Sermon for Pentecost 18 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Those who are somewhat aesthetically inclined will probably have experienced something I have over the years. One can take a text which rubs one the wrong way and have it sung to a beautiful setting, and the text doesn’t seem so bad. It especially helps if it’s sung in another language, but even that is not particularly necessary.
One of those texts, which I encountered in school (and I apologize if this is seen as heresy by the schoolteachers in the congregation) is Pilgrim’s Progress. I hated it. It could have been John Bunyan’s puritanical beliefs conflicting with my own burgeoning high-churchmanship, or it could have been my adolescent grandiosity which held that straight allegory was just lazy writing. Anyway, I didn’t like it until I heard Ralph Vaughan Williams’ opera based on the text.

And the text actually does make a good point. Life, Bunyan said, is a pilgrimage, a journey toward our eternal reward, and it is beset by dangers and distractions. The life of faith is a life of resolve. One must remain steadfast to get past the pitfalls which are set before us by the machinations of evil forces. That is real pilgrimage. Going to Jerusalem or Rome or to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in England (a trip I plan to make next summer) are good exercises. But the real pilgrimage is that of life, and it’s not as easy as getting your visas and jumping on an airplane. As Bunyan wrote, or actually as the hymnwriter Percy Dearmer paraphrased Bunyan, “He who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster, let him in constancy follow the Master. There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.” There are many dangers along the way, but the pilgrim approaches them with the boldness that comes from a living faith.

The prophet Jeremiah found out the hard way. In this morning’s Old Testament lesson he wrote, “I did not know that it was against me that they devised schemes, saying, ‘let us destroy the tree with its fruit. Let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered!’” That the way of faithfulness, the good pilgrimage, made one to be at odds with the world was a hard lesson for Jeremiah, and yet in the end he had faith that God would pave the way for his progress. He realized that it was no one but the God of Israel who judged righteously, who tried hearts and minds and brought about justice.

Likewise, the psalmist knew that only God could deliver him from the scorn of his enemies. In one breath he laments “The arrogant have risen up against me, and the ruthless have sought my life; those who have no regard for God.” But in the next breath he proclaims “Behold, God is my helper, it is the Lord who sustains my life.”
It is, I am humbled to admit, John Bunyan, who got it right, too. “Who so beset him round with dismal stories, do but themselves confound, his strength the more is. No foes shall stay his might, though he with giants fight; he will make good his right to be a pilgrim.”

Even more, however, than the flesh and blood enemies of whom Jeremiah and the psalmist wrote, the devices and desires of our own hearts can serve as the chief enemies which confound our progress as pilgrims. And perhaps chief among these obstacles is the sin of vanity. In Pilgrim’s Progress, the pilgrim, named Christian, faces perhaps his most difficult test at Vanity Fair, where he and his traveling companion, Faithful, are put on trial, accused by characters like Lord Hate-good, Envy, Superstition, and Pick-thank. If all this sounds weird, try reading the whole book.

It is a Vanity Fair of sorts which serves as the obstacle to the Apostles in today’s Gospel:
Then they came to Capernaum; [it says] and when [Jesus] was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

Jesus, of course, knew the answer before he asked the question, and so he revealed that great paradox which is at the heart of the Christian life “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

How counter-intuitive this truth is in our day and age. If you watch much television, and watch all the reality shows found thereon, you’ll know that fame and self-promotion are now, as ever, very prevalent objects of desire. Now I don’t begrudge the fame of the American Idol or the Survivor or whoever is reckoned worthy of dating the Bachelor, and I don’t even know for sure that everyone appearing on such programs is self-absorbed. I don’t even begrudge people who enjoy watching such things; I might feel the temptation do so if we had television in the Rectory, so thank God we don’t. However, I wonder if these things are a symptom of a culture too much in the grip of vanity.

So how may one avoid this pitfall on the pilgrim’s road? How do we combat the inordinate desire for greatness and recognition which militate against our progress? I wish I knew the answer to that question better than I do. I have, however, been fortunate enough to begin to answer it for myself, not because I’m especially humble and not because I’m an especially good servant, but because I’m in a position to see some good examples. Since I sort of know what happens around the parish, I’m lucky enough to see some of the hard work that people here do with no apparent desire for recognition or reward. I know that many do the same kind of work in the community or at their workplace or in their homes. I shall not name names, because said servants might be embarrassed to be called out, precisely because they have no desire to be seen as the greatest. I’d say they know who they are, but many probably don’t because they’re not concerned about sizing themselves up against their fellows. I want to be more like those people. As much as I kinda don’t like John Bunyan, I want, to say along with him “Since, Lord, thou dost defend us with thy Spirit, we know we at the end shall life inherit. Then fancies flee away; I’ll fear not what men say, I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.”

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.