2020 Trinity VI – The Greater Gift

Postulant Ken Kubo
19 July 2020

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.- St. Matthew 5:23-24

St. Matthew records Our Lord’s counsel to perfect ourselves not just in our relationship with God but also with our society – specifically to cultivate mercy and forgiveness and charity towards and from our neighbors. Moreover, He sets the high bar that our neighbors aren’t just the people who are nice to us, the people who think like us, the people who support us. Our neighbors include those who aren’t like us and might not even be nice. If we have in any way done wrong to another, we are asked to make it right, and even if unjustified, we are asked to turn the other cheek in the face of reprisal. As Paul Simon sang, “Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on” – as the blessed company of the faithful, we have the obligation to forgive the sitter, spitter, and Twitter. Those are the table stakes before we can come before the altar.

Of course, at the moment, there are also a set of state and local edicts between us and that altar. And out in the world, mischance or malice sets churches and cathedrals alight with a much more mundane and destructive flame than the Spirit of Pentecost. From Notre Dame last year to Mission San Gabriel Arcangel to the Cathedral in Nantes, the Church appears very much under siege. Yet we must remember that the Church lived through and even prospered in the face of hardship and outright persecution. As Samuel Gamboa, Pastor of Good Shepherd Bible Church in Whittier that burnt to the ground last Halloween, said, “I hate to see this beautiful building go…but we are the church and the church will continue.” The Church is not just a place, it is a people. God does not live exclusively within these four walls, these artifacts, these symbols. They merely help us to prepare ourselves, to get our minds into the right place to receive the Spirit. When those are taken from us, it may be a little more difficult to get into that state, but all the more rewarding. God can be found no matter where we are, and the best altar we can build to Him is first of all in our hearts.

Some of you may recall that my son took a summer abroad to study in Edinburgh, Scotland. Beth and Kira joined him there at the end of his term for a brief vacation. One day, while on a day trip to Wincanton, England, they suffered a flat tire. Deciding to play it safe, they did not continue on to Stonehenge as planned and drove back (slowly and carefully) through the Mendip Hills. There, they happened upon Burrington Combe, the gorge that inspired Reverend Augustus Toplady to write the hymn, “Rock of Ages.” Caught out in a storm, the Reverend found shelter in a fissure in the rock and saw in it happy Providence. Of his own power, he was nothing but a victim of the storm; the ancient rock however was more than enough to protect him. All he had to do was to look for and accept its assistance. God’s blessing can be found anywhere in His Creation, even off a B class road in Somerset. Even now, God is with us through the Internet and our spotty cellular signal which makes this something of a B class road to get to the information superhighway. Wherever two or three can gather in His name, through whatever means, or even one person willing to surrender themselves in prayer, there God lives and breathes. There lies his true altar. All of our current challenges merely serve to remind us that faith does not require grand cathedrals or mission churches; all that is required is that we love and serve the Lord wherever we may be.

“The walls of gold entomb us, the swords of scorn divide; take not thy thunder from us, but take away our pride.” – Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Love is the greatest gift we can give or hope for, but in these times, perhaps what we need even more is the gift of true humility. Part of our American identity is pride in our achievements, our work, our institutions. We know that we are the richest country on earth and have been called in various articles the sole surviving superpower in the world. And yet, pride can blind us to our own vulnerabilities. “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18) runs the proverb. When we focus on our material possessions and our status and the need to bring others down in order to build ourselves up, we place the valuation of ourselves into the game that the world plays. In the past, visiting Las Vegas may have impressed you with the towers and lights and shows and noise. Or you may have been impressed by the number of people who had to lose money to keep all of that going. Hawaii residents are notoriously bad gamblers, and my relatives are not alone in calling a trip to Vegas as “going to visit my money.” At the end of the day, the House wins – and the Prince of the World runs the tables.

When Chesterton penned his poem in 19th century England, he railed against the same kind of materialism and poor priorities. England was seeing increasing strife between the classes with poor working conditions and disparity of pay driving poor living conditions as well. On the other side of the coin, Chesterton observed a “parade of publicity and garish novelty, which is in its nature the death of all that was called dignity and modesty by our mothers and fathers.” To put it simply, the poor get poorer and the rich get crasser. So Chesterton’s poem invited judgment, invited divine comeuppance that would humble all society and recalibrate everyone about what is truly important – working together in love for the common good. “Smite us and save us all!” he cried. While it would be wonderful to think that we colonials would fall a bit further than the mother tree, it’s not clear that we have any pride of place a century and change later. We still see the great divides between the rich of the richest nation and its poor. We still struggle with issues of race and class. We still see widows and orphans uncared for, the needy starving and unclothed, prisoners not visited, and the Good News not shared with the unchurched. And we do this in the face of a global pandemic which should unite all of humanity in common cause against a common foe but which is providing more opportunity to focus on what divides us. I don’t mean to suggest that this is bad action by any single class, creed, or even country – humanity is a stiff- necked race, and playing well with others has not been a survival trait throughout our history. But perhaps the current smiting is trying to teach us that that’s got to change. Part of the humility we pray for is accepting that we are sometimes (if not often) powerless, ignorant, lost, victims of the storm – and that someone else might have a better answer or be further ahead down the path. Once we are able to release our pride, we are given a greater power – we are able to ask for and accept help.

I am, of course, not expecting that we can of ourselves fix world relations, scientific profiteering, or even partisan politics (it’s an election year, and endless political ads may be the only normal thing we get to see this year). We are simply asked to do what we can. First and foremost, we can pray – for our friends and family, for our congregation and the Church throughout the world especially for the congregations of Nantes and Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, for victims and prisoners and martyrs, for those who have fallen away from Our Lord’s ways, and, yes, even for our enemies that God may turn their hearts even when we can’t. And we can live as Christians, blessed to be peacemakers, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, and to be humble before the Lord and our neighbors. Where pride would have us brace the storm, there is no shame in seeking a sheltering rock and the protection of divine providence. Hiding in the Lord preserves and strengthens our light to shine out to His glory and the building up of His kingdom. The Lord has our love and our service, let us do Him the honor to sacrifice our pride before his altar as well, and thus bring Him that dearest gift of our humility.

Almighty and All-Merciful God, uplift us that we may leave the darkness in our hearts – pettiness, selfishness, and all the fears of the day – buried as we rise to your higher calling, that we may wholly love and trust you, and through that faith, be that love and comfort to our friends, neighbors, and family. As you call us to become our best selves, do not let us make that journey alone, but be ever with us as companion and guide. When we lose our way, seek us out. When we falter, strengthen us. When we fall, lift us up. And through you, enable us to keep ever before us the promise of a better day. Amen.