“Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; and though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them. … So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.”
In the same month that has seen moguls deposed from the empires they built, and political ambitions threatened by the voices of the ghosts from Christmases past, today’s readings strike an ominous chord.
I like to joke about Jonathan Edwards and his fiery Protestant sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. But the truth is, such joking is just whistling past the graveyard, merrily trying to make the case that the God of love desires only to do us good. Surely all this talk about God’s wrath is quaint and old-fashioned religion, at best. Perhaps the truth about what God desires for us lies somewhere in between a Puritan preacher and a fairy godmother.
For, the whole of scripture taken together – the narratives, the prophets, the law, the gospel, the letters – suggests that what God desires is that we become the complete manifestation of our original design. That is, that one day we actually become that person who was uniquely created in God’s image before the foundations of the world were laid, whose days were numbered before we were ever in our mother’s womb.
And, we forget – to our detriment – that getting us to be that amazing person will take a lot more than showering us with pleasures, just as raising a child to adulthood requires consistent and loving discipline and allowing the law of natural consequences to do its work.
We have talked before about scriptures that indicate God’s “prescription” for us as well as God’s “description” of us. All of today’s passages are heavy with “descriptive” observations from God’s perspective, clearly noting that the consequences of our actions cannot be avoided forever.
But laced throughout are also words of hope:
“Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are God.”
So, how do we learn to number our days and pass the legacy of this practice to our children so that generation after generation will seek their refuge in God?
We have mentioned on several occasions the strong spiritual element of recovery programs, such as AA, NA, or OA. Many in this congregation owe their lives today to the faithful commitment to a group that is willing to work with them through the 12 steps. And, like our baptismal promises challenge us, to encourage them to repent and begin again when they fail.
We are fast approaching the time of year when extra food and strong drink, long days with little sunlight, forced company with family members who know which buttons to push, and an increasing pressure to spend money that we do not have will test our capacity to endure. Clergy and mental health professionals brace for this protracted season from Halloween through Valentine’s Day. Rates of depression, overdose, anxiety, and sadly preventable death rise precipitously.
So, perhaps we can use this morning’s lectionary readings as a pre-emptive opportunity to “number our days and apply ourselves to gain wisdom” and in so doing to avoid Zephaniah’s “day of distress and anguish.”
It’s hard to improve on the original “12 steps”. “Bill W” did a great job. I am not the first person to observe that his twelve steps look very much like principles from the Book of Common Prayer, a text with which he was very familiar.
I’m glad that we have started praying the opening Collect together, the one known as the Collect for Purity:
“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from you no secrets are hid!” This is Prayer Book parlance for: “Good morning. My name is Cynthia, and I’m a sinner.”
For those of you unfamiliar with the 12 steps in recovery, you may be thinking that they sound like Hercules’ 12 challenges. My sense, however, is that they are more difficult than what Hercules had to do: They sound simple but they are not easy. They are built on the non-negotiable truth that we humans are not invincible. It is, however, possible for humans to mature into effective witnesses to the love of God and to the grace that is God dwelling in us and among us. But only if we begin from a place of unmitigated truth about ourselves and are willing to stick to that reality – that “true to being” memory — throughout the chastening work of climbing out of the hole we have dug for ourselves.
Our opening Collect for this day about Holy Scripture can operate as a quick guide to practicing these 12 steps: “Grant us to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” It isn’t enough just to hear scripture just as it isn’t enough to admit we are powerless, but it’s a good start. Reading scripture is more active than listening, just as making a decision to turn our will and our lives over to God’s care is more active than admitting our helplessness in the face of the things that take hold of us, though perhaps it is no easier.
Marking the scripture we read is like making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. And learning what we hear, read, and mark is reaching that place where our amends toward others are consistent with our own awakening to how much we have been forgiven.
Finally, “inwardly digesting” what we have heard, read, marked, and learned is the process of metabolizing the nutrients of God’s grace, recycling up until our hearts stop beating the same life-giving matter of forgiveness and reconciliation until we become what we receive – the body of Christ.
It is possible for us to reclaim the “holy” aspect of the “holidays”. Our motivation needn’t be based in fear of shame, but rather in the hope that is ours through the promises of God that those who repent and turn to him will be saved. And not just saved from something – although that is indeed a great gift — but for something, that is, the chance to be the person of God’s imagination and that my friends, is a great gift indeed – an unmerited favor worthy of our deepest thanksgiving to God.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
November 19, 2017 Year A