November 3, 2013
“It is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service.” This phrase in the opening collect today is a major theme in today’s readings.
In the passage from Isaiah we hear God’s angry tirade against what the people think is true and laudable service: incense, offerings and sacrifice. But God is not interested in these things, and despises their context and content. “I cannot endure your solemn assemblies with iniquity.”
So, where does that leave those of us who worship regularly? It leaves us with the mandate to worship and act in faith.
Faith is not a noun as much as it is a verb, a word of action. Faith is about doing things that please God, because of what God has put into our hearts. Faith is about exercising our values, stretching them, strengthening them, and bringing justice to others.
Look what happens when Jesus encounters Zacchaeus, the whimsical tax collector sitting in a tree. There is a dialogue, of which we only have a small piece. It’s pretty obvious that Jesus and Zacchaeus bond. You can see it: The Lord, an itinerant preacher wandering around the town, and the obviously curious and friendly Zachhaeus meet and are mutually attracted by their unique ways of viewing the world.
Zacchaeus doesn’t just hop down from his perch, he leaps into a new way of life. By the time he hosts Jesus at his house, he has come to a new understanding of his latent love for God, and he announces it through his generosity: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Taxpayers were allowed to extort additional fees for their living besides collecting the tax, which is one reason they were despised.
Jesus tells him quite simply, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Jesus has found faith in a man outside the circle of the faithful. He has found a person who is prepared to share first.
A man recently died who had lived modestly in a van in a small town in the Ozarks. He had no close family, but a number of friends came to a memorial service for him held in the garden at a local church. “Al” was not a member of that church, but he often came to their Sunday night suppers during the cold winter months. He was also a regular recipient at the local food bank.
Before the memorial service, the minister invited people to share stories about Al. Many of the stories shared were of acts of kindness: how Al had fixed their tire or replaced a fan belt, how he had seen to it that a person had money to get new glasses, how he had helped another person with transportation, even though his own income was a small Social Security check each month.
By the time the service began, it was obvious to all that Al had been a faithful steward, using his simple gifts to serve others. His many friends rejoiced in his life, his kindness and his response to their needs.
This life, celebrated in a church garden, ended with the blessing of a new plant in Al’s honor. The giver of the plant said she wanted it to grow and remind everyone of Al’s unselfish care for others.
Al and Zacchaeus are two heroes who share their faith by doing for others what God wants them to do. They were not interested in large ceremonies or big public events; they wanted instead to serve others with what they had, and their lives are celebrated because of that.
Often when we see people who are generous and kind, we remark on how strong their faith must be. That is because faith is something given us by God to be used. Its expression is that of a steward doing his or her duty. Its sign is service, and its character is simplicity. We see in these generous lives the joyful and unbounded love for God expressed through service to others. It is what God commands, and it is what God defines as justice.
But what about our lives?
Are we faithful stewards who take what we are given and share it with those less fortunate? Are we people who think that faith is a noun or a verb? Do we see our church communities as gathered for worship and then sent forth to “do” our faith?
These are the values Jesus celebrates. These are the behaviors that God calls for. These are the behaviors that result in true and laudable service.
— The Rev. Ben Helmer is part of a ministry team at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island.