Sunday after Epiphany ≅
Saint Paul's Episcopal Church
January 30, 2005
How Shall We Live?
Lessons for the Day
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
I greet you in the name of God our
Creator, Christ our Brother, and the Holy
Spirit who sustains us and empowers us to love and
serve both God and Christ. Let's now collect ourselves in
the presence of God, and wait on God's word for us today .
. . (Pause)
One of my dearest spiritual friends says
that there are only three questions in life that matter.
The three questions are these:
Is there a God?
If there is a God,
is this God for us or against us?
If there is a God -- and God is for us --
then what does that mean for
our lives here and now? How shall we live?
These are all good, hard questions.
We are here today (most of us anyway)
because we have wrestled with -- and want to
continue wrestling with -- the answers to each of
these three questions.
For most of us, the first question ("Is
there a God?") is one we have resolved with a "yes".
Ours may be a tentative yes, a conditional yes,
a "yes" based more on faith than on evidence, but we have
come down on the side of yes. Yes, there is a God -- a
something above and beyond and beside and within all
of life -- a something that we name as God. So we
claim this "yes" -- and we move on.
inquires "Is God is for us or against us?" and --
for most of us -- the evidence is mixed. Tsunamis
wash across the ocean, and tens of thousands perish.
Young people pledged to serve and defend their country are
killed when helicopters crash. More immediately, those we
love get sick and die. Our own bodies fail and we wrestle
with what it means to lose the power and the mastery we
That's not the whole story though. Miracles
happen. Babies are born. Cures occur. And after the hard
cold death of winter, spring brings with it the rebirth of
nature and the beauty of new life.
Even in the face of the mixed evidence, we
carry on. We believe -- or we try to believe --
that not only is there a God, but that this God is a
loving and merciful God, a God who wills only good for our
With the worried father in the Gospel of
Mark -- the father with the convulsing child -- we cry
"I believe; help my unbelief!"
Mark 9:24b (NRSV)
And so we are come to the hardest of our
If there is a God -- and God is
for us -- what does this mean for
our lives here and now? How shall
In one sense, questions one and two are
easy questions: they require thought and rumination but no
action. Answering either of these questions does not
compel motion -- it merely resolves an intellectual
But this third question -- now there's a
tough question. And the toughest part of the whole
question is those last four words:
"How shall we live?"
How shall we live indeed?
Perhaps the answer to that question is
found in one final question -- one posed to me often by
yet another spiritual friend. We worked together for
several years and -- whenever we confronted a difficult
choice -- she would ask: "What is
God trying to accomplish here, and how can we cooperate?"
All of our Lectionary readings for today
point -- in some way -- to the goals of God. They point to
the often strange and counterintuitive style of living
that belief in God calls out of us.
From Psalm 37:
"Do not fret because of the wicked; do not
be envious of evildoers . . ."
Psalm 37:1 (NRSV)
From Micah 6:
"What does the Lord require of you, but to
do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with
Micah 6: 8b (NRSV)
From 1 Corinthians, Chapter 1:
"God chose what is foolish . . . God chose
what is weak . . . God chose what is low and despised in
the world . . . so that no one might boast in the presence
of God. 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'"
1 Corinthians, portions of verses 27-29 and
These readings are examples of what I call
the "upside-down-ness" of God. As a human being, I
do fret because of the wicked; I do
find myself envious of evildoers. I do
struggle to do justice, to love kindness, to walk with
humility -- before God or humankind.
Somehow that's not what our upside-down God
desires. Somehow this God we have (or this God who
has us!) is a God who is trying to accomplish
something different, to bring in a new and radically
different world from the one we envision.
What is God up to?
How do we cooperate?
(In sermon review on Thursday, we talked
about today's gospel. Don pleaded, "Whatever you do,
don't read the beatitudes again. They've heard them a
thousand times." He's the rector, and so I won't. You
can all read anyhow. But we can't ignore their message.)
Our upside-down-God seems to be in the
business of celebrating and rewarding the very things to
which the world -- to which I (and
perhaps you?) -- often give lip service and little else.
What is God up to here, and how can I
Jesus has told us what, exactly, what God
is up to. Christ told us exactly what God is looking for
in humanity: mercy, purity of heart, peacemakers and the
like. It still seems sort of amorphous -- or at least it
seems amorphous to me. How should we live in
concrete terms? What shall we do?
Some years ago I came across a brief essay
that helped make all of this real for me. Here's the
The essayist related his life and his
conversion -- he grew up smart and vigorous, and he lived
a life of some success in the business world. He was --
as the essay remarked -- "formed by the ethos of
attack-and-engage". At some point the writer began to
reflect on how he would respond if -- like so many saints
before him -- he was called before a court and forced to
renounce his faith or die.
There was a time, he noted, when he
envisioned dying with words of anger and outrage on his
lips -- openly disdainful of those calling him to recant.
He would steadfastly refuse to recant, and would die with
a sneer on his lips.
But then God began this mysterious
upside-down work in the writer's life -- a work the writer
himself did not fully understand. A "last shall be first
and a first shall be last" kind of work. And -- by the
time of the essay -- the writer remarked:
"I still refused to recant. My love of God
still triumphed over my love of life. Now, however, the
triumph was greater, for my love of God also triumphed
over my love of the barbed comment, the quick retort, the
Now I wanted to speak words of love and
healing, and to die in a way
that my assailants saw the face of God."
And there's that blooming upside-down-ness
of God all over again. That "first shall be last" and
"meek shall inherit the earth" thing.
And there, also, is the answer to how we
What is God up to? How shall we
Let us not die so that others see
the face of God.
Let us live so others see the
face of God, as well.
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