[Texts: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23]
Have you ever had something go wrong during a worship service?
Have you ever been the reason something went wrong during a worship service?
I have, on both counts.
When I was about sixteen, I was serving as an acolyte in a small parish in Connecticut. Our priest was out of town, so a retired priest was filling in for him.
Anyway, it came to the part of the service where the celebrant’s hands are to be ceremonially washed right before the Eucharist. As the most senior acolyte serving that day, I had the honor of performing this task.
“I’ll wash my hands now, Anna,” the priest said, which was my cue.
“Yes, Father,” I replied, and went to grab the things I needed.
As usual, the little side table behind the altar was all set up with the items that were needed to celebrate the Eucharist, including two small, covered pitchers– one filled with water and the other filled with wine. The pitchers had built-in lids, so I couldn’t see their contents, but I had been an acolyte for a long time, and I knew how the table was always set up in this parish– the pitcher with the wine was the one on the left, and the one on the right contained the water I was supposed to use to wash the priest’s hands.
So I held the little basin under his hands, rested the towel on my forearm where it belongs, and started pouring. To my complete horror, sticky red wine gushed out over the priest’s hands and into the basin. The pitchers had been set up in the reverse order of what I was used to. I had grabbed the unconsecrated wine instead of the water, and had just dumped it all over the hands of a priest I had never met.
An acolyte is never supposed to panic during a worship service, but I’ll admit it: I panicked. I managed not to drop anything or scream, which took every fiber of my being, so I’m pretty sure no one noticed except the priest, thanks be to God. But I was beyond mortified. I don’t know if anyone has ever prayed so fervently to taste the sweet nectar of death than I did in that moment.
Tears started to fall from my eyes as I tried to figure out what to do.What happened next surprised me: the old priest started laughing! And he couldn’t stop!
Turning to the congregation and holding out his Port-soaked hands, he announced, “Sometimes following Jesus gets messy, and that’s okay.” (As if I didn’t already want to curl up and die, now the entire congregation knew what I did. Great.)
He then turned back to me and quietly said, still chuckling, “Go empty the basin, then we’ll try the hand-washing again– with water this time, if you don’t mind.”
“Yes, Father,” I said. Needless to say, when I finally poured the pitcher of water over his hands, the washing had much more than just a ceremonial function.
After the service, as we were divesting in the sacristy, I fell all over myself apologizing to the supply priest. I was horrified that I– a seasoned acolyte with years of experience under my belt– had managed to screw up such a beautiful part of the service so badly!
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Do you know what the root of the word ‘acolyte’ means?”
“Servant?” I guessed.
“No, ‘deacon’ comes from the word for servant– διάκονος. Acolyte comes from ἀκολουθέω. It means to follow.”
Confused, I said, “But acolytes lead the procession. The clergy follow us into the church, not the other way around.”
He laughed again. “Not that kind of following. More like being a disciple.”
“Like, following Jesus?”
“Yes, like following Jesus. And remember what I said earlier? Sometimes following Jesus gets messy. And that’s okay.”
I don’t think the Greek lesson in the sacristy after the service made me feel much better at the time, but that conversation has stuck with me, and almost eight years later, I’m beginning to understand what he meant.
Today, our lesson comes from the Gospel of St. James. This reading is chock-full of good advice. A phrase that really stuck out to me is where he says, in verse 25, that we’re not just supposed to be hearers of the law, but doers also.
Don’t get me wrong– hearing the word is really important. When we come to church to encounter God, I believe we should do so in the most reverent and meaningful way we know how. Psalm 96 tells us to “ascribe to the Lord the honor due his name” and to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”
In my tradition this involves linen and lace, silver chalices and heavy gold crosses, perfectly-executed processions, and great smoking thuribles full of frankincense, all within the walls of a beautiful and ornate worship space that calls to mind the majesty and hugeness of God. We have colored vestments and altar dressings that remind us of the season, stained-glass windows that tell the stories of our faith, and bell towers that ring out songs of praise for the world to hear. We have the liturgy, which orders our worship in a way that connects us to generations gone before and to other Christians around the world. And thanks be to God for all of that. God is made known to us in the great cloud of smoke and the colorful windows and the organ music, captivating all of our senses. God is with us in loud alleluias and in the deafening silence after the wafer is broken. God is present with us in the wafer and the cup. In these sacred times and spaces, we are hearers of the word.
But outside these gorgeous stone fortresses we’ve erected in which to hear God’s word, there’s a world out there desperately needing us to do the work of the Gospel we’ve heard proclaimed– and the doing is where things frequently get messy.
We are called to encounter God not only in the Eucharist, but in the faces of everyone we meet.
St. James specifically mentions caring for widows and orphans. If we look at the culture surrounding this letter and its author, we know that women and children were regarded as something more akin to property than citizens. Marriage was basically a property transfer between a woman’s father and her husband. If her husband died, she was seriously out of luck– she couldn’t own property, make a living doing anything reputable, or give testimony in court. Being widowed (or divorced) was basically a death sentence. Destitution was inevitable. Likewise, a child whose parents had died didn’t become a ward of the state– there was no such concept. He would have to rely on extended family or fend for himself. Truly, few people were more marginalized in the world in which St. James lived than widows and orphans. And what does he say about them? He says that true religion– religion that God is actually impressed with– requires the believer to care for these marginalized people, to help them in their distress.
If St. James were to write this letter today, to a group of Christians in the United States, whom might he cite as examples of people who are the most marginalized and the most in need of our care? Who is on the margins of today’s society? Certainly widows and orphans would still make the list– perhaps he would specifically mention children in foster care and single mothers. What about prisoners? People of color? Muslims, atheists, and other religious minorities? Transgender persons? People with HIV and AIDS? Those living in poverty or experiencing homelessness? The disabled and mentally ill? Alcoholics and other addicts?
Note that he didn’t say to pray for these marginalized people. He said to help them in their distress. Obviously, we should pray for them, but just praying for them doesn’t let us off the hook. We are supposed to encounter the marginalized. We are supposed to serve them. We are supposed to help them– in practical, tangible ways, not just with our prayers.
We’re supposed to get messy.
We are absolutely called give God our best as hearers of the word, as acolytes and choristers, lectors and chalicists, clergy and congregation.
But it doesn’t stop there.
We’re also called to give God our best as doers.
This means not just hearing, not just saying, not just believing, but actually doing the work of the Gospel– reaching out to the marginalized and loving them like Jesus did.
And that’s where things get real.
That’s where things get messy.