Sermon for 23rd November 2014.
The Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. Boniface Church, Siesta Key FL
Ezekiel 34:11-24; Mathew 25:31-46
“Why are we are we here today?” The obvious answer, on the tip of our tongues is “for worship”, or for a “service of worship”. That is not so.
In fact, the very notion that our Sunday morning activity, set apart as a discrete religious event, but un-connected with the rest of our lives is “worship” is offensive to God.
I can just about hear the Holy One saying “oh that again, I am utterly bored, I am not interested”. “Sing and pray away as much as you like if that’s what floats your religious boat, but I won’t be logged into your live streaming. I am too busy standing alongside Syrian refugees in Turkey, and persecuted Christians in Iraq, and little children dying of Ebola in Liberia”.
The hymns and prayers are not for the sake of God. In truth they are for our sake, to inform our minds; to teach us the faith; and to challenge us and our ways of life.
I quote from a book called “Ancient Christian Worship” by The Revd. Dr. Andrew B. McGowan. He is the head honcho at our Episcopal Seminary at Yale University.
Andrew writes “In ancient Christian communities worship was not about services, but service; not about gestures that signaled belief or allegiance, but about allegiance itself”. (“Ancient Christian Worship” by Andrew B McGowan, Baker Academic 2014).
The Sunday Eucharist is a renewal of our pledge of allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, and our commitment to a way of life which is counter-intuitive, a life of service in the Body of Christ for the sake of the world. Every Sunday we reaffirm that allegiance.
The congregation enacts that renewal of our pledge of allegiance to the Lord in at least three sacred acts.
First: We act it out when we exchange the sign of Peace. The Peace is not a time to greet our friend: it us much more solemn and important than that. For you see, in any given congregation there are people we don’t like, there are people with whom we have disagreements, there are people whose economic backgrounds and current wealth or poverty are beyond our ken, there are people whose political views are diametrically opposed to ours. We know that they are wrong!
It is at the Peace that we declare, to hell with all our differences and disagreements; we are bound together by something which is sublime – we are bound together by the Peace of Jesus Christ. That is awesome. That is counter-intuitive.
Second: We act it out when we place our gifts in the offering. We sometimes say this is in response to the generosity of God. We sometimes say that this is to support the Church. This is half well and good.
In truth we make the offering to teach ourselves. It is at the offertory that we declare “as a member of the Body of Christ, as a part of a counter-intuitive movement I will see my money as a tool, not as a weapon, as a servant, not as a master”. We give: - not to God (do we really think that God needs our grubby dollars!); - nor to support the Church; we give because in giving we declare that our relationship with money is determined by obedience to the Lord Jesus who said “you cannot serve God and money”.
Third: We act it out when we receive communion. Our thinking has been dominated with the idea that in communion we are receiving holy bread and mystical wine. That’s all very well but it does not go far enough.
St. Augustine gives us a richer context. He writes “So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: "You are the body of Christ, member for member." [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying "Amen" to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear "The body of Christ", you reply "Amen." Be a member of Christ's body, then, so that your "Amen" may ring true! (Sermon 272, as published on line “Early Church Texts”)
St. Augustine is teaching that the solemn reception of Communion is yet another affirmation that we are a part of this counter-intuitive movement - the Body of Christ. Thus the “Amen” should not be muttered or whispered when we receive the bread. It should ring out loud and clear: “AMEN I am what I receive, I receive what I am”.
It follows that “worship” is not a pleasant Sunday activity. Worship is a life of service in the Body of Christ, and of life in service for the world. Today’s Gospel reading is all about service.
Matthew’s Gospel was most likely composed, perhaps as early as A.D. 70 to serve the needs of the emerging Greek speaking Christian communities in Syria. They, like we, were learning what it meant to be a counter-cultural community. In passages we have read recently, Matthew has railed against hypocritical religious leaders (a word which ever needs to be spoken); and has warned the Christian groups to be alert and ready for the coming of Christ “Watch therefore”, he says, “for you know neither the day or the hour”.
That “coming of the Son of Man” is not necessarily a cataclysmic event at the end of time. It refers also to those crisis events when our true values and actions are placed under God’s judgments. That judgment has nothing to do with what we believe; it has to do with how we act. It raises the question - are we with the sheep or are we with the goats?
Matthew teaches that we, who renew our allegiance to the Lord Jesus at every Eucharist, are given a mandate to serve.
The mandate is the call to generous hospitality: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked; visiting the sick and the imprisoned. These actions are not optional extras for Christians who “like that kind of thing”. They are intrinsic to what it means to be Christian.
Nor is this mandate merely a matter of private and personal acts of charity. There is a social and societal element in the King’s judgment. In Matthew’s account, it is the nations are called to judgment. Thus it is that Christians are required to call their rulers into account. We must remind them that they will be called to judgment by the Christ who is the King in today’s Gospel reading.
They will be asked “what did you do to feed the hungry, to ensure pure water for the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, and to take care of the sick and the imprisoned”?
God will sniff his nose at our Sunday words unless our weekday actions are characterized by radical hospitality for the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the imprisoned.
That’s the gospel. And it is tough. It’s hard to swallow.
But as St. Augustine * said in another of his writings “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don't like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”
* (Widely attributed to St. Augustine, but none of the sources for the quote identify where it is to be found in Augustine’s writings).