Reign of Christ – Proper 29 (34), Year A
26 November 2023
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Many years ago when I was a teenager, the congregation in which I was raised engaged persistently and intentionally in youth outreach. The big push took place during the annual one week Easter holiday. The draw was a Christian rock band whose two sets were interrupted by a speaker describing the beauty of a life with God and the meaninglessness of a life without God. Chairs for the audience were set up around tables and a bunch of us were volunteers who spread out to strike up conversations during the intermission. At the end of the evening we would travel back to the retreat centre we were staying at outside of the city, with worship and bible studies before the next evening’s event. Our evening at the retreat centre always concluded with evening prayer which included a time for extemporaneous prayer. These were long days and short nights, and one time after evening prayer, our pastor asked me if I may have been the one who had been snoring during our prayer time. Not able to remember hearing any snoring I concluded that it may have been me.
I remembered this story a few years ago when I came upon a piece by the theologian Paul Griffiths, entitled “The Liturgical Drowse.”1 Griffiths is deeply familiar with the liturgy and says that he can indeed speak the liturgy in his sleep, which may be true for many of us who are here week after week. When I was young I rarely used a hymn book, for I knew hymns and liturgy by heart. It is the addition of many beautiful new hymns and new liturgical settings for the liturgy that now keep me glued to the book more than I wish I was.
Griffiths says that at worship he often finds himself at the edge of sleep but that being at the edge of sleep does not prevent him from participation, for even in his drowse he will speak his parts. He says that he can easily recite the Creed in his sleep though he may not be aware of doing it.
Reflecting on the cause of the drowse, Griffiths says that among the activities he performs regularly and that are complex enough to have required a significant effort of learning, worship is exceeded in frequency only by the use of his native language.
If you have ever had to explain to someone from a non-liturgical tradition why we use a liturgy, you may have heard something like Griffiths’ experience as an objection to using a liturgy. People will say that it’s meaningless because it’s all by rote, the implication being that anything said by rote cannot be authentic.
But Griffiths’ point is to the contrary. He may not use the expression of knowing by heart, but it is in fact what he is saying. By heart means that you know something in your heart, that something is innate to you, it is not performative but is as authentic as our mother-tongue, thus his comparison to the use of his native language. And he considers it a virtue to know something this deeply.
The parable of the Sheep and the Goats tells of Jesus the crucified now seated in glory, as the judge of the world. As he separates the sheep from the goats, he praises the sheep and marks the failure of the goats yet surprisingly neither of them know what he is talking about. The pattern and speech are the same for both groups, the only difference is the insertion of the word “not” for the second group.
“‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.”2 And the sheep answer, ‘Lord, when was that? We don’t remember.’
Perhaps you are familiar with Leo Tolstoy’s story, Where Love is, God is.3 Tolstoy tells of the cobbler Martin Avdeitch, a man of very modest means who lives in a tiny room in a basement that is also his shop. Having lost his wife and children and having just buried his youngest child he is without hope. But through the guidance of a pilgrim from his home village he begins to read the Bible and has a vision that the Lord Jesus will visit him the following day. All day he keeps looking for the Lord Jesus, but he only encounters the usual people of the neighbourhood. One of them is his neighbour Stepanitch who is cold from shovelling the snow. He calls him in, offers him tea, and Stepanitch asks whether he is waiting for someone. So he tells him.
The next person he sees is a young woman with a baby not properly dressed for the cold and he calls her in for them to warm themselves. He shares soup and bread, and he gives her warm clothes and money for her to redeem her shawl from the pawn broker. She blesses him and tells him that Christ must have made him notice her. He agrees and tells her of his dream.
The next people he sees are a young boy stealing from an older woman. He goes outside and shows them what forgiveness looks like, appealing all the while to God’s forgiveness.
And as the day is over he wonders why Jesus did not come to him. And in a vision Jesus speaks to him again and shows him what he did for Stepanitch, for the young woman and her child, and for the old woman and the boy. Tolstoy ends the story with Jesus saying, “… just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Tolstoy’s story is a literal application of the parable, translated into Tolstoy’s time and the many needs Tolstoy saw among the poor of Russia. Tolstoy remains faithful to Jesus’ parable and by doing so he identifies Jesus as present in the least of these, and like the sheep in the parable cobbler Martin Avdeitch is wholly unaware that in these he encountered Jesus. Yet in the expectation of Jesus and the care of others, his life that had been without hope is transformed.
These acts of mercy (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting prisoners) form the basic ethics of the Christian life. Yet they are not the eradication of poverty, they are not a system change, they are not the cure for cancer, they are not the end of war. Not that there is anything wrong with those things, but that is not what this story about. Besides, if our only goals were the eradication of poverty, system change, a cure cure for cancer, or the end of war we may forget to turn toward our neighbour which is where Christ is found. And we may find those tasks so overwhelming that we would quickly give up trying and lose hope. What Jesus lists are profound but tangible things, things we can all do.
Yet more important than that they are tangible is that they are carried out the way that Griffiths worships, without knowing. And we would do these things without knowing we are doing them, not because we are asleep but because we cannot imagine living any other way.
A few years ago when Peace Lutheran in Abbotsford engaged in a modest effort to reach out to those unhoused in the community, I became aware of the experience of Tenth Avenue Alliance Church in Vancouver. At that time the church had a meal program and while renovations were being carried out at the front of the building they asked their guests to enter from the lane. Because the guests entered from the lane, neighbours complained to the City about the church’s meals. The City said the church could not feed the hungry without a social services permit. The church replied that feeding the hungry is an essential to what it means to be Christian, to be a follower of Jesus.
I always liked Tolstoy’s adaptation of this parable but wasn’t sure it was much more than a retelling in a different time. But there is something Tolstoy has taught me that I now also see in the parable. The acts of mercy Jesus describes and that the cobbler lives out without knowing that he encounters Jesus in the needy, are acts that bear no transcendence in and of themselves, they are immanent, they are ordinary. And yet as ordinary acts they bear the marks of holiness and carry the presence of God. In one of our hymns we sing, Lord, you make the common holy.4 This is a statement about the bread and wine we share, but sharing itself is a sacred act and an embodying of the presence of God. In this way every table is a communion table. It is this that takes away the cobbler’s despair.
May we live lives that are generous, and may our practice of sharing bread and wine enable us to share our lives and our possessions without knowing it, even in our sleep, and because we cannot imagine living any other way.
4 Evangelical Lutheran Worship ♫ 579 Lord, you Give the Great Commission, text: Jeffrey Rowthorn, © 1978 Hope Publishing