The Rev. Jimmy Abbott

Sixth Sunday of Easter

May 14, 2023

Acts 17:22-31

It’s one of the great American rituals. Mother’s Day. You mail the card. You get the flowers. You make the brunch plans. On my way home from church today, I’ll call my mom. And she’ll know exactly why I’m calling. I can almost script out the entire conversation right now – “Hey, mom, just calling to wish a Happy Mother’s Day.” “Oh, well thank you. And thank you for the card.” “Well, of course. Are you doing anything special with dad today?” And so on and so forth. It’s an American ritual. All very well and good.

And yet, it’s not the only day that I care about my mom. It’s just, you know, I’m not going to send her a card every single day. Or, say, we’ll celebrate our wedding anniversary with a nice dinner and gifts. But just because we don’t go out to dinner or give gifts on the other 364 days of the year, doesn’t mean that we don’t love each other. It’s just that days like this, like Mother’s Day, are the ritual form of how we feel. All very well and good.

It’s only a problem when the ritual and the feeling don’t match each other. When the ritual is empty. This is part of what Saint Paul is getting at. Here’s the scene from the Bible – Paul is in the ancient city of Athens, a city full of temples and objects of worship and statues. Paul just blurts it out, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” They are so religious that Paul even stumbles across an altar of theirs with the inscription, “to an unknown god.”

For the Athenians, this altar is a way of hedging their divine bets. If they missed sacrificing to some god, well, at least that god won’t feel totally forgotten. It’s like the Athenians have at least mailed the card, even if they didn’t send the flowers, make the phone call, or get the brunch reservations.

Obviously, this has been one of the criticisms of our form of worship as Episcopalians; that it’s just a ritual. That we come here, week by week, and pretty much, everything is the same. Oh sure, the Bible lessons change, the hymns change. But we say the same words, we do the same things, you all have your own pew, I know that. We sit, stand, kneel on command. It’s all part of the ritual. The criticism is that we appear religious, that we have our altars, but that we don’t feel it. We have our rituals, but are we really worshipping the true God in whom we live and move and have our being? Is there any heart in what we do? You know the jab about Episcopalians – that we’re the frozen chosen.

The not so subtle critique being that more emotional worship is better. That guitars are better than organs, that spontaneity is better than formality. That screens and projectors are better than stained glass windows. But that’s not the real issue. Sometimes emotion just covers up all the doubts and questions.

The real issue for all of us as modern Christians, is that our worship is something we do on the side. It’s become more of a hobby than anything else. It’s like we’ve mailed the card, sent the flowers, but there’s not heart in it. 

And so rather than turning away from the ritual, I think, we need to embrace the ritual. This is who we are. And what we do in here is supposed to be the inspiration for how we live out there. Everything we need to know about a life with Jesus can be learned from our rituals here. Think about this. Today, we are facing persistent and atrocious violence. What does the Church have to say about that? We turn to each other, even perfect strangers, and offer the peace of God. Out there in the world, we see the growing discrepancy between rich and poor. What does the Church have to say about that? Everyone in here gets the same bread and wine, no matter who they are. Out there, humans are classified, categorized, and ranked on gender, race, and origin. What does the Church have to say about that? Through the waters of baptism, all are one in Christ. Out there, we aren’t supposed to ever say that we’re sorry. We’re supposed to deny, cover up, obfuscate, fight back. What does the Church have to say about that? We get our knees and confess our sins. Out there, we do everything we can to get more. What does the Church have to say about that? In here we pass a plate, with the expectation to give. And if you don’t have cash you can swipe your card.

So next time you have someone roll their eyes at you, because you’re an Episcopalian and you follow all those funny old rituals, own up to it. Be proud of it. Sure, it’s a ritual. But it is the radical power of the Living God. This stuff is spiritual kerosene. If we pay attention, it’ll light our hearts on fire for the Living God. Sunday by Sunday, week by week, this is the power of the Spirit to transform our hearts. Church and worship is orderly, beautiful, and loving so that we would have what it takes to transform this dysfunctional, ugly, and ailing world. 

In other words, do not get caught up in the false dichotomy between being spiritual and being religious. You’ve heard that, right? “I’m spiritual but not religious.” The implication being that spiritual is better than religious. But I say that we need both. Spirituality without religion can easily become the worship of whatever is convenient. Religion without spirituality can become a cold, dead, ceremony. I think that God desires both our inward hearts and our outward lives, both our feelings and our actions. Both our rituals and our hearts. If I observed the ritual to send my mother a Mother’s Day card but didn’t actually care about her, that would be a sham. If I cared about my mother and loved her but didn’t send a card, then how would she know? The ritual shows the love, the love sustains the ritual.

If you have come here today only to perform a ritual, I pray that God would open the eyes of your faith. If you have come here, thinking it’s all a little silly, I pray that God would call even your body into service. So that, if Saint Paul were to walk in here he would say not in criticism, but in awe, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s