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Sermon – “As Others” – October 27, 2013

Sunday, October 27, 2013

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

As Others

Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4: 6 – 8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14

The narrator of Curzio Malaparteʼs Second World War memoir, Kaputt, is an Italian journalist reporting the war. He is in the Ukraine, and makes his bed one night in a field of sunflowers. Early the next morning he awakens to hear a sound he at first canʼt identify, nor can he discern what direction it comes from. It is a quiet, whispering noise, and he finally realizes it is being made by the field of plants lifting their blooms to face the dawn.

In the midst of an account of the destruction brought by twentieth-century warfare, in which the natural world often is victim, the calm carrying-on of the sunflowers is striking. It is also odd to be reminded, by the rhythms of day and the response of photo tropic plants, of there being power in the world entirely apart from the actions and energies of its human inhabitants. The Axis armies, which have muddied and bloodied the terrain, suddenly seem small and transitory beside the enduring cycles of nature.

Psalm 65 also surveys productive fields. Of the psalms celebrating the bounty of the earth, it is the most focused on farming. The furrows in which humans plant are evoked, as are the harvest-cartʼs wheel ruts trapping what slips from the load. It is not human agency, however, which is seen. The meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain. By the grace of God the sustaining power of forage and the fertility of the soil combine to multiply the implied effort of the husbandman. The wonder of the worldʼs abundance, its generosity of provision, is due to the will and power of God.

In our time taking a large view of the world has become the photo taken from space. We all can imagine that blue orb swathed in mist; sometimes a film will locate its story in a grand context and the first shot will be of the planet, and then a dizzying descent until we drop into a neighborhood, first like something from GoogleEarth, and then eye-level.

In some ways the scope of this psalm is like that. It is not just a field, or a meadow, or a valley over which the poet gazes, or of which riches he sings. It is all fields. This is the nature of Godʼs world. It is wondrous. He addresses God: “Those who live at earthʼs farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.” There are countless beasts on countless fields, innumerable acres bearing grain. There is household after household, land after land, in one exultant chorus of harvest. The world is nurturing, abundant, happy to provide– and it is all thanks to God, the Maker, whose will it is that this world exist, and by whose power the world mirrors the life- giving goodness of God.

We wisely caution ourselves with images of ecological disaster. We are aware of famine and flood. We know that vast tracts of the world are desert, inhospitable. We see legions starving. But despite every human depredation and natural calamity, it remains true that the earth brings forth plentifully. There are human reasons, economic reasons, political reasons for hunger. Sometimes there are natural reasons. The population, however, increases continually, and every orchard smells of fruit that never was picked, every field is abandoned before the full harvest is gathered, tons of food are discarded daily, even while soil is paved over, lost through erosion, poisoned by runoff. The power of the world to support life, especially to cope with burgeoning human populations, is astonishing.

You donʼt have to look beyond Buffalo Valley to begin to get a notion of the Psalmʼs insight into the power and dominion of God. Multiply local production by communities in a county, counties in a commonwealth, states in a nation, nations in the world.

Little things proclaim the scale of the worldʼs bounty. Before they started putting a slice of lemon in every glass of water in every restaurant twice a day, I never thought about how many lemon groves there must be. Thatʼs something which only grows within a narrow band of the globe, but they seem inexhaustible.

Iʼm not talking like this to downplay conservation or to encourage wastefulness. Weʼre too careless about conservation already, and weʼre outrageously wasteful. I am talking about how much comes from the soil every day to echo the images from the Psalm, and to recover the same wonder. Those for whom the world is Creation have a hint of the vastness and the wisdom of its Creator even from little things.

The Bibleʼs God is a big God. At one point in the development of the religion of the Old Testament, the Hebrews were not yet monotheists. It wasnʼt a faith of only one God. It was the conviction that their God was bigger and better than other gods, and the earlier books and history of the faith reveal the evolution from a world in which the gods of other nations were inadequate but deceitfully tempting alternatives, to a world in which non Jews worshiped gods that had no reality at all, mere idols made of wood or stone. By then it was recognized that God was one, and that everything–not just the near things, or the familiar things, but the farthest and most incomprehensible and unimaginable elements of the cosmos, were made and existed by the power of the one God.

Even if there were a local god, even if our valley had a benign spirit overseeing its fertility, assuring germination, growth, and harvest, and its power was limited to the fields between the ridges which bracket us, by the river, and the rise beyond Laurelton, would we be so emboldened by the limited jurisdiction of such a small deity to approach it familiarly, to presume on its welcome? If the wonders of nature were to be embodied in some spiritual being, like one of those nymphs or satyrs of classical myth, just big enough to account for the back yard, or the window box–wouldnʼt that be enough mystery, power, and amazement to humble us, to give us misgivings, to frighten us?

How much more hesitant should we be to barge into the presence of a God in whose hands is the universe. How much more aware of our insignificance ought we be when conscious of the company of a deity who is eternal.

Jesus tells a parable for the benefit of those who regard themselves as righteous and have a low opinion of others, whom they regard as less righteous. Itʼs the one in which the Pharisee thanks God that he is not like others. He possesses unusual virtues, he practices exemplary piety. He is a better person, by the lights of his religion, than the tax collector praying in the same place.

Well, if he were confiding his opinions to us, we would regret his snobbery, but we might see some of his point. Better behavior benefits the world, and worse behavior brings trouble. We generally are grateful for what good gets done, and we are sorry that not everyone rises above trials and temptations and sticks to the straight and narrow. Among us–on the level of human beings–we might comprehend the confidence with which he compares himself to others, even if we recognize it as dangerous.

And why is it dangerous? Itʼs dangerous because we are not the final arbiter of what is weighed, and who is vindicated. A being unimaginably greater than we has the last word in these matters. We, who hardly would presume to crash a party of fellow mortals, are supposed to be as humble when approaching God. The parable heightens the contrast of the two mortals, and makes a point common in Jesusʼ teaching about the superficial and slippery character of the distinctions humans make among themselves, but this lesson is not just a warning for lifeʼs winners and encouragement for lifeʼs losers. Itʼs a reminder that it is possible to presume on Godʼs admiration for how we do our religion, and to deceive ourselves that we have Godʼs endorsement of our petty perspectives. It is a constant theme of the gospels: if you make yourself big, you will be brought down, and if you are humble, you will be raised up.

How does this message jibe with Paulʼs declaration in Second Timothy about his success in serving God and the reward he expects for his faithfulness? First I think itʼs fair to say that the person of Paul in the New Testament letters has an ego. Itʼs also fair to see that, at times, he recognizes his ego and tries to downplay it.

That, however, is not entirely the point, because whether we think too much of ourselves or undervalue who we are, neither of those things bear on our relationship to God. Who is so wonderful that God must be impressed? Thatʼs part of the point of the parable. On the other hand, God has made us, we bear in ourselves the image of God, and so we shouldnʼt sell ourselves short.

Paul here may sound braggy to some, but he makes no comparisons. He doesnʼt say he has done better than anyone else. He claims he has done what he had to do. He has acquitted his calling. He uses the language of athletic competition, not for the first time. Serving God is an effort. Discipleship is a discipline. In athletic effort Paul finds an analogy for something which is arduous, costly, and at the same time admirable and exalting.

In the rest of the reading Paul mentions how others have disappointed him, but he forgives them. He is not like the Pharisee in the story, though he has confidence in Godʼs faithfulness to those who are faithful. The bottom line, as always in the New Testament, is concern for the well being of others, and a refusal to judge them before their Maker.

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