Tuesday, October 18, 2016

PENTECOST XXIII (Proper 25) 2016

Death and Fire -- Paul Klee (1940)

What lies at the root of all religion, it has long been held, is not a belief about a supernatural world, but an awareness of the character of this one -- its contingency. Nothing about the world in which we find ourselves is guaranteed. When it comes to success and failure, prosperity and deprivation, health and illness, joy and sorrow, all the things that matter most to human beings, we are completely dependent on  time and circumstance. Our best laid political systems and our  most ingenious technologies are highly beneficial, usually, but they cannot give us absolute control -- of life or of death.

Religion starts in this awareness of a world that far exceeds our understanding and control, and prompts a profound awe. But this sense of humanity's awesome vulnerability generates a practical problem. How are we to make ourselves at home in such a world? The great religions, in different ways, offer answers to this question.

House of God - George Stefanescu (2006)
The Judeo-Christian answer runs through all of this week's readings. In even the most radical contingencies of life, the human heart can find security and a resting place in the eternal God who is both ever present and accessible. Thus the prophet Joel declares: "You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel. . .  your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions."., and the Psalmists write "My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God" ."Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts".

In just the same vein Paul writes to Timothy.  "The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so . . .  I was rescued from the lion's mouth". Having "fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith", Paul looks forward to a "crown of righteousness". The brief parable that Jesus tells in the Gospel, however, contains an important word of warning. The greatest spiritual danger human beings face is displacing true righteousness with self-righteousness. Self-righteousness complacently supposes that some mix of material  success and good works will make us secure. But that is precisely to lose the insight in which religion begins; human beings cannot be the means of their own salvation.

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