received compensation, but rather we should forgive as the Lord has forgiven us. On top of all the kindness, patience, mercy and forgiveness, we are to wrap ourselves in love, which makes the other virtues perfect. By practicing these spiritual exercises, we prepare ourselves so that the peace of Christ will actually be with us, as we say to each other every Sunday after the Call To Worship! And St. Paul concludes his instruction on the practice of virtue saying, “Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness.” At first glance, this sounds like the easiest of these spiritual disciplines; as if thankfulness is only a response to receiving wonderful blessings & the comforts of success. However, again, we are not supposed to wait for everything to be absolutely wonderful before we start practicing thankfulness; we are supposed to dedicate ourselves to this spirit of thanksgiving at all times! I think that far too often, we would prefer to complain about how bad other people are, & how tough life is for us.
OK, what’s the point of studying about these virtues? It is not just another way to make us all feel like failures. Rather, it is the secret! It is what we can actually work on to bring us closer to that Peace of Christ. It is the key to achieving spiritual health. And since tomorrow night is New Year’s Eve, it could be quite helpful as we look back on the past year and forward to 2013. But it is a bit intimidating to look at this list of virtues, if all we see is how far we are falling short in implementing them.
The scripture lessons from the Gospel and from the Hebrew Scriptures each describe a situation in the life of a young boy: Jesus as he was entering adolescence, and the prophet Samuel as a young child. We are often so accustomed to thinking of Jesus as The Christ, it stretches our imagination to picture what the actual situation would have been like for Joseph & Mary, struggling to be responsible parents to this rather precocious son. Did Mary help Joseph by exercising her patience and mercy, or did she give him the opportunity to learn how to become a more sensitive husband by listening to her concerns as they searched for Jesus for three days? Perhaps they were working on forgiving themselves for losing their son in the big city, but all the text in Luke says is that they were searching for him in great sorrow, & asked Jesus, “Why have you done this to us?” So, anyway, they return to Nazareth and Jesus grew in wisdom and grace before God and men.
Samuel is another example for us, of a child who grew up in an environment that had an abundance of “challenges.” His biological father had two wives, and although he loved Samuel’s mother more, this caused some domestic turmoil with the other wife! Samuel’s mother had been childless, and in despair she prayed that if the Lord would bless her with a pregnancy, she would give the child to the priest at the Temple to raise. So, as a very young child, Samuel goes to live in the Temple with Eli, and his mother is only able to visit him when they go to the Temple. Furthermore, Eli has two other sons who become infamous for their abuse of people coming to make their sacrifices at the temple, and I would imagine they were not much fun for Samuel, either! However, Samuel, in spite of the challenges, grows in stature and favor with God and men.
Both of these stories teach that even when mistakes are made, even when the environment is less than perfect, it is possible to receive God’s blessings and practice the virtues that lead to spiritual health & maturity. This is good news for us, living in a time that often feels like we have more challenges than necessary. Rather than letting all the problems in the world make us feel overwhelmed, we can focus on the things that will help us grow in wisdom and favor with God. We have the ability to work on our own personal areas of spiritual growth, and also to work together as a community of faith, to address the social ills so evident in our culture. Spiritual growth is not something that we can achieve overnight, it does take persistent effort and practice, and even when we feel like we are getting really good at this humility thing, well, we might discover it’s harder than we expected! This year, as you make your New Year’s Resolutions, allow a little more room for grace to enter, for learning how to forgive yourself, even to laugh at yourself, is one of the signs that you are really growing in wisdom! The Lord doth have more light and truth breaking forth in our lives. Amen & Halleluiah.