the 12th Day after Pentecost
September 1, 2019
The readings for today are:
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Click here to access these readings.
When I came to be your priest last summer, I didn’t make many changes to the liturgy here at St. James. And this was because, well, first of all your worship was pretty beautiful. You did most things by the prayer-book, and the extra stuff you did really went to heighten the beauty and the joy of the service. I was really impressed with things like the silences you had all throughout the liturgy – and these silences that really let the weight of the readings, or the confession, or the Eucharist, they really let them sink in. They brought and bring me, at least, more closely to God. As for the rest of the service, I tweaked it a little bit, but, really, I left it the same.
But there was one thing that I did change. Before I got here, the wine and the bread were set up at the front of the church nave near the altar. Instead, we now put them at the back and have someone in the congregation bring them forward during the offertory. Right now it’s the Brazers and Gwendolyn who do this, but, really, it’s just important that someone from the congregation does it, not one of the LEMs up front or me, the priest. And I didn’t start this because some of you want to get your steps in or just to add another complication to the liturgy; I did this because it is one of the most important parts of the service. This simple act represents how we should live to God.
You see, this little cruet filled with wine, and this small handful of wafers, they represent how we receive God’s love and how we then return it. Look at our collect this morning for a moment. Here we address God as the author and giver of all good things, and that’s true. All good things come from God. And this isn’t like how, on Christmas morning, we say that Santa Claus brought all the presents under the tree or in the stockings (though this is indeed an image of how God lives in our lives). God is the author of good material things in our lives, but God is also the giver of all goodness, of all good things. We experience the goodness of the Spirit when we’re surrounded by our families, or when we’re under the warm summer sun, or when we curl up to read a good book on a rainy day. We experience the goodness of Jesus Christ when we are healed from our suffering or our pain, or when we experience the forgiveness of our sins and are reconciled back into our community. And we experience the goodness of God the Father in our faith and our hope that grounds us, or when we look to the stars or the ocean and know God’s love to us in Creation. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. All good things, all of them, come from God.
And all of this is what we call ‘grace’, the grace of Jesus Christ. And grace isn’t just those things in life that gives us joy, like stopping for ice cream on the way home, or hitting snooze on the alarm for just another five more minutes of sleep. These are good things (and things which we should thank God for, surely), but grace goes quite a bit deeper. Grace does quite a bit more. One author I read recently wrote that grace is the “quickening and sanctifying” of life. Grace is the yeast that we add to flour to make bread. Grace is the sun and the rain and good soil for a seed that helps it grow. It’s the Eucharist added to Morning Prayer to make our worship here on Sunday moving and powerful and that draws us to God. Grace is that presence of God, that impossible presence of God, that lifts life beyond itself, that makes all good things come to pass.
I once saw grace at work while in my hospital chaplaincy. Truth be told, grace was always at work in the hospital. I would go into rooms and talk with those who had been there just a day and those who would surely die there. People told me of their lives and their troubles, and in doing so, something was righted inside them, something was turned from grief and fear to, well, to life. I didn’t do much of anything; I just sat and listened and watched God at work in these people’s lives.
But there was one couple who was different. The grace in that room, I could almost see it, could almost feel it on my skin. The husband had an illness that was terminal, and he was going to hospice. There was grief, surely, and there were tears in their eyes, as they both knew that he would soon die. But there was love, both of one another and of the Lord. There was hope. And this hope, this love, this sense that I could see in their eyes and hear in their words, it wasn’t just acceptance of the inevitable, or the smile on one’s lips who looks back on a good life. This was something more than these two people, it was a goodness and a life that radiated out of them, that caught hold of me and the other seminarians who met them, as well as the doctors and nurses with us. This was grace, the quickening yeast of life, even at its end. This was God’s loving presence with we humans who are so lost and alone without him.
Grace isn’t something that fades like emotions or memories fade. Nor is it something we have, that we can, say, stick in the bank to use later or keep hidden under our bed for a rainy day. Again, grace is the quickening of life, the enlivening of life. It builds us as people, as Christians, in the image of Jesus Christ. It takes the gifts that we have been given in our birth and in our new birth in Jesus Christ, and develops them and furthers them, like a teacher who sees nurtures the potential in a student. Grace is how God works us more fully into his own image, which is Jesus Christ. And all this so that God can achieve his great intent: to bring all us humans, and God’s Creation with it, home.
There are many moments of grace in our liturgy. Really, I think you could say that the whole thing, from the opening hymn to the dismissal, is an experience of God’s grace. But the Offertory is special. Here we take two symbols of our work in life, work that we struggle through, that tests us and can even beat us down, these two, small symbols of all our life, and we bring them before God to be made into the very Body and Blood of God’s Son Jesus Christ. But that’s us, too, isn’t it? We human, we broken, wayward, sorrowful people. We bring ourselves before God as well, and what does God do? He loves us. He gives us life and nurtures us, so that our frail hope and longing can be made into an image of God himself. For we give to God everything that we have, and what we are given in return is more than we can possibly imagine.