Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Don’t you have better things to do?
This is how I sometimes joke with volunteers when I see them here at the church on a regular basis.
Don’t you have better things to do?
It is a question I could also ask of you as we come together every Sunday morning for worship. And indeed it is a curious thing for us to be engaged in this weird activity. There are so many other things we could do! We could read the Sunday edition of the Globe and Mail or watch the excitement of the Olympics, or join one of the many groups that are right now getting ready for the annual Pride Parade. But we are here. And presumably, we are here because we are looking for something worthwhile, something useful, something sustaining in this life of ours, which is marked as much by joy, delight, and ecstasy as it is by terror, pain, and disaster. Yep, that’s it… we are here to discover meaning and practical help, right?
And then we get here and all kinds of bizarre things go on. There is a procession with a cross and candles consisting of people dressed in weird clothing, one even with a funny hat. And there is all this movement, the standing up and sitting own, and some people are even kneeling. How odd!
And I have yet to mention the decoration. Who would deck their own halls like this?
And once the service starts there are all these weird prayers and this strange music and all the stuff that is said and responded to. If you listen and watch what is going on, there is not really a lot of practical help coming your way.
This is true for the readings too. We proclaim and profess these to be divine texts, texts that reveal the will of God for our lives, but really? Just have a look at today’s splattering of biblical texts: First we hear from some guy called Paul whose letter to the Ephesians starts out rather well: “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” But then it goes on to speak of things that do not really seem as if they link to real life, right? How could we use in real terms this text as we face the current global economic crisis and the increasing discrepancy between the rich and the poor, which is a screaming injustice?
And the reading from John isn’t much different! It is all well and good to embrace and affirm what Jesus reveals: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” But can this really overcome cancer, or AIDS, or any other suffering in body, mind, or soul?
No, it is not very practical what we hear today.
And if you expect me to preach a sermon with three key points that will tell you exactly what to do to solve all these issues, then you either haven’t been here before, or you haven’t really been listened. Because, I am sorry to disappoint, but I do not have three points to bring about world peace, heal your broken relationships, or ensure that your children will grow up to be valuable members of society.
As I am contemplating this I remember an anecdote about Bill Gates of Microsoft fame. He was once asked if he ever goes to church: “No,” he said, “it’s not an efficient use of my time.” And after everything I have said so far, he seems to be right. Church really isn’t a sufficient use of our time, right? All the money and energy we spend here could be so much better used elsewhere, couldn’t it? Think of all the self-help groups, all the social service agencies, all the NGOs, all the cultural institutions that could benefit if we were to redirect our resources!
Yet, we are here.
Yet, week after week we get together. Something is pulling us into this very space to do this very service. And why on earth do we keep on doing this? Why are here? Why do we put all this effort and energy into this seemingly outdated space and into these seemingly outdated rituals? Is this really efficient and useful? Is this good stewardship of time and space, when in the end we go home without having received practical advice, applicable agendas, and a plan to better the world?
Don’t we have better things to do?
There is a sense out there in many parts of our society that sees the church as a useless institution. And this is very mild assessment! If you were to ask about their take on the church the thousands and thousands, who gather today for Pride, many would turn in disgust and would respond with horrific and horrendous stories of abuse and violation. The church is not very well liked among sexual minorities, to say the least. I myself find it easier these days to come out as a gay man in the church than to come out as a faithful and professional Christian among fellow GLBTQ folk.
And there are some justifiable reasons for this.
The church has been and continues to be a tremendous source of pain and hurt in the life of many. We have sinned against First Nations’ folk, women, and queers to name but a few. And as long as we do not follow the prodding of God’s Spirit who calls us to serve the world, who urges us to advocate and work intensely for peace and justice, and who wants us to open wide our doors for all those who come, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, then maybe we have lost our right to exist.
So then, the church is really about helping people and doing what’s right?
Well, despite of what I just said, the answer might surprise you: No, it isn’t. At least not firstly.
Yes, outreach, advocacy, even evangelism are indeed things we should and must do and without which we cannot call ourselves God’s people. But at the heart of our identity is our worship. Everything else, everything we do flows from this experience. Everything else is a product of all this strange prancing around; this constant standing up, sitting down, and kneeling; this singing odd hymns, ancient and modern; this praying with words that are our own or that come from the pages of our prayerbook; this breaking bread and sharing the cup. Worship is at the heart of the church’s identity, because it has to do with something bigger than what we do, something bigger than even ourselves.
Worship is first and foremost about God. Worship is about connecting with the Almighty who is the source of all that was, all that is, and all that will be. Worship is about opening up and submitting to the will of the Creator, who loved each and every one of us into being. Worship is about discovering the divine love that seeks to nurture us and penetrate every fibre of our being with compassion too deep for words. Worship is about travelling ever deeper into the divine mystery that was revealed among us by Jesus the Christ, our brother, our lover, our Lord and our God.
And worship is also and equally about keeping us focused on the world as it was intended to be: The world that God had made it to be. The world that God wants it to be. Yes, our liturgy is never perfect, in fact it is often a sorry attempt, something that the poet W.H. Jordan could describe as “a first-rate opera, played by a tenth-rate company.” But it still is true. We come together here to see a hint of the real world as God made it to be. The Rev. Daniel T Lloyd, III, sometime dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., described it thus: All the weird things we do in worship, “are mainly here to stir our imaginations to get us to see more and see deeply so that then we’ll be ready to make [God’s intended] world a reality. Sunday is primarily a time to catch the vision.” End of quote.
Yes, our liturgy is about worshipping the triune God. It is about giving “unto the Lord the honour due his name” as Psalm 96 puts it. And our liturgy equally sets us up to imagine the beauty of God’s created order and to foretaste the community that will gather us as equals, as beloved siblings at the banquet when God is all in all.
This is exactly of what Paul speaks in his letter to the Ephesians. It is a passage that is tied together by a sense of unity, unity with the one God and unity with one another as the worshippers of this one God. Remember Paul writes: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”  Furthermore, there is that passage that I already quoted earlier: “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, … bearing with one another in love.”
Yes, this is not an exact and precise agenda for the betterment of our lives and for the betterment of the world. But it is a vision. It is the glimpse of an alternate reality. We catch this glimpse and engage in this reality every time we do these weird things in our liturgy, every time we come together for worship. We might indeed be members of a tenth-rate company, but we are still engaged in a first rate opera, which reveals our unity with God and with one another, our dependence on the Creator and our interdependence with one another as the created children of God. In worship we come together to see and experience unity, a unity that is beyond our imagining and beyond our understanding, and that transcends and overcomes even our continued attempts to run away from God’s love and to run away from loving one another. Yes, I will continue to sin against God’s will. Yes, I will continue to be at odds and in conflict with other members of the church. I am not perfect. But in worship all this is overcome and different reality takes shape: we are one in the one Lord. And this is profoundly important not only for us, but also for the world. In worship we witness to a unity that binds us all together and that reveals a love, which can overcome sin and death and which can overcome the strife and discord of our world.
And this is why worship is important.
This is why we really don’t have anything better to do.