Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
October 25, 2020
As I begin my sermon today, I want you to hold in your mind the image of bumper bowling. You know, where they put put those big air pads or guard rails in the bumpers so that you can’t throw a gutter ball. Great for kids. Guaranteed to knock down some pins. Makes you feel like a champ. Okay, bumper bowling.
So all throughout the Old Testament, there are two strains of thought that we can identify. Two distinct lines that run through just about everything in the holy scriptures. On one side, all throughout the Old Testament, you have the priests. Like, the Temple leaders. They kept up the regular worship of the Temple and the system of sacrifices. The priests focus on the right worship of God, and that’s why you have that massive framework for how worship is to take place in the ancient Jewish Temple. Just a take a glimpse through Deuteronomy and Leviticus and you’ll see the priestly strain of thought, focused on the right worship of God.
On the other side, the other bumper if you will, are the prophets. The prophets are always calling the people of Israel, including the Temple priests, back to a right relationship with each other. The prophets speak against social injustices and oppression; they speak against debt slavery and unfair wages and dishonest measurements. They don’t tell the future, that’s a common misconception. Rather, they warn the people that the future will be terrible if they continue in their sinful practices. Read through the prophets like Micah and Isaiah and you’ll get a good taste of the prophetic strain of thought in the Old Testament. For the prophets, it’s all about justice.
In other words, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” See, when Jesus says that, it’s not like he’s inventing anything new. It’s not like Christianity invented that idea. Jesus is simply summing up what the Old Testament is all about. The right worship of God, and the right relationship with neighbor.
Like a poorly thrown bowling ball that goes bouncing from one bumper to another, Christian thought has always ping ponged back and forth between these two commandments. The right worship of God, and the right relationship with neighbor. The problem is when either the priest or the prophet think they are the only thing that matters. The problem is when all we do is either focus on worship, or all we do is focus on justice.
So here’s what I have to say – the priest and the prophet need each other. Worship makes us seek after justice, but we only know justice because we have worshiped. That’s how these two commandments are linked. And I think that’s what Jesus is trying to teach us. Right worship of God and right relationship with neighbor are two sides of the same bowling lane. I want to dig into that.
Worship by itself is just empty theater. Seriously, if all the Church did was put on fancy clothes and read words from old books, we may as well do Shakespeare. It would be more entertaining. Worship, by itself, is only a performance. And as the prophets tell us, worship by itself without care of neighbor is an abomination to God. Think of what God said through the prophet Isaiah. God says, “Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile, incense is an abomination to me. I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me. I am weary of bearing them. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescued the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:12-17). Without justice, without love of neighbor, God finds worship to be nauseating.
On the other hand, service and justice are hollow if they are not rooted in the fear of God and God’s desire to care for the oppressed. If all we do is justice and social service, then we’ll probably end up following our own agenda instead of God’s agenda. See, this is where the prophet needs the priest. The priest needs to remind the prophet that we care for our neighbors because God cares for our neighbors.
Priest and prophet. Worship of God, care for neighbor. Two bumpers of the same lane. One without the other and you’ll end up throwing gutter balls all day long. I think this is where we, as the Episcopal Church, can offer a unique witness to the world. Rather than being too much one of the other, we must be both. On the side, we have such a beautiful, rich tradition of worship. The stateliness of the Book of Common Prayer is, I think, without equal. Think of some of those phrases in our worship – “to have and to hold,” “the quick and the dead,” God is “always more ready to hear than we to pray.” In our beautiful worship we experience the fullness of Jesus’ command to love God – we baptize, we commune, we bury, we marry, we drop to our knees in gratitude for Jesus Christ. We love the Lord God with all our hearts, souls, and minds.
But the bowling ball must bounce back to the other side. The Church with this tradition of worship is the same Church that serves and loves its neighbors. I see this here at Holy Comforter, I see it in the wider Church, too. We must walk out the doors into mission and ministry. I know people who got sober because of the Episcopal Church. I know, and you know Christians who, because of their faith, decided to make the world a better place, to advocate for justice, to take jobs that were going to be hard just so they could make the community a more equitable. Churches, like ours, have sponsored refugees and raised up military chaplains. I know Episcopalians who, as successful business people, refused to exploit their employees though they could’ve made a lot more money doing so. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Like that young lawyer confronting Jesus, asking Jesus to pick the most important commandment, this world wants us to choose either/or. We, you, have the unique opportunity to witness to something greater. We are a both/and kind of people. A strong, committed tradition of worship, with a sure, certain desire to serve our communities. We have the opportunity to show the world that a Christian can, a Christian must love God and love neighbor. And one without the other will be a gutter ball.
And with this, I bring a word of challenge. If you are more comfortable inside the church, if most of your discipleship is focused on prayer, worship, formation, a beautiful church – that is holy, and I commend you. Now, expand your horizons and find a way to love your neighbor as yourself. Find a way to make our society more just, more equal so that your worship will be pleasing to God. Not because your worship isn’t good enough, but because your worship compels you to.
And if your ministry is all about service, if you think the Church ought to be more social worker and less church-y, that is also holy, and I commend you. Now, commit yourself to prayer, to hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs, commit yourself to worship. Not because your service isn’t good enough, but because you won’t know how to serve without first knowing God.
Do not allow the world to make you pick one or the other. Do not slip into those easy dichotomies of priest on one side, and prophet on the other. Trust that you can bounce back and forth from one bumper to another. And I guarantee that you will knock down some pins. By loving God and loving neighbor you will show us what it means to live by the law and the prophets.