Proper 28, Year C
November 18, 2001
Old St. Paul’s, Baltimore
The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck
Why, exactly, are you sitting in a church pew this morning? It’s not that it’s entirely uncomfortable; I mean, you get a cushion to sit on. And the temperature’s pretty reasonable in here. It’s kind of a nice ambience with all the stained glass windows and the music and the pageantry. And the sermon won’t be too long, at least I can guarantee that. But wouldn’t it be more relaxing to be sitting at home in a bathrobe with your feet up, holding a freshly brewed mug of steaming coffee in one hand and the Sunday paper in the other? Or maybe sitting in your favorite breakfast café about to dive into a plate of fluffy blueberry pancakes? So why, exactly, are you sitting in a church pew this morning?
There may be some obvious reasons why we come to church: we might seek a deeper relationship with God, or possibly Jesus Christ has acted in our lives in a special way and we feel a deep desire to give him thanks, or maybe we’re just keenly aware of the limitations of the human condition and we seek to be in the presence of something greater than ourselves. And there may be some less glamorous reasons why we’re here: my spouse or parent made me come, it’s a habit that’s hard to break, or we think the music’s nice (which it certainly is). The truth is, our motivation for coming to church varies from week-to-week and year-to-year. God draws us to church in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. But the invitation is always extended.
The God who speaks to us through the prophet Malachi acknowledges these assorted motivations but also forces us to look at the ultimate reason why we come to church: our own salvation. Though we often downplay this, our faith is a matter of life and death. We’re not here just so we can be seen as respectable church-going people. We’re here because Christ has called us to eternal life. To a life that bears the fruits of the Spirit now and evermore.
Through Malachi, God observes many who believe that, “it is vain to serve God.” What’s the point? “What do we profit by keeping God’s commandments?” Why, exactly, are we sitting in church pews this morning? My guess is that we’ve all asked this question at one time or another and yet we return week after week to praise God through our worship together. But it does beg the question, are we wasting valuable time by sitting here? If you added up all the hours you’ve spent in church over the course of your lifetime, tacked on time spent in prayer and the reading of Scripture, how much time would it be? Who knows, but you’re probably talking about a healthy chunk of time. Perhaps not as healthy as it could be, but a lot of time nonetheless. But what does it all mean?
Malachi seems to have the answer. It’s a frustrating answer because it doesn’t lead to instant gratification but rather the answer leads to eternal gratification. Through Malachi, God tells those who revere God’s name and pray to God that they “shall be mine.’ And that they will be spared on judgment day. On that day, whenever it may be and whatever it may look like, the difference between the righteous and the wicked will be revealed. Ultimately, that’s why we serve God: to find eternal favor in God’s kingdom, to live not for this life but for the life that is to come. We don’t talk too much about judgment in our denomination but its reality is always present. In our three-year lectionary cycle we hear readings from the Book of Malachi only twice. So it’s easy to ignore. Yet when we look at it in connection with Jesus’ talk of the coming judgment and the hardships all Christians must endure, it’s hardly justifiable to skip over. As tempting as it may be.
So often denominations take one of two approaches to the question of judgment. They either ignore the issue altogether or they put all their emphasis upon it. The problem with the first approach is that a key element of the faith is lost. And the problem with the second one is that it creates an “us versus them” mentality.
We have to tread very carefully when we speak of judgment and the inherent issues of the righteous versus the wicked. We must do so only when we take the time to acknowledge the great mystery of God and the great mercy of God. In the wrong hands the passage from Malachi in conjunction with our Gospel reading from Luke can be quite destructive. If we believe that we ourselves can determine who is righteous and who is wicked then, to paraphrase John, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we try to play the role of God and attempt to do the judging ourselves, a church group can quickly degenerate into an exclusive club designed to separate “us from them” rather than being an inclusive shelter for those trying to follow Christ. Make no mistake, pronouncing judgment upon our fellow human beings is both impossible and, yes, sinful. Where does that leave us? If we speak of judgment we can do so only within the context of a loving and merciful God.
We sit in these pews because we seek to follow the path of the righteous. We may stumble occasionally or even often but God is with us at every step of the way. Judging us, yes, but also encouraging us, forgiving us, and loving us. That’s why we’re here this morning and that’s why we return to Christ day after day after day.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2001