Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
September 12, 2021
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, * O Lord, my strength and my redeemer”
These are familiar words I just said; from the last verse of psalm 19. They are words you may be accustomed to hearing at the start of a sermon— That is how I grew up, hearing these words, and knew them as a cue to sit down.
But when I went to seminary, our homiletics professor taught us not practice our piety from the pulpit before others—he’d say, “if you didn’t pray when you were writing the sermon, there is no use throwing up a hail Mary now.”
My professor kind of ruined this familiar practice for me—at least for the time being.
Still, I love the words the psalmist sings— let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
These are words James, the brother of Jesus, must have loved too.
James, whose epistle we’ve been reading for weeks now,
has a lot to say about the words that come out of our mouths;
Strikingly, it is James’ admonitions like the ones we read today, that stick with us.
“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing,” he writes,
“My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so!”
“Be quick to listen [and] slow to speak”
James knew that to be a follower of Christ, meant being all in.
Heart, mind, & body—all in.
Years ago, when I worked in education, there was a renewed effort to teach character in schools and society.
Billboards were erected, Character education curriculums were developed, a group created Character.org, and up popped other websites similarly named. Of course, state legislatures got in on the action, constructing frameworks and laws, all of this around themes such as “Character Counts.”
You may remember this. All in all, I remember this being good work. Good for kids, good for society. Yet, there was one billboard, that irked me. Its slogan said, “Character, it’s how you act when no one is looking.”
I don’t remember who sponsored those ads. They were catchy, for sure, but I just think, they miss the mark.
Sure, it meant do the right thing even if you don’t get noticed, even if there is no praise for your actions. But, isn’t character more than just our actions? Isn’t who we are more than the sum of all we do as active moral beings?
We can behave kindly, for example, when someone needs help, but still have little or no compassion for them. Kindness without compassion is merely an act. We can show respect for others, but respect coupled with indifference is just a pretense.
Our character is our whole being, those traits of our choosing woven together by us as we live and grow in this world. The key word here is choice. When we decide who we want to be, honest, generous, thoughtful, then no matter what happens to us, how ugly or rude or harsh those in the world around us are, if our choice is truly made, then no one, nothing, can change that decision.
It is ours, it is who we are inside of us, lived out and practiced every day, spoken in our words and shown in our actions. When the words of our mouths and the thoughts in our hearts are in concert, Even our reactions when we are provoked, (which we will be) even we are when poked and prodded, our reactions will be ours, and not what the world might expect.
Having genuine character is being all in.
All in is what Jesus is asking his disciples when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” It seems to us that by this time, the disciples must have been all in. They’d left their jobs, their families, they’d traveled with this man from coast to coast of the sea of Galilee, now they are in Caesarea Philippi, way north of Galilee, and here they are ready to proclaim Jesus as savior.
“You are the Messiah!” Peter boldly answers Jesus’ question.
Peter is all in!
But Jesus orders them not to tell anyone. Jesus knows the world is not ready; Jesus knows Peter is not even ready.
Just a few moments later, when Jesus explains what is yet to come, Peter rebukes him, and Jesus sternly warns Peter to stand aside: “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Following this man would mean giving up even more than Peter could imagine. I feel for him. I too would like a softer gospel.
I too would like to claim, “I’m all in, Jesus,” and not have to hear the shocking words if I want to save my life then I must lose it.
This story begs us to understand that Jesus’ Messiahship means facing the truth that our decision to be Christians, and it is a choice we make, is more than the sum of our actions, is more than the words we speak, it is who we are inside of us, no matter what happens to us, no matter what happens in our world.
Yesterday our nation stopped to honor a terrible day in our country’s memory. I cannot believe it was 20 years ago that our nation was attacked, and over 2,000 people died in the WTC, at the Pentagon, and on planes in New York and Pennsylvania.
I was working at school that morning, Sept. 11th 2001. I vividly remember our part time French teacher coming in ….
We quickly made a plan to inform the teachers and students in the classrooms, as gently as we could, but truthfully, of course. In Huntsville, you see, there are many kids whose parents regularly work in military and in defense work.
Over the course of the morning, many parents came to check their children out of school. And knowing many traveled to DC, we were trying to find out where some of our students’ parents were.
One high school student’s father was on a plane heading to DC that morning, but it was diverted to Delaware. He took a taxi cab home, all the way to Huntsville. One eighth grade boy, had recently lost his father to cancer. His mom was back at work, and flying that morning to the Pentagon. When we found out that her plane had also been diverted, and she was fine, I went straight to his classroom to let him know.
I don’t think this young boy had put two and two together, as when I said, your mother is fine, she is safe, he just stared at me. I was standing in front of his desk. When he finally registered what I was saying, he very nearly fell out of his seat, starting to faint. And I grabbed his shoulders, repeating, she is fine, she is fine.
So many lives lost, including loved ones of this congregation. That day and its memory is profoundly sad. I’m also proud to know the stories of these men and women, proud of their children and spouses who picked up the pieces of their lives, not to put this behind them, but to hold onto their loved ones’ memories and dreams.
This too is a choice—who will we be when the worst happens to us.
A couple of years ago, on a trip to NYC, I visited St. Paul’s chapel there at the site of the WTC buildings. This small episcopal church somehow escaped damage on that day, and over the horrifying days after 9-11, the church became a center of healing ministry.
The chapel’s historian tells their story:
“During all hours of the day and night,
rescue and recovery workers staggered through the gates of the chapel.
Hungry and weary, weighed down with gear,
wearing boots half-melted from the fiery ash,
they fell into St. Paul’s and slept on the pews.
After working grueling 12–18 hour shifts at Ground Zero,
rescue and recovery workers found St. Paul’s a place they could rest
for a few hours before returning to the pit.
In the first three months after September 11,
more than 3,000 workers passed through the chapel’s gates to be fed and to rest. Thousands upon thousands of meals were made there.
Police officers, Port Authority workers, firefighters, National Guardsmen, construction and sanitation crews, engineers and technicians all found their way to St. Paul’s. the memorials are still there. Teddy bears folks brought, candles burnt down in their holders too, firemen’s boot are there…
It is not what St. Paul’s dreamed of being known as— the little chapel with a 9/11 memorial– But it perhaps never more lived into its calling than at this moment to be Christ’s church, a place of recovery and hope, St. Paul’s was all in. It is still. For better for worse. Inspiring us all, to be the same, acceptable in your sight, O Lord, Our strength and our redeemer.
Thanks be to God.