Sermon for Adel Parish Church – 3rd Sunday before Lent.
Isaiah 58: 1 – 9; 1 Corinthians 2: 1 – 12; Matthew 5: 13 – 20
There was once a wise and holy man who every evening sat down with his disciples to meditate and worship God. One day a young cat joined the community. It wandered through the temple during worship, mewing and distracting people, so the holy man ordered that the cat should be tied up at the door before worship began.
This went on for many years. The holy man died, but the cat continued to be tied up during worship. Eventually the cat died…and another cat was bought so this important ritual could continue…learned scholars wrote books about the significance of the cat in worship…
I guess some of things we do could seem as odd as if we tied a ceremonial cat to the door at the start of the service. In our first reading, Isaiah warned of empty rituals that made no difference to the way people lived.
And yet we still do them. One of the many things that attracted me to this church was the fact that we celebrate the Eucharist, with a priest in vestments, on Sundays and midweek; that we have a robed choir and server, a gospel procession, that we stand, sit, kneel, turn to face different ways…
…that’s because the rituals, the liturgy, the stuff we do has been very important in my adventure with God.
There are lots of words in our worship – and they’re important. But in the end they’ll always be approximate, inadequate. God is transcendent…beyond and greater than any words. Symbols take over where words are not enough.
It’s not only our brains we bring to worship, but also our bodies and emotions, our whole selves. I think we learn about God in what we do as well as what we say and hear. So for me the things we do are important, not because they please God, or because we’re ‘getting it right’…but because they change us.
Of course some people feel it’s all old fashioned, that we should find more modern ways to worship. But part of the power of liturgy is that it is ancient. It has deep meaning because its meaning is in a way outside of time, outside the ‘fashion’ of the day. People have done these things for hundreds of years because in them they have found God.
Sometimes it needs a little explanation. When I’ve read the gospel, I put it back open on the altar for the week. Perhaps I should’ve said that I do this because in hearing it – and in exploring it in the sermon and prayers we’ve broken open the gospel. We’ve let it out of the book and into our lives. It’s open to remind us that it’s not just words on a page, but truth to be lived.
Sometimes though, the liturgy can’t be explained – it’s much better experienced.
Soon we’ll be entering Lent, Holy Week and Easter…when the church provides us with almost an overload of stuff to do. I will be ‘going for it’ whole-heartedly – and would like to invite you to do the same.
Why? Because I’ve found that when I do that stuff, Holy Week is about much more than remembering what Christ has done for me. It becomes a way of taking the journey with Christ.
On Ash Wednesday – the start of Lent, we have ash put on our foreheads. It asks us to recognise what’s wrong with our world, that we are with Christ in the wilderness – and need him to lead us out.
On Palm Sunday we sing ‘Hosanna’ and process waving palms…we say ‘Jesus is our King’ – knowing how fickle we are – how soon cheers turn to spite.
On Maundy Thursday we come to the last supper and share bread and wine as if for the first time. I’ll be looking for 12 volunteers to have their feet washed as the disciples had theirs washed by Christ. I’ve been one of those 12 – slightly embarrassed, but moved as my priest replaced robes with a towel, knelt and washed my feet – and I imagined Christ doing that for me.
I’ve also done the foot washing…reminded of my place washing feet rather than standing in the pulpit…but also conscious of the grace of those people…we’re British…we’re uncomfortable with stuff like this…but people agreed to have their feet washed so we could learn together about Christ’s way.
Then we strip the altar, take away everything but the consecrated bread…and sit for a while as Jesus prays desperately in the garden; trying not to let our minds wander…trying not to fall asleep. And then we go…leaving him to face the court alone.
On Good Friday – we kneel before the cross – think about the agony – perhaps about our agony – or of those who suffer today around the world.
Then we come at 6am on Easter morning. Hear the story of God and his people – come with the new light brought into a dark church. Sing…shout ‘alleluia’ because all the cruelty, fear, failure has not overcome the love of God.
It’s very different to just hearing the story. There’s a posh Greek word for it…anamnesis. It means an active remembering where the past gets drawn into the present…and we find in it truth for every time.
Somehow in the doing we experience with Christ…popularity, anger, fellowship, love, fear, betrayal…even doubt. We realise those are our experiences too and that becoming like Jesus is about finding the way to cope with what life throws at us.
So whether it’s all new to you, or has been part of your life for years, please come, and let’s travel this journey together. Humour your new Rector…volunteer to have your feet washed – or to read a lesson at dawn on Easter Sunday!
I will finish with some advice from our next Archbishop of York on ‘A Good Holy Week’ – a book I heartily recommend…
Go for broke.
Just be there, be part of it and see where you are taken.