My brother got me hooked on a podcast recently called Behind the Bastards. (It uses, uh, not always suitable for work language. Clearly.). The premise of the podcast is one journalist who thoroughly researches various figures and ideas that contribute to our current morass of suffering, then tells that story to a Los Angeles comedian. […]
Click here! Our excerpt starts at minute 13:00.
I was very excited when I wrote this sermon. I had a week off preaching last week (aside from the funeral) and was so pumped to get back in the pulpit. I had the privilege of hearing the Very Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas speak, and so my brain was all aflutter with new ideas […]
On Saturday, we had a funeral for one of Ithaca’s major town figures. He shuffled off this mortal coil at the elegant age of 95, and spent his entire life serving his community. The church was packed. Because his entire family was Roman Catholic, few of the people who came were Episcopalian, but because Jerry […]
The usual approach to the one lost sheep/the one lost coin is that the lost sheep is the metaphorical sinner who repents, and the shepherd who chases it is Jesus. Likewise the coin is the sinner, the woman, Jesus. (That last one isn’t preached much, though.) However, I guess I’ve been reading too much AJ […]
So, about two weeks ago, my husband was walking home from work and got hit a tad bit by a car. I realize this sounds very traumatic and awful, and really, it was not great at all–however, now that we are on the other side of a stitched-up ear, and an ankle surgery, things are […]
Each offertory sentence takes a slightly different approach to signaling the transition, but each one, in its own way, is like a coach’s pep talk in the tunnel, meant to wake us up to the reality of the moment we are fast approaching, when we will soon lift up our hearts, make our sacrifice of praise, and prepare to find ourselves at the table of the Lord.
“I appeal to you, sisters and brothers, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” That one is stolen from Romans.
There are others, like the sentence from Romans, that pick up that theme, that ask us to examine ourselves and our souls as we approach the sacred mystery; other sentences, though, encourage us to prepare less through examination of ourselves and our acceptableness, and more by consideration of our God and the truth about all things: “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty. For everything in heaven and on earth is yours. Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom, and you are exalted as head over all.” That’s 1 Chronicles.
Consider your soul. Consider your God. And, truthfully, it’s a mix of both, right? Sitting there in your pew as you contemplate breaking the bonds of inertia to make your way to this table. Consider your soul in the light of this God. The sentences are meant as invitations but, at least as I heard them as a kid, there was always also a warning, if only implied: “Hey you! Listen up. This here is important. You come up these steps, you best have your act put together.”
After all, it was hard for even my twelve year old self to hear any invitation to the table words without also remembering Paul when he writes in 1 Corinthians: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”
It’s a dangerous thing to come to this table not knowing better. Un-put-together. I thought. And it is.
But then, in today’s gospel, we read that “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” And I know they meant it as an insult, but the first time I heard it, I thought two things: The first was, “Well shoot, when was the last time someone could have accused me of eating with people as exciting as that? I should get out more often,” and, two, “Now there’s an Offertory Sentence worthy of this God.”
Backstory. I know I’m supposed to come to this place all good and right and put together. I get that that’s my job, yours too, and I get it – easier said than done – but here’s my real problem. I don’t know about you, but the God who meets us at this table is always messing with and messing up my ideas for what is good and right and proper. Jesus of Nazareth isn’t nearly as polite and nice as I was raised to be. Name-calling the religious leaders. Healing on the days he is told to sit still. Putting the last at the front of the line. Taking off the chains the rest of us had so neatly arranged on the backs of the prisoners. This one time he sees a woman put her last penny in the temple box and he says, “Will you look at that? A religious practice meant to help the community of faith look after widows. Now they’ve gone and used that law to scare this widow into poverty in the name of her God, while they put in some pennies and their brown-nose audience applauds. Clowns. Peter, James, John, let’s get out of here and go find some sinners God can actually do something with.”
This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them, they complain. Stays up too late, lamps lit, sweeping the house like a fool looking for coins that got dropped and lost their way. Heads into the world, leaves the friendly confines of home, to chase a sheep so lost it doesn’t even know it is.
One of the religious leaders pulls me aside and explains so I can understand, “This fellow’s sense of the good, of what is right, what is respectable, does not conform to usual, institutional, and conventional social standards. This fellow sees things differently. This fellow breaks rules, it’s clear to us, religious leaders, that he isn’t very good. And this fellow has the nerve to say that we have got goodness all wrong. This fellow says we’re doing goodness wrong exactly because we’re sure we’ve got it right, because we’ve got it down to abstracted acts made comfortable and predictable, because we’re measuring goodness by the ability of a person to look the part, to show no weakness, to demonstrate no need of God. You understand the problem.”
We sinners know better. Apart from God, even the goodness of a Christian doesn’t amount to much. It’s not just that baptized Christians can’t be good without God, though that’s true, it’s that we’ve given up on pretending to know what good is apart from God’s helping us to see. The world is all so topsy-turvy, upside-down. No wonder it feels like crazy when God comes to set things right. Just when you think you know who to hang out with to get yourself a reputation for righteousness, BAM! New Creation. Christ calls and surprises. The poor find the kingdom and the last get made first. The king makes a throne between thieves, on a cross. How many times have you found yourself thinking, “Well, shoot, you know what, I was wrong. How could I have known that God would show up even there?”
So about my proposal. A new Offertory Sentence. Liturgical halftime. Imagine, if you will. Any birthdays? Anniversaries. Fine. Before we proceed, uh, just so you know, this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. No shirt, no sins, no service. Cue the offertory.
Kierkegaard said that being aware of your sins is the doorway to Christianity because only sinners can begin to see the new possibilities of God, of seeing that more in Christ is possible than the lives we’d imagined before God showed us, the flotsam we’d settled for when we settled for lives we could achieve without God’s meddling and help. This place is for sinners, the ones who know that holiness is not a solo gig, a perpetual performance, pious proof of perfection. Holiness is for the vulnerable and broken. Holiness is for being called together into an adventure God knows we’re not up to, apart from God. Holiness is for life lived with the One who, by his wounds, makes us whole. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.
One of you told me about a preacher at a nearby church. He got up and announced to the congregation gathered that Sunday that he had it on good authority that a good fifty percent of the folks there that day were sinners. He stared and let the silence sit thick over them as they sneaked side eyes at each other. And I thought, well shoot, only fifty? They’re under-performing!
A few weeks ago, another of you stopped by my office to introduce yourself. Brief reprieve from some administrative minutiae. Asked me how I was enjoying the church so far. “It’s wonderful,” I exclaimed. “The people! Everybody has been so unbelievably welcoming, warm, and kind.” “Well, give it time. It’ll change. There’s a reason, after all, we go to church here.” And I thought, I’ll be darned, this church gets church.
“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance,” Paul tells Timothy today, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
So. Does that mean Paul was wrong about the danger of the table? That there’s no way to mess it up? Not quite. The danger lies in what Paul calls “not discerning the body.” Not seeing the others. Or, just as bad, seeing the others without seeing how we belong to each other. Judging some in the body to be more or less worthy, until the we of the body becomes us and them. They. A spiritual director one time put it this way, “Comparisons are demonic.” The danger is in presuming to know where and in whom God shows up. The danger is in forgetting that the same forgiveness I come to drink here from the cup is here for you, too, and is every bit as effective. If God says yes to you and yes to me, we are left in this strange space called church, left with the good work, sometimes hard work, of living lives that say yes to each other.
And wouldn’t you know – there’s an offertory sentence for that! “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Stolen from Matthew who stole it from Jesus.
It can be easy to think of forgiveness as the wave of the wand that resets the score, something that temporarily gives you a clean slate again, gets you off the hook, so that you can get back to the work of being blameless, trying to outperform the others, of not needing God or God’s help, but Paul writes to Timothy that the mercy God showed to him wasn’t about restoring Paul’s self-image; it was about God’s imagine; it was about making God visible. It was about putting God’s patience on display to encourage the others, that they could trust mercy, too. If God can love someone like Paul, why not me? In other words, God’s strength isn’t just made known in our weakness, in a real sense it depends on it. In other words, the mercy you receive is not your own. Even God’s mercy to you is a gift for the others, waiting to be made known and multiplied in love.
God’s kindness toward us is the seed of our compassion toward our neighbor, sister, brother, stranger. They will know we are Christians by our love, the old song goes. Not by the earthly love that looks for a reason to justify love’s withdrawal – anyone can do that, that love’s a dime a dozen – but the love that holds on to and remembers that while we sinners Christ died for us. Even then, Christ got up, sought out, sat down at supper with us. This is the love that tells the world about God.
The love God has made known to us, long before we got things right, God has put that love to work, turning our lives into moons that reflect the light of the sun, making our lives for a witness. God has put that love to work, for wholeness, for sharing, for seeking out, for making right, for making known, for opening others, for continually converting our own hearts, for the redemption of all things.
“So, that’s the reason,” writes Will Willimon in his memoir. “We are put here, located in love, bred for the joy of knowing we, even in our sin and lostness, are owned. Our telos, our baptismally bestowed purpose, is to allow ourselves to be loved, to be lost and found, to say yes (with our lives) to the Yes that God has said to us.”
So I went to a funeral last week for a guy I hadn’t met.
So I went to a funeral last week for a guy I hadn’t met.