2011-01-27

The Sacrament of Servanthood


Based on Matthew 25.31-46
Copyright 2011 © The Rev. Nate Bostian

I want to start today by doing something that every preaching manual, and every good preacher, will agree is something you should never do: I want to start by talking about a word that many people find confusing, many others think of as boring, and almost everyone will agree has nothing to do with the subject of hunger.

That word is "sacrament".

When I say the word sacrament, what images and ideas come to your mind?

Do you think of a very ritualistic worship service, filled with priests in strange gowns, the air thick with incense, candles and icons, and chanting in some long dead language?

Do you think of formal ceremonies, stuffy people, standing and kneeling, and endless prayers filled with "thees" and "thous"?

Or perhaps you think of some specific ritual. Maybe it's eating bread and drinking wine in the Lord's Supper. Or maybe it is baptizing someone in the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Or maybe even a confessional booth, or an old movie with some holy water and an exorcist.

Some folks may even be offended by the mention of sacrament. That's old fashioned and outdated. That's something THOSE people do. We need NEW ideas. We need to take ACTION to deal with hunger and homelessness in our city.

So, what's this crazy talk about sacraments?

Well, I gotta be honest with you. It is the idea of sacrament that made me start taking social justice and community action seriously. Without a sacramental mentality, I would probably still have a sentimental mentality that faith in Christ is merely a personal reality that I save for Church, but does not actually impact the world that I live in.

Now some of you may find this befuddling and baffling. Aren't sacraments merely rituals that you do in a little chapel separated from the outside world? How can sacraments have any effect on how we view social justice? How can private rituals lead to public engagement with the powers and principalities that leave so many sick and homeless and hungry and hopeless?

Well, let me explain.

I'm an Episcopal Christian, that used to be a Charismatic Christian, that used to be a non-denominational Evangelical Christian, that used to be an agnostic anti-Christian. And believe it or not, I think God has taught me a lot at every stop along the way.

Being agnostic taught me to be skeptical and always research why I believe what I believe. Being Evangelical taught me that Jesus is real, God loves me, and the Bible is where God most directly speaks to us today. Being Charismatic taught me to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit, and to expect God to work in amazing ways when we least expect it.

But being Episcopal has taught me how God works through God's people, which is the living Body of Christ, alive and active in the world today. Because we are Christ's Body, God works through our hands and feet, through our eyes and ears, through our actions and words, and through our rituals and sacraments.

Or to put it another way: What we do with our bodies and with other people's bodies matters. What we do with our stuff matters. What we do in the world matters. And the reason is simple: Because God says that matter matters.

God made matter. God made the physical universe. God made the world with all of its seas and mountains and rivers and animals and people. And in the first chapter of the Bible, God looks at all the matter He made and he says "it is good". Not once. Not twice. Not three, four, or five times. But seven times in a row, in one chapter, God says "it is good, good, good, good, good, good, so very, very good".

In fact, God loves matter so much, that he became part of it. What makes Jesus' life so amazing is not just that He was born of a Virgin, or that He died and rose again. These events are amazing, no doubt. But what is even more amazing is that in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, God became embodied in a real human person, so that when we look upon Jesus, we see the face of God.

So, matter matters. God says matter is good, and God became embodied in material form in the person of Jesus.

But God doesn't stop there. God wants us to know that He is present in every facet of His creation. Although God is not contained by the world, and is always beyond what he creates, nevertheless the Bible also tells us that God is present every day, in every way, in all of creation. In every person, every cell, every molecule, every atom. God is there.

In speaking of Jesus, the letter of Ephesians say that he "ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things." [4.10] and before that it says there is "one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all." [4.6]

And all throughout Scripture, the Spirit of God is shown as the Personal energy of God that moves through all of creation, making it alive, moving it onward into the fullness of the Kingdom of God. And it is IN this God- IN this Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- that we "live and move and have our being" [Acts 17.28].

And that brings us to right here, right now. God is all around us. Christ is here beside us. The Spirit is in each breath we take, and every move we make. We swim in the presence of God. We bump into people every day who are alive by the breath of God. And yet how often do we realize it?

How often do we take time to understand what an incredible privilege it is to be Christ's hands and feet, sharing His presence with the world, by the power of His Spirit dwelling in us?

I will be honest. I am a preacher. I am a priest. I do this for a living. And it is shameful how little I realize that I carry the life of God in me, and it is sad how often I forget that God's life lives in you as well.

And so we come to sacraments. Sacraments are moments of remembrance and recognition that God is right here, right now. That God is at work in matter and action, in our words and deeds.

In fact, this is exactly what one of the most ancient definitions of a sacrament tells us: "A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace". A sacrament is a sacred sign that God is at work in what we are doing. A sacrament is a sacred action in which the power of the Holy Spirit is sharing the very presence of Christ with us here and now.

And someone might say: Now preacher, are you going to tell me I gotta do these sacraments to get saved? Do I have to be baptized, or go to confession, or eat bread and wine to go to heaven?

And I would say that such a question misses the point. It isn't about whether this ritual or that ritual will get you in heaven. It is about being where God is. It is about joining in with the action of God in the world right here, right now.

You wouldn't choose to get married to someone, and then say "What is the minimum I can do and still stay married to you"? In the same way, you don't say to Jesus "What is the minimum I can do and still get into heaven?"

No! You say: "I love you Jesus! I want to be where you are at! I want to do what you are doing! I want what is important to you to be important to me!"

So, when Jesus says that he is present with us when we baptize in water, or when we lay hands on in prayer, or when we eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of him, we want to be part of that. When Jesus says that "wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" [Mat. 18.20], we want to be part of that. We want to be with Jesus.

And yet, at first glance, most sacraments seem to be very little about social justice, or the healing of the world, or the feeding of the hungry. After all, Jesus may be present in the Lord's Supper as we eat the bread and wine, but that is hardly enough to feed a hungry child, much less a hungry adult!

I mean, can you imagine how many of those little wafers you would have to eat to get a full stomach?

But, the meaning of the sacrament of the Communion Meal works at a deeper level than that. Because in that sacrament, by making one meal sacred, it reminds us that all meals are sacred. If God works through the bread at this one place, at this one time, it means that God can work through any bread, any food, at any time. If God works through what we drink at this one meal, it reminds us that God works through "whoever gives someone a cup of cold water to drink" in the Name of Christ [Mat 10.42].

By making one meal sacred, Jesus makes all meals sacred. This Holy Meal reminds us that all our food is a gift from God, and that God's Spirit is at work through what we eat and drink, to make us healthy and holy as we grow into all the fullness of Christ.

And so, the very food we share with those in need is sacramental. God is at work in us, through us, to heal and make whole those who we feed. Our food is not just something to be eaten and forgotten, or thrown away like trash. Our food is an opportunity- a gateway- to experience God at work in our lives right here, right now.

In fact, as we eat and as we share food with others, we get a foretaste of heaven. And while that may sound absurd, think about it. What was Jesus' favorite image of the Kingdom of God?

Was it chubby angels with harps? No.

Was it crystal cathedrals and streets of gold? No.

It was the image of a feast. A great party spread with the finest of food and the fullness of fellowship with God and each other. Jesus' favorite image of God's Kingdom was simply this: A meal with good friends.

And to share a meal with someone in need is a foretaste of that eternal glory we will share with Jesus in the Kingdom.

So, it is not surprising that Jesus explicitly says that by reaching out to the least, the last, and the lost among us, we engage in a sacramental act through which we directly minister to Christ himself. In Matthew chapter 25, we find a series of parables about the coming of God's Kingdom. And in verses 31-46, we find a specific parable about how we find Jesus through serving the world in His Name.

And what he said 2000 years ago, he says to us today:

"Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me."

As far as I know, feeding the hungry, and sharing God's bounty with those in need, is not listed as an "official" sacrament in any Church. But that does not mean it is not a sacrament. For it is clear that Christ is present when we serve others. Servanthood is an outward and visible sign of God's grace working through us, energizing us to bring about the fullness of the Kingdom of God, as we share a table with each other.

I don't know about you. But I want more God in my life. I want to be wherever Jesus is at work. I want His Spirit to flow through me. And that is exactly what happens in the sacramental act of sharing a meal with those who have no food.

And it is this consciousness that finally got me to take social justice and community action seriously. Because, honestly, I can be pretty selfish most of the time. If it was up to me, I would not share my stuff. I would not want to go through the pain and hassle of reaching out to hurting, hungry people who will probably never be able to pay me back in material goods. If it was up to me, I would just want to stay in my comfort zone, and keep my stuff to myself. Maybe you can relate.

But, when I realize that my stuff is not my stuff, but it is on loan from God, it changes things. When I go further and realize that my stuff is not just stuff, but a sacramental means through which I can experience God as I share God's bounty with others, it turns my world upside down.

That is why sacraments are so revolutionary. It was the greatest trick the devil ever pulled to make us think that sacraments were just private rituals done to get us into heaven.

Instead, sacraments are revolutionary public acts through which God brings heaven into our communities, into our churches, into our relationships, and into us.

Are you willing to have your world turned upside down by the power of God working through you? Will you live out your calling to be Christ's hands and feet in the world? Then join me in sacrament. Join me in the sacrament of bread and wine by which Christ reminds us that all meals are sacred. And then join me in the sacrament of sharing our bounty with those in need. Christ will be there with us. i promise you.
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.