Seeking Out the Lost

A sermon by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Today is a really happy day for us. We are back in our beloved sanctuary after many months away from it. It is looking lovelier than ever. This has been an epic restoration of which we can be justifiably proud. This is an upbeat day, a day for celebration. And our readings today have had wonderful, upbeat, celebratory messages. How about this from our first reading:

‘The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them”’.

Or how about this positive and cheery verse from today’s Psalm:

‘Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth,
a sinner from my mother's womb.’

Before I went away on vacation last week, I took a look at the readings that were prescribed for today – these are the readings used in every Episcopal Church throughout the country – and in a bunch of other denominations, too. I looked at what we had for today – the day of celebration and rejoicing as we made our return to the sanctuary – and I have to confess that my heart sank a little…. I had been hoping for something a bit more celebratory…  something a bit less… well, condemnatory than the story of Moses and Aaron and the Golden Calf.

Yet, when I thought about it a bit more, I realized what a good thing it is that we have a lectionary of readings prescribed for us week after week, because, just like life, we have to take the rough with the smooth; we have to take what we are given and make the best of it. We have to actively search and see what message God might be giving us with the hand we have been dealt. 

And what might God be saying to us in the story of Moses, Aaron and the Golden Calf, and in a psalm that faces up to our inherent propensity to sinfulness and our inevitable mortality?

At times like today - when we are at the culmination of a long period of concerns about the material fabric of our sanctuary, and obsessing over architectural and artistic details, and wowing everyone with the beauty of something that we have created - it is precisely at times like today that it is good for us to be reminded that all of this – lovely as it is – and, by God, it is lovely – and it has a lot of physical and emotional energy invested in it – that all of this is not the church. We have become so used to the word ‘church’ being used to describe the building and all its accoutrements, that we easily forget that the word ‘church’ originally described the collection of people who gathered together, at first in people’s homes, to worship God and to pray for each other. But over the centuries, things that had been peripheral to church, like the buildings and the ceremonial, gradually crept into center stage.

***

The people of Israel had been led out of captivity in Egypt by their leaders, Moses and Aaron and were at the point in time of our first reading wandering around in the desert, hungry and very disillusioned most of the time, and they felt that God was not with them any more. It didn’t help them that they couldn’t see God, didn’t help them that they didn’t have something tangible to focus their attention. So while Moses was up in the mountains praying with God, the people got together and lobbied Aaron with a request. We want something tangible that looks like God, they said. Something we can bow down and worship and know is there. So Aaron – goodness knows why, but there you are – says this is fine and they gather everyone’s earrings and so on, and melt them down, and cast a golden calf. Then they have a big party, and everyone seems happy that they now have something they can call a god, something they can see and touch and make sacrifices to. You know the rest of the story. Moses hears about it, tells God. God is furious, vows to destroy the Israelites, Moses pleads with God, reprimands the Israelites, trashes the calf and everyone moves on.

 The Golden Calf by James Tissot

The Golden Calf by James Tissot

If we are tempted to think that we could not possibly behave in the manner of the ancient Israelites, we need to think again. We might not be casting physical idols and offering physical sacrifices, but we have plenty – plenty – of modern-day idols that can easily, and insidiously, supplant God. One of the dangers we have to guard against is that ‘church’ doesn’t just become our buildings and rituals and program. The church is us and if none of this were here, we’d still be the church, living and vital in this place. 

Now, I would be the first person to say that church buildings, and furnishings and all of the panoply of liturgy are wonderful things: I do earnestly and sincerely believe that our sanctuaries and worship services can be places where people can encounter the divine, feel closer to God, experience the beauty of holiness, and be lifted out of the mundane, or the pressures of everyday life, into something transcendent. I firmly believe that. And I also firmly believe that our calling as a parish is to help bring people into this holy space and help them find the connection with God that they are seeking. And from the many conversations that I have with many people every week, I know for a fact that people are seeking that connection. But oftentimes, they don’t necessarily how bring that about.

Christianity and everyday life in America are no longer entwined they way they once were. No longer is the Church a dominant establishment force in the way it once was. No longer can we construct stuff like buildings and programs and expect people to come. The people who comprehend Christianity and have had positive experiences of the Church, are unfortunately, far outweighed by the people who are either ambivalent or indifferent or who have been hurt and damaged by people and groups that claim to represent God’s purposes.

Most people aren’t interested in going to their local church building any more.  And ill-conceived attempts by churches to appear cool and zeitgeist-y tend eventually to fall flat on their faces. 

But…. I do firmly believe that we are embarking on a new Great Awakening in the Church. The old order has passed away and Christ is making all things new.

Now, I don’t want you to think that what we are doing, gathered here today in a denominational building, isn’t important. It is. It’s very important. This is where we come to be nourished and revived. But the Church’s spiritual calling is about this realization: that what we do here is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. This is base-camp, and it’s vital for the expedition. But if you’re going to climb Everest, you wouldn’t just stay at base-camp, and Everest isn’t going to climb itself.

 A German engraving from 1583 of Christ the Victor

A German engraving from 1583 of Christ the Victor

One of the mountains that I believe we have to scale is centuries of Church dogma that has painted God as a judgmental tyrant rather than a loving parent. The prevailing belief in churches throughout this country is that it is God was angry with our behavior and demanded a placatory sacrifice to restore equilibrium. In theological speak this is known as ‘substitutionary atonement’. Yet this idea only really took hold in the 11th century. So for pretty much the first millennium of the Church, the dominant theology of why Christ died was markedly different: that God so loved every part of his creation with every fiber of his being that he allowed himself to take human form and, through his sinless life, be uniquely placed to break the hold of Satan, who held us captive because of our weakness for sinfulness. Theologians call this belief ‘Christus Victor’ and our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox churches still subscribe to it, as do an increasing number of progressive Christians throughout the world. And to that I give a great big ‘Yay!’, because at the heart of everything – everything – is our sure and certain knowledge that God loves us, and that he wants more than anything to be one with us. That’s real atonement. At-one-ment.

Our Gospel reading today consists of two of Jesus’ most famous parables: the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost coin. And the point of them is this: that God, far from being a tyrannical and judgmental tyrant who sets us unattainable rules, in actual fact so yearns to be united – to be reunited – with us that he will search for us until we are found.

As a parish, we are about to embark on a national program called Renewal Works, which will help us discern where God is calling this parish over the next coming years. Next week we will launch the Spiritual Life Inventory, a survey that everyone in this parish is being asked to complete. This is a very important step for us as a parish and I urge you to complete the survey when you receive the details. As Christians, we are Christ’s hands and feet on earth. Just as God seeks us out, so he calls us a parish to seek out those in this community that are seeking God – which is, to be honest, just about everyone. 

We’ve got plenty of work to do, but I think that we’re up to the task!