“An Invitation to Self-Examination”

Pentecost 15

August 28, 2016


Text:  Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14


    As I looked over this week’s Scripture readings, I noticed that in every one of them God’s people are being invited to take a hard look at their behaviors.  They were being invited either to return to God or to make sure they were staying in line with God’s intentions for their lives.  Let’s take a closer look.

    The prophet Jeremiah began his ministry in the years just before Judah was conquered by the Babylonians, and its leading citizens were carried off to Babylon as exiles.  In today’s lesson from Jeremiah, God demanded answers from his people:  “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they wandered far away from me?  They pursued what is worthless and became worthless themselves.  They didn’t ask, ‘Where is the Lord who brought us out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the land we were promised?’  Instead, they ruined the promised land and disgraced my heritage.  The priests also didn’t ask, ‘Where is the Lord?’  Instead they went chasing off after the worthless false god Baal.  So I am taking you to court and charging even your descendants for not being faithful to me.”  And then God marveled, “Has anything like this ever been seen--a nation abandoning its gods and switching to others, even though their gods are not gods at all?  Yet my people have exchanged their glory for what is worthless.  They forsook me, the spring of living water, and dug broken wells that can’t hold water.”  

Psalm 81 sounds a very similar note.  Through the psalmist God reminded Israel about how God led the people out of Egypt and promised to provide for them.  But Israel would not listen to God’s voice, following their own willful ways instead.  God desired that his people return to him and listen to him.  

It is easy to hear these words as words of judgment.  But in God’s words of judgment there is also a word of invitation--an invitation to repent, to turn away from sin and rebellion and turn back to God.  True repentance requires self-examination.  It requires us to take an honest, searching look at our lives to discover the ways in which they are not in keeping with what God desires and intends for us.  

So what are our idols?  What are the things we make the ultimate purpose of our lives instead of God?  Possessions?  Popularity?  Comfort?  Getting our own way?  Something else?  Idolatry, in reality, is making a god in our image, to serve our purposes.  An idol is a god we can control.  Which means it’s not much of a god at all.  It really means we are making ourselves god.  But we humans lack the capacity to legitimately be gods.  We are finite and limited.  We make mistakes.    The one true God is beyond our control.  If we are to faithfully serve that God, we must acknowledge and honor the fact that God calls the shots, not us.

Then there was the time Jesus attended a dinner at the home of a leader of the Pharisees.  He noticed how the guests jockeyed for the places of honor at the feast.  So he said, “When you’re invited to a wedding celebration, don’t sit in a place of honor.  Someone more distinguished than you may have been invited, you’ll be asked to give up your seat to that person, and you will be embarrassed as you slink to the worst seat in the house.  Instead, sit in the place with the lowest status.  Then, when your host invites you to a better seat, you will be honored in front of everyone.”

Now Jesus wasn’t only talking about social etiquette here.  He was talking about our human tendency to want to be regarded as important.  He is telling us that our desire for status and high regard among people often gets in the way of living for God.  He then gives an example of how this can be lived out:  “When you host a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your family, friends, relatives, or rich neighbors.  They will return the favor, and that’s all the reward you will get.  Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind.  They can’t repay, but you will be blessed, for God will reward you at the resurrection of the just.”

In all this, Jesus invited his hearers in ancient times and today to examine their tendency toward status seeking.  I recognize it in my own life.  I have played trombone for 48 years, and have played in bands for many of those years.  Customarily, the best player in each instrumental section is assigned to first chair.  That has always been the chair I wanted and usually considered myself good enough to occupy, and in some bands that is where I sat.  But there have been a number of bands in which the director saw fit to put me elsewhere.  Sometimes I felt envious of those who occupied first chair instead of me.  Of course, I always try to give my best effort no matter what chair I occupy.  But it has been an ongoing process to deal with my feelings around this.  Really, it is rather stupid be disappointed and envious about which chair I sit in.  All of the parts need to be covered.  2nd and 3rd part for a particular instrument are just as important as 1st, otherwise the composer wouldn’t have bothered to write those parts.  

What are the ways you and I are caught up in status seeking, in wanting to appear more important than others, in trying to be the top dog?  Jesus invites us to examine our lives, and instead consider what it would mean for us to show hospitality and kindness to the lowest of the low, the people who cannot pay us back.

And then we have the long list of admonitions that appears in our lesson from the letter to the Hebrews.  Keep loving each other like family.  Show hospitality to strangers, for you may be welcoming angels without recognizing it.  Remember prisoners and those who are mistreated as if you were right there with them.  Honor your marriage, and don’t cheat on your spouse, for God judges those who are sexually immoral and adulterous.  Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.  Remember your leaders who taught you God’s word, and imitate their faith.  The sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that profess Christ’s name, Hebrews reminds us, is found in doing good and sharing what we have with those in need, for these sacrifices please God.

These admonitions are likewise an invitation for each of us to consider how well we measure up.  Do our thoughts and actions live up to these principles?  How well do we love one another?  Do we warmly welcome strangers?  Do we genuinely care about prisoners and those who are mistreated?  Do we uphold our marriage vows faithfully?  Are we free from the love of money?  Are we content with what we have?  How do we regard the leaders of our faith community?  Is our life a sacrifice that is pleasing to God?  Are we faithfully serving God in all that we do, or are we mostly catering to our own whims?

We live in a time when it seems like people love to criticize others for how they live and what they do, but don’t seem to want to look too closely at their own behavior.  Maybe that is because if we looked closely at ourselves, we might not like what we find there.  We have been led to believe we always need to feel good about ourselves, but a lot of times we do that either by choosing to ignore stuff that might not make us feel so good or by picking at others, trying to lift ourselves up by bringing them down.  The truth of the matter is that there are some things we do and some attitudes we have that we should not feel good about.  For instance, surely it is not appropriate to feel good about being self-centered, greedy, or mean-spirited.  Nor is it appropriate to feel good when we negatively judge people who look different than we do or have a different culture or religion.  However, our negative feelings about our inappropriate behaviors and attitudes should not be cause for us to emotionally beat up on ourselves or judge ourselves worthless.  They should rather lead us to turn to God to help us do better.

    Over 2400 years ago the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  This is consistent with Holy Scripture, for in Lamentations 3:40 it is written, “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord.”  When we hear words of judgment or words of admonition, let us look upon this as an invitation to examine our lives and be honest with ourselves about how we are doing in relationship to what God expects of us.

    One way to do this is a method developed by Ignatius of Loyola in the 1500’s called “examen of consciousness”.  He recommended doing this at the conclusion of each day.  Here is a brief description of the method:

  • Quiet yourself.  Become aware of God’s presence and his love for you.  Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you review your day.

  • Recall the gifts you have been given during the day, even the smallest and simplest ones, and give thanks to God for them.

  • Reflect on your actions in the various situations you encountered during the day.  Note the times you freely acted in accordance with God’s purpose, and also the times you didn’t, considering your feelings and motives and asking what you could have done differently.

  • Ask for forgiveness for the times in which you failed to do God’s will, and ask God to help you do better the next time you encounter a similar situation.  Also, thank God for the times you were, with his help, able to freely do his will.

  • Ask God to help you as you look forward to tomorrow, and resolve to cooperate with and trust in God’s guidance.  Conclude with the Lord’s Prayer.

    This or another method can help us to be better aware of how we are doing in living according to God’s purposes, and help us to be more faithful in hearing and doing God’s will.  “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord.”  Amen.

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