Someone (I don’t remember who) said that the most important question we can ask is this: Is there a God? The second most important question is: If there is a God can God be known? Our Judeo/Christian heritage holds that God does in fact exist, that this God has called all things into being, and that God is knowable, self-revealing, and intimately involved in human affairs and history.
Today’s assigned readings from Scripture point us toward what I think is the third most important question human beings must consider: Since there is a God and since we can know God, what then does God expect from us? The poet of the 15th Psalm ponders:
Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle?
Who may abide upon your holy hill?
The prophet Micah, in one of the most profound passages of the Old Testament, prayerfully considers:
With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
“Should I bring an animal to sacrifice,” he asks? We might rephrase it, should I write a check? “Should I bring a thousand rams?” Should I write a really big check? “Should I pour out a river of oil?” Should I sit on the Vestry, serve on the Altar Guild, sing in the choir, pass out food to the needy, teach a class, never miss a Sunday, and basically be the best parishioner anyone has ever seen? “Should I offer up my first born for my sins and transgressions?” Should I tear myself apart for all the things I am that I should not be and for all the things I am not that I should be? What does God expect from us? What does God expect from you?
I must confess to you that I think I am too comfortable when I walk into church and when I seek to come into God’s presence. It is so easy to open the doors of the church, walk in, sit down, do the worship thing, and then move on without ever having a sense that I have presented myself to One Worthy beyond anything I can imagine. Stop and think about it for a minute. Are you comfortable when you enter this space? Casual? Complacent? Shouldn’t we be terrified or at least a little self-conscious! I think about how different Sunday feels when a bishop is visiting. On those occasions I am very much aware of things that are out of place. I am more in tune with where the parish is not up to snuff. And I am on heightened alert not to say or do the wrong thing. Heck, when a bishop visits I make it a point to get a hair-cut and have my shoes polished. But today I am more low-key because there is no bishop here to inspect us. The only One watching what we do today is us and God. God is watching! Shouldn’t that alarm us?
Now, I am not saying that to come to church you need to dress to the nines nor am I suggesting that authentic worship means trembling in fear for an hour. Scripture and our tradition present a variety of elements and responses that are appropriate in God’s presence. But Micah and the Psalmist remind us that God is an awe-inspiring Being and that to be in God’s presence elicits from us that third question: What does God want me to do and… am I doing it?
And what both Micah and the Psalmist realize is that the question needs to be reframed. It is not so much what God wants me to do as who God wants me to be. The Psalmist comes to see that God desires him or her to be a person of deep integrity: blameless, doing what is right, truthful, never speaking in a way that is wily or deceitful, not evil or contemptuous of others, honoring what is honorable and rejecting what is not, keeping your word at all costs, never taking advantage of the vulnerable. Micah, in his memorable words, describes the core of human integrity in just three poetic phrases: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Such a person, the Psalmist says, not only can come into God’s presence, but remain/abide/dwell with God.
William Law was an 18th century English priest whose promising career took a big hit when, as a non-juror, he refused to swear allegiance to George I and remained loyal to his oath to James II. Not long after his fall from grace Law published his most famous work, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, which to this day remains a devotional classic. Listen to Law’s words as he pursues the question of what God wants from us:
There is no principle of the heart that is more acceptable to God than a universal fervent love for all mankind, wishing and praying for their happiness, because there is no principle of the heart that makes us more like God, who is love and goodness itself...
The greatest idea that we can frame of God is when we conceive him to be a Being of infinite love and goodness, using an infinite wisdom and power for the common good and happiness of all his creatures. The highest notion, therefore, that we can form of man is when we conceive him as like to God in this respect as he can be, using all his finite faculties, whether of wisdom, power, or prayers, for the common good of all his fellow creatures, heartily desiring they may have all the happiness they are capable of…
Then Law turns his thinking around by speaking of the shadow possibility:
And on the other hand, what baseness and iniquity is there in all instances of hatred, envy, spite, and ill will, if we consider that every instance of them is so far acting in opposition to God and intending mischief and harm to those creatures which God favors, and protects, and preserves…
It is this shadow that Jesus addresses in today’s Gospel reading. Those who are poor now will one day be rich, those who mourn will be comforted, those who are meek will own the earth, those who dream of a world that is right will see that dream come to fruition, those who extend mercy will receive mercy. This world is not as it ought to be, but God’s everlasting, ever faithful love will overcome the worst that we can do to one another and God’s desire for blessedness, for human happiness, will prevail.
Jesus, who is God in flesh, who came to be the Light of the World so that we might have an example and a guide – a living embodiment of what God expects of us, said that it all comes down to this: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Simple enough to hear, not so easy to live out, is it.
My record is marked with some success and marred by failures. And so I walk into this space today, more mindful than most days that I am standing in the presence of the Awesome, Holy God. I am doing God no favor by being here today. It is God who extends favor to me, granting me an audience whenever I am open to the possibility. I feel a little bit like the famous Oscar Wilde quote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” I don’t have much to commend myself, but I do hold on to the starry vision of who God wants me to be. Some days it is within my grasp and I take hold of it, while other days I reach for it not at all.
I am grateful for the words and witness of the Psalmist, of Micah, and of Jesus because they remind us to look at the stars. And there is something in those stars – love for God and love for our neighbor – that helps us to dwell – to abide – in God’s presence. And when we roll over in the gutter and lose sight of our holy calling, it is not God who sends us away, we are the ones who leave the holy hill. The good news is that the stars continue to shine and God continues to work for our happiness – happiness that comes from being in right relationship with God and with our neighbors. And it is good news that God is always and ever willing to grant us an audience. It is up to us to look toward God.