Music Notes | Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

This Sunday Our Lord delivers one of the hardest teachings of all for many of us to hear: ‘Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ Far too often we downplay this teaching: it is hyperbole, we say; or it applied only to the man to whom Jesus was speaking; or it is meant only for those who put the love or pursuit of wealth above the love or pursuit of God – surely not to us who are sitting in a church service! The pairing of an equally hard-hitting passage from the prophet Amos might at first suggest another excuse: Our Lord, no doubt, is speaking only to those who have gained their wealth unjustly, who ‘trample on the poor’, who ‘afflict the righteous’ (surely our money is clean! if anything, we are the victims of unscrupulous business!)… who ‘push aside the needy in the gate’, we go on to read, perhaps rushing a bit as we try to forget those whom we drove past entering the parking garage a little earlier… and then we move on, anxious to hear the beautifully sung Psalm and more exalted language about our ‘great high priest’ from the Epistle to the Hebrews, reflected in our Sequence hymn, ‘Alleluia! sing to Jesus!’ [460].

Except the writer of the Epistle reminds us from the very beginning of Sunday’s portion that the word of God is sharp enough to cut through all our pretense and self-delusion, to lay us open like a sacrificial animal before the LORD, to whom we must render an account. There is no hiding our actions or intentions, no escaping our responsibilities and relationships human and divine. It is hard indeed, Our Lord says, to enter the kingdom of God, even though it exists all around us: the gate is narrow, the way in like the eye of a needle.

Faced with this hard truth, the disciples throw up their hands – ‘Then who can be saved?’ – and perhaps mulling over a similar challenge, the writer of Psalm 130, from which our Introit is taken, likewise exclaims, ‘If you, LORD, were to mark iniquities, who, O Lord, could abide it?’ Fortunately, there is good news: the writer of the Epistle assures us that the aforementioned high priest sympathizes with us, having been tested just as we continually, and that he shows us the possibility of overcoming the temptation to sin; there is mercy and grace to be found for the asking. As Jesus himself said, ‘for mortals it is impossible [to be saved], but… for God, all things are possible.’

This still does not excuse us from ‘seek[ing] good and not evil’, from ‘establish[ing] justice in the gate’, as Amos goes on to adjure. Our opening hymn, ‘Lord, whose love through humble service’ [610], reminds us that we may not presume or pretend to worship the LORD if the vision we seek does not lead us to see, for example, God’s beloved who lack even the shelter our cars – which have led to such ruin of God’s inexpressibly beautiful Earth – enjoy in the aforementioned garage. Although the present text (unlike another, stronger but less liturgically suitable, lyric by the author* of this one, ‘What does the Lord require’ [605]) does not itself issue a prophetic demand, we nevertheless are tacitly prompted to consider, as we perform our works of mercy, the injustices that lead to homelessness, hunger, incarceration, and other forms of deprivation; our role in the systems that foster, or even consist of, them; and the possibility of addressing them at their root – which may well call for profound sacrifice of our money, privilege, and security. And having considered these things, we may come to mean what we sing in our Communion hymn, ‘Jesus, all my gladness’ [701, heard also in two 18th-century settings for organ] – ‘Hence with earthly treasure!’ – seeking instead the ‘treasure in heaven’ promised in the Gospel, which is to glimpse the face(s) of God here and now, and to see it (as our Postcommunion hymn [655] says) in glory. 

*Albert Bayly, a 20th-century British Congregational minister

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