Year C, Proper 17 August 28, 2016 The Reverend. Dr. Brent Was
“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” AMEN.
What else is there to say? That’s kind of the sermon I was looking for, that we are all looking for. Short, sweet, to the point, the Word of God unfiltered, straight from the source, in this case from St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. Well, it is not actually St. Paul’s letter to anyone. Paul did not write it. All the way back to Sts. Origen and Tertullian, very early, 2nd century early church fathers, they knew that this was not Pauline, but was respectfully attributed to Paul by an anonymous disciple of his, some say it was written by a woman, Priscilla. It was probably a sermon preached to a community undergoing hardships and it linked the sacrifice Jesus made to the sacrifices made in the Temple. But that is not what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about is doing good, and sharing what we have, and maybe just little bit about sacrifice.
A lot of ministry flows out of the big red doors of Resurrection. A lot of service is offered to the world from this place. People live here, very, very poor people live here and we are working very hard to build Hospitality Village which will (hopefully) make life here better so they can get better and move on to a more sustainable life. The Home Starter Kit ministry provides necessary household items to people moving from homelessness to housing: pots, pans, sheets, kitchen and cleaning supplies, that sort of stuff. Hundreds of people a year are helped. For years we have hosted the St. Vinnie’s Interfaith Family Shelter, the only family shelter in town. We now partner with Unity next door for two weeks of our basement being a shelter. We moved it to October so keep your ears open! We are an Egan Warming Center site, sheltering the most vulnerable in our city when it gets below 30 degrees. We sponsor and staff the breakfast at 1st Christian every 2nd Sunday. We give grants to all sorts of agencies through the Outreach Commission. And you are very generous with my time, allowing me to serve as a community chaplain of sorts. I do a lot with Opportunity Village and some stuff at Occupy Medical among other things, shining the light of Christ in Eugene and there are a bunch of other things, small and large that get done in the service of others around here.
And everyone in this community participates! Maybe you bring a can of tuna for the FISH basket every week. Maybe you bought some lemonade from the kids to help Hospitality Village. Or are the pancake meister each 2nd Sunday, or at shelter week or Egan. Or maybe you just pay your pledge, and are open to being asked about increasing your pledge to support our work here. Or you tell your friends about what we do here, or post it on Facebook, witnessing is important! Or you hold it all in your prayers. If you are part of this community then you are part of the ministry of this place. That is wonderful. On behalf of a grateful community, thank you!
Most every church serves. In one way or another, most any church is serving the least of these in some way. What we offer in and from Resurrection is not that much different (besides the housing… what we’re doing out there is pretty wonderful). But over all, we’re not superlative in what we offer here. But what is different about what we here at Resurrection do is that this, this work, the sharing what we have and making sacrifices to serve others, it is a key part of our identity as a Christian community. It always has been, and it is getting more so. People have been living in our parking lot forever. Home Starter kits is 20 years old. We’ve hosted Shelter week for 26 years? And it has become more and more central to our identity as a church, here and from outside. From my travels about town and the diocese, we are known for three things: fabulous music (that organ, our choir… bellisimo!), tight liturgy (it is, this crew, we’re not messing around up here), and mission, our service to the poor. Our service, our outreach, our sense of mission is central to our identity.
We do a lot around here, and we talk about what and how we do it, but we don’t talk very specifically about why we do it. Why do we do it? Why do we open this building and land, this community, ourselves in the service of others? Why do we sacrifice in the service of others?
Well its church, so let’s start with what should be our number one reason for serving others: Because people need the help. That’s the churchiest answer we can give. People need help. Suffering exists and we can help relive it. For a lot of reasons our society depends on the goodness of individuals and religious and service organizations to care for the most vulnerable. 1000 points of light; that’s how George H. W. Bush put it. And if we’re not doing it no one else is going to. And I’m not talking about saving the world. I’m talking about the most important thing being helping the person right in front of you with what you have to take care of what they need. Not rocket science, not even religious imperative, but basic human obligation to members of our community. Caring for one another is evolutionarily important. We serve because people need to be served.
That said, we are a religious body and service is a Christian imperative. We serve because God wants us to. That is a pretty good reason. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have…” That is a pretty clear directive given to the earliest of churches and was taken so seriously that it was canonized and made part of our Holy Scripture. It is like St. James’ teaching, “Faith without works, is dead.” You can’t just sit around believing, you’ve got to do. In our understanding of how God’s will is revealed to us, being in the Bible is way up there on the list. This message is all over the Epistles, and is all over the stories of ancient Israel and is directed in the Law and we are reminded of it over and over again by the prophets. God wants us to serve; it is a duty we have as people of faith.
Most directly, we know that God wants us to serve because of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. How is He our Lord? How is he our Savior? Because He came not to be served, but to serve. Everything He does in the gospel record is service: teaching, feeding, healing, forgiving, restoring the broken to wholeness, loving everyone He encountered, sacrificing Himself for the sake of the whole world. We are commanded to love one another. That’s our job. And we do that in our hearts as much as we do that with our bodies. We are told to feed the hungry, give drink ot the thirsty, hospitaltiy for the stranger, shelter for the homeless, visits to prisoners, and in doing those things, in serving the least of these in the kingdom, it is God we are serving.
We serve religiously because Jesus tells us too, but there is more. (Maybe that should be enough, Jesus telling us too,but we are Episcopalians sometimes we need a bit more explanation). We serve because it is a religious practice. Pope Francis has a great quote that we have in the Contemplative Mass bulletin: “First you pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That is how prayer works.” Yes it is. Service is prayer. It is a primary way that we commune with the Almighty. St. Francis said something similar, “Pray constantly, use words if you must.” That is not just a call to contemplative prayer, it is a call to pray with the sweat of your brow and the care of your heart given to others. Service is practice.
But there is an other fundamental Christian practice that service opens for us? Sacrifice. Do you get goose bumps thinking about sacrifice? The letter to the Hebrews is all about sacrifice, and only some of it is about the kind of atoning sacrifice that is out of theological fashion nowadays. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Sacrifice puts us in the posture of a servant much like Jesus put Himself in. It grounds us and humbles us. Gandhi teaches that one of the 7 deadly social sins is religion without sacrifice. I want to quote Steven Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He commented on Gandhi’s social sins, writing, “Without sacrifice we may become active in a church but remain inactive in its gospel.” That will not do! And by sacrifice, I’m not talking about our first borns! I’m talking about some money that maybe you had some others thoughts about, or some time, or a chaffing dish of mac & cheese, or maybe suffering through when the church smells a little funny, or that you are sitting next to someone that you are not 100% comfortable sitting next to. Each of those inconveniences, when held as a sacrifice, is a perfect site of religious practice. We serve because it is a religious practice.
But service is not all doom and gloom, hair shirts and kneeling on dried peas. We also serve because it is good for us! It is! Doing good for others is good for us. Peter Maurin… anyone know that name? He was the inspiration behind the beloved Servant of God Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement and is certainly a hero of mine. Maurin was a shabbily dressed Christian anarchist of the highest order whose notions of hospitality are as keen an interpretation of the Gospel as I have seen. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some of entertained angles without knowing it.” I am certain that Maurin was inspired by that passage. He had a very clear prescription for Christian service. It started with a Christ room in every house, where needy friends and neighbors could be offered a place to stay. Then there are Parish Houses of Hospitality. Churches, he pointed out have rectories for clergy and dorms for seminarians, so he reasoned they should have the same for poor neighbors, a house of hospitality on the church campus. Part of our inspiration for Hospitality Village is based on this notion. The church as an institution should do its share. Then he proposed more radical measures: the Catholic Worker houses, stand alone communities where people sacrificed everything to serve, giving away all of their belongings as Jesus teaches and living and serving amongst the least of these. Finally he proposed these wonderful farm communities, Agronomic Universities he called them, where the kingdom could be built literally from the ground up. Fascinating stuff, but specifically of the houses of hospitality at a parish and in the community, he very clear writes, “We need houses of hospitality to give to the rich an opportunity to serve the poor.” This work is good for us an opportunity to accrue all of the benefits of sacrificial practice and doing God’s will, and simply being a good neighbor. We serve because it is good for us.
Finally, and not least of all, we serve because it feels good. Giving of ourselves, serving, making sacrifices; it feels good. Like coming back from a run, or looking back down a long row of tomatoes that is weed free for at least the next 20 minutes… it feels good, all the hard work getting done. If you just hold on greedily to what you have, or if you don’t do anything more than you are required, you maybe should feel kind of guilty. It should feel bad, being materially stagnant. That feels cramped or kind of musty, holding all your stuff and wealth and energy only for yourself and your intimates. Stretching our generosity is like stretching your legs, or starting to run or take on any exercise program: it kind of hurts at first but with practice, it is a whole new world and nobody regrets it!
This church does a lot. You all, you are the church, you do a lot. You serve in so many ways and more will be asked. Thank you. My prayer for you is that you see and receive the rewards that doing good brings. This is how the Commonwealth of God comes into being, one teeny-tiny act of mercy at a time, and it feels great! AMEN.