You may listen to this sermon here.
There once was a man who was in a line. He was not a dot; he was part of a line. But his line was not a line of hope, nor was it a line of fear – it was just a line. A queue, actually, in a grey, empty town “by the side of a long, mean street.” The man was the narrator of C.S. Lewis’s little book The Great Divorce, and he had queued up, like any good Brit would do, in a long line to wait for a bus. When the bus arrived, he got on and, like any good Anglican would do, took a seat near the very back. After a moment, the bus started out… and rose up off of the ground, carrying its passengers up and away into the sky. For you see, the man was dead, the bus stop had been in hell, and the bus was taking him to heaven.
As they flew, the man looked out the window and saw nothing but more and more grey, empty town. He asked the person sitting next to him why there were so few people down there. He was told that in fact, there were many people living in the city; it’s just that they all lived on the very outskirts of town, as far away from one another as they could. You see, in hell, you simply had to think up a new house, a few more blocks down the road, and it would appear. So if you had an argument with your neighbor, you just imagined a house a little further away, and – voila! – there it was. And of course people kept arguing, and the town kept getting bigger and bigger. The oldest residents of hell, Genghis Khan and Napoleon and the like, lived millions of miles away from the bus stop – so far away that the man on the bus would never be able to see their homes, even from high up in the sky. Hell, the man discovers, is a place of infinite separation; to be in hell is to be divided, one from another, again and again and again.
C.S. Lewis’s vision of hell is an utterly modern depiction – not a kingdom of fire and brimstone, not Dante’s world of frozen stillness, but a place of emptiness and of complete and utter disconnection. It’s brilliant, actually, because I think this exactly the hell that we fear – being out of the loop, separated and scattered. Why else would we spend so much time and money getting “connected” with new smartphones and easier wireless access? Why else do we feel the need to check philly.com five times a day, to constantly update our twitter feed, to text while walking? Because we are scared, terrified, shaking in our Uggs, that we might someday find ourselves alone on a grey, empty street, with no one and nothing in sight.
But of course, these means of being “connected” are simply surrogates for the real thing. And we know this. We know that we cannot satisfy our need for communion simply by owning the right equipment. We know deep in our being that an email is not the same as a handwritten note, that writing “Happy birthday, buddy!” on someone’s Facebook page is not the same as sending a card, that texting is not the same as a phone call, and that none of these is the same as actually standing face to face, watching someone’s face as she talks, looking into her eyes, breathing the same air. We know this, and yet we still allow ourselves to be led astray by the false promises of the world with all of its stuff. We fall in line behind those who tell us that true connection can be easy and effortless and as fast as 4G. But the longer we follow this path, the more we realize that we are, in fact, moving further and further away from our neighbors, and soon we’re living on the outskirts of our own life, divided from all meaning and all connection by the sin of separation. Because it’s hard to love God, neighbor, or yourself when you feel millions of miles away from everything.
This is where God’s people find themselves in the book of Ezekiel. They are scattered all over the place, utterly disconnected from each other and from God. They had been counting on their leaders to hold them together, but their leaders, these shepherds of Israel, have made a real wreck of things. They haven’t done a thing to care for their sheep; they haven’t fed them or healed them or kept them safe. And the sheep, broken and hungry and suffering, have wandered off and abandoned the flock. They are fighting among themselves. Some are lean and some are fat, and they are all separated and lonely and anxious. They are, in a word, in hell. Finally, God looks down on this mess and says, enough. The false shepherds are finished. “I myself will search for my sheep,” God says; I myself “will seek them out.” No longer will God use a surrogate shepherd. God Himself will go and get the people; God himself will find the lost and bring them to good pasture, bind up the wounded, feed the hungry. God has taken over; God will personally restore His kingdom, where all people are gathered in and cared for, where all people feed and rest together on one mountain, breathing the same air, and following one shepherd.
And that gathering is still going on. Here, in our worship, week after week, God seeks us out and draw us in, takes scattered sheep and makes them a flock, takes individual dots and makes them a line. Where else on earth are people gathered and fed, assembled and cared for, called together and offered rest like they are in church on Sunday morning? Where else in the world do all kinds of people – youth and old, rich and poor, the weak and the hungry and the sinners and the broken – sit together in the same pasture, look into each other’s eyes, breathe the same air and know themselves to be connected in the way that we are here? This, right here, is God’s gathering, God’s holy kingdom. Our worship creates the connection that God desires for us, the connection that we are all so desperate to find. It is not quick, and it is not effortless, but it is real. There is no need for surrogate shepherds or cell phones, only the single shepherd, Christ the King, who gathers us in, and connects us to ourselves, to our neighbors, and to our God.
And so I ask you: why in the world would we ever miss this? Why in the world would we ever choose not to come to worship on Sunday morning? And I do mean “we,” because I’ve been as guilty as anyone of hitting the snooze button and making the executive decision to attend the church of the Holy Comforter by the Springs. (Get it?) And we’re not alone. Churches everywhere – including Saint Mark’s – are seeing decreased attendance on Sunday mornings. Generally, fewer people are going to church, and, specifically, fewer churchgoers are going every week. More and more people are choosing brunch, or the Sunday New York Times, or family time or a field hockey game over weekly worship. I don’t think this means that we’ve stopped seeking deep connections; I just think it means that we’ve forgotten where to find them. We forget how wondrous and miraculous this gathering is; we forget that this is where our deepest connections are made, where our deepest hungers are satisfied by the richest food. We forget what a gift of gathering this worship is. Why in the world would we ever miss this?
And we also know, of course, that this – our worship – is not the end of the story. Today’s Gospel makes it very clear that after being gathered in, we are to go out from this place and to keep watch for the Christ that we have met here – to look for him in the faces of the poor and in the prisoner and in the hungry. To quote that great old sermon Our Present Duty by the Anglo-Catholic Bishop Frank Weston, “You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.” But we must not forget that in order to pity Jesus in the slum we must also worship Him in the Tabernacle. Because it is here that we study his face so that we can see it in the least of these. It is here that we learn true connection again and again, that we learn what true love really feels like, so that we can recognize the real thing when we see it and fight to keep it, no matter what. It is in this place, on this very day, that God has gathered us in, connected us deeply one to another in the bread and the wine. It is in this worship that God help us to find our neighbors, and it is from this font that God will grow our flock today with the baptism of Nico and Claire. Why would we ever miss that? I mean, it’s just like…heaven.
Preached by Mtr. Erika Takacs
20 November 2011 - Christ the King
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia