You may listen to Mother Erika's Sermon here.
I wonder how many of you have had a conversation like the one I had recently. I was talking with a friend, a clergy colleague I haven’t seen in a long time. We had both moved since the last time we had talked, and so we were doing the standard priestly catch-up. Now I wish I could say that the standard priestly catch-up were more about our prayer lives and shared moments of grace and how we’re trying to take up our cross, but it usually isn’t. It’s usually more like now, where’s your parish again and what ministries are you responsible for and how is it working with the rector, and, of course, what’s your ASA? (Church-speak for Average Sunday Attendance.) But when you work at Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia, there is usually an added question from churchy-minded-folks, and my friend asked it. I’ll bet some of you can guess what it is: isn’t that the church with that silver altar?
And so I said yes, we are that church with that silver altar. And my friend, who is a faithful, passionate, inspiring, dedicated priest, said to me, in all seriousness, Y’all (yes, he really did say y’all), y’all should melt that thing down and give the money to the poor. Surely some of you out there have heard comments like this before. We’ve had people post comments like this on our Facebook page. And I don’t know about you, but for me, these comments hurt. They make me feel a little sick to my stomach. Because to anyone who has ever walked through the Lady Chapel, let alone worshipped in the sublime holiness of that space, the thought of reducing the beauty and generosity that is that silver altar to the mere cost of its materials is disgusting. To hear a comment tossed off like this by someone who means well but should know better is exasperating; it’s upsetting.
But that upset is nothing compared to the shock of hearing what God has to say in this morning’s reading from Amos. I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Your offerings mean nothing to me; I won’t accept them, I won’t even look at them. And your music? Forget it. I’d rather that you just shut up, take your harps, and go home. Ouch. How do we sit in this place, with these altars, with that silver and this gold, with this choir and that organ, with our offerings ready in our pockets and our velvet offering plates ready to receive them, how do we sit here and hear that and not flinch? How do we sit here and hear God say that he desires justice and right action, not processions and sacrifice, and not wonder, just a little bit, if my friend wasn’t on to something?
But, of course, we know better, don’t we? We know better than to take these extraordinarily harsh words at face value, because we know the back-story; we know the context. Amos, that brash, bold prophet, has been sent by God to a people rich with resources to call them to account for their unfaithfulness. They have not been caring for widow and orphan; they have not been feeding the hungry and helping the poor. The rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer and the rich haven’t been worrying at all about that because they’ve been telling themselves that if they just show up to church, everything will be fine. If they just put in their time at worship, say the right words in the right order, offer the right amount of grain and wine and fatted calves, everything will be all right. They’ll be made right with God, easy peasy, nice and breezy.
It is this hypocrisy that Amos is criticizing here; this is what God is so angry about. Not the worship itself, but that the worship is being used as a cover for cruelty, indifference, selfishness, and pride. It’s what you choose to do, every minute of every day, that I’m interested in, God says; it’s how you choose to live, inside and outside of worship, that matters to me. So if your pattern of words and deeds doesn’t match up with the pattern of your worship, then your worship isn’t working. And that kind of worship is meaningless, no, it’s offensive to me.
Well, praise the Lord. It looks like the silver altar is safe after all. Because Saint Mark’s is a place that gets this. We do practice what we preach; we understand that right worship must be coupled with right actions, inside and outside of this remarkable building. We know that, to quote that great old address by Bishop Frank Weston, we “cannot claim worship Christ in the tabernacle if [we] do not pity Jesus in the slums.” We get this. And so we feed the hungry, and start a school, and knit like demons to make scarves for our clients at the Soup Bowl. And we visit the sick, and we cook for one another, and we celebrate and mourn and live life together, as one community, loving neighbor, God, and self.
And we also understand something much deeper than that. We understand that it is actually in our worship that we learn what righteousness and justice are. We understand that our worship not only provides the inspiration and the strength to go do godly works; our worship is the place where we learn what those godly works are. Here, in worship, we learn what living a godly life looks like, a life steeped in God’s holy word, offered in prayer, lived in community. Here, in worship, we experience the righteousness of God as God forgives us, week after week after week, and offers his Son to us in bread and wine, week after week after week. Here we see justice, as we pray for the lost, least, and lonely, as we all come together as one body, proclaim one faith, and kneel before one altar.
We understand worship at Saint Mark’s. And we understand that if it is our worship that is going to shape and strengthen our action, then our worship better be beautifully shaped and strong. And so we bring the very best of ourselves to this liturgy, whatever that very best is. We offer our time, showing up early to usher or read or serve at the altar. We offer our talents, crafting elegant vestments like these or exquisite, earnest music like that. We offer a little elbow-grease, oiling the pews until they shine, polishing the green out of every feather on the eagle, helping a newcomer to find a pew, or a five-year-old to follow along in the hymnal. And we offer our cash, to restore this holy, unique building, to keep the heat on and our choirs vested, the candles high and the incense abundant. We offer our very best to our worship in this place, because we know, here at Saint Mark’s, that worship itself is true and laudable service, and that it is in our worship that we practice right living – that we see the righteousness of God, that we learn what justice truly is, and that we gather the strength to take that worship out into the world. We know worship here at Saint Mark’s; we have our lamps trimmed and burning and we are ready for the bridegroom.
Except…except that Jesus reminds us that we really need to be ready not just for the bridegroom but also for the unexpected. Lamps are fine, but we also need extra oil…just in case. We need to be prepared for anything, for everything, to happen in this worship. We need to be prepared to leave this church different than when we came in. We need to be prepared to hear God talking to us, right here, and right now. We need to be prepared for Christ’s gentle holy nudge, for God’s divine surprise. We need to be prepared to feel a true longing for the kingdom and the hunger to do something to help it grow. We need to be prepared to be blown off our feet by the breath of the Spirit. We need to be prepared to experience God for real in this place, like one heartbroken alto did fourteen years ago when she realized as she was singing the Kyrie that God was actually listening. We need to be prepared for anything – for mountains to move today, for hearts to crack open, for questions to be answered and for new ones to bubble up, for sorrows to be soothed, tears washed away. We need to be prepared for the bridegroom to actually show up.
Our worship is the place where we learn how to live as God’s beloved children, how to act justly and live righteously. But our worship is not a training ground or a practice room. It is the place – one place, a profound place – where we actually meet God. And there is nothing expected about that. So bring some extra oil and sit here in this place. For the King of Glory shall come in, and when he comes, we need to be prepared for anything.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
9 November 2014
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia