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Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

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The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, (Proper 25b)
26 October 2009

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.Amen.

Isaiah 59:9-19
Psalm 19
Hebrews 5:12–6:1, 9-12
Mark 10:46-52

One of my running disagreements at the Episcopal Divinity School was over the word “charity.” In that highly charged, politically correct atmosphere, “charity” was considered to be at the wrong end of a spectrum of Christian activity directed towards others. “Charity,” I was taught was something that the upper and upper-middle classes engaged in. It involved the holding of lavish benefits—picture the Temple of Dendur—to provide socks, or some such things, for the less fortunate. It was the tossing of a quarter to a “bum.” It was something done from the top down to make the giver feel better about themselves.

At the other end of this spectrum was “justice.” “Justice” called for the fair distribution, or even re-distribution, of wealth and knowledge. It was an activity that arose from the people. It was an activity that affected the structures of society and achieved the kinds of inversions about which Jesus spoke in the Gospels: “whoseoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:40). “Charity” is soft. “Justice” is hard. Charity may be where someone begins, but truly for one’s activity to be of God, it must come from a desire to do justice.

Now with the situation as described, we might very well agree with this notion, this dichotomy. We should indeed move from small acts of kindness and well-meaning gestures towards actions that will achieve real change in society. Nowhere in this model, however, do we ever hear about love. Nowhere is the politics of the system related to the ultimate aims of God. Nowhere does this system make real theological sense of its terms. For the whole system to make sense in light of the God that I know and love, who knows and loves me, we must travel this path and engage in the hard work that cooperates with God’s desire for us that we should all be united in love, loving one another as he loves us.

Loving one another as he loves us. This is the greatest aim of the Christian Life. For in loving our neighbour we show our love towards God. We love our neighbour in the first instance because we see in that person the image and likeness of God. We see in that person Jesus Christ. We see in that person another divine lover who has and will suffer as Christ did, who has and will love, as Christ did and does love us. This nexus of love to which we are called, to which all our human actions are directed has a word in the Greek of the New Testament writers who wrote down their stories about Jesus. This Greek word was translated into Latin and that Latin word made its way into English. Like God’s love itself, the word into which all that hope, all that faith was poured travelled with Christ’s followers to the far reaches of the world. And what is that word that first appeared in English in several texts in the decades before the year 1200? It was our good friend “charity.” This word has sojourned with us for over eight hundred years, containing within itself God’s deepest desires for us.

Perhaps it has been cheapened. Perhaps it has lost some of its oomph. Perhaps we have forgotten its Latin etymology. For all that, it still does not deserve relegation to the realm of frippery, leaving the cold, disinterested figure of “justice” to take its place as the apogee of Christian service. If we do this we continue to give into the old Liberal Protestant canard of opposing “love” and “justice.” Nothing has greater strength than love and if we wish to see justice involved, we can think of the wonderful saying by the late Episcopalian ethicist (and ETS professor), Joseph Fletcher that “love and justice are the same thing, for justice is love distributed, nothing else” (1).

This is the life to which we are called. We are called to a life in which, from being loved by others we know that God loves us. We are then called to respond to that love we have been given—whether the long recognised love of a parent, child or friend or the fleeting glimpse of love seen in the actions of a stranger—and then engage ourselves in the work of love, of charity. As we read in the letter to the Hebrews this morning, “for God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love (charity) which you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.” We are called to distribute our love to those places where it is most needed. We are called to give of ourselves to those causes, those institutions, those persons that help in this work. This is the work of Stewardship. This is the work of discerning those places to which we are called to distribute our love. We are called to give with abandon and sometimes to the point of sacrifice. We are called to give of our love—which in material terms can involve those hallmarks of Christian stewardship: time, talent, and treasure—give of our love out of thanksgiving for the gift of love that we have been given and in fulfilment of the commandment to love.

We are called to give materially of our time, talent, and treasure, because God created us to live in this world and taught us to use the things of this world in ways that are oriented towards the advancement of true charity. I pray this day that our Lord will give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which he dost promise, that he make us to love that which he dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Andrew Charles Blume+
Feria, 24 October 2009

(1) Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), 87.

©2009 Andrew Charles Blume