…let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.
Episcopalians are sometimes accused of being snooty. “What’s the 11th commandment for Episcopalians? Thou shalt not be tacky.” No plastic shot glasses for us, but a silver or gold chalice. No imitation candles with electric flicker bulbs. Only real wax candles, or maybe in a pinch oil candles. Silk flowers? I don’t think so! Not in an Episcopal Church, only real live flowers will suffice. Yes, we are accused of being snooty, but it just isn’t so.
So if we aren’t snooty then, why do we care about externals? We live in a disposable culture. We’ve gotten used to settling for the inferior rather than quality. We build “McMansions” on the cheap with imitation finishes rather than the real deal. Supersized entrees offering large servings of mediocre food, rather than a morsel worth savoring. If that is how we treat ourselves, then how do we treat our God? If that is how we think of ourselves, then what do we think of the God we worship and in whose image we are made?
One of my professors at seminary put it this way. “If the Queen of England were to show up at your house for high tea you wouldn’t serve it to her on ‘Chinette’ and ‘Dixie Cups’ you bring out the best you have and set it before her, because she honored you with her presence. So how much more when King of kings and Lord of lords is in our midst? When our Lord is there shouldn’t we honor him for honoring us with his presence?”
This is what St. Paul means in our passage for this Sunday, that our worship of God ought to reflect who and what he his. It should likewise, reflect who and what we believe him to be, and who and what we are in relation to him. If he is the King of kings, the Lord of lords, if he is Christ the King, then we ought to treat him as such. If we believe he gave us all we have and are shouldn’t we offer him best we can? Not things that are shams, not things that are “blemished offerings.” (Leviticus 22:20)
But what can we give the God who has it all? How can it be good enough? We can’t all build a grand cathedral! The best doesn’t need to be the same in every place. What does need to be the same is his people offering him the best they can, even though it is only a fraction of what he first gave us. (1 Chronicles 29:14) It is about offering him our gifts with a joyful and glad heart, not grudgingly or bitterly. (2 Corinthians 9:7) When we do this we proclaim to the world how great we believe our God to be, and how thankful we are to him for all he has done for us.
Just as they say something to the world around us about who our God is, so also the linens and candles, the silver and brassware, call us to reverence. They remind us who he is and who we are in him. They are in a sense, “sermons in stone.” In their own quiet way they remind us who it is we are dealing with here. They serve as reminders that this God is no ordinary God, he is an “awful” God in the old meaning of the word, a God worthy of and inspiring awe because of who he is and what he does. He is a consuming fire. A God whose very heart is on fire with deep love for the world he made. Soo deep that in fact he offers all he has and all he is on the altar of the cross to save and redeem that world. This “stuff” (sometimes called sacramentals) serves a real purpose. They help prepare us to approach God and offer worship. The sermon they preach prepares us to worthily receive the gifts in Word and Sacrament our gracious God would give us, and for which we in thanksgiving offer our own gifts in return. And if all that weren’t enough they do one thing more, these sacramentals are material handles by which our faith lays hold on things we cannot see, but are really truly there. (See Hebrews 11:1)
Episcopalians aren’t snooty. They are Christians who recognize how great and glorious, how loving and compassionate, how generous and bounteous our God truly is. As long as we remember why we take such care in the tending of God’s house, then we need not worry about any “snooty” accusations. They’re usually leveled at us by those who have an anti-catholic chip on their shoulder anyway! As long as they direct us to “acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” then they are not something we should be indifferent about. As long as we understand that these things are earthly tangible symbols of the God who sits enthroned in majesty between the choirs of angels and saints, then all we need to do is worship and adore God “in the beauty of holiness.” (Psalm 96:9)
Frick is the vicar of St. Matthias in Athens.