The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 14th, 2019
Today’s readings are:
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Our reading from Deuteronomy this morning reminds me of how you find good pizza in New Jersey. It’s true. Often, when you’re looking for the best food you go to the best (and that means fanciest) restaurant, right? If you want great Italian food in general, there are a lot of places in New Jersey with cloth napkins and waiters with black bow ties and where you’ll pay, at least, $20 for a plate of spaghetti. Or, when you want a good steak, you’re not going to go to a fast food restaurant and pick something off the menu; you’re going to go to a nice place on a special day like your anniversary. And you’ll get a good cut of beef.
But if you want a good pizza, you don’t need to go far. I think the best pizza in the world is out of a place called Joe’s Pizzarea in Flemington, New Jersey. It’s a little shop in a strip mall tucked away behind a supermarket where I worked as a kid. And they have the best pizza in the world (and the best cheese-steaks). Helene, though, disagrees. She likes a place in the strip mall in her town, in Middletown NJ, also near a supermarket and of the same, tiny size. These are the guys who, when they heard that Helene’s dad had died, gave us five or six free pizzas because “Lou was such an awesome guy.” You don’t need to go into New York City to find good pizza, and you don’t have to go to a fancy restaurant. These local shops know it best.
Our reading in Deuteronomy is saying just this same sorta thing, though here we’re not talking about pizza but about God’s love. We desire God’s love. We long for it and hope for it like a man from New Jersey desires some good pizza, or a woman from the shore longs for good seafood, or someone from the great plains dreams of long, waving fields of grass, or when you’re out on a business trip and all you want to do is sleep in your own bed. And when we are out in the world, and we wonder how to act, and we say to ourselves: should I speak up? Should I keep my mouth shut? Should I take the job? Should I move to be near my grandkids? And we lift our eyes up to God and we say: “God, what should I do? Please, give me your commandments. Send me your love, your love that I long for every day and every night.”
And what we hear in Deuteronomy this morning is, hey, you don’t have to go to New York City to find a good piece of pizza. When you want to hear a word from God, you don’t have to go up to heaven so you can listen in on the talk of angels and God Almighty. You don’t have to go across the sea to learn from a guru on a mountaintop. For the Word is very near you: it is in your mouth and in your heart to observe. And what this means is that we have God’s word, God’s answer to our questions and our longings and our hopes, right here. And not just here in at St. James, but that God is speaking to us, individually, in each of our hearts and in each of our prayers. So be with God in our questions. Talk to God about our hopes and dreams. Long for God in thought, word, and deed, and you shall find him beside you.
Well, that’s all very nice, but, at the end of the day, is it true? Is it true that all we need to do is listen to ourselves – listen to the thoughts of our hearts and God’s own personal word to us in prayer – and with that alone, we’ll find God? Well, in a way, no, it’s not. Or, at least, it’s not the only way to find God. There’s also the church – little ‘c’ church that’s here at St. James in Coquille, little ‘c’ church again in our diocesan life, and little ‘c’ church again in the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Anglican Communion worldwide. It’s also the big “C” Church, the universal Church that stretches across time and space. We are part of a community that lives in everywhere from Oregon to New Zealand to the northern tip of Scotland; a community that has thrived for two thousand years; and in which we’re still the Church whether we call ourselves Episcopalians, Baptists, or Catholics. And as Christians, we are called on to take part in that community. We’re called on to study the wisdom of Church tradition, to be in communion with other Christians whose practices and theologies look pretty wacky to us, but even so they’re still worshipping the same God and living and believing in the power of the Spirit (and at the end of the day, little more really matters). Part of our life in Christ is that, while we listen to the call of God to us in our own lives, our own loves, and our own hopes, while we continue to develop that personal relationship with have with God through Jesus Christ, we also open our ears to the Church (big ‘c’ or little ‘c’). For we alone are not enough.
But when we hear, and when we ourselves say, that God is very near us, we don’t mean that he’s only with us, or that he’s with us and certainly not with those guys over there. When we say that God is very near us, what we’re saying is that we can stop looking around all over the place for God and, instead, simply start loving. Don’t go to some far away country or search out some higher form of prayer – those things are good in themselves, of course, and we can learn a lot about God in other countries or from deeper forms of prayer. But God isn’t just at the end of the journey, waiting there and checking his watch because, you know, we’re really taking our time and we’re pretty late coming home. God is at the end of the journey, surely, but he’s also with us at the beginning of the journey and all throughout. God is very near us. And that nearness, and realizing that nearness and living into that nearness, that’s the point of all this. That’s the point of being a Christian. And yes, of course, realizing this nearness will lead us to do good things in the world around us and it will help us grow into more virtuous, God-loving people. But the point of living the Christian life isn’t just to do some good things and be virtuous for our own sake. It is to grow in Christ, to be open ever more fully to the breath of the Holy Spirit blowing through all of Creation. The point is to be near God, to be very near to God, and to invite and bring others into that life.
And this living, this living near to God, it does something to us. It builds us into people who are like Jesus Christ. In theological language, it makes us Sons and Daughters in the image of Jesus, the first Son of God Almighty. Like him, we will become truly human. And living such a life, we will then, like Jesus before us, go out into the world to continue his good work, be it at the county fair, at the food bank, at the barber shop downtown on Mondays, or in our normal, day-to-day interactions with the people of this world. But it all starts from living a life with God. It all begins, lives, and ends, with God.