Third Sunday before Lent
9am & Choral Eucharist
Preacher: Canon Michael Rawson, Sub Dean & Pastor
I wonder what made you come to church this morning? Perhaps you were invited by a friend, or you are here to support Etta, Evelyn and Edgar who are to be baptised? Maybe you have been worshipping here for scores of years, or you just happened to walk along the street outside and decided to pop in and see what happens inside. No matter what our motives for being here, it is wonderful that we are all here and you are all most welcome.
A few years ago I visited San Francisco, sharing in the life and ministry of Grace Cathedral. Before I went a friend suggested I read a book, Take this Bread by Sara Miles. I am envious of people who have a series of theological books on the go at any one time and freely admit that I’m not the best person at reading theology. But I decided to do it anyway and was blown away by the book. On impulse, Sara who was a life-time atheist walked into church and found her life transformed by the experience. Here’s a little taste of what she writes:
Early one winter morning, I walked into St Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco. I had no earthly reason to be there. I’d never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord’s Prayer. I was certainly not interested in becoming a Christian – or, as I thought of it rather less politely, a religious nut. I’d passed the beautiful wooden building, with its shingled steeples and plain windows, and this time I went in, on an impulse, with no more than a reporter’s habitual curiosity.
I walked in, took a chair, and tried not to catch anyone’s eye. We sat down and stood up, sang and sat down, waited and listened and stood up and sang, and it was all pretty peaceful and sort of interesting. ‘Jesus invites everyone to his table,’ the woman announced, and we started moving up in a stately dance to the table in the rotunda.
And then we gathered around that table …. and someone was putting a piece of fresh, crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the Body of Christ,’ and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the Blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.
It is a powerful book and I’d recommend you reading it for yourself.
Today’s gospel reading is part of the much longer Sermon on the Mount where Jesus lays out before his hearers the foundations on which the Kingdom of God is to be built. The part of Jesus’ teaching which we’ve just heard is not easy to listen to or digest, covering reconciliation, adultery, divorce and swearing. Jesus adopts the formula, ‘You have heard that it was said’ …. ‘But I say to you …’ In this Jesus emphases that he is not doing away with the Law but rather fulfilling it and going beyond it. The new law of love goes above and beyond the old law.
So Jesus says to his hearers, ‘when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.’ It is a wonderful ideal and goes to the heart of worship, that we are called not to simply pay lip service to God but to true conversion of our hearts and lives. Sadly the ideal is not always within reach and perhaps we all know from first hand experience that reconciliation and peacemaking is not a one off event but rather a journey and a process. It’s something that we really have to work at.
Sara Miles’ experience of going to church for the first time might be extreme but I suspect that most people are drawn into church by the experience of worship rather than theological discourse. As human beings we need to be caught up in something greater than ourselves and beyond us. Of course, doctrine comes later and certainly has its place in shaping our lives as Christians. In our worship we offer everything in our lives to God, both the light and the shadow. All is blessed and made holy and given back to us in Christ present in the Eucharist. And it is Christ working in and through us that makes reconciliation both a possibility but also a reality. In the baptismal liturgy parents and godparents are asked, ‘Will you pray for these candidates, draw them by your example into the community of faith and walk with them in the way of Christ?’ The answer is not I will, but rather, ‘With the help of God, we will.’ It’s not easy to be a follower of Christ but the good news is that we don’t need to do it on our own – we do this as a community of faith. We come to the altar as brothers and sisters in Christ, offering our whole lives to God in vulnerability. And Jesus allows himself to be placed in our hands, also in vulnerability. All are equal at God’s table, popes and royalty, the rich and the homeless, those who are successful and those who hang on by the skin of their teeth. All are equally valued by Christ, the host at the table. But it doesn’t end there for once we have met with Christ in the beauty and holiness of worship, we are strengthened to go and find him also in the faces of the poor and the marginalised.
For Sara Miles that meant setting up what became known as the Friday Pantry, essentially a foodbank sharing out the good fruits of the Californian countryside. Just as the congregation on Sunday wound its way around the altar in a circular dance to receive the Bread of Heaven, so at the Friday Pantry the poor and hungry make their way, in a circular movement of tables around the altar, laden with fruit and vegetables and bread. It’s an extension of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist caring for the lonely, the forgotten and the unloved.
As disciples there is nothing done simply as an individual, it is all is about building up the community and Kingdom of God. Being a disciple means becoming part of God’s family and that’s what we celebrate in baptism today. Our world values individualism, independence and autonomy. The values of God’s kingdom are very different - connectedness, community and dependence. As we come to offer ourselves at the altar this morning may we start the process of being reconciled with others, and may we seek the shared inheritance of God’s kingdom.