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Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 10, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
One of the jokes that made the rounds when I was in seminary was about a little old lady and a workman. One day, as she had done for many years, the little old lady was in church praying her rosary. The workman was just there to change a light bulb, but to get there, he had to climb up behind the reredos. He didn’t want to disturb her, but while he was back there, behind the painting of Christ on the Cross, another idea came to mind. He thought he’d have a bit of fun with her, so he said, “This is Jesus. I’m watching you!” The woman didn’t look up, or even flinch. She just said, “Quiet you, I’m talking to your mother!”
If we ever think about Jesus’s promise to be among us, we imagine his presence in ways that please us. We imagine him comforting us, sharing his wisdom and courage, and let’s be honest, we imagine him affirming our preferences and prejudices, sharing our priorities, friends, and enemies. And to be more honest, there are plenty of times when we’d prefer him not to be among us. Not to watch, or speak to us. When we’re gossiping or complaining. When we’re making offerings to the idols of society. Sometimes, when we’re deciding how to structure our lives, and spend our time and money.
But this is no joke. Every decision matters. God has given us all we have, even our lives, our souls and bodies. God didn’t do all this to forget about us. God loves each of us too much to be indifferent.
Jesus knew we are sinful and unreliable, yet we need accountability. He was concerned that his followers would be able to reconcile their differences. He wanted his body to be able to heal. And since we are his body, he envisioned us acting accordingly. So here, Jesus is not talking about shaming or punishing anyone. The goal is the restoration of right relationship within the community. Shame and punishment tend to work against that goal.
The part that really sounds like a threat: “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” only sounds bad until you remember that, as Mark Davis points out, “By this stage in Matthew’s gospel, treating someone ‘as a Gentile’ might mean: Healing a demonized daughter (15:21-28) and feeding 4,000+ (15:32-39). Treating someone ‘as a tax collector’ might mean: Eating together (9:9-10), calling as a disciple (10:3), and partying together as friends (11:19).”* So if the community is following Jesus faithfully, even the most stubborn sinners will be treated as impulsive children or lost sheep, not wolves or bandits.
Following Jesus, practicing what he taught us, makes Jesus present. Discerning God’s will in community makes Jesus present. Yet that isn’t always pretty. Sometimes a group of people is invoking Jesus’s name because they’re desperate, endangered, terrified. Sometimes discerning God’s will in community looks like first responders planning a response to a hurricane or civilians choosing to use their boats to rescue people they’ve never met. Jesus is in their hearts, regardless of what ideas about God may or may not be in their minds. Coordinated or not, they comprise a dramatic procession, an offering of time, presence, skills, and resources, an offering that glorifies God and brings a very tangible kind of salvation near.
I was asked to talk a little bit about the offertory, and I wanted to wait until we were back to the two-service schedule before I did, because a lot of the things we’re going to be talking about this fall are symbolized in the offertory. You may have heard it called the “preparation of the gifts,” and that’s an accurate description of its functional aspect. But the offertory is also deeply symbolic. First, think about where it comes in the order of service. God has come to us in the Word, and we respond with reflection — the sermon — adoration — the silence — affirmation — the creed — petition — the prayers of the people — contrition — the confession — then absolution and peace. Just as the readings build to the climax of the Gospel, just as God’s revelations culminated in the person of Jesus, so too do our responses build from words and feelings to, finally, action.
After we make our peace with God and with one another, and sometimes with lengthy announcements, we put our thoughts and feelings into practice. We begin to walk the talk, walk the love, walk in love, as Christ loves us. Leonel Mitchell called his book about our worship Praying Shapes Believing, and I do believe that’s true. I believe more deeply that acting defines being. I believe that we are what we do. This is personal. When one person tells you they love you, without evidence and another shows you they love you, without words, I always believe the one who shows you. And so our first, most urgent, most natural response to God is an act of love.
Likewise, the offertory is personal, while also universal. Each of us contributes something, whether we are part of the procession of the gifts to the altar, or make a monetary contribution, an offering of music, or offer merely our time, our presence and attention. All is sacred, for all we have and all we are come from God, and the act of our offering makes them sacred again. The act of offering is an act of sacrifice, but also praise and thanksgiving for all God has given us, and trust and hope in what God will do for us. Yet paradoxically, we can only offer anything because the source of all grace is already present and active in us, and so you could say that the only true giver is God.
And God is generous. By God’s grace we see the Church offering herself as a whole body, the fulfillment of Jesus’s prayer that we may all be one. And so the offertory is also incarnational. Insofar as the Church is the Body of Christ, he is present in this act of love, just as he was in the Gospel, and as he shall be in the Consecration. These moments aren’t just arranged in a convenient order; each one depends on the one before.
Likewise, the dismissal depends on our offering ourselves, newly healed, encouraged, sanctified: our best selves. We are not so much dispersed as sent, as God’s offering to the world. We aren’t changing light bulbs; we are the light of the world. Even if God isn’t sending us into a literal hurricane, we still offer our lives to the world, like Jesus, for Jesus, and always with Jesus.