September 1, 2019

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity:

Today’s readings put me in mind of David, and of what it means to be someone “after God’s own heart.”

Here’s the Collect:

O God,
who declarest thy almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity:
Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace,
that we, running the way of thy commandments,
may obtain thy gracious promises,
and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

There’s so much insight in this one. Let’s explore.

God is compassionate

We start with a consideration of the character of God. Like the psalmist, we remember that God is almighty and powerful – yet what does God do with these things? “Chiefly” he shows compassion. And we certainly need it.

The Introit today (Psalm 111) reminds us that the Lord is “gracious and compassionate.” The Gradual (Psalm 51:15-17) is taken from David’s famous penitential prayer and tells us that God will not despise “a broken and contrite heart.” And then there’s the epistle. It’s from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and in the passage he is urging his readers to hold fast to the Gospel. But also in this passage we find these autobiographical words:

“And last of all, as to one untimely born, Christ appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:8-10, NASB)

Paul, like David before him, understood that he needed God’s compassion, his forgiveness. Paul had been a villain and only the power and mercy of God could have transformed him into a saint. But there’s more to what Paul is saying. He’s speaking about his response to God’s grace: “I laboured even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” Paul, moved by God’s grace, choose to “run the way of his commandment.” He chose to head in the direction of all that he knew of God’s character and will.

A heart after God’s heart

God called David “a man after my heart” (Acts 13:22). The kings that came after him were all measured against him for whether or not they had such a heart. But many of us find this odd. David was far from perfect. He was an adulterer and a murderer. Most of us have not “fallen short of the glory of God” to quite that extent. And yet David is an example for us of what to do when we are confronted with our sin: confess in a spirit of true repentance and throw ourselves upon the mercy of our God. And then, choose again to delight in God’s law, to give thanks to the Lord with a whole heart, and to “run the way of his commandment.”

Letter versus Spirit

This brings us to the Gospel reading for today. It’s a familiar story, and it goes like this:

And Jesus also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, NASB)

What is the key difference between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector? Like David and Paul, the Tax Collector understood that he needed God’s grace. The text tells us that Jesus was speaking to people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt.” He wanted them to see that their attitude was all wrong: they were wrong about themselves, they were wrong about their fellow man, and they were ultimately wrong about God – what he wanted from them.

We sometimes speak about whether we are obedient to the “letter of the law” or the “spirit of the law.” This language provides a helpful idiom that relates directly to the teachings for today. Like the Pharisees, we can observe the letter of the law. We can make a science of getting every last detail exactly right, checking our lists, and dotting all the “i”s. Or, like the psalmists, we can love what the law reveals to us about our God. Instead of keeping a list, we can follow, heading in the direction of true obedience.

The prayer, again

So, a few quick questions for us to ponder before we return to the Collect: What do we think God is like? What do we think he wants us to be like? Are we list-keepers or whole-hearted followers? And finally, what do we do when we fail? With these questions (and answers) fresh in our minds, let’s pray again the words of the Collect:

O God,
who declarest thy almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity:
Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace,
that we, running the way of thy commandments,
may obtain thy gracious promises,
and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Remember this: God IS compassionate. And because we all fail, this is very good news. Today’s collect challenges us to strive for whole-hearted obedience, while acknowledging sincerely that we need God’s grace. But notice that it also reminds us of where we’re headed. The same powerful, compassionate and gracious God has promised us a future life with him in glory. And this knowledge should bring us full circle – to sing again the praises of the Introit: “Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart.”


 

September 1, 2019
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