Sermon for the Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 27 November 08, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Big changes are coming here at Saint John’s. A few people whose incredible generosity to the church is going to make things permanently different for them, for us, and for the whole Church. They are the spiritual successors of the widows in today’s readings. We focus on the widows’ tiny but precious offerings because that is what we can see. The offerings are merely symptoms of a greater offering: individuals offering of their whole being to God. Today’s readings are only superficially about momentary acts of offering; they are really about hidden but enduring changes, intentional, internal changes which are revealed by unusual behavior. The widows themselves are the true sacrifices, living sacrifices who live in a pattern of intentional, ongoing service to God.
Today we mark two arrivals and two departures that are occasions in and of themselves, but are really the manifestation of much bigger but less visible gifts of souls completely and permanently to God.
Wyatt and Iona Browning are going to be baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The rite of Christian Baptism takes very little time, but the transformation of the baptized is for life. Their parents and godparents specifically, and the Church in general, are committing themselves to Wyatt and Iona’s lifelong formation as Christians, giving them to Christ and his Church. We are commissioning them to follow Jesus, not knowing what forms of servanthood he will call them to undertake, or where his call will take them. This is a beautiful example of stewardship, the gift of two souls to God, the very opposite of a burnt offering, for this is a sacrifice that gives new and greater life to the ones being offered, as well as giving God’s gifts to the world through them.
Two other baptized Christians, David+ and Kim Prentice, have been following a specific call to servanthood for a while now. Two calls, really, but both bound in Christian sacraments. First they gave themselves to Christ and to each other in the sacrament of Christian marriage, and then David+ discerned and accepted a call to ordained ministry. The next step toward fulfilling that call will be David’s service as the Curate in the parish of All Saints Episcopal Church in Danvers, and so their last Sunday at Saint John’s will be November 22. I hope you all will support, congratulate, and bless them before they go. While I love to make jokes at the expense of the clergy, the truth is that David+ and Kim’s departure is a sacrifice, a loss to our parish, the gift of two upstanding and devoted church members. Again, this is a beautiful example of stewardship, giving from the best of what we as a parish have, for the sake of the Gospel.
What about the rest of us? Most of us were baptized long ago and don’t have any major changes in our immediate past or future (as far as we know). Only we do have a major change in our immediate future, if we choose to receive it.
The Eucharist changes us. Christians have long debated how the bread and wine change, but the real question is how the sacrament changes us. Our Anglican tradition teaches merely that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, but does not attempt to explain how he is, or becomes, present. And there I go. As Kelly Pigott recently wrote, “it’s easier for us to talk about what happens to the bread and wine than it is to do the real work that communion demands, which is to follow Jesus by becoming living sacrifices. … for this to happen, we must focus our attention on things that make us uncomfortable. And this is really hard to do, especially of late since it goes against the grain of popular Christian culture where the priority seems to be that worship should make us happy.”
As C. S. Lewis wrote, “I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
Did the widows in today’s stories live in faith because they wanted to be happy, or because they loved God, loved so deeply that their love, and God’s love, transformed the very essence of who they are? That inner transformation is evident not only in their acts of incredible generosity, but also in their complete lack of regard for the consequences of living out their faith. They don’t care whether serving God will cost them their lives, let alone whether it will make them more or less happy.
Just as our visible, material offerings are manifestations of the larger offering of our whole selves to God, our ability to offer ourselves to God is itself a consequence of something greater and less visible. “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. … He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
Most of us have received very negative ideas about the topic of eschatology, which Christians get from irresponsible interpretations of the book of Revelation. It’s a sad and bitter irony that the intent of apocalyptic writing is to give hope and encouragement to people in the here and now. Revelation was written in a symbolic code language to protect ancient Christians from the Roman Empire whose decisive destruction it envisioned. The images are bizarre, even scary, to us, but the message to the first Christians was clear: injustice can not endure forever because God will create a better world. This message is just as necessary in our own age, in our own country where injustices great and small are rampant, and yet people from all over the world are anxious to move here to escape the even greater injustices of their homelands. This passage from Hebrews uses more accessible language to offer the same assurance: in heaven, Jesus offers himself as a living sacrifice, for our benefit, so that the end of our age here on Earth will not be corrupted by sin, but rather the goodness and wholeness God intends for all of us.
When we submit to Baptism, when we choose to receive the Eucharist, when we give ourselves to sacramental vocations like marriage and holy orders, we give ourselves to God as living sacrifices. This plays out within ourselves, changing our values, our priorities, our way of thinking about the world, occasionally breaking out in concrete acts that are unusual, acts that the world might judge as foolish for their unfamiliarity. In this season we consider our financial support of St. John’s for the next year, but this decision derives all its meaning from the decision we have already made about who we are. The true meaning of stewardship is in giving our whole selves, our whole lives, over to God. And so we can understand everything we do as an act of stewardship, a manifestation of our chosen identity as the people of God. Stewardship of our resources, of all that we have, is a manifestation of the stewardship of all that we are, the decision to entrust our souls to the one who is always sanctifying them, redeeming them, and making them new.