Br. Peter Rostron, OHC
Proper 21 A, Sunday, September 28, 2014
What do I believe? Well, I believe that this building will remain standing today. I believe that the bank will safeguard the monastery’s money. And I believe that my brothers would care for me if I became ill. I maintain these beliefs because I willingly put my trust in others. Construction workers, the town’s building codes and inspectors, the bank, and the prior of this monastery all have my trust, which means they also have some degree of power or control over me by virtue of their control of things that are important to my well-being, such as money, health care, shelter, and safety. Having power or control means having authority. There are, in fact, a great many people, institutions, and systems that have authority over us because they have our trust, because we believe they will be there for us and will ensure our well-being. Some of them, like the examples I gave, are readily apparent, while others exert very subtle power and control: advertisements, movies and television shows, news stories, peer behavior, family expectations. We all live within a great landscape of beliefs and authorities, most of which we have freely chosen or have willingly given our trust.
This leads us, then, to the question: Where does God fit into this landscape of beliefs and authority? We are Christians because we believe that Jesus was God incarnate, fully possessing God’s authority on earth. The chief priests and elders did not share that belief. In today’s gospel reading, they challenged Jesus’s authority, and he brilliantly turned that challenge back on them. Although they could not come up with an answer, they were, unknowingly, submitting to God’s authority in Jesus simply by accepting the challenge and attempting to respond. Furthermore, in their state of unbelief, they felt their own power and authority being threatened, and they lived in fear of those people who did believe in Jesus and in his forerunner, John the Baptist. The gospel passage ends with Jesus pointing out to the chief priests and elders that their unbelief would put them last in line behind the tax collectors and the prostitutes. He makes it clear that, even though God, in John the Baptist and in Jesus, is in fact their ultimate authority, their choice whether to believe that or not matters greatly in their lives, and our choice matters just as much.
So, Jesus is challenging us: What do you believe? Do you fully believe that God is your ultimate authority? It is easy to say the words, I believe, but what does that really mean? Do we really live our lives as if that is the case? Jesus’s parable about the father and his two sons makes the point that beliefs are expressed more through actions than words. So, perhaps What do I believe? might better be translated into What do I do? Do I volunteer to serve the poor at my church or in my neighborhood? Am I enticed by the latest advertising to spend too much money on the latest gadget or fashion? Do I write letters or attend rallies or make phone calls or convince my friends to push for greater social and economic and environmental justice? Do I spend time other than Sundays reading the Bible or other spiritual works and in prayer? Am I careful to always recycle and turn off the lights when leaving a room and consolidate errands into one trip? Do I treat others, even strangers, with genuine kindness and patience?
Answering these kinds of questions can give us a window into our beliefs. We may not entirely like what we see, but we are, after all, imperfect, and God knows this. God calls us back to him again and again in mercy and forgiveness, knowing that we will never get there until our last day. But in the striving, we will strengthen our belief. So we should remember to be gentle on ourselves, but also to keep moving toward God, aiming to give God full authority in our lives and to make our actions truer reflections of our belief in God. For us to know God’s mercy and his will for us, though, we must listen closely for God’s voice.
I keep in my choir stall this small icon of Rublev’s Trinity. I’ll leave it up here afterward in case you want a better look. It depicts the three angels who visited Abraham and told him that Sarah would bear a son. That icon is also often interpreted as a representation of the Holy Trinity: the Son seated in the center with the Father and the Holy Spirit on either side. As I sat in my stall during my first profession of the monastic vow in July, the angels spoke to me. They told me how glad they were that I was finally taking a seat at the table with them. I had been standing by the table for quite awhile, but now I was choosing to place myself firmly in their company, more fully ready to listen to and interact with them. This astonished me, and I interpret it is a reflection to me of the state of my beliefs. It deepened my belief that God loves me, that God invites me to sit with him, and that he wants me to be an agent of his love in the world. I’m still working out exactly what that means, but God’s call has already led me to this monastery, as it is now leading me to pursue a course of study, starting in just a few days in fact, that I hope will enable me to work as a chaplain in a hospital or hospice.
Abraham turned from the chores that undoubtedly kept him busy in the camp in order to offer hospitality to three strangers. He listened to God in those three strangers, and he believed and acted. Moses turned from his path to pay attention to a bush ablaze with light. That was the beginning of an amazing, ongoing relationship, and we heard in our first reading today one example of Moses listening to God, believing, and then acting. Jesus listened to God in profound prayer and, as we heard today so eloquently expressed in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in extreme humility, and he believed and acted. You and I, of course, are present-day, ordinary humans. We are not Abraham or Moses or Jesus, so perhaps we can be satisfied with setting our sights a little bit lower than theirs. But we can certainly use them as inspirations for what it means to listen to God’s word, to believe in the presence of God within us, and to act in accordance with God’s will for us.
So that is it, boiled down into three words: Listen, believe, and act. That is Jesus’s challenge to us, and in doing so we will enable God’s authority to bear fruit in our lives. There are angels and burning bushes all around, we need only choose to turn and listen. That requires that we pay attention to what is truly important. The angels and burning bushes aren’t always the loudest or brightest things around us. There are many voices competing for our attention, so we must filter out and silence those that lead us to what might be called false beliefs, in order to focus on the still, small voice of God. So take care, then, where and in whom you place your trust. Be intentional in whom and in what you give authority in your life. Be aware of the power of the words you use, but know that your actions are the greater reflection of your beliefs. Listen, believe, and act with God as the ultimate authority in your life.