Mr Will Dickinson
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 23, 2018
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we live in a city full of gates.
Gates guarding colleges, eateries, and parks, gates to churches, to bars, to social clubs, and that’s only the physical ones.
We live in a city in which entrée requires ever more elaborate methods of proving our worth, proving we deserve to be let in. Even my appointment as your seminarian came with a set of keys. We must be of greater importance, greater influence, greater worth, and soon it’s not a conversation about the thing itself, but who, in the end, is greatest. And as best I can tell, being a Christian is quickly losing much of the power and prestige it once enjoyed. No longer something necessary to gain entry to society, we now must first prove we are the right kind of Christian before the gates are opened to us.
And to be clear, it’s not that I have anything against gates. I’m totally onboard with gates – they can be quite beautiful, certainly functional, and they’re the only thing keeping the Rector’s dog, little Maggie, from the dangers of traffic on all sides. I love gates. But I simply ask us to take note of all the ways in which our city says “No. You are not welcome. You cannot come in.” And to take note of to whom we say it.
Who is allowed inside and on what basis? Who deserves to be let in? We live in a city that trades in the twin currencies of prestige and power. Prestige is a path to getting on the inside, which is a path to influence, which, I’m told, will make me happy and fulfilled. But, of course, getting on the inside is never sufficient. I must also make sure it stays exclusive; I must also ensure that my place on the inside is never in doubt.
Perhaps that’s why today’s Gospel rings so true to me. You should know, I have a habit of identifying with unsavory characters in the Bible. My first sermon it was Pontius Pilate, the next it was Cain, and so on. So perhaps it’s no surprise how quickly I identified with the disciples, arguing over who among them is the greatest. This is a game we play in the academy, in the church, in our workplaces, pretty much everywhere. It’s a pernicious game, too, because we don’t get to set the terms, and it turns our they’re totally arbitrary. We’re at the mercy of what the world deems great, and then are crushed when we inevitably fail to measure up.
And yet even the apostles of Jesus, like us, are not immune to the illusion of prestige and power. They too are concerned about where they stack up. Jesus knows this and even lets them in on the fallenness of human understanding, foretelling his coming betrayal and death by human hands. Does this illuminate the disciples? Does it snap them out of it? No, no. The disciples instead say, “Yikes,” and move on to more fun things like who’s the best. He tells them the death he is about to die for them, their friend, their leader, their rabbi, and they get scared and stay silent. The disciples, walking with the Savior of the World, simply say, that’s nice Jesus, now let’s get back to the things that matter.
How often have we ignored the truth of the passion and resurrection in favor of the truths of the world? How willingly do I contemplate the cross here without carrying it out into the world? How often have I stayed behind my locked doors, my many gates, instead of following Jesus to the cross? How often have I locked the door myself, despite Jesus’ protests behind me?
I grew up in one of those classic 1950s A-frame churches in suburban Virginia. God bless the architects, but sometimes it seems more like an auditorium than a church. Just don’t tell my grandmother I said that. Suffice to say, I have learned to appreciate good church design. And the most striking aspect of Christ Church to me when I first arrived was how the whole of the church points to the tabernacle and the altar upon which it rests. Standing at the font, one’s eye is drawn irresistibly up the aisle, through the rood screen, to the altar and the Presence of Jesus in the Sacrament. The church itself exhorts us, like Jesus, to root our priorities in his Passion and not in earthly things. For though there are many earthly beauties in this church, every single one of them points to him in whose name they are blessed.
But It’s far from only architecture which underscores this truth, however: the fragrance of incense and the wash of chant marking that which is holy, and the way we ritualize movement, ascending to meet heaven and Christ on our knees at the altar – all coalesce to focus our eyes and hearts on Jesus: he who is what we cannot be, he who is that to which we strive, who is truly, servant, of all. And we meet him, finally, on our knees, in that holy moment of communion, a moment in which there is no prestige, where there is no avoiding the Passion, in which we equally adore Christ and equally adored by him. And yet often forget, in favor of the illusions of the world.
St James exhorts his readers, asking, “these conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” One can hear the exasperation in his writing. How is it that humans are so drawn to unholy hierarchy, to comparison, always drawn into those pointless conversations about who is greatest? From where does our need to draw distinction come? Why do we put up walls so easily, walls of theology, of social status, of charm, of whatever? And for that matter, how can we begin recognizing the ones already around us?
Luckily, the saint gives us powerful advice: “Draw near to God,” he says, “and He will draw near to you.” Draw near to the love of Jesus that has overcome the world, the God who so desires to love us unconditionally that he sent his Son into the world to bang it into our heads directly. What would change if we believed him? What would change if we were simply content to love and serve the Lord?
St. James reminds us that the table is set, the feast is prepared, and drawing near is as simple as saying Amen. But of course, we must be in the room to hear the invitation. And churches are far from innocent of building their own gates to keep others out, even while proclaiming a message of love. Even as we So, my friends, if there are barriers, if there are gates between God’s people and that altar…they are of our own making. They are not of God. The God whose love gave birth to all of Creation does not distinguish between those worthy of His love or not. Jesus has offered it to all. Whatever barriers there are, they are not of him. And they must be torn down.
Now rest assured – this is no call to tear down the church or its traditions or wisdom. It is rather a call to tear down those places within ourselves that separate us from God and keep His people from his saving Grace. For if we truly recognized the gravity of the Mass, that our God sees fit to give himself to us day after day, would we not run out of this place in jubilee? Now of course that won’t do anything to improve our standing in the world, this world that would prefer we live our faith behind closed doors, but friends it is our calling. We who have heard the Good News need not be afraid of Jesus’ message in the Gospel which so frightened the disciples. We who have taken the divine into ourselves are fully equipped to show Him forth in our lives, leaving behind the worldly conflicts and pursuing Jesus.
And Jesus’ message for us today is twofold: First, that those who would be first should be last. It is a call to humility, a reminder that those who are first in this world, those within the gates, shall be last, that we and the disciples must humble ourselves before a world that desperately needs our servanthood. This is a good and just message, but it is not the whole of it. Lest we fall into false humility and be content to sit inside our churches, suitably contrite, thinking we have fulfilled Christ’s exhortation, we remember the reverse: The last shall be first. This message, echoing through the other Gospels’ and in the sermon on the mount, is a call to recognize the validity of the least of these, their dignity, the utterly overwhelming love our God has for all people, in this city and in all. Humbling ourselves is insufficient without raising others up. One without the other is only half a Gospel.
But that is the work of this blessed mission church, that there might be a place in this city, a true haven, free of exclusion, free of shibboleth, where the seats are simply free. This is our patrimony, to be one space where all may simply sit awhile and eat. Praise God for giving us this call to servanthood, and that rail at which we are at once served and serve. Praise God for knowing we shall never measure up to that perfect servanthood, that we shall always be sorely tempted to be the greatest. Praise God for knowing we will fail and for calling us anyway to witness to Jesus’ irrevocable love. But, my friends, this is too precious a gift to keep to ourselves. It is not sufficient to know that this church’s seats are free. We must tell the world. We must proclaim and exult and, yes, evangelize the good news of Jesus saving love. In this city full of bodies denied their humanity, full of people who prestige and power are content to ignore, we must be a place of servanthood, a place offering beauty and reverence purely for the sake of God, a place whose holiness spills out the doors, drawing others in.
And in times such as these, I see a world, a city, a time when those gates will finally open, when the mighty are put down from their seat, when the humble and meek are highly exalted indeed, when the currencies of power and prestige are revealed as farce and all we are left with is love. When those gates are not just blown open but their very foundations are torn up and utterly destroyed. When the whisper of the devil in our hearts is finally silenced and we will know in our bones the unfathomable love of Jesus for each of us, when we finally realize there is nothing for which we must compete. When we all shall be such as children, gaping in wonder at the glory of our God.
Though that time is not yet, though the Kingdom is yet coming, we see a glimpse still, at the altar, its possibility afresh on our tongues. As we commune with our Lord, the love of Jesus is enough, simply enough. We are renewed, we are redeemed, and the mission of this place shall be as it always has been: to proclaim the boundless love of Jesus for all, to witness that Good News to all we meet, and to say and hear mass, that meal which has changed the world.
So throw open the doors, fling wide the gates, go forth in love and welcome that fragile, broken world in, to stand at that font, see that altar, and know its salvation.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.