2010 Proper 26C: Aesthetic Essential

The propers:

Isaiah 1:10-18
2nd Thessalonians 1:1-4; 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

The Sermon:

The Episcopal church is known for the beauty of its liturgy…some of the most wonderful occasions of worship I have experienced have been rife with pomp and circumstance. Incense wafting through literal catacombs; fire in the darkness; the choir’s anthem ascending and filling the space; communion served while gazing in reverence at glorious carvings of saints. And, I’m going to generalize wildly here…we tend to be people who love language, who love poetry and the art of worship. Our liturgy is a means of “seeing” God in beauty—and offering up the best of what we have as human beings to God. The compilation of the Book of Common Prayer was an attempt to offer a form for worship that would glorify God in truth, in beauty and most importantly in a gathered community of individuals gathered for a shared purpose—the journey towards God.

Indeed, people have left churches when liturgical changes have occurred…the “new” prayer book (and since when is something first published in 1979 “new”?); the “new” hymnal; offering communion every Sunday as opposed to morning prayer; and sometimes it seems like nothing inspires more debate amongst clergy and lay people than the question of where to put the announcements—you’ll find that the prayer book is surprisingly quiet about that subject! Why is there so much passion in regards to the matter of “how” we worship God? Especially given the passage we read today from Isaiah… “I cannot endure solemn assemblies…” I mean, it seems fairly clear here, forget the worship and do the deeds! The prophet Isaiah has some strong words to say about folks who make a show of worship, who think that the pageantry and performance of the thing are adequate alone. And, he even uses the conversation stoppers…Sodom and Gomorrah to do so (it would be like mentioning hurricane Katrina in a planning session at a planning meeting of the army corp of engineers). Everyone knows how bad it was…and no one wants to experience such hardship again and would do anything they could to prevent it.

That said, why then do we persist in showing up Sunday after Sunday? Why is it that Christian worship has continued with the combination of book, washing, meal, song and speech? Why is any of this important to us…as we ponder the mandate “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”. There are many in this world and in this community that do all of these things…without ever setting foot in ANY place of worship. So is what we do here, is it merely some relic of times past? Are this worship and gathering relevant to the world AT ALL? Are we wasting our time and God’s by gathering here at Church of Our Saviour?

My calling would argue that this is not wasted time…but time that is essential to our survival as Christians and as human beings; it is time that is essential for helping us to become the people that “God intends us to be”. We are the better for this gathering…it reminds us. It reminds us who we are and to whom we belong. For, in reading scripture we are able to hear the story of our people—it connects us to our history and we are challenged to take this history, learn from it and discover its relevance to contemporary times. In sharing song we are expressing our faith and our collective ability to participate in creating something beautiful. In the water of baptism we express our connection to each other and God—acknowledging the presence of God in the here and the now. In the bread and wine we are given the opportunity each week to gather at God’s table and participate in a meal of reconciliation, remembrance and expansiveness. Book, washing, meal, song and speech—these are simple things, holy things, things that may seem irrelevant when juxtaposed with the demanding needs of our lives and our times. But, they are important to us…and at the center of it all is the act of reconciliation.

From the perspective of our faith the Sunday liturgy, the “things” we do are the primary means by which we engage in the ministry of reconciliation. It brings us together, it reminds us of God’s mercy and it becomes a means by which we can step outside of ourselves and the small worlds in which we spend so much of our time. I know that if I didn’t go to church I wouldn’t have to deal with people I would normally have never met in my day to day life. Our friends would be other youngish professionals…we would probably spend more time attending doctor parties and only hang out with other folks with small children. And, in having only friends who are “like us” life may seem less complicated—with less potential for disagreement and come with the comfort of shared assumptions about life. But this sort of social isolationism is not the kingdom of God that is intended—a kingdom where everyone is invited to the banquet. In Lathrop’s work “Holy Things” he asserts that the Sunday liturgy is the principal reminder we have the “God welcomes sinners”.

In gathering together a disparate group of people, in welcoming everyone and coming together with no barriers to admittance we are reminding ourselves and each other of the realities of the wider world and the love of God for everyone. Sunday makes the poor relevant to those of us who are not poor; Sunday makes the widows real for those of us whose friends are mostly young; Sunday brings children into the midst of those whose only encounter with children during the week is getting stuck behind a school bus. Sunday brings tax collectors into our midst and makes us the richer for it!

Perhaps worship for us becomes like Zacchaeus’ climbing into the tree. Our worship and indeed the story of Zacchaeus may seem quaint, cute and perhaps even ridiculous by the world’s standards—but it is actually a radical act of seeking out God. In coming here, we demonstrate our desire to be in relationship with God and each other. We demonstrate that who God is matters and that we are longing to be in relationship with each other and are willing to sacrifice our dignity and even our worldly concerns to do so.

“Lord, may our fellowship be the revelation of your presence and turn our daily bread into the bread of life.” {Alternative Service Book; Anglican Church of Canada]

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