Today’s readings describe impossible possibilities. Isaiah challenges the people to go from apathy to awareness and transform their worship from ritual to justice-seeking. Hebrews tells the story of Abraham and Sarah following God’s promises that, although they are childless, they will become the parents of a nation. Jesus asks his followers to stay awake in every season of life, and sell their possessions to have resources to give to the poor.
As a pastor, professor, and householder, I don’t know which of these challenges is most difficult for my congregants and me. I’ve just bought a new home on Cape Cod, where I have begun a new ministry at South Congregational Church, in Centerville. I live a few minutes from the ocean, love the beach lifestyle, and will be making my first mortgage payment later today. At age sixty, I take note of the future of Social Security and the condition of my retirement accounts. I have a modest nest egg that I protect for a rainy day and supplemental income in retirement. I’m even thinking of purchasing a second car because our experiment at being a one car family may prove to be inconvenient. I am generous; but like my congregants, I am prudent in my generosity. Even a financial tithe leaves me plenty to live on, but if I give much more, I will have to change my patterns of grocery shopping, entertainment, and forego plane trips to visit my grandchildren, and I’m not sure that I am willing to do that! I give to charities beyond the church; but I am nowhere near selling my possessions even to insure the well-being of the poor. I am sure that my congregants are in the same boat. We are part of the USA economy and are accustomed to certain lifestyle comforts and personal freedoms.
Isaiah challenges us to explore a holistic spirituality. Prayer and praise are important as is living through the liturgical year, but our most dynamic worship is fruitless if we turn our back on the poor. Holistic worship is concrete, and seeks to love God by loving creation, including both the non-human and human world. All worship must be grounded in grace but inspire prophetic action. The meaning of “prophetic” will differ from community to community and congregation to congregation. Still, it must touch base with the real suffering in our neighborhood and the world around us. Sadly, too much worship implicitly supports injustice and ecocide by its apathy. If our hymns drown out the cries of the poor, we are likely to experience a famine on hearing God’s word, despite our apparent piety.
The Epistle to the Hebrews portrays Abraham and Sarah’s faith as involving trusting God with the unseen and unknown. They launch out – you might say recklessly – with no promises and few guarantees. They don’t even know where they are going. This foolish faith is an anathema to those who consult Mapquest or set their GPS for a five mile drive as I will when I pick up my son and his wife this evening! The narrative of Abraham and Sarah invites us to be risk takers, willing to go forth with only a dream to guide us toward God’s far horizons. This elderly couple gives up everything secure to follow a promise. By comparison, most pastors, congregants, and congregations are far too prudent and careful. Few of us, even the most faithful, will leave everything for God. At the very least, we need to consider becoming prudent risk takers, open to setting aside certainty to follow God’s call.
I don’t want to take myself off the hook, and the preacher must confront her or his own desire for security – financial, vocational, doctrinal, and liturgical, first – before placing undue burdens on her or his congregants. For starters, this text – and the others – calls for an examination of conscience (examen) to determine what is truly important to us. The hour and moment of God’s coming may or may not conflict with our other responsibilities. It may not represent a sharp break, but it will call us to perceive our responsibilities from a different perspective. Once more, looking at my own life, I believe that this afternoon, God’s call involves caring for my toddler grandson while my wife takes his one year old brother to the doctor’s office for a likely ear infection. The homeless and hungry must simply wait for any direct or indirect action on my part. Choices must be made moment by moment and fidelity to God may involve caring for our families first and insuring their well-being before putting ourselves at risk or devoting hours and days to a cause in our community. The issue is not one of “either-or” but God’s call in the moment, given our various responsibilities and personal gifts.
We are not all social activists or prophets, and yet we must insure that our congregations are not apathetic when it comes to the well-being of our community’s, nation’s, and planet’s most vulnerable citizens. At the very least, we pastors need to be pastoral prophets, caring first, but also challenging. We must be willing to balance care for our family, the health of our congregations, and social concern. The task isn’t easy; if the world is saved one person at a time, we must hold all these callings in contrast, putting some ahead of others and then placing the calling of one moment in the background when other callings appear. Sometimes I must care for my own grandchildren before other peoples’ children, but my love for my own family eventually must bear fruit in seeking well-being for the planet’s children. We are all in this together and even a small act can be catalytic.
Today’s readings remind us to seek God’s realm in and beyond our daily responsibilities, and to consider constantly the need to give up certain types of security to be faithful to God’s presence in the persons in front of us and across the globe. We may have an uneasy conscience at times and this is good news, for such uneasiness invites us to mindfulness and intentionality, and reflection on what is truly important in the course of a day and a lifetime.