August 23, 2015

Fit for Purpose

God is working out a purpose for which we have been equipped appropriately... (and how this blog gets its name...

Proper 16b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Solomon asked the Lord, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!

There is a wonderfully useful phrase from the early years of this century, used primarily in England as part of product regulation, advertising, and licensing: “Fit for purpose.” It certifies that a product actually does what it is supposed to do, or is suitable to accomplish the work for which it is designed, created, marketed, sold, and used. Leave it to the English, you might well say — we Americans so often seem to be satisfied with products that not only aren’t fit for purpose, but which readily admit so right on the label. I’m thinking of those health food products that say one thing in big, colorful letters, but in the fine print add something like, “These statements have not been verified” or “Not intended for the treatment of disease.” There was a bit of a scandal a few months back when independent testing of some herbal supplements revealed that not only did they not contain the advertised amount on the label, they didn’t contain any at all!

And how many of us — as we try to invest for retirement or education — are wooed by the offers that claim that they can multiply your money like loaves and fishes, and they say look how well we have done in the past — but then in a little footnote say, “Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.” Makes you want to join Arsenio Hall in saying “Hmmmm.”

Such advertising is not just inconvenient; it can lead to a life or death situation, or financial ruin. I doubt anyone will die on account of getting less than the advertised dosage of Echinacea or St John’s wort — but we hear often enough about product recalls to know that when an item isn’t fit for purpose it might be lethal. From defective air-bags to defective ignition switches, automobiles seem to be a focal point for such tragic insufficiencies — and when an automobile isn’t fit for purpose, it can end your, or someone else’s, life.

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In our Scripture readings today we hear of aspects of our religious heritage that are all fit for purpose in different ways. They have both physical and spiritual aspects. And as the Apostle affirms in so many other things, it is the spirit that is important.

First comes Solomon’s Temple, about which we hear part of Solomon’s prayer of dedication. We heard in the earlier readings over the last weeks from the Court History about how David wanted to build the Temple, but God told him that he had no need of one, and that it wasn’t for David to build anyway, but for his son Solomon. And Solomon clearly understands that the Temple isn’t there because God needs it: God is where God chooses to be, God does not need a house or a home. Solomon admits this in that beautiful prayer of dedication. He knows full well that God has no need of a house to dwell in — in other words, the purpose for which the Temple is “fit” is not for God to “fit” inside. “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you,” Solomon affirms of God. The Temple is not there because God needs it — but human beings, creatures of flesh and fragile as frail, need to focus their attention, have a sense of direction, to move their hearts Godward — and it is that purpose for which the Temple is fit. It is to be a house of prayer for all people, both Jews and Gentiles, a place towards which and within which prayer is to be made on earth, and God, who is in heaven, will hear those prayers. That is the purpose for which Solomon built it, and for which it stood for hundreds of years, until it came to be abused by the very people for whom it was designed as a holy place. I won’t dwell on that — but just remind us all that when something is designed with a purpose, and is fit for it, it is meant to be used to that end. In time the Solomon’s Temple and its successor came to be misused — not as a place of prayer, but of commerce — and double-dealing commerce at that; as well as being defiled idols set up within it, and even used as a storage shed for somebody’s unused furniture. These were not just different purposes — but bad purposes, real misuses of the holy place.

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That doesn’t mean that there may not be other purposes or uses for some thing, unintended by the designer. If that were the case, TV’s inventive Mr McGyver would have bit the dust many times over. And who here hasn’t used a paper clip for something other than clipping paper!

We see a bit of that in our reading from Ephesians today, where the Apostle takes the language of military armor and imbues it with spiritual meaning. Everyone knows that in the real world a belt is not truthful — except to the extent it might tell you that you are putting on a little bit of weight! Earthly shoes will not really help you preach the gospel — though a good pair of walking shoes might speed you to your church on Sunday morning. No earthly shield will protect you from evil, nor will a helmet save your soul — though it might save your head if you go on a construction site. And as for a sword being the Spirit of the word of God — well, as a wise man once said, the pen is much mightier than a sword when it comes to telling the truth.

In all of these cases the Apostle is re-purposing these pieces of equipment — like McGyver — to make them fit to the purposes he intends. It isn’t the belt that counts, but the truth it symbolizes; it isn’t the shoes, but the gospel itself; it isn’t the brazen shield and helmet but the power of faith and salvation, not a sword but the living Word of God itself — this divine armor is fit for the purpose of any of God’s armed forces here on earth, ready to stand against the wiles of the devil, or the rulers and authorities of the present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil — some of them perched in high places. These are the purposes for which God’s armor is not only fit, but essential.

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In our Gospel, we return, as we so often do, to the two things that Jesus gave to his disciples on the night before he suffered and died for us — the Bread and Wine of his own flesh and blood, the gifts of God for the people of God. This heavenly food and drink is fit for the purpose God intends.

You will note that in this passage there are some who do not believe the label — Christ’s words of promise. They are looking for the fine print that says, “These claims have not been independently verified.” They say, “This teaching is difficult” — and surely it was! To be told that you needed to eat a man’s flesh and drink his blood in order to be saved! Who could think that made sense, particularly in a Jewish world in which eating blood any way at all is strictly forbidden, and even a chicken has to soak in salt water to draw out any blood, to make it strictly kosher.

Jesus acknowledges how hard this teaching is — but he promises that those who are open to the spirit will understand and believe; and that even this is the work of God, at work in them, by grace through faith, to give them ears to hear and hearts to believe: ears and hearts fit for God’s purposes, to hear and receive God’s grace.

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It is three thousand or so years since Solomon prayed in his Temple, some two thousand years since the Apostle wrote of divine armor and Jesus spoke of his flesh and blood. The Temple was destroyed, but many other houses of God — such as this small example in this little corner of the Bronx — have been built since then to help us to turn our hearts and minds in a Godward direction, in the knowledge that God hears and answers our prayers; and as that these places are fit for the purpose of hearing God’s word. Many Christian souls have found God’s armor fit for purpose in combating the forces of evil set against them — heroes of the faith who have shed their blood rather than depart from the purposes for which God intended them. And that bread and that wine of our Holy Communion, the flesh and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, has nourished countless thousands of thousands with the promise of eternal life.

As the old hymn puts it, “God is working his purpose out.” We, my friends, are called to be fit for that purpose. Gathered in this place, equipped with this armor, fed with this spiritual food, with God’s help so shall we be.+