Stuff and God

the 11th day after Pentecost
Proper 16
August 25ht, 2019

The readings for today are:
Isaiah 58:9b-14
Psalm 103:1-8
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

Click here to access these readings.

            Have you ever heard of the liturgical workout? No, it’s not what Episcopalians do when they go to the gym. It’s what we do right here in our church nave. It’s often said that we Episcopalians, and many others who worship God liturgically, are always standing up and sitting down. And you might not notice this if you’ve worshipped this way for a long time. It all seems, to us, pretty simple. We sit down for readings – unless it’s the gospel reading, then we stand. We also stand for the Nicene Creed, but then we sit back down for the Prayers of the People. And when it comes time for the Eucharist, some people stand and some people sit (both are just fine, by the way). And some people, if their piety is just right, will kneel instead. We are always getting up but then sitting back down.

       And we don’t do all this just because it’s fun to stand up and sit down all the time. When we pray liturgically, we don’t just pray with the voice but with all the senses and the whole body together. And each of these different ways we pray – they mean something. Why do we stand at the gospel? It’s because we are people of Jesus Christ, people of the Gospel, and we stand to show respect to the words of our Savior. Why do we sit or kneel at confession? It’s because in our confession we are humbling ourselves before God. Nor are we just saying, “God, I’m sorry”, but using our whole body, our knees and our shoulders and our hands and our voices to confess our sins to God. And why? Because we feel that doing so helps us come to a fuller realization of our sins and mistakes and, hopefully, leads us to an amendment of life. Physically sitting or kneeling, we believe, helps that process, as does, when we’ve been absolved, standing up helps us enter more fully into God’s mercy, grace, and love.

       There’s a kind of “stuff-ness” to liturgical worship, isn’t there? There’s a lot of stuff, a lot of physical things that you can touch or things that we do. We’re always standing or sitting, bowing and crossing ourselves, or using water or oil or chrism or bread and wine. We have chalices and patents, bells in towers and hand-bells that acolytes can ring through the whole Eucharistic prayer (not that this happened recently…). Our priests wear three layers of clothes and we like holding hymnals better than using projectors. We like stuff – things we can reach out to and touch, things we can hold, things that help us reach out and touch God and one another in love.

       But then comes the letter to the Hebrews. The author seems to be saying something different here. He writes that, when we come to God, we come to something that you can’t touch. Being with God isn’t like holding onto stuff like bread or a book, but like a blazing fire, something that is there and that you can see but that you can’t reach out and hold in the palm of your hands. Or like darkness or gloom, or the raging of a tempest, or even just the sound of a trumpet. These things move us, or allow us to see, or send us running, but no matter how much they affect us we can’t hold them. You can’t put God a box or a nice pretty bag. We can learn about and be brought to God through things, through stuff, through God’s Creation; but at the same time, it’s important to remember that God isn’t Creation. God is more than this world. God isn’t tangible, he’s not what we can see on the surface of things. God is more than that.

       So, does that mean that we’re wrong to like all this stuff in our worship? If God is something that we can’t touch, if God is like the sound of a trumpet, or the blaze of a fire, or darkness and light, things we can’t hold, then is it okay to have so much stuff here in church that we can hold? Well, yes, it is. This is actually an old question for us Christians, one that folks were talking about over a thousand years ago. You see, back in the 7 and 8 hundreds, people were worried and wondering: should we really be making art that depicts God? Should we paint pictures of God or build statues of him and his saints? People were, of course, already doing this, and doing it quite a bit, but theologians were wondering if it was such a good idea. They were worried that people would see those pictures and statues and think, well, here’s God right here – and then worship the pictures and statues and forget about the true God. In other words, they asked: doesn’t all this stuff – these images, these statues, these bits of our worship that are just things – doesn’t all this stuff get in the way of worshipping God?

       And the answer from a thousand years ago is this: no. Keep your art and love your art. Keep all that stuff in your churches. And they said this not because they just really liked art but because of how God saved humanity in Jesus Christ. God did not come down as some vague spirit to save us. God did not just think us into salvation. And God didn’t just give us some great, intelligent, wise person to lead us into a better way of life. No, God came down to us as Jesus Christ – as St. Paul writes in Philippians: God humbled himself to be with us, to walk on this earth with us, to kick around in the dust and to lift us from the dust, all to save us. God became that dust, entered into and became that dust that we are, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, so that that dust, so that we who are dust, could walk in eternal life.

       But the essence of things, the truth of things, is not in the dust, but in the one who became dust, who humbled himself, even to death on the cross. All this stuff here in church is beautiful and joyful and so very helpful to our lives in God, and while these things aren’t God, we shouldn’t just turn from them all to a form of worship that is somehow more pure because there are fewer things in the room. For in being Incarnated into this world, God said to a bit of metal with a rope attached to it (a bell): you are worthy to sing my praises. And God said to some sheep wool and probably a bit of plastic fabric (a chasuble): you are worthy to stand at my altar. And God said to us, who are dust, and to dust shall we return: you are worthy to shine with the same light as that of my Son, Jesus Christ. Because through all of it the light of Jesus Christ, which is like a burning flame lighting our path, or the sound of a trumpet calling us home, through all of it shines the holiness of Jesus Christ.

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