Homily: “On Serving God in Others”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18, Year A), 2017.

Let us hear words from the Book of Proverbs: “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble He shows favor.” Those words from the end of chapter 3 form the basis for our Collect this week. It is an ancient Collect, dating at least from the 7th century. Through the workings of translations over the centuries, that proverb shows up in our Collect as, “As you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy.”

This also shows up in the Epistle of James as a succinct and useful summary: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” The proud have closed themselves off from God—God does not love them any less, but the proud have opposed themselves to God in their self-centeredness. We cannot be self-centered if we hope to enjoy God’s grace, and be led by grace in our lives. This is why we ask in our Collect for God to give us the ability to trust in Him with all our hearts—trusting in Him in a way that leaves nothing out; trusting in Him in a way whereby we give ourselves, our bodies as a living sacrifice to God. Toward the scorners He is scornful, but to the humble He shows favor.

Being humble has many facets, many dimensions. It never means being a doormat, nor does it mean keeping everything to ourselves. It means using the gifts and talents God has given us in the full knowledge that our gifts are His, and that we use them only secondarily for our benefit, but primarily for the glory of God’s holy Name. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble, because the humble open themselves to God’s will for the use of the gifts He has given them.

All of us have been given the gift of Charity. All of us have in the fibers of our being the capacity to develop the habit of serving God in other people. And it is this habit of Charity—of serving God in other people—that is at the center of our Lessons this week. How do we serve God in other people? How can our relationships be not mere transactions but godly, within the redemptive stream of Jesus Christ? To intend this is a noble aspiration, yet how does it actually work? Each of our three Lessons today look at this question in different ways.

From Ezekiel we are reminded that serving God in others begins in listening to God. Our conscience is formed by listening to God, and, if God chooses, listening to His warnings, His “trumpets” to use the image from Ezekiel. Let it be clear: God loves all people no exceptions, and in loving all people, He wants all people to turn away from evil ways, from their self-centeredness. And if to accomplish that, God calls us to be watchmen, to speak truth to power, to be a vessel for God’s warnings to be heard in the world, being humble means we say Yes to God—yes to being His watchmen. To serve God as He lives in all creatures is sometimes to speak hard truths that people do not like and do not want to hear. Let us rest in the fact that like Moses, we will be given the words to speak when God knows we need them.

From Saint Paul today, Charity—the habit of serving Christ in others—is described in all sorts of attributes or markers. It is a glorious laundry list of characteristics. My own favorite are “Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord,” he preaches, telling us of what is necessary to serve God in others: to be full of zeal, aglow with the Spirit, and seeking to serve the Lord at all times. This is all in the context of relationships with others—with those who persecute us, with those who rejoice, with those who weep. He teaches we must living in harmony with one another, and be always seeking harmony. What often disrupts harmony is feeling the need for revenge upon a person we feel has wronged us. But “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Toward the scorners He is scornful, but to the humble He shows favor.

And in our Gospel Lesson, Jesus continues His instruction of the inner-circle of disciples who became the Apostles., and we see the emphasis on listening. In other words, this is teaching primarily intended to those God has given the gift of being a Bishop—those with the heavenly power to bind and loose on earth. Bishops are to work together in true Charity, seeing Christ in their fellow Bishops, and working through their difficulties, first man to man, seeking harmony through listening. And because they are to listen, we are to listen, following in their example, and in the steps if necessary outlined by Jesus. Yet let us see that this word, “listen,” shows up four times in this short passage. Repetition is always a sign that something important is intended. In fact, listening for God in others—true obedience—is the Christian habit, par excellence.

But the real technique is this. We learn to do this through prayer for others, called intercessory prayer. I do not mean specifically the “Prayer of the People,” often called the “Intercessions.” I mean praying to God on behalf of someone for their benefit. When we have a person in our church community who might particularly bother us, how do we serve God in them? It is rather difficult, in all likelihood. Perhaps that person said something to hurt us, offend us, even wound or humiliate us. So how do we serve God in this unharmonious, even obnoxious person?

It starts with remembering that this person, despite his or her troubles, is baptized. Because of Baptism, each of us is in Christ. So in prayer, when we think of another person and pray for them, we must think of who they are, and what their whole personality is like, not just the part that bothers us. To think of the whole person is to see their faults but also their gifts and strengths. And in this prayerful examination, let us be honest. Where they truly, if partially, manifest the qualities of Jesus, then our prayer must lead into thanksgiving, to rejoicing, for God manifests in them through these positive qualities. At the same time, when in that person there is sin, or trouble, or problem, let us also be honest to see that this tends to obscure the presence of Christ in their life and being.

Yet this, brothers and sisters, is very good territory to enter with honesty and integrity, because then we are led into an extremely efficacious and powerful type of intercession. This is how we glimpse the sacred humanity of Jesus in the humanity of all people—positively when grace prevails in them, negatively by an analogous glimpse of Christ’s perfection as it stands out in contrast to their sin and frailty.  All of us of course stand out in contrast to Christ’s perfection, but let us see that in listening to God through intercessory prayer for a person who has bothered, offended, or even hurt us, we are serving God in them because we are opening ourselves to God in them. Serving Christ in others demands a living personal relationship that inspires both intercession, and ultimately devotion.

Brothers and sisters, we learn how to do this entirely by grace, and by trusting in God with all our hearts, always boasting of God’s mercy and love for us and for all His creatures.  By His grace may we continue to be a living sacrifice to God. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Amen.